Summer vacation is a time for family trips. Loading up the wagon and heading out across America. Stopping at attractions like the Grand Canyon or the World's Biggest Ball of String. Endless interstate highways, campgrounds and bargain motels along the way. Road food and traffic, both guaranteed to generate heartburn. Because the window of school vacation is always tight, it seems all of America is on the highway in summer-motorhomes, minivans and camper trailers driving bumper to bumper and clogging roads that could have been a fun drive another time in another car.
South Dakota's Black Hills draw more than four million visitors annually. With tourist sites like Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, the town of Deadwood, and the Badlands, the area has scenic beauty and a fascinating history. It also has some wonderful driving roads that just beg to be driven in a spirited manner in a sporty car. This is next to impossible in summer, when tourists ruin all the fun. The good news is that before Memorial Day and after Labor Day, you'll have the roads almost to yourself.
One reason why the Black Hills area has so little traffic in the off season is that it's so far from anywhere. Population centers like Denver or Minneapolis are many hours away by interstate. Just getting there gives a greater understanding of how large the country is. In addition, the weather in the Upper Midwest is unpredictable and late spring and early fall snowstorms could catch you by surprise. On the other hand, an April day with a temperature in the 80s isn't uncommon. It can be the perfect place for top-down motoring, especially if your convertible has a good heater.
There are two things that can make a good driving road: mountains and rivers. South Dakota's Black Hills region has both. The geology of southwestern South Dakota is complex, the rocks that form the Black Hills as much as two billion years old. They were uplifted by volcanic activity some 200 million years ago to an altitude of more than 15,000 feet, but have since eroded to their current height of 4000 to 6000 feet. The needles of granite left behind from this process create a fascinating landscape. Even more unusual are the nearby Badlands. More than 60 million years ago, the plains of central South Dakota were covered by an inland sea that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. This covering of water resulted in an extremely thick deposit of sediments that over time formed a sandstone base. About 500,000 years ago, after the oceans had receded, the action of wind and water erosion began sculpting the Badlands into the fantastic canyons and spires that remain today. The process is a continuous one and within the next 500,000 years, the entire region will have been worn flat.
When exploring sports car country, it's important to establish a base of operations. Hill City, South Dakota, is located in the heart of the Black Hills, centrally situated and within easy driving distance of most places you will want to go. It has several hotels and off-season rates are reasonable. Bear in mind that the off season also means some shops and businesses won't be open. Fortunately, Hill City can boast at least one good restaurant in this land of Iceberg lettuce: Desperados Cowboy Restaurant in downtown Hill City is located in the oldest commercial log building in South Dakota (1885) and serves a nice selection of lunch and dinner entrees. Owners Tom and Laurel Schaub opened Desperados a year ago after the massive renovation of a building that has served as everything from a newspaper office to an auto repair shop in its long history. Laurel's dessert pies are a big hit.
The Black Hills offer a lot of driving on roads that are, in the off season, delightfully free of traffic. These roads also connect some interesting places. In no particular order, you should see the following:
Deadwood-famous for its gold mining and as the place where Wild Bill Hickok was murdered by Jack McCall on August 2, 1876, in the Number 10 saloon. The original saloon burned down in 1879, and a recreation was built up the street in 1938. Better than the town is the drive south on Highway 385, a twisty kind of road with a nice stop at the dam on Pactola Lake.
Custer State Park-truly where the deer and the antelope play (and buffalo roam). The Wildlife Loop Road takes you over hills and through open prairies filled with grazing animals. The speed limit is sedate (45 mph) in the 71,000-acre park, so driving is not challenging, but it is pretty. There's also the must-see Needles Highway that snakes its way between imposing spires and through the 'eye' of the needle.
Mount Rushmore-If you haven't seen it, you should. If you have, it hasn't changed and you can give it a pass.
Crazy Horse Memorial-the late sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski and more recently his family have been ripping into a mountain for more than 50 years in an effort to build a colossal monument to the Indian chief Crazy Horse. The face is finished and the Native American museum on the grounds is impressive.
Badlands National Park-a little over an hour to the east of the Black Hills, wind and water erosion have sculpted bizarre rock formations. It's one of the strangest places on the planet. Worthwhile for the views, not for the intensity of the drive.
Wall Drug Store in Wall, South Dakota-kitschy and corny, but at least you can say you've been there.
South Dakota Air and Space Museum-located on Ellsworth Air Force base just east of Rapid City, home to a B-1 Bomber, B-29, B-25, B-52, with a host of other fighters and bombers on display. Very cool and it's free.
Sturgis-a legend among motorcyclists for the August event that draws more than 650,000 bikers to this small town.
We spent two days in the Black Hills, with a group of old sports and classic cars in early May. Going at the height of the crowded tourist season would have been hellish, but as it was, we had the roads and most of the attractions completely to ourselves. It was a worthwhile trip, although we only covered about a third of the area's great driving roads. Even if it took two days to get there and two days to get home, I'd go again, as long as I could go when nobody else was there.