As the Beatles once sang, somewhere in the black mining hills of Dakota lives young Rocky Raccoon. But Rocky has a lot of company up here: white-tailed deer, pronghorn antelopes, elk, mule deer, mountain goats, burros, coyotes, prairie dogs, eagles, hawks, and an awesome herd of 1,500 American bison. At Custer State Park, kids can see what the Great Plains once looked like, back in the days when bison filled the land as far as the broad horizon.
A smart place to start is the Wildlife Station visitor center in the southeast corner of the park, where exhibits will acquaint the children with the many species they are likely to see. Then turn out and drive on Wildlife Loop Road, an 18-mile circuit through open grasslands and pine-clad hills where those species roam. Early morning and evening are the best times, when the animals are most likely to venture close to the road. Drive slowly, or get out of the car and walk quietly down the short nature trails to get a good look. Just west of the center you’ll notice a set of corrals where bison are held after the annual late September roundup, which thins the herd and keeps it healthy (the public is invited to watch the cowboys move ’em out).
The landscape is downright startling along Needles Highway in the northwest corner, a 14-mile expedition through spruce forests, meadows fringed with birch and quaking aspen, and giant granite spires that thrust up to the sky. Park the car and walk around—there are several marked trails, and these rock formations are fun to explore, with tunnels you can walk through and a unique shape called the “Needle’s Eye.” From the northeast corner, Iron Mountain Road leads to Mount Rushmore, sliding through tunnels that frame the four Rushmore sculptures strikingly as you approach.
Just south of Custer State Park, you can explore Wind Cave National Park; of the guided tours, the most fun is the 2-hour Candlelight Tour, where you explore a section of the cave where lighting hasn’t been installed. If you’re a cave lover and it’s summertime, though, definitely head west on U.S. 16 to Jewel Cave National Monument, the third-longest cave in the world, with 133 miles of underground passages charted so far. Eroded by stagnant acidic water rather than underground streams, Jewel Cave has narrow, twisting passages whose walls sparkle with calcite crystals and delicate gypsum deposits.