Can’t-Miss Destinations In The Northern Plains

Tan hills and pink-and-cream striped rocks stretch as far as the eye can see in the dry, barren landscape of these can’t-miss destinations in the northern plains.

Mighty herds of bison roam the sun-splashed prairies of the Dakotas while towering monuments scrape the sapphire sky. Explore these rugged wonders on your unforgettable vacation to the northern plains.

Scotts Bluff

Scotts Bluff northern plains
Scotts Bluff. Photo by Scotts Bluff National Monument on Facebook

A slab of gray rock rising 800 feet into the air over the North Platte River, Scotts Bluff is a soaring national monument that pierces the cloudy sky above western Nebraska. Start at the Visitor Center at the base of the cliff to learn about the bluff’s history before making the 1.6-mile drive to the top, where you can explore hiking trails with spectacular views of emerald meadows below.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Photo by Theodore Roosevelt National Park on Facebook

Rose-tinged clouds swirl over the rocky hills of North Dakota, smearing the sunlit sky with wispy streaks. Like long pink-and-purple strands of cotton candy, these colorful swaths of fog hover above Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a 70,000-acre wilderness dotted with grassy hills and shimmering copper-orange bluffs. Head to the park’s South Unit for short, self-guided trails atop windswept plateaus and alongside stony gorges. For some of the best views of the South Unit, visit the Painted Canyon Overlook to survey fiery orange rock formations that stretch to the far horizon.

Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore northern plains
Mount Rushmore. Photo by Jéan Béller on Unsplash

The faces of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln gaze out from the granite of Mount Rushmore, a national memorial in southwest South Dakota famous for its lifelike depiction of four American presidents. Start at the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center for a behind-the-scenes look at the monument’s history and construction. Then, take the 0.6-mile Presidential Trail hike from the visitor center for memorable views of the massive stone carving. Keep in mind that you will need to take 422 stairs to complete the Presidential Trail loop, so get ready to climb several steep flights.

Black Hills

Custer State Park
Custer State Park. Photo by Brian Miller on Unsplash

Jagged light gray spires rise above emerald trees in the rocky terrain of the Black Hills, a region in western South Dakota marked by massive stones and forested hillsides. Drive through the winding Needles Highway for awe-inspiring views of pointed rock formations boring holes in the light-blue sky overhead.

The jewel of the Black Hills is Custer State Park. Shaggy-haired buffalo wander the slopes and meadows of this sprawling 73,000-acre wonderland alongside pronghorn deer, elk and prairie dogs. Just seven miles outside the park is Crazy Horse Memorial, a massive, partially-carved monument of the Ogala Sioux chief who defeated George Custer’s troops in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Construction on the Crazy Horse Memorial has been in progress since 1948; when completed, it will be the largest sculpture in the world.

Badlands

Badlands
Badlands. Photo by Dave Hoefler on Unsplash

Tan rocks striped with alternating layers of pink and white sediment form the arid marvels of the Badlands, a national park in southwest South Dakota named for its inhospitable desert terrain. For striking views of the rock-strewn landscape, take the popular 1.5-mile Notch Trail. Because you will have to climb a steep log ladder up sloping rocks, this trail isn’t recommended for anyone with a fear of heights.

Stop by the Badlands Ranch Store to buy a $1 bag of unsalted peanuts to feed the multitude of prairie dogs that scurry in and out of mazes of underground tunnels. Afterward, take a trip to Wall Drug, a massive shopping center packed with restaurants, gift shops and an endless collection of knickknacks for sale. Derided by some as a tourist trap, Wall Drug is nevertheless a curious must-see that’s worth the stop, even if it’s only to wander the mazes of malls at this unique destination famous for providing free ice water to travelers.

Wind Cave

Wind Cave northern plains
Wind Cave. Photo by cmylesphoto on Instagram

Delicate, honeycomb-like mineral formations known as boxwork stud the walls and ceilings of Wind Cave, a national park in western South Dakota. Explore this massive underground labyrinth via one of three guided tours that range from 60-90 minutes. You can select a moderate tour that involves climbing down steep, slippery stairs or opt for a strenuous excursion with uneven paths. Purchase tickets in advance through recreation.gov to secure a reservation or try for a same-day ticket purchase at the cave.

Whichever tour you choose, enjoy marveling at the intricate boxwork and enormous rooms of this giant cave, the sixth longest in the world.

Bask in the beauty of the stone-strewn landscape of Nebraska and the Dakotas on your once-in-a-lifetime trip.

Hannah Larson

Contributing Editor

A southern California native, Hannah is a traveler and thrill seeker whose love of writing is matched only by her passion for adventure. From ziplining alongside Niagara Falls to paddleboarding in Lake Itasca, she is always on the lookout for exciting experiences in beautiful places. Her favorite national parks include the Great Smokies, Sequoia and Glacier because of the spectacular mountain views.

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