South Dakota: 4 Fall Road Trips

Travel Beyond Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore

South Dakota Department of Tourism

When you think of fall drives, the leaf-strewn roads of Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire spring immediately to mind. But fall arrives out West in South Dakota’s Black Hills, too. Oak and ash trees blaze red, orange and gold, bursting through the deep green ponderosa pines that blanket the area to create a crazy quilt of fall color. Rugged rock faces, waterfalls and lakes offer other delightful visual distractions that make for a stunning drive in South Dakota, no matter what time of year.

Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway

Spearfish Canyon

Robin Bennefield

If you ask locals where to go to see fall foliage in South Dakota, they’ll say Spearfish Canyon without missing a beat. Take their advice and start the winding 22-mile drive on Route 14A, just off Interstate 90, to see ponderosa pines climbing their way up thousand-foot cliffs and rust-colored elms and oaks waving from below. Pull-offs beckon shutterbugs from every curve of the road, especially at the canyon’s water features.

Cars pool at the base of Bridal Veil Falls, where rivulets of water cascade down a sheer rock face, and at the canyon’s big draw, Roughlock Falls, where a paved trail leads to a series of falls tripping over rocks and converging in the running creek below. Don’t miss the hidden gem Spearfish Falls, which is on a trail behind the Latchstring Inn. Stand in a small wooded clearing and feel the spray of plunging water. If you can’t bear to tear yourself away from the beauty of this place, stay at the rustic Spearfish Canyon Lodge, nestled in the heart of it all.

Vanocker Canyon

Vanocker Canyon

South Dakota Tourism

Another favorite for locals and motorcycle enthusiasts, Vanocker Canyon cuts through the Black Hills from Sturgis to the little town of Nemo, along Forest Service Road 26 off Interstate 90. If you want a quieter fall drive with fewer crowds than Spearfish Canyon, this is the route to take. Pass through striking escarpments covered in pines and color-shifting birch and aspen trees.

The 17-mile drive winds upward to reveal a carpet of fall colors on the canyon floor below. For a closer look at the foliage, stop in Nemo to take a short hike along the Centennial Trail, which opened in 1989 and stretches 111 miles, from Bear Butte Park south to Wind Cave National Park.

Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway

Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway

Robin Bennefield

This 70-mile double loop of narrow, serpentine road is required driving in South Dakota, as it connects some of the state’s most well-known sites, including Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial, while covering much of Custer State Park into the Black Hills National Forest. The road — encompassing Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Road and Wildlife Loop Road — is a feat in itself, carved into the rugged terrain by dynamite in 1921. Here, the fall foliage appears in surprising glimpses of red and orange against the dominant pine green, almost black landscape that gives the region its name.

But the funhouse, amusement-park nature of the byway more than makes up for fewer fall colors. Zigzag along Iron Mountain, through narrow rock tunnels and switchbacks, and twist your way down pigtail bridges. You’ll be rewarded by glimpses of Mount Rushmore in the distance. Stop along Needles Highway to ogle the Needle’s Eye and Cathedral Spires rock formations. Then, take a longer break from the drive with a walk along shimmering Sylvan Lake, perfectly set among the rocks. On Wildlife Loop Road, you may be forced to take a nature break by an obstinate buffalo blocking the road.

US Route 385/Black Hills Parkway

US Route 385/Black Hills Parkway

South Dakota Tourism

Venture deep into the Black Hills along Route 385, possibly the longest road through the forest, running 59 miles between Custer and Deadwood. The ponderosa pines rise from either side of the road, with occasional splashes of color from deciduous trees peeking through. Sheridan and Pactola lakes emerge from the scene to add vast stretches of deep blue. These are perfect places to stop and camp or fish.

But if you just want to drive and take it all in without stopping, you could start with a traditional German lunch of schnitzel or spaetzle at the Alpine Inn in Hill City and make it in time to gamble in historic Deadwood of Old West lore. Try your luck at the Mineral Palace, which is on the site of the city’s most notorious brothel, the Gem Theatre. It was once run by Al Swearengen, who was immortalized in the HBO series Deadwood.

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