By Brian Jewell
With stark mountains, expansive prairies, otherworldly rock formations and brilliant blue skies, the Dakotas are an outdoor-lover’s paradise.
Travel from the eastern borders of this region to the west, and you’ll experience diverse landscapes and ecosystems that include the Great Plains, the Badlands and the unrivaled Black Hills.
At various spots along the way, you can brush up on your kayak and canoeing skills, go birding on a scenic byway, ride amidst a herd of bison and hike through rocky canyons unlike any others you’ve ever seen.
The great outdoors is one of the greatest parts about North Dakota and South Dakota. Include some of these stops on your group’s tour itinerary for a chance to stretch the legs, breathe in the clean air and bask in the unspoiled glory of this still-wild corner of America.
Near the eastern border of the state, Sioux Falls is South Dakota’s largest city. But a small urban environment doesn’t mean that the outdoors is out of reach. At the Outdoor Campus, groups can choose from dozens of nature-based experiences.
“We’re 100 acres of green space in the middle of the city,” said director Thea Miller Ryan. “Our goal is to promote the outdoors to people. When they come here, they get a hands-on outdoor experience. We’re a nature center, but we teach outdoor skills.”
When groups visit the Outdoor Campus, they can have a workshop in activities such as fly-fishing, archery or outdoor cooking. A lake on the site offers opportunities for visitors to try canoeing and kayaking. In the evening, groups can have bonfires.
“We get a lot of mystery tours that will come here and hand-make ice cream by the campfire,” Ryan said.
In addition to organized activities, groups can choose to set people out on their own to explore the hiking trails, gardens and other features on the campus. Hikers often encounter wildlife such as deer, woodchucks, beavers and turtles, along with warblers, hawks, ospreys and other birds.
The Outdoor Campus also has an indoor museum with exhibits about wildlife native to South Dakota.
Badlands National Park
In parts of Badlands National Park, you can see nothing but grassy meadows, gently swelling up and down with the ground below. But this 244,000-acre park is known more for its striking rock formations than its grasslands.
Spread out through a section of west-central South Dakota, the Badlands have long been revered for their mysterious beauty. The original Lakota Sioux name for the area, Maco Sica, translates to “land that is bad.” Because of the rocky formations, the area has served as both an Indian hideout and a modern recreation site, but has never been much good for farming.
Groups that visit the park will enjoy simply driving on the roads that wind through it. Along the way, they’ll pass through canyons of crags and buttes formed by centuries of wind and water that eroded the local sandstone.
Each of the rock formations sports a pattern of mauve stripes, perfectly straight and even lines that reveal the historic formation of the rock strata.
Numerous boardwalks, hiking trails and scenic overlooks make great places to get off the coach and take a walk, exploring some of the most beautiful spots just out of view of the main road.
Many visitors see bighorn sheep and other wildlife during their time in the park. During the spring and summer, colorful wildflowers blanket much of the landscape.