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As a nation, the U.S. is just a babe when one stops to think about it. History is long, the centuries roll over without stopping or slowing, and the past gets longer in its rearview. So when measuring the millennia-long arc of history, America is a small dot on a vast timeline.

Yet, parts of the U.S. are as ancient as time, and some still feel that way. The great state of South Dakota is one such place. Sure, it’s well known for its famous rendering of four of the most famous presidents in history, but aside from that, it can still be a deep, wild mystery to many Americans.

America’s history is the story of the West and Native people who have inhabited its lands for thousands of years. Its present state is still a little bit untamed and wild, with more in common with its ancestors than the modern day in some parts of the state.

One gets the sense that residents wouldn’t have it any other way. Ask any adventure lover who has ever visited the state, and they’d likely agree. South Dakota is home to some of the most beautiful, untouched wilderness attractions in the lower 48 states. Thankfully, its pristine beauty is preserved for all to enjoy in its state park system.

Below are some can’t-miss spots when visiting the home of Mount Rushmore:

Big Sioux Recreation Area: This site offers a welcome oasis for outdoor fun-seekers on the banks of one of its most famous rivers. Camping, canoeing, hiking, swimming, cycling, and even archery can all be found at this park in the southeast part of the state. Is brushing up on the history of the Old West what the doctor ordered? Good news! Big Sioux Recreation Area offers insight into the settling of the area, the people who came before, and the entire region’s history. Oh, and don’t worry when it gets a little colder. Big Sioux Recreation Area is a welcome home to snowmobilers, too.

Photo Courtesy Big Sioux Recreation Area

Bear Butte State Park: Few states share as rich a lineage with Native peoples as South Dakota, and this park is a good example of how and where that history lives today. The Lakotah called it “Mato Paha,” and the Cheyenne called it “Noahvose” — both Tribes (and others) consider it a sacred place to this day. This igneous rock, rising from the surrounding plain, is not the only age-old formation to spring up in the Black Hills, but it is one of the most famous and well-trafficked. Hiking is a primary activity here, although many enjoy boating and fishing nearby. Several visitors come just to commune with nature at this ancient religious oasis. Bear Butte is a true gem of the Old West.

Photo Courtesy South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks

Big Stone Island Nature Area: Nearly 200 years ago, an expedition was held to explore the Big Stone Lake area of present-day South Dakota. Major Stephen Long and geologist William Keating happened upon a Native Tribe around the site of what would become this incredible State Park and nature area. The Indigenous people who lived there then called it “Big Island.” Today, it’s more than 100-acre expanse is a haven for wildlife of all kinds, particularly for a stunning bird variety. Only accessible by boat, this destination is definitely worth the extra effort to get to it to enjoy the majesty and peaceful regeneration of untouched nature. 

Photo Courtesy gfp.sd.gov
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