The Wild West begins and ends in the Black Hills, where Lakota shamans once roamed and buffalo still do, where Wild Bill Hickock was gunned down over a game of cards and Custer mustered for his last stand with Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. The plains, peaks, and badlands are decidedly mellower these days—but no less dramatic. Climb granite Needles, explore a 124-mile cave, and cruise through thousand-foot-deep Spearfish Canyon.
Before asphalt and horseless buggies, a trip across the Badlands was a risky endeavor. But today those Seussian sandstone formations are accessible along the national park's 37-mile Loop Road ($15 per vehicle; nps.gov/badl). Cruise at dawn or dusk—the light is best; bonus points for spotting the black-footed ferret, North America's rarest mammal. Overnight in the park at Cedar Pass Lodge ($75; cedarpasslodge.com).
Spelunk the way Wild Bill would've: with a candle bucket instead of a highfalutin headlamp. Wind Cave National Park's two-hour tour probes its namesake cavern's least trafficked passageways ($9; nps.gov/wica). Then trek the eight-mile Highland Creek Trail alongside elk, turkeys, and hundreds of bison&151;the continent's last herd of pure-blooded American buffalo. Bed down in the tranquil Sylvan Lake Lodge ($120; custerresorts.com).
The Needles, in Custer State Park, are a labyrinthine jumble of soaring pinnacles with a lifetime's worth of climbing routes. Rope up with Sylvan Rocks Climbing School for summit views of the rolling Black Hills ($290; sylvanrocks.com). Not a rock jock? Mountain bike the 16-mile Big Tree Robbers Roost Draw ($40 for full-day bike rental; custerresorts.com; $5 park fee; sdgfp.info). The loop traces parts of the 111-mile Centennial Trail.
Horses have long been the Black Hills' preferred 4x4s, and they're still a fine way into the heart of the hill country. Saddle up in Nemo for a three-hour ride through quiet canyonlands ($50; paradisevalleyadventures.com). Then, before heading back to Rapid City, pay your respects to Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Devils Tower National Monument ($10 each; nps.gov). Even the most jaded can't help but gawk at these national icons.