South Dakota: The Black Hills and the Badlands

This is a birding tour, which has been designed to be taken as safely as possible in this Post-Covid era. Although a birding tour, large mammals, will often provide good photo opps.

For details of how Tropical Birding will be operating this tour, here are our guidelines and tour practices: Safety Tour Regulations and Policy.

This tour combines the birds and bison of the Black Hills, with the spectacular backdrops of Badlands National Park, and extensive prairie grasslands of South Dakota. Varied scenery and birdlife and other animals accompany this tour, with the forested, rolling granite Black Hills contrasting with the flatter prairielands visited in the north of the state; and then there is the rugged, multicolored cliffs, spires and pinnacles of the Badlands, providing a vastly different landscape to elsewhere on the tour. Among the exciting prospects are American Dippers, Lewis’s Woodpeckers, Red-naped Sapsuckers and MacGillivray’s Warblers in the forests, Canyon and Rock Wrens among the impressive outcroppings, and Prairie Falcons, Upland Sandpipers, Bobolinks, Dickcissels, and Baird’s Sparrows within the prairies.


The breathtaking landscapes of Badlands National Park
The breathtaking landscapes of Badlands National Park (Iain Campbell)

Day 1: Arrival in Rapid City. After arrival in the “Gateway to Mount Rushmore”, Rapid City, we will check into our hotel for the next 7 nights. As the birding sites are all 1-3 hours drive from the hotel, we have decided in this Post-Covid era, to stay in one hotel, and source our meals from this one place too, to avoid contact with others as much as possible. On this day there is no birding, but an arrival day.

The scenic forested slopes in the Black Hills are home to Red-naped Sapsucker
The scenic forested slopes in the Black Hills are home to Red-naped Sapsucker (Ben Knoot)

Day 2: Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park area (Southern Black Hills day trip). Our base in Rapid City is only an hour away from the Black Hills. The Black Hills, around Custer State Park, provide a jaw-droppingly beautiful combination of mixed prairies, woodlands and spectacular rock outcroppings within this 71,000 acre park. The drive to and from there will not be without highlight either, as we will make a stop 30 minutes from our base in Rapid City at the iconic Mount Rushmore, a national pilgrimage. Our first birding day will be spent around Custer, where not only birds will be on the agenda, but mammals too; big herds of bison roam the park and are readily seen, and other animals like Bighorn Sheep, Elk, and Prairie Dogs are all routinely sighted in the park. As far as birds go, the wooded hills are home to a beautiful avifauna, including Red-naped Sapsucker, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Clark’s Nutcracker, Canada Jay, Plumbeous Vireo, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Western Tanager. The wooded hills are interspersed with bison-grazed open areas, where other bird fauna like Say’s Phoebe, Mountain Bluebird, Lark Bunting, and Brewer’s Blackbirds may be found, while the rockier settings play host to Rock and Canyon Wrens.

Pronghorn  Sheep is also known as American Antelope
Pronghorn Sheep is also known as American Antelope (Ben Knoot)

Behind You! Big Horn Sheep in the Badlands
Behind You! Big Horn Sheep in the Badlands (Iain Campbell)

This is a great tour for mammals alongside the birds
This is a great tour for mammals alongside the birds (Ben Knoot)

Day 3: Grand River National Grasslands (day trip). The day before would have largely been spent watching mammals and birds in wooded hills in the Black Hills, so we will change tack on this day and head out north to the prairies just south of the border with North Dakota. This will be the longest day of the tour, as we drive 3 hours to Grand River National Grasslands, south of Lemmon. This area of mixed grassland prairie is home some real speacialties, not least Baird’s Sparrow and Sprague’s Pipit. A neat set of other prairie birds to be on the lookout for includes Upland Sandpiper, Burrowing Owl, Western and Eastern Kingbirds, Western Meadowlark, the incomparable Bobolink, and Dickcissel. After a full day in the field (with a boxed lunch), we will return to Rapid City for dinner and some rest.

Prairies hold birds like this Dickcissel
Prairies hold birds like this Dickcissel (Andres Vasquez)

Day 4: Spearfish Canyon area (Northern Black Hills day trip). On our first day’s birding, we will have explored the Custer area of the southern part of the Black Hills National Forest, although on this day we will visit the famous Spearfish Canyon area in the north of it. This is the best place in the state for American Dippers that nest along Spearfish Creek, and other specialties include Ruffed Grouse, White-throated Swift, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Violet-green Swallow, Canyon Wren, and MacGillivray’s Warbler. Other species available on this day include Cedar Waxwing, Veery, and Red Crossbill. The drive time is only just over an hour, and we will take a boxed lunch with us, so we can enjoy the best part of a day in the field, getting back by late afternoon to our Rapid City base.

Lewis's Woodpecker occurs in Custer State Park
Lewis's Woodpecker occurs in Custer State Park (Ken Behrens)

Day 5: Badlands National Park (day trip). All of the birding days on this tour offer birds alongside scenery, but this one may just be the best, as we focus on Badlands National Park. This designated wilderness area boasts some of the United States’s most spectacular rock formations, of buttes, spires, pinnacles, canyons, and multicolored cliffs. While it is also a birding day, plenty of time will be available to allow our smartphones to record images of this devastatingly beautiful landscape. Although coffee table book photos typically show stark looking panoramas, the Badlands actually have a more diverse mix of habitats than those alluring, iconic images might suggest, including cottonwoods and juniper stands on the hills, woodlands, and grasslands. Among the varied list of birds to watch out for will be Sharp-tailed Grouse, Golden Eagle, Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon, Horned Lark, Vesper, Grasshopper and Lark Sparrows, Blue Grosbeak and Spotted Towhee. Most of the day will be spent in the park and its scenic surrounds, before we return to our Rapid City base, only an hour’s drive away in the afternoon.

We'll check Spearfish Creek for American Dipper
We'll check Spearfish Creek for American Dipper (Andrew Spencer)

Days 6-7: Return to the Black Hills. These days will be spent in other portions of the Black Hills National Forest, with the exact location being decided based on our returns from the previous two days in the area. We can also combine some local prairie areas with this too, if we feel we need to.

Western Tanager breeds in the Black Hills
Western Tanager breeds in the Black Hills (Ben Knoot)

Day 8: Departure from Rapid City. On this day you will be transferred to the airport for departures out. There is no birding on this day.

Mountain Bluebird occurs near Mount Rushmore
Mountain Bluebird occurs near Mount Rushmore (Ben Knoot)

Black-headed Grosbeak occurs near Mount Rushmore
Black-headed Grosbeak occurs near Mount Rushmore (Ben Knoot)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. There are frequent early starts (5-6am) and long days spent in the field with a boxed lunch to be taken on most days (in order to avoid using external restaurants and keeping contact with others to a minimum). There are not many long drives on this tour; most of the places are about an hour (direct) from our hotel. On one day, (day 3), the drive is longer, 3 hours, and is the longest journey of the tour. All the other days involve a drive of an hour or so.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. Most of the birding will be from the road, or on fairly easy walking trails. There may be a few optional uphill hikes into canyons, which could be up to around 2 miles (3km) in length. On average around 2 miles (3km) will be walked daily.

Elevations on this tour are range from 3200ft (976m) in Rapid City, to around 4720ft (1440m) in the Black Hills, and the Badlands is in between these, at 3340ft (1020m).

CLIMATE: In the summer days can be hot, and rainfall is limited. The temperature ranges greatly between day and night with lows and highs of 55-77 Fahrenheit (13-25 Celsius) in this season. Rainfall usually occurs on about 9 days of the month.

ACCOMMODATION and FOOD: One good hotel will be used in Rapid City, which has full-time electricity, hot water, en-suite facilities, and Wi-Fi Internet. We will eat at one restaurant throughout for dinners and breakfasts, and will take boxed lunches for our day trips (on 6 days of the tour) to ensure we do not have to visit external facilities.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding/mammal focused tour, and the priority will be for making sure everyone gets to see the species before any photos are taken. However, there will be good opportunities for photography, particularly of mammals like bison, antelope, and prairie dogs, as well as for the amazing landscapes on offer daily.

WHEN TO GO: The best time to visit South Dakota is during the breeding season, around June-July, which is also when rainfall is lowest.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS:A valid passport is required for non-US citizens; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Most foreign visitors to the USA need to APPLY FOR AN ONLINE ESTA BEFORE LEAVING THEIR COUNTRY OF RESIDENCE. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?:
Accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 7; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 8; spare drinking water in the vehicle when required; Tropical Birding tour leader (who is also the tour driver) with scope and audio gear from the afternoon of day 1 to the morning of day 8; airport transfers by the guide on day 1 and day 8 (any transfers required on other days would be extra); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from the morning of day 2 to the afternoon of day 7 in a rental van; entrance fees to all the birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?:
Optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader (who is also the driver on this tour); tips for any luggage porters used; international flights; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.