GETTING THERE: A tour of the western Dakotas begins in Rapid City, S.D. Several airlines offer jet service to Rapid City, including Republic, Western and United. Republic is offering a $218 round-trip fare, based on a 30-day advance purchase and travel on Tuesday or Wednesday; the fare is $238 the rest of the week. A car is necessary, because you will be covering a lot of miles. WHEN TO GO: The region's national parks are open year-round, but with limited facilities in the winter. Late spring when the weather has warmed but the grasslands are still green is probably the most pleasant season. The hills are full of wildflowers, including large patches of scarlet globemallow. Summer on the plains can be hot. Pay attention to broadcasts of severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings, especially if you are considering an afternoon hike. WHERE TO STAY: Rapid City has a number of excellent hotels and motels, including the lovely and recently renovated Hotel Alex Johnson, one of the Historic Hotels of the Rocky Mountain West, (605) 342-1210. The rate for a double begins at $59 a night.
But to escape summer's heat, you probably will want to stay high in the cool woodlands of the Black Hills. Custer State Park, convenient to all Black Hills sightseeing, has campgrounds and four park lodges. The nicest lodge is Sylvan Lake Lodge, which sits atop a ridge overlooking the lake. It is a comfortably woodsy place of stone and timber. Rooms for two are about $50 a night. You can swim, boat and fish the lake.
For Custer State Park information: (605) 255-4464. For lodge accommodations: Sylvan Lake, (605) 574-2561; State Game Lodge, (605) 255-4541 (Presidents Coolidge and Eisenhower were once guests); Legion Lake Lodge, (605) 255-4521; and Blue Bell Lodge, (605) 255-4531. Sylvan Lake and the State Game Lodge have attractive dining rooms.
The Franklin Hotel in Deadwood in the northern Black Hills is also a Historic Hotel of the Rocky Mountain West. It has charm and much western flavor, but you may have to bathe in an old-fashioned tub without shower, and the rooms aren't air-conditioned. For the adventurous, at $46 a night for two. The dining room is the best in town, (605) 578-2241.
The town of Medora, N.D. sits right at the entrance to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It has campgrounds, several motels and the Rough Rider Hotel, built in the days of Roosevelt and more recently renovated. A night for two is $43.50. For the Rough Rider and other Medora accommodations, (701) 623-4422. INFORMATION: South Dakota Department of State Development, Capitol Lake Plaza, 711 S. Wells, Pierre, S.D. 57501, (800) 843-1930. North Dakota Tourism Promotion, Liberty Memorial Building, State Capitol Grounds, Bismarck, N.D. 58505, (800) 437-2077. "Gold & Grass, The Black Hills Story," by Paul Friggens (Pruett, 179 pages, $14.95 paperback) provides excellent insight into the history of the region. It is available at the visitor center at Mount Rushmore.