South Dakota is one of those American states that you might just take for granted. It's there, but if you're from the eastern part of the US or the south or even the far west, it never comes to mind as a destination … at least it didn't to us. It's the fifth least populated state in the USA and agriculture is the number one industry. Why go there on vacation? I visited South Dakota the first time with our oldest son, Brennan. We used to do mother-son weekend trips which Brennan would plan. The Black Hills and Mount Rushmore were his choice one year and we were so impressed, we brought the whole family back for a camping trip later that summer.
This was Indian territory before Thomas Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon and claimed it as American soil. Its grasslands supported millions of buffalo (American bison) and thousands of Lakota and Dakota Sioux tribes people. Expansion and gold strikes led to broken promises, bloodshed and reservations for the native people. The land is diverse and beautiful and knowing its history helps to appreciate it even more.
We had the chance to revisit last summer and quite honestly, though we had allowed a week in South Dakota, we could have spent a month. Knowing that we tend to go off the beaten path at times to see some lesser known sites along with the more popular ones, here's our list of things to see and do in the Mount Rushmore state.
1. Belle Fourche
Pronounced “bel-foosh” (which drives me crazy), Belle Fourche is the geographical center of the USA since Alaska became a state. We've stood on the Equator and the International Dateline, so it was only reasonable we'd check this out. There's a Visitor's Center and a park and, truth be told, the actual “center” is located in a field northeast of the town, but it wasn't convenient for tourists, so...
This is a restored old west, mining town and an example of how gambling money can be used for good purpose. There are museums, parks, the cemetery where Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane (among others) were buried, shoot-outs on Main Street and in saloons. In general, a taste of the nostalgic Old Wild West that seems to capture our imaginations.
3. Mount Rushmore
A national memorial, Mount Rushmore is absolutely breathtaking. It conjures up patriotism in even the staunchest cynic. There are paths to walk that offer different views of the monument, several National Parks programs, a film about the sculptor and the work involved in constructing the monument and so much more. We visited on June 14th, Flag Day, and witnessed a 100+ immigrants become new citizens of the USA. Admission is free, but they charge for parking.
4. Custer State Park
A drive through Custer State Park is a must. The scenery and views are spectacular along several loop roads. Iron Mountain Road, in particular, is a work of art with its famous “pigtail bridges” and tunnels designed to offer views of Mount Rushmore in the distance that knock your socks off.
5. Crazy Horse Memorial
This privately funded memorial to honor Crazy Horse and all Native American heroes, has been a work in progress for generations. There's a huge Visitor's Center and museum and of course, the sculpture itself. Check their program schedule for crafts markets, rodeos and other events.
6. Jewel National Monument / Wind Cave National Park
These two National Park sites can be visited in a long day. If you like caves, these are fun and offer some unusual geologic features like cave bacon, frostwork, boxwork and popcorn. Though entry into the park sites is free, the cave tours have admission fees. Both sites require lots of up and down on steep stairs and rather tight quarters at times.
7. Badlands National Park
This is a geologic gem of a place. Saber-tooth tigers, rhinos and ancient horses roamed this land in past millennia. The rugged sandstone terrain, outstanding views and vast pallet of earth colors in contrast with a cerulean blue sky is nothing less than eye candy. Beyond the views, there's wildlife galore like bighorn sheep, bison, coyote and prairie dogs. Colorful prairie wildflowers abound and the birdlife is abundant. There are several loop roads to drive, lots of hiking trails and two Visitor's Centers. Be sure to visit both centers. The more popular Ben Reifel Visitor's Center is all modern and fancy. The White River is manned by Native American park rangers of the Oglala Sioux and offers a whole different view of the park.
8. Route 90 Sights
Interstate 90 zips you east-west through the southern part of the state, but there are lots of fun and interesting sights along the way or just a few miles off the highway. Rapid City, touted as “Gateway to the Black Hills” and “City of Presidents” is a good place to stock up on supplies and snacks. Realistic statues of U.S. Presidents adorn the street corners and parks. There's the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site and a rare white prairie dog community. The off-road sculptures that line the highway near Murdo are fantastic.
9. Wall Drug
Travelers along this stretch of dusty road in years gone by were in need of a break and Wall Drug in Wall, SD offered “free ice water” to the weary and a chance to rest. The highway signs begin in Wyoming and stretch along the interstate for the entire width of the state. Wall Drug is a city block's hodgepodge of touristy kitsch, but it's a must-see along the way. Admission is free and so is the ice water. Everything else comes with a cost.
10. Mitchell Corn Palace
Touted as the “World's Only Corn Palace” (hard to believe, huh?), Mitchell's Corn Palace is worth a stop just to see all that corn nailed to the side of a huge building. One of South Dakota's largest crops is corn and the Corn Palace is a testament to the pioneers and farmers who have celebrated their corn harvests for over a century. It's a fun stop and admission is free.
There's so much to see and do, but we only mentioned those places we actually visited. We passed on several sights in favor of spending more time in places we were really enjoying. We missed Laura Ingalls Wilder's (“Little House on the Prairie”) birthplace and a huge Lewis and Clark Exploration Center and so much more. That, of course, gives us a reason to go back.
If you go:
Choose your time to visit. We chose mid-June. The temperatures were delightful and the tourists were limited.
After the beginning of June, hotels tend to be pricey. We opted to camp out and really enjoyed it. State and national forests offer reserved camp sites at very reasonable prices. KOA offers camping with all the amenities at key locations if you wish to spend a bit more.
If you're over 62, you can purchase a National Parks senior card for $10 to allows you free access to all National Parks sites as well as significant discounts at NPS campsites. Not 62 yet (lucky you!), buy an annual parks pass and enjoy all the same benefits.
We chose to buy food at grocery markets and eat at our camp, but there are scads of restaurants, fast food joints, hotels, and motels around.
See a rodeo. It's South Dakota's state sport and there's bound to be one going on somewhere if you visit in the summer months.
Check out Black Hills Gold jewelry. It's pricey, but distinctive.
Do your homework in advance. The state of South Dakota Tourism Board provides all sorts of free brochures and will send them for free upon request.