You won’t mistake this land for home. South Dakota shares a border with Minnesota, but once you’re over the line, the vista and the mindset change abruptly. Suddenly you’re driving through an endless stretch of prairie land, flat as a flapjack, horses outnumbering cattle and ranches overtaking farms. Keep going, and it’s the wild, wild West you remember from movies, a place where the buffalo actually do roam and the deer and the antelope really do play, and you can see it all happen right in front of your windshield.
Courtesy of Prairie Berry Winery
It’s a long stretch of road to Rapid City, a nine-hour drive from the Twin Cities to this town near the Wyoming border. With a population of 70,000, this is about as citified as it gets in these parts, which is to say, not very. It’s a pit stop between the twin attractions of South Dakota: the breathtaking Badlands to the east and the 1.2 million acres of Black Hills to the west.
The Black Hills, of course, are home to iconic Mt. Rushmore with its supersized sculptures hailing four U.S. presidents. In 2000, Rapid City decided to play along by installing life-sized bronze sculptures of every U.S. president, pre-Obama, on downtown street corners. In other words, 43 photo ops and a chance to stretch your legs after so many miles in the car.
The city has done other things to revitalize its downtown, too. In 2011, a former parking lot was reborn as Main Street Square with fountains, free concerts, a border of shops, and an in-progress sculpture by artist Masayuki Nagase, who will return in June to continue work on his 21-piece granite carving called The Passage of Wind and Water. Art Alley invites graffiti muralists and taggers (and you, if you so desire) to create vivid Day-Glo statements on brick walls and dumpsters. Go for it.
c/o South Dakota Department of Tourism
About 25 minutes away from Rapid City, Keystone, population 342, is the gateway to the Black Hills and the crown jewel: Mount Rushmore. The tiny mining town sprang to life when gold was discovered there in the 1890s. Six mines stand in spitting distance of the highway, and three of them are open to visitors. The town’s antiques shop, which houses other kinds of treasure if your taste runs to wooden yokes, metal fence posts, stirrups, or balding teddy bears, is named after the area’s most famous mine, the Holy Terror. The mine, in turn, was named (lovingly, we’re sure) after the prospector’s wife.
Before you head to the big Rushmore attraction, take time to check out the fairyland of pale pink stalactites that is Rushmore Cave, a natural cave formed 350 million years ago and discovered in 1876. It’s also fun to stop for a horse (or mountain bike) ride at High Country Ranch. Minneapolis émigrés John and Barbara Majchuzek (he’s a former director of retail operations for Lunds) moved from the Twin Cities last year to open the ranch, which also boasts an outdoor theater where Brulé music is performed by musicians and dancers among their Native American friends.
Mt. Rushmore is high on many an American’s bucket list of wonders for a reason. Seeing the towering visages of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt rise amid the pines of the Black Hills is awe-inspiring, especially when viewed by early morning light or by spotlight after dusk. They are the stunning work of sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who studied with Rodin. Starting in 1927, he worked with the only tool powerful enough to carve granite: dynamite, which tends to leave little room for mistakes. A film at the visitor center tells the compelling story of how he pulled this off.
More awe-inspiring still is the unfinished sculpture of Crazy Horse a few peaks away. At nine stories high, Crazy Horse is expected to be the largest sculpture in the world when it’s eventually finished. Chief Standing Bear invited the late artist Korczak Ziolkowski to carve Chief Crazy Horse in 1947 for “the white man to know the red man has great heroes also.” The artist died in 1982, but his family continues his work. When complete, the carving will stand at 52 stories, a stunning statement in the heart of the Black Hills, land that is sacred to the Lakota. Fittingly, the visitor center houses the Indian Museum of North America, showcasing artifacts, including some from our local Mille Lacs Band. While you’re here, stop in at the café for an “Indian taco” made with fry bread.
High Country Ranch
c/o High Country Ranch
Custer State Park is the other must-do destination in the Black Hills. It’s the second largest state park in America, second to Adirondack State Park in New York. Here, more than 1,300 bison roam freely, along with mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and the occasional mountain lion. In September the park hosts the annual Governor’s Buffalo Roundup, where you can watch cowhands in action, driving the herd to corrals with plenty of whip cracks and yee-haws (and the thrill of the occasional escape). You can also hike, bike, kayak, canoe, and swim here—or just go for a drive on the spectacular 14-mile Needles Highway, with its jaw-dropping peaks and valleys and otherworldly rock formations.
The Badlands National Park is also like a geologic theme park. And just like at Disney World, you’ll want to arrive early. Plan to overnight in the town of Wall (home of Wall Drug) so you can hit the Pinnacle rock formation before dawn. You don’t want to miss the moment when the shadows lift and the stone spires at the park’s entrance glow petal-pink for a few glorious moments before settling into their natural sandy hue. Then it’s time to explore the 244,000 acres of canyons, spires, and buttes that have been chiseled into the landscape by millions of years of erosion. Hike the boardwalk or head out on your own for an adventure among the bighorn sheep, bison, antelope, foxes, and ferrets that live in this moonlike wilderness. And, as the signs will tell you, beware of rattlesnakes.
Back in Wall, you could spend hours exploring the sprawling enterprise known as Wall Drug. This is your chance to buy anything from $800 cowboy boots to a $5 T-shirt, plus indulge in a splash of that “free ice water” touted on the billboards from Minnesota to Montana.
The gimmick that put this drugstore in the middle of nowhere on the map was thought up by the grandmother of third-generation owner Ted Hustead as a way to lure speeders off the highway on days of 110-degree heat.
The family purchased the place in 1931, during the Great Depression, and they needed all the marketing help they could muster. Today, the store boasts a $3 million art collection that graces the walls of its restaurant, where buffalo burgers are the star of the menu.
Before you head out, be sure to pick up a pack of maple donuts for the drive—a small way to enjoy one last bite of a place that feels so different from home.
Town by Town
Where to stay, where to eat.
Courtesy of the Rapid City Convention & Visitors Bureau
The historic Alex Johnson Hotel has been a local grande dame since the Roaring Twenties. Six U.S. presidents have stayed within its Sioux-inspired interior, which includes bison heads and caryatids of Native American chiefs. The new Adoba Eco Hotel has original marble murals that nod to state lore, nature photomurals in the rooms, and a café that serves elk and bison and a twist on s’mores for dessert. Another good bet for dinner is Firehouse Brewing Company, a former fire station refitted as a brewpub. It proffers Maple Nut and Smokin’ Betty ales to wash down a darn good buffalo burger.
In Keystone proper you can stay at the log cabin-esque Powder House Lodge and enjoy a meal of buffalo ribs, buffalo stew, buffalo sausage, or buffalo steak. Elk, quail, and good old beef are also on the menu. Or about 45 minutes away, High Country Guest Ranch has sweet cabins, trail rides, and native dance shows.
Wall is a one-act town, so eat and shop at the famous drugstore. Spend the night just across the interstate in the charming contempo-rustic cabins at Frontier Cabins, where you can sit on the patio around a fire pit and enjoy the magical big sky sunset.
At Prairie Berry Winery, fifth-generation winemaker Sandi Vojta coaxes wine from everything she can get her hands on—prairie berries, blueberries, chokecherries, rhubarb, and even California grapes. The kitchen turns out wild mushroom pizza, an elite Caesar salad, and delicious carrot cake.
Custer State Park Resort is your best wine/dine/overnight option (hey, President Coolidge considered it his summer White House) in the vast park, spiderwebbed with trails and a Wild West Show’s worth of critters wandering the acres.
Carla Waldemar is a Twin Cities freelance writer.