Why South Dakota Belongs at the Top of Your USA Travel Plans

Itinerary:

  • Thursday: Fly to Rapid City, South Dakota
  • Friday: Explore Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park and Mammoth Site
  • Saturday: Explore Badlands National Park, Minute Man National Historic Site, Wall Drug Store, Chapel in the Hill, Dinosaur Park, and downtown Rapid City
  • Sunday: Fly back

Dates: July 27-30, 2017

Our Odyssey:

South Dakota is an oft-forgotten state. International and domestic tourists alike are more drawn to New York, Miami, Vegas, Disney and Hollywood than to a relatively empty “fly over” state that has only gotten attention recently for the protests against the unethical Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Reservation.

But there’s a lot more going on in this hidden gem, and one day this past spring while scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, I saw an ad for South Dakota. I am very susceptible to Facebook ads (I got my former job via a Facebook ad, have subscribed to 4 different subscription boxes, and have spent hundreds in Beachbody products – all from Facebook advertisements). So if my newsfeed recommended it, I would probably like it. (I’m being tongue-in-cheek here – I promise I’m not gullible or a perpetuator of fake news).

I did some research – dinosaur parks, archaeological digs, several national parks and the weird existence of Mt. Rushmore all beckoned me. And I knew my best friend since (practically) birth would be into this wild west adventure too.

The excitement began before Tara and I even landed in Rapid City – because first we landed in Sioux Falls due to a weather diversion. Sioux Falls is straight across to the other side of the state from where we wanted to be, but thankfully Delta did fly us into Rapid City eventually. On the bright side, circling around the storm hovering over Rapid City lead to some amazing photographs flying over the Badlands and around a stunning rainbow jetting out of the clouds and down to the crazy terrain below.

Once in Rapid City, we picked up our rental car and headed to the Fairfield Inn and Suites, which I booked using points. Unbeknownst to us at the time of booking, our hotel happened to be connected to the largest water park in all of the Dakotas. That’s right, all two of them, and with a total of, I think, 4 or 5 slides. Being a regular visitor to the Wisconsin Dells (the water park capital of the world and home to America’s largest water park), I can’t say I was very impressed. But the guy checking us in did say it had the only bar in the US with a water slide going through it. So there’s that.

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“Cruizzers” indeed, in a small town on our way to Mt Rushmore. We missed the annual biker rally Sturgis by just a week!

The next morning we were up early to take advantage of our free breakfast and make the most of the day. We had a packed agenda and it started with Mount Rushmore, which is one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen. First of all, it’s really big. I mean huge. And it was built with the express purpose of generating tourism in the area – which worked brilliantly as 3 million tourists visit annually. It was originally going to be built at the Needles (a site sacred to Native Americans), was intended to showcase famous western heroes like Louis and Clark, and was supposed to feature torsos (not just heads). In the end, it was built on Mount Rushmore (formerly known as the Six Grandfathers by the Lakota Sioux, and also a sacred site), featured 4 US presidents, and the money ran out after they finished the heads. The whole time we were there, I thought to myself how weird it was that this place exists at all. I’ve truly never seen or heard of anything else like it.

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Mount Rushmore, obviously

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Me and Tara with the dead presidents

After Mount Rushmore, we ventured on to another giant statue carved into a mountain – Crazy Horse. This statue was started as a sort of response to Mount Rushmore to honor a leader of the Lakota tribe who had died in a battle. The statue has been in progress since 1948 and is the largest statue in the world, even though only the head and face are completed. When done, the statue will feature the warrior on horseback, pointing out ahead of him. It is far from complete and I wonder if it ever will be – I can’t find a date anywhere online about it. The mission of the organization building the statue is to raise money to complete the memorial and also fund educational programs about the Lakota people. Which is very nice – but somehow was unsettling, when it’s being run by a white family, the cost for entry is pretty steep, and most importantly, the place had an element of artifice and theatrics that made me wonder if this is authentic or merely a production of what white people want/expect to see as tourists of Native American culture. I’m not the only one who senses controversy – you can read more here.

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Crazy Horse under a storm cloud

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Eventually, some day, allegedly…the sculpture will look like this much smaller model.

Leaving Crazy Horse we then headed to Custer State Park to see the Needles, at the recommendation of my high school English teacher (via Facebook of course). The Needles are a collection of eroded granite pillars that, frankly, are unlike any natural formation I’ve seen previously. They are truly like thick knitting needles pointing up to the sky. We followed the scenic drive through the park to a parking area for the Needles and got out to explore and take photos. Before long, however, the ominous clouds above opened up and dumped a fury of blueberry-sized hail all around. We ran into the car, barely escaping the accompanying rain, and laughing at how unexpected and random the sudden storm was. It left as quickly as it arrived and we were back on the road through the park and headed onward to our next road trip stop – Wind Cave National Park.

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Custer State Park

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At the Needles in Custer State Park

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Hail. Oh my!

Almost as soon as we passed the sign for Wind Cave National Park, we noticed mounds of darker colored dirt on top of the yellowish ground. We weren’t sure what they were at first but when we saw furry little critters scampering around, we realized – this was a prairie dog village! It would be the first of many we would see throughout the rest of the weekend as we passed by colonies of prairie dogs hopping, sunbathing, and eating with their cheeks all puffed out.

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Prairie dogs by the highway

It’s also worth noting that we saw the back half of a buffalo through some trees while crossing a bridge in Wind Cave – it would be the only one we saw all weekend (up close anyway).

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The mounds you see here are prairie dog homes. How cute!

Wind Cave is a park of two worlds – the prairie landscape above ground, and an extensive cave network below. I learned that Tara had never actually been in a cave before so this was her first one! We started at the visitor center with a brief film and then a guided tour into the cave below. The most notable feature within this cave system is the box work – patterns of very thin rock that resemble a honeycomb or tennis net. 90% of all box work in the world is found within this one cave system – making it very unique indeed!

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Box work at Wind Cave National Park

After the Wind Cave tour we were back on the road and heading just 15 minutes south through a charming town to a place called the Mammoth Site, the largest archaeological site of mammoth bones in the world. The story of how they all got here is actually quite sad – the area had been a pond or lake where mammoths would drink, but it became a sink hole and when it collapsed the mammoths fell in and got stuck, perishing in place and remaining there till this day. Now, curious tourists like us can go observe this active dig site and see the hundreds of bones already uncovered. What was really impressive to me is the completeness of the remains – full skulls with tusks that were actually easy to identify as a mammoth. This was my first time seeing remains that really looked like the animal they were from without having been assembled by humans.

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Mammoth bones

By this point, we were just an hour’s drive back to our hotel and pretty tired, so we set off and planned to stop for dinner close to our hotel when we got back. We each had a buffalo burger and a local beer before heading back to our hotel in a zombie-like state.

The next morning we got up and out a little bit earlier to make the most of the day. We headed east towards the Badlands and our first destination was the famous Wall Drug Store in Wall, South Dakota. Wall is pretty charming, though I hesitate to call it an authentic western town since it’s pretty touristy and developed. That said, Wall Drug used to be a small community drug store that is now a shopping mall onto itself with knick-knacks, restaurants, museums and random dinosaur statues. We stopped at a small grocery store to pick up some snacks for our trip into the Badlands and continued the journey east.

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Wall Drug – full of oddities and photo ops

Leading up to the National Park, we drove through Buffalo Gap National Grassland (another NPS-managed area), which was very flat. Exceptionally flat. And very monotonous on a surface level. Which is why coming into the Badlands is so dramatic. As if out of nowhere, the terrain turns into a desert of hills, canyons, ridges and valleys in subdued hues of red, orange and gray.

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The rim of the badlands

We started our visit at a grand viewpoint (we decided after a few hours in the park that it was the best viewpoint) where the land drops off into the crazy terrain and you can stand right on the edge of it all looking out into the expanse. We spent about a half hour taking pictures here and then set off for the loop drive throughout the park. We had initially thought about doing some hikes, but with the extreme heat and lack of shade in the park, we decided not to. We did stop at a handful of overlooks around the park, with Tara only a little anxious about the possibility of rattle snakes around.

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Um yeah – the Badlands are pretty crazy!!

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Cuidado

At the visitor center we watched a video explaining how the Badlands were formed, primarily from build-up of deposits of various rocks and materials over millions of years and recent (in geologic terms- the past 500,000 years) erosion. The NPS provides more information here.

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Besties in Badlands

Leaving the visitor center, we headed back in the direction of where we had entered the park, because we learned that down a dirt road near there is the best place to spot wildlife in the Badlands. We took a different route back, stopping by historic homesteads and making a surprise pit stop at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. We had no idea this place existed until we drove by it, and being curious, we stopped. It turns out they were celebrating an anniversary and were giving out free cake (yum!), which we ate while learning what the heck this place was. As it turns out, South Dakota was peppered with nuclear launch facilities during the Cold War, and this site was the center of it all. The site preserves the last remaining Minuteman II ICBM system in the United States – YIKES.

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Cake and nuclear weapons go together like PB & J

Shaking off fears of nuclear radiation exposure, we arrived back to the entrance of the Badlands and followed the dirt road in search of bison. We never saw any close up, but we did see hundreds of prairie dogs, big horn sheep, and goats.

On our way back to the city, we did make another stop at Wall Drug – we had to try some of the famous pie and coffee. And take more prop-enhanced pics.

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Mini Mt Rushmore at Wall Drug

Back in Rapid City, we hit a few more kitschy stops, starting with the Chapel in the Hill. This unique church is a replica of a traditional Norwegian stave church – built in this spot to take advantage of the tourism in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It’s a very beautiful, rustic structure and unlike anything I’ve seen previously in the United States. There is also a very quirky one-room museum to Norwegian countryside living that has creepy dolls and too-cheerful music. So there’s that.

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Chapel in the Hill

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Tara’s face captures our feelings about this museum

Leaving the chapel we headed back in the direction downtown and stopped at the Dinosaur Park, where 7 life-size dinosaur sculptures overlook the city from their perch atop a hill. The attraction has been open (and free) since 1936, and was created to capitalize on the tourists coming to see Mount Rushmore. It is fascinating to me still how the amazing natural wonders of the Badlands and Wind Cave were not what drew people in – instead, it was these artificial constructions that, one could argue, mar the original beauty of the landscape that invited hordes of tourists, both then and today.

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Dino time!

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I’m pretty sure Dinosaur Park is a trick to get people to come to the gift shop to spend money on stuff like this.

Leaving the dino park, we headed downtown for a bite to eat and to explore. The downtown area is charming and thriving, with shops, restaurants and bars galore. We ended up at an old firehouse turned brewery/winery, aptly called Firehouse Brewery and Winery where we shared a flight of beer, appetizers and then a wine tasting. Between sips of wine (we learned we have basically opposite tastes in wine, though we did both like a white called – again, aptly – the BFF Sauvignon Blanc) we engaged in those deep and meaningful conversations that compel you to want to travel with someone to begin with. The kind that are the whole reason you wanted a weekend getaway with your BFF.

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Firehouse Brewery

We ended our night with a quick splash (literally) at the waterpark at our hotel and a few drinks at the hotel bar – a great conclusion to a weekend that was educational, adventurous, relaxing, meaningful and pure fun. I can’t wait to see where our next adventure takes us!

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Varied topography of the Badlands

Have you been on a meaningful getaway with your best friend? Where did you go and what did you get out of it? I’d love to hear about your adventures and get some inspiration for our next one!! Let me know in the comments! 

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