State Thirty Nine: South Dakota

After the desolate beauty of North Dakota – long empty roads, giant fields of sunflowers and what felt like more prairie dogs than people – South Dakota, the Mount Rushmore State, felt like it was positively brimming with attractions. But S.D. is still a huge, wild and exciting place; with more kitsch tourist spots than you can shake a stick at.

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The Center of the Nation – supposedly

Talking of which, just across the border from North Dakota was our first roadside attraction stop in South Dakota. The attractively-named Belle Fourche is home to the Geographic Center of the United States (as opposed to the Geographic Centre of North America – Rugby, ND and the Geographic Centre of the Lower 48 – Lebanon, KS). The actual spot is contested, some say its a few miles away in a field. But the city of Belle Fourche won’t have that. There’s not much to see, but its a fun little stop.

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The saloon where Wild Bill Hickok was shot

From there we drove into Deadwood, a historic town synonymous with the Wild West. After gold was discovered in the Black Hills Deadwood sprung up in 1876. Thousands of miners, muleskinners, gunslingers and gamblers descended upon this rocky canyon in the hope of winning fortunes beyond their wildest dreams. A lawless town; Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the back of the head here while gambling. The streets are still lined with casinos and Deadwood still attracts people hoping to strike it rich; but we found it a little cheesy and didn’t linger.

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The truly iconic Mount Rushmore

Instead we decided we’d make a date with an America icon. Carved into Mount Rushmore are the faces of four United States presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln. Side note: we always call him Babe-raham Lincoln that’s not weird is it? The 60-foot granite sculptures were created by Gutzon Borglum and his son, Lincoln. Construction began in 1927 and although the initial concept called for each president to be depicted from head to waist, lack of funding forced construction to end in late October 1941. Mount Rushmore has been depicted on stamps, comics, in video games, songs and made out of lego. It served as a secret-base in Team America: World Police, Martians carved their leaders’ faces into Mount Rushmore replacing the presidents in Mars Attacks! and the memorial was used for the backdrop to a exhilarating chase-scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. We’d been simultaneously desperate to see Mount Rushmore with our own eyes and worried that it might disappoint. It did not. Being able to walk beneath the President’s faces and literally gaze up into their nostrils was weirdly thrilling. Driving around the beautiful Black Hills, turning a corner and suddenly spotting George Washington’s profile always made our spirits soar. Also, the gift shop was brilliant.

Perhaps less iconic than Mount Rushmore, but similarly historic, the Dinosaur Park in Rapid City has been home, since 1936, to five adorable, kitsch concrete dinosaurs. The bright-green Apatosaurus, Triceratops, Stegasaurus, Tyrannosaurus Rex. and Brontosaurus all look like something directly out of The Flinstones – cartoonish, dorky but utterly lovable. They’re positioned on a hill overlooking the city, totally free to visit and are guaranteed to melt the heart of even the most jaded roadtripper.

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Cheeseburger pizza – as good as it sounds

Two of the nights we spent in South Dakota we spent in Rapid City, in the cheap but cheerful Big Sky Lodge. Whilst here we ate and drank very well indeed. Whether it was tasty craft beer and an indecently good hamburger-pizza at Independent Ale House, incredible Nepalese curry at the Kathmandu Bistro, Pumpkin Spiced martinis at Murphy’s Pub & Grill or chewy, generously topped bagels at Black Hill Bagels; the selection of food and array of bars was a great surprise.

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Abraham Lincoln sitting on a corner in downtown Rapid City

As was Rapid City itself. As well as fun bars downtown Rapid City had one excellent quirk: sculptures of each of the United State’s presidents (aside from Barack Obama, who we guess they’re working on) are located on the corners. Whether it’s Nixon looking shifty, Abraham Lincoln sitting with his son or George W. Bush hanging out with his dog Barney you can collect them all as you walk around. And if that’s not enough presidential fun, then jump in the car for a 25 minute drive back to Keystone and straight to the National Presidential Wax Museum. We thought this would be a cheesy, and frankly naff, attraction but it was genuinely informative, well thought-out and balanced. It also had a great gift shop.

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Jimmy Carter in the Presidential Wax Museum

By visiting both the Reptile Gardens and Bear Country USA we got to have a surprising number of up-close encounters with impressive animals. Reptile Gardens has, well, reptiles and giant tortoises, snakes and was where we witnessed one of the best bird displays ever. In Bear Country USA you drive your car around various enclosures of bears, buffalo before walking around a typical “zoo” where you can see bear cubs wrestling, foxes napping and all manner of other cuddly animals. Both would be amazing for little children as well as adults who refuse to grow up. Both are located on Highway 16 and are very-well signposted.

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You can get pretty close to the bears in Bear Country USA

It’s not just Presidents who are carved into granite in the Black Hills, the Crazy Horse Memorial – the world’s largest – is not yet finished but depicts the Sioux leader atop his horse and is an interesting, if slightly unsettling attraction. Crazy Horse was never photographed, many Native Americans oppose the desecration of sacred land so it’s disputed whether or not this memorial should exist – and one can only guess what he’d make of the sprawling visitor centre/gift shop in his name – but it is nonetheless epic in scope. Work began on the sculpture in 1948 and it’s hard to envisage when it will ever be complete. All we can say is visit and make up your own mind.

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The incomplete but still massive Crazy Horse memorial

Our stay in Rapid City had come to an end so we got up, as we usually do, at the crack of dawn and set off for “Godforsaken” Wall. In 1931 the owners of Wall Drug were feeling the bite of the depression. Wall was a tiny prairie town with 326 people. 326 poor people. Business was tight for the drugstore owners Ted and Dorothy Hustead and Wall was slap-bang in the middle of nowhere. The owners struck upon a brilliant idea – erect signs on the nearby highways advertising “FREE ICE WATER” and “5C COFFEE” to attract weary travellers. And… it worked! On a good summer’s day now twenty thousand people can drop by Wall Drug. Between the 50-minute drive from Rapid City to Wall I counted 31 signs advertising Wall Drug’s attractions. My favourites were “SOMETHING TO CROW ABOUT”, “FREE COFFEE AND DONUT FOR HONEYMOONERS” and “NEW DINOSAUR” but there was truly something for everyone. Wall Drug is now a sprawling kitsch emporium – if you can dream it, they probably sell it. We did enjoy a 5c coffee and some free ice water in the Western Art Dining Room, Hannah rode the Jackalope, and we were dumbfounded by the surprisingly beautiful Traveller’s Chapel. Oh and the new 80ft Dinosaur; brilliant. Wall Drug is everything we love about America – the can-do attitude, the kitsch and surprising and the epic donuts!

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Hannah riding the jackalope at Wall Drug

Just a few minutes down the road, down a very muddy and pretty hair-raising road, was a Nuclear Missile Silo. Unattended and pretty creepy this is where a 500 kiloton nuclear missile used to live. We had hoped to visit the Minuteman missile site to find out more about what went on here during the Cold War but it wasn’t open whilst we were in town.

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A Cold War missile silo…possibly not worth the terrifying drive to get there.

After the brilliant razzmatazz of Wall, we motored over to Badlands National park for some of Nature’s razzmatazz. With signs warning of rattlesnakes, the sound of coyotes howling in the distance and the otherworldly landscape of buttes, chimneys and rainbow-coloured rocks; this place was stunning. We drove the loop, enjoyed seeing Prairie Dogs on sentry-duty and marvelled again and how empty – compared to a Yosemite or Yellowstone – this National Park was. Absolutely magical – visit if you can.

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The Badlands are badass

Our final stop in South Dakota was Mitchell and we were here for one reason only – the World’s Only Corn Palace! We’d been excited about this roadside attraction for years and it was great to finally see it. A Moorish-style palace, decorated in around 300,000 ears of corn and local grasses, each year the murals on the Corn Palace reflect a new theme. This year’s was “Rock of Ages” and we grinned as we gazed upon Willie Nelson and Michael Jackson depicted in corn. We spent the night in River Road B&B, drank beers on the porch with the owners and petted their dog, before a pretty decadent dinner at Chef Louie’s Steakhouse.

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The super-cool Mitchell Corn Palace

And that was it. Our time in South Dakota had come to an end. I’m not sure we’d ever seen so many roadside attractions in such a short time. After years of dreaming of Mount Rushmore we’d finally seen it with our own eyes. We’d seen loads of dinosaurs and Presidents. Two of our favourite things. South Dakota’s motto is great places, great faces and we have to agree it has both!

Rate the state:

Good for: Mount Rushmore, kitschy fun attractions, surprisingly good Nepalese food in Rapid City, very child-friendly.

Bad for: There are a lot of “tourist-trap” type places.

Overall: 9/10

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