South Dakota? Why Would Anyone Visit South Dakota?

If you have but one two week vacation to take in your lifetime, do it in South Dakota.  What a truly, way above expectation, fantastic place to visit.

It started with my wife and me sitting in the kitchen of our Newark, OH home looking at a map and our bank account and trying to decide where we would go on our vacation.  When I suggested SD, my wife just laughed.  Her only reply was, why?  Of course, her attitude changed when she found Kevin Costner owned a casino in Deadwood at the time.

We made our plans and mapped it out and headed west.  We drove to Des Moines, IA and spent the night.  My wife was still complaining because I made reservations to spend 3 days in the Bad Lands.  She just couldn’t see anything in the literature we had that warranted even a visit let alone 3 days.  She finally quieted down and fell asleep.  We got up early the next morning and headed up to SD.

Our first visit was a town called Mitchell.  For a town of about 15,000 we were quite pleased with what the town had to offer.  With over a dozen parks, a good size lake, and of course other recreational activities including a relatively nice and competitive golf course, we also found a few museums.  The Balloon Museum, the Pioneer Museum, and the Enchanted Doll Museum are worth the visit if you have the time.  However, a must visit while in town is the Corn Palace.

The exterior of this place is decorated with real corn.  Every year the design is changed as new corn is added and the old is stripped away.  This is normally done in September.  I made a suggestion to the staff to just allow my wife to show up in August with a fork and napkin.  By September there wouldn’t be much corn left to be stripped.

Our next stop was the Badlands National Park.  Out of the Dakota prairie, rain, wind, and frost have carved steep canyons, sharp ridges, gullies, spires, and knobs, providing a glimpse into the relentless pace of geologic change.

Despite summer temperatures that may top 100ᵒ or more and frigid winter winds, many animals and plants still find the Badlands a good place to live.  You’ll find birds ranging from the tiny wren, to the meadow-lark, to the golden eagle.  Animals from chipmunks, to prairie dogs, to coyotes, to the great bison can be seen throughout.  And of course plants of all kinds.  Some I have never seen before.

It was time to move on and wouldn’t you know it, my wife was complaining we should have planned more time.  It was just too peaceful and relaxing.

From the Badlands we headed to Custer State Park.  On the way we passed the Wall Drug Store.  Of course anyone who has ever driven west through SD on I90 has seen the signs for the Wall Drug Store.  This place started out as a tiny drug store in the tiny town of Wall and grew to a giant of a store with a café that seats over 500 people.  All this started by offering free ice water on a hot day during the depression.

Custer State Park consists of 73,000 acres of natural beauty and adventure.  Full of bison, elk, mule deer, pronghorns, mountain goats, big horn sheep, coyotes, bobcats and more, you will find the park to be all you can imagine.  Scenic drives on the Needles highway, the Iron Mountain road, or the Wildlife Loop road will keep you on the edge of your seat with your head constantly out the window.

While at Custer State Park, I would like to recommend a stay at the Blue Bell Lodge.  This is a hideaway retreat with a western guest ranch flavor.  Hand-crafted log cabins scattered around a lodge with a dining room and a lounge.  Plus on the grounds you will find a general store, gift shop, and a gas station.  Enjoy a ride in a hay wagon or just sit back and kick up your heels at a chuck wagon cookout.

Next stop is the Black Hills, Mt. Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Monument.  You can’t say enough about this area of South Dakota.  Being here and seeing in person the beauty of this place and you can understand why General Custer and the 7th Cavalry had to die.  The Sioux who were driven from this land had every right to fight and try getting it back.

The place to stay in this area is Keystone.  Imagine spending your vacation nestled between two colossal mountain sculptures, Crazy Horse and Mt. Rushmore.  And just think, all the time you will be within the Black Hills National Forest.  There is just too much to say about this area of SD.  In fact so much that if I try saying anything at all it just comes out as not enough.  Therefore, I will just leave this part to your imagination so as not to leave you disillusioned as to what to expect.

From Keystone we head to Deadwood, home of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.  During the summer months you will usually find some kind of festival going on.  Be sure to visit Mt. Moriah Cemetery or try your luck panning for gold.  And of course, take in a show in the evening or try your luck at the table where Wild Bill was shot.  Ok, maybe not the same table, but definitely the same saloon.

Our final stop before heading back was the town of Sturgis.  Now not being a biker, I had no idea what I was in for.  As luck would have it we arrived in Sturgis on the same day everyone else was leaving.  Sturgis was just about a ghost town at 10am on a Sunday.  We finally found a restaurant where we could get a cup of coffee and the owner of the establishment informed us that the Sturgis Rally would be starting within the next few hours.

Well we didn’t have the time to hang around and take a chance of getting caught up in something we may actually enjoy.  We were due back to work in a couple of days and still wanted to head to the Devil’s Tower just across the state line in Wyoming.  So off we headed.  We passed hundreds of bikers coming from the west on our way to the tower.  I imagine there was just as many, if not more coming from the east.  If I ever take up biking I just might go back there.

Although the Devil’s Tower is not officially in SD it is still worth mentioning and visiting.  This is actually a core of a volcano exposed after millions of years of erosion.  Of course the Indians had their own beliefs of how this rock was formed.  Their most popular legend went basically like this:

One day, an Indian tribe was camped beside the river and seven small girls were playing at a distance. The region had a large bear population and a bear began to chase the girls. They ran back toward their village, but the bear was about to catch them. The girls jumped upon a rock about three feet high and began to pray to the rock, “Rock, take pity on us; Rock, save us.” The rock heard the pleas of the young girls and began to elongate itself upwards, pushing them higher and higher out of reach of the bear. The bear clawed and jumped at the sides of the rock, and broke its claws and fell to the ground. The bear continued to jump at the rock until the girls were pushed up into the sky, where they are to this day in a group of seven little stars (the Pleiades). The marks of the bear claws are there yet. As one looks upon the tower and contemplates its uniqueness, it isn’t hard to imagine this legend as fact.

You might recognize The Devil’s Tower as it was featured in the movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Well like all good things our South Dakota vacation must come to an end and we had to head back home.  Sadly the drive back just didn’t seem the same, even though we basically followed the same route all the way back.  Guess the anticipation just wasn’t the same…

Published by Rick Backstrom