A Week in the Mount Rushmore State

Prior to starting off on our current grand adventure, we only knew of 2 attractions in South Dakota – the Badlands and Mount Rushmore. Once we started planning out our route and talking to folks along the way, however, we discovered the Mount Rushmore State has so much more to offer.

Our tour guide at Mammoth Cave National Park informed us about Wind Cave and Jewel Cave, two amazing spots in the Black Hills that are also part of the National Park Service. Thanks to hiking and scenic drive suggestions from our Minnesota hosts (thanks, Eric & Kat!), we got to hike Harney Peak and spend a day winding along Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Highway, and the Wildlife Loop of Custer State Park.

And still, that’s not all!! There are a few other noteworthy spots we visited during our week in South Dakota, but instead of spending weeks writing blog posts about South Dakota, we’ll consolidate the rest for you here.

South Dakota Travel Guide

When we first crossed the border from Minnesota, we stopped at the Welcome Center where we found the free South Dakota Traveler Magazine. Although by this point we had our route pretty well mapped out, we didn’t have a campground booked in the Black Hills or an iron clad itinerary of things to do (Though really, do we ever? That’s kind of the point of our journey!).

The magazine was chock full of ads for hotels, campgrounds and tourist attractions, plus it had info on hikes and (BONUS!) coupons for some spots. Although it didn’t end up hooking us up with lodging or sight-seeing, flipping through the magazine ended up being quite amusing by mixing in little historical tidbits and stories amongst the ads.

For example, if you need to be reminded that your problems aren’t that bad, read the story about Hugh Glass, the most manly man. Ever. Back in 1823 while on a hunting trip, Glass was horribly mauled by a grizzly bear. How horribly? The other members of his hunting party left 2 men behind to do what they could and then bury Glass when he died. These 2 figured Glass was hopeless, so they instead took his weapons and left him to die alone.

Ah, but the story doesn’t end there. Glass was hardcore, remember? He makes Bear Grylls look like a wuss. He lived off snakes, bugs, mice, wet tree moss, and rain for 3 months while crawling 190 miles back to Fort Kiowa on the Missouri River to find the men who had left him. We’re guessing Glass returned the compassion when he found them.

South Dakota remembers Glass with a historical marker erected on the South Dakota prairie.

A Palace of Corn

During our visit back to Louisville in May, Edie had lunch with our unofficial tour guide, Turney, who has led us to spots such as Oxford, MS, and introduced us to Presidential Libraries, beginning with the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, TX. Knowing that she’d get some great tips, Edie told Turney our planned route to Alaska to see what he’d suggest.

His first suggestion for South Dakota? The world’s only Corn Palace, located in Mitchell.

The first Corn Palace was built in 1892, dreamed up by a few town entrepreneurs as a way to bring people to Mitchell and possibly secure the coveted position as state capital. Although the plan obviously didn’t win Mitchell the capital, it certainly brought folks to town to see the palace.

While the Corn Palace isn’t completely made of corn (that would be quite an engineering masterpiece!), its facade and much of the interior are decorated with corn and corn murals. And the exterior design changes every year, utilizing roughly 275,000 ears of corn! For 2012, the theme was Saluting Youth Activities so the murals depicted student athletes, student musicians, etc. The theme is quite appropriate since the Corn Palace isn’t just a tourist attraction – it is a multi-use building that hosts community activities, state shows, and…student basketball games.

Visiting the Corn Palace is completely free, as is watching the video about the history of the Corn Palace or going on a guided tour. If you have some money burning a hole in your pocket though, there are plenty of corn trinkets, Corn Palace clothing & postcards, and food on which to spend your hard-earned cash. They take credit cards, too.

A State Capitol & an Omen

Continuing on our quest to see and photograph as many of the capitol buildings across the U.S., we stopped for a night in Pierre, SD, in between our visits to Mitchell, the Badlands, and the Black Hills. On the afternoon of our arrival, the sun was shining and the flowers were blooming, giving us a lovely shot of the pretty domed building.

Fast forward to the next morning. Scott took some of our bags out to the truck and returned saying, “It doesn’t look too nice out there.” Perhaps “The heavens are about to open, and the world is going to end” would have been a more appropriate description for the appearance of the sky that day.

The clouds were dark blue and almost black. Not exactly what you want to see when you have a long drive ahead. Although we managed to avoid the rain that morning, our weather luck certainly took a turn for the worst. Two hailstorms and four nights of rain in the Black Hills followed.

Free Ice Water!!

In 1936, after 5 years of watching cars continue to pass by their drug store, Dorothy & Ted Hustead came up with a great idea (technically, it was Dorothy’s idea – women rock at marketing!). Why not provide free ice water to the travelers driving through the hot, dusty prairie? So they put up signs on the highway and an Americana tourist attraction extraordinaire was born!

The current marketing plan isn’t limited to a few signs advertising Free Ice Water along the highway. Now you can find billboards advertising Wall Drug for maybe 100 miles outside of Wall on both I-90 and US 14. The sheer number of billboards is enough to make you stop in to see what all the fuss is about.

And what is all the fuss about? Well for starters, there is lots of stuff to see for FREE. In addition to nice clean restrooms (always a bonus for travelers), a picnic area, and the free ice water, there are dozens of fun photo opportunities. Want to ride a bucking horse or a giant jack-a-lope? Stand next to a miniature version of Mount Rushmore or a 6 foot tall rabbit? How about watch an angry T-Rex, a singing gorilla or a cowboy quartet? All are possible at Wall Drug!

The owners know that even though there is a TON of free stuff to see & do at Wall Drug, there are plenty of opportunities to spend money, too. The Free Ice Water gimmick worked for the Husteads, and the even larger array of free stuff is working even more today. The restaurant and shops with clothing, toys, candy, camping gear and souvenirs of all kinds are bound to draw in visitors that come for the free attractions, and most will find something to their liking – even if it is just donuts or $.05 coffee. The 160K crowd certainly took advantage – we walked out with postcards, a book and 2 kinds of fudge (dark chocolate and salted caramel nut – YUM!).

Fun Towns in the Black Hills

In addition to all the tourist attractions and outdoor activities in the Black Hills, the towns in the area have become destinations themselves. Although we didn’t get to thoroughly explore too many of them during our short but jam-packed 5 days in the hills, we did at least briefly visit a few that deserve mention.

We camped in Custer, SD, a great spot for convenience of getting to Mount Rushmore, the caves, and many of the other activities in the area. Custer was originally called Stonewall (after Stonewall Jackson) and was first laid out in August 1875. After the Battle of Little Big Horn though, the name was changed to Custer. Custer State Park is home to the largest buffalo herd in the world, and the town has embraced that claim to fame. Colorfully painted fiberglass buffalo stand throughout the town, much like the horses in Louisville or the tigers in Memphis.

Hill City is another quaint town in the Black Hills that is minutes from the big sites. Its main street is full of fun shops and restaurants with names like Gold Diggers, the Bumpin Buffalo, and the Mangy Moose. Although we didn’t get to stop for more than coffee and a drive through, we hear it has a claim to fame of its own. Teddy Bear Town is the largest collection of teddy bears in the world, estimated to be over 7,400.

Deadwood was a true wild west gold town. It popped up after a nearby discovery of gold in Deadwood Gulch in 1875 and over time boasted such famous residents as Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. Deadwood’s big claim to fame is gambling. Gambling was a favorite pasttime of miners & prospectors back in the 1800s, and since South Dakota reinstated legalized gambling in 1989, it can be your favorite pasttime during your visit to Deadwood, too.

If you haven’t heard of Sturgis, then you probably don’t know anything about motorcycles. Home to one of the largest motorcycle rallies in the U.S., the town hosts hundreds of thousands of bikers each August for the 2 week event. The rally is definitely a big for the town – during those 2 weeks, Sturgis becomes the largest city in South Dakota! The town also boasts a motorcycle museum and the reality TV bar, Full Throttle Saloon.

Lots & Lots of Photos

We took almost 2000 pictures during our week in South Dakota. If you’ve seen some of our other site-specific South Dakota posts, you’ll find more pictures there. The gallery below has the best of everything else from our time in the Mount Rushmore State State!