South Dakota: The Tourist’s Quadruple Hitter

First impression: woah, Rapid City is like a legit, proper city! I had this fleeting feeling of guilt towards the residents of Rapid City. Do they feel bad that we all forget about them? Has anyone outside of South Dakota ever, like ever ever ever stopped to think about Rapid City, South Dakota? And there’s a whole bustling city there! Not a New York, or Chicago, or even Boston’s worth of people, but 70,000 people nonetheless. I don’t know, sometimes I have these moments where my anxiety and panic about overpopulation really take over and I freak out that these places I’ve never heard about, much less think seriously about, have so many people I guess I get a little emotional. So, I’m publicly apologizing to the people of Rapid City, for never ever thinking of you. I hope you enjoy your little city. Also, I apologize to the town of Interior, South Dakota, population 67, because I also (literally) never heard of you. I guess I can’t be totally to blame as there aren’t all that many people in the state altogether. Case in point: travel 440 miles across South Dakota and the area code never changes. How’s Ludacris gonna tally his hoes in this state?


Anyway, I guess people do think of South Dakota for a few reasons – Mount Rushmore chief among them. Lots of people like to ask us now, “is Mount Rushmore worth the visit?” Well, it’s most certainly worth stopping by on your drive through South Dakota. Is it worth a plane ticket and hotel and car rental from pretty much anywhere else in the world? Probably not. Though I do think that a nice little quick vacation would be the South Dakota tourist quadruple header (Mount Rushmore, Badlands, Corn Palace, and Wall Drug – more on the rest of these below) in conjunction with Devil’s Tower (Wyoming, but not too far). To be sure, I thoroughly enjoyed the fifteen minutes we spent at Mount Rushmore (exaggeration, but hardly). You could probably extend your time at this site if you tried. The town right next to the monument, Keystone, is full of touristy, kitschy shops and restaurants. They do also do a lighting ceremony at 8pm (I believe daily) and I’m told the fireworks on July 4th are pretty spectacular there. Also you could get an ice cream cone, as apparently Jefferson is responsible for the first ice cream recipe in America. Note that it’s $11 to get into the parking lot and it’s not covered by the national parks pass (lame-o) and your parking attendant is not guaranteed to have teeth.

Off and onward with our touristing of South Dakota we headed next to the road-trip destination of Wall Drug. You could miss it if you tried really hard, but there are about 10 million signs for Wall Drug all along I-90. It’s essentially a mall, but the shops are all owned and run by the same company. It’s a pretty brilliant idea/marketing job (is Hustead a Kellogg grad??), as it apparently draws in $10m a year. Not bad for a drug store in the middle of South Dakota. Alan tried the 5-cent coffee. It was really only a nickel, and he said it wasn’t half bad. That was really the highlight. That and being able to say we went to Wall Drug. So, I guess a win.

Alas, we get to the really awesome tourist destination – the Badlands. They are pretty badass. The landscapes are a mix of awe-inspiring, beautiful, and trippy. The animal sightings were also superb. We saw tons of prairie dogs, many more pronghorn deer, and a coyote, and this was all at once! In addition, we saw a badass badlands bunny who reminded me of a chocolate bunny because someone had taken a bite out of his ear as I have many an Easter basket gift. We were warned of rattlesnakes but encountered none of these today.

The history in this place is pretty neat too. There are short walks throughout the park where you can read about the history of the formations and look at fossils of crazy animals that used to exist and live in these lands many years ago. We did a short hike here, called the Notch hike. It was a very easy hike, though true to the US park service’s form, they warn you big time that it will take 1.5-2 hours (took 50 minutes with lots of stopping and hanging out for pictures), and a big warning that it’s not for those with a fear of heights. I of course fear said obstacle so naturally we forged ahead. Going up was no problem. Going down I panicked slightly at first, but it’s really not even remotely comparable in scary heights to some other hikes I’ve done (think especially Devil’s Backbone on Mount Baldy in California… oh my god I can’t put into words how much I hate that stretch of the hike!!). Definitely worth the trip though, it was really neat to get in there and explore the rocks on a closer level and get a 360 view of the landscapes. We would have tried some of the longer hikes had we had more time there (only had an afternoon essentially), though I believe they are more walks than hikes (i.e., no elevation gain). We spent the better part of an afternoon at this park, which was perfect. We felt we saw everything we wanted to (we stopped at almost every viewpoint and did the one hike that is closest to actual hiking). You could definitely take your time a bit more and spent a full day or two around there, but I wouldn’t alot any more time to this park.

For lodging we forewent the national park camp right by the entrance and opted instead to camp at the KOA nearby. Meh. While the KOA at Devil’s Tower was pretty nice, I think I’ll make a moderate effort to avoid KOAs in the future. It was not super impressive, largely because much of it was shut down as part of their post-labor day reduction, notwithstanding the fact that they neglect to tell you that they close most of the bathrooms so you have to walk forever to get to them. Oh well. One pretty awesome perk of the location however: our evening spent camping in the Badlands was peppered with the sounds of coyotes howling at night. I kept thinking of the poor prairie dogs they were getting ready to eat.

This was our last night camping for a while as we prepared to head into cities and family time in the Northeast. We tallied it up and noticed we spent 14 of our first 27 nights camping. Woot woot to the budget!

Of note on the drive east from the Badlands, there was a little town off I-90 that was set up like a little 1880s village. Nothing but fields and plains as far as the eye can see, then this little pop up of old time village. Neato. Didn’t stop but I imagine it’d be a nice diversion.

Last but certainly not expected to be least, was the corn palace. I’ve been irrationally excited to see this thing for nearly 9 years, ever since my college friend and Milwaukee native, Emily, told me about it freshman year. A palace made entirely of corn? Yes please. But talk about a build up that disappoints. To be clear, Emily didn’t really hype it up that much, I think I built this up this experience in my head to be akin to the way one might feel when they first look at a newborn child. I don’t know why, but I did. It’s a palace made of corn, people! Is no one else’s imagination picturing something as cool as mine was? Well. To start, it’s a brick and steel building, decorated in corn only for a few mural-like spaces. Bummer. Also, it’s kind of a shrine to the corn industry inside. Major bummer. There were some pictures inside of the historical corn palaces, including the first one, made in 1892, which was much more impressive. Also, it’s free. So who can really complain? Also they have flavored cornballs. Didn’t try them, but man did they smell good.

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