It’s practically state law that groups must visit certain South Dakota attractions. After all, the state’s official nickname is “The Mount Rushmore State,” and the Crazy Horse Memorial has almost as much fame because visitors can watch that spectacular sculpture as it emerges from a mountain of granite. Fun fact: The predecessor to today’s nickname was “The Sunshine State,” and there was great debate about abandoning it in 1992. The winning argument was that although sunshine exists elsewhere, there’s only one Mount Rushmore.
Though South Dakota may have been relatively late to the game as a state — it was admitted in 1889 — and has a small population — fewer than 900,000 — it is packed with history.
Deadwood captures gold rush history in real shoot-‘em-up fashion; the Mammoth Site tells a great geologic and paleontological story; and the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site recalls the tension of the Cold War. Rapid City celebrates every U.S. president; and Chamberlain puts a special focus on Native American history and heritage.
Renaissance in Deadwood
Deadwood, born in 1876 in a burst of gold rush glory, burned to a crisp in 1879. It sprouted anew with brick buildings, becoming a prosperous small town, but eventually withered on the vine. Another renaissance began in 1989 when it became only the third spot in America after Las Vegas and Atlantic City, New Jersey, with legal gambling.
Today, it has 1,800 hotel/motel rooms, 10 large-scale gaming establishments, plenty of restaurants and the ghosts of Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and Seth Bullock as modern-day storytellers. The whole town is a National Historic Landmark, and gaming revenues have funded historic preservation work throughout South Dakota.
A major public gathering place called Outlaw Square is targeted for completion in time for September’s Deadwood Jam music festival. Lee Harstad of the Deadwood Chamber of Commerce reports that a collection of experiential tours is adding new options for groups. Among them are walks with an Old West law officer — you might meet Wild Bill Hickok along the way — gold panning and behind-the-scenes looks at museums and archives.
“The community of Hot Springs keeps one of the most valuable fossil treasures known to mankind today.”
That statement from Ice Age paleontologist Dr. Ralf-Dietrich Kahlke is all the reason a group needs to visit the Mammoth Site, a climate-controlled indoor scientific dig that peers 140,000 years into the past. It is 60 miles south of Mount Rushmore.
The dig is into a sinkhole scientists estimate entombs more than 100 towering mammoths that once roamed freely on the high plains of North America. Year-round guided tours last about 40 minutes, and behind-the-scenes lab tours include conversations with working paleontologists. For several weeks each summer, groups can watch from overhead while teams of excavators carefully search for the bones of mammoths, giant short-faced bears and other species that slid into the sinkhole and couldn’t escape.
The ability to see this is the result of pure chance. A heavy-equipment operator leveling a small hill in 1974 struck something unusual. It turned out to be a seven-foot-long mammoth tusk. The rest is history.
Mount Rushmore is awe-inspiring. Deadwood is theatrical.Rapid City is entertaining. Chamberlain is contemplative. But the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site is downright scary. It examines the Cold War’s Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) strategy in which the U.S. and the Soviet Union armed themselves to the hilt and prayed their missiles never would deliver their thermonuclear warheads.
A treaty shut down the Minuteman II missiles — 1,000 were deployed underground across multiple states — and the National Park Service tells its story at three spots along Interstate 90. Visitation has mushroomed since the 2014 opening of a visitor center at Exit 131, just 21 miles from great doughnuts and free ice water at Wall Drug Store; an award-winning interpretative film premiered at the visitor center last year. Nearby is the Delta-01 launch control facility, which offers reserved ranger-led tours only, and a few more miles away is the Delta-09 missile silo site, where you can see a Minuteman II in its silo. Rest assured, it’s been deactivated.
NPS rangers are at the silo from 9 to 9:30 a.m. and 2:30 to 3 p.m. from June through September for talks. Tarmac parking and restrooms are available.
To sound like a true South Dakotan, refer to this Black Hills hub with one word: Rapid. By South Dakota standards, Rapid is a big city, population 76,500, but it’s a great size for groups.
Its most novel attraction is the City of Presidents, life-size bronze statues of all U.S. presidents along city sidewalks. Take a selfie with Calvin Coolidge, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt and other members of this exclusive club. Barack Obama’s statue arrives in June.
Main Street Square buzzes with activity such as ice skating in winter and live music on Thursdays during the Summer Nights series, and the block-long Art Alley mural installation constantly changes as artists get permission to paint over previous works. Much smaller than Mount Rushmore but considerably more approachable is “Passage of Wind and Water,” a $2 million collection of 21 granite pieces transformed by artist Masajuki Nagase. Don’t miss the Journey Museum or Prairie Edge, where the Native American art, craft and jewelry selection is beyond impressive.
South Dakotans have a thing for big statuary. “Dignity of Sky and Earth,” a 50-foot-tall stainless-steel statue of a Native American woman, is destined to join Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial as must-see South Dakota attractions. Sculptor Dale Claude Lamphere designed it to represent “the courage, perseverance and wisdom of the Lakota and Dakota cultures.”
“Dignity” rises above the heartland in Oacoma at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center on Interstate 90 in central South Dakota and offers a foretaste of more Native American cultural exploration across the Missouri River at the Akta Lakota Museum in Chamberlain. “Akta Lakota” means “to honor the people,” and the 14,000-square-foot octagonal museum tells the deep story of the Lakota people and their way of life. Admission is free; donations support the museum’s educational mission.
A longtime roadside favorite, Al’s Oasis remains a multifaceted travel stop, offering food, lodging, shopping and five-cent coffee, and Chamberlain is the start of the Native American National and State Scenic Byway for some off-interstate exploration of the land of the Lakota people.