South Dakota is a tour operator’s gold mine — quite literally, considering the gold rush history of the Black Hills. But it is also bison thundering across the plains, mountain carvings of astounding proportions, sculpture walks, nuclear missiles and a place famous worldwide for serving free ice water. Here are reminders of favorite South Dakota destinations and ideas about emerging itinerary stops.
Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial
Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt and Oglala Lakota leader Crazy Horse are the mountain images from the Black Hills that virtually everyone knows. Even repeat visitors glean new insights from these historical figures, and they almost certainly capture new photos. Visiting these two places — one created in 14 years by 400 carvers and the other an ongoing effort to lift up Native American culture for everyone to see — creates lasting memories. They are only 15 miles apart.
In 1876, gold sequestered in the streams and folds of the Black Hills lured treaty-violating prospectors into the region. The resulting boomtown was wild — Wild Bill Hickok paid the price for choosing the wrong chair — but things calmed down, and a Victorian-era community emerged. It, too, faded, but legalized gambling in the 1980s brought new life. Today, Deadwood is filled with casinos, restaurants, shops and make-believe cowboy shootouts in the streets. The entire town is a National Historic Landmark District.
Strolling Through Sioux Falls
Sioux Falls has a tour trifecta with Falls Park, SculptureWalk and the Arc of Dreams, all within walking distance of each other. The 123-acre Falls Park sets the scene showcasing a meandering cascade of the Big Sioux River. It includes an observation tower, a cafe and the Queen Bee Mill historic site. Just blocks away, a new collection of 60 outdoor sculptures emerges every spring for SculptureWalk and a brand-new art lesson. A permanent installation in between is the massive stainless-steel sculpture across the Big Sioux River called A Tribute to Dreamers: The Arc of Dreams.
Small Town, Big Attraction
Hot Springs in the southern Black Hills is small — population 3,500 — but it has a mammoth attraction. It is simply called the Mammoth Site and is one of the easiest places anywhere to view an active paleontological excavation. It offers a climate-controlled indoor dig where scientists estimate that more than 100 towering mammoths slid into a sinkhole 140,000 years ago. It’s difficult to imagine these huge animals roaming on the high plains, but resident paleontologists tell the story well.
Up And Coming
Built With Dignity
Yet another towering piece of South Dakota outdoor sculpture went up in 2016 when Dignity of Sky and Earth was dedicated along I-90 in Oacoma at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. South Dakota sculptor Dale Claude Lamphere designed the 50-foot-tall stainless-steel statue of a Native American woman to represent “the courage, perseverance and wisdom of the Lakota and Dakota cultures.” Continue your exploration of Native American culture at the Akta Lakota Museum in nearby Chamberlain, which is the start of the Native American National and State Scenic Byway.
Little Town on the Prairie
Tiny De Smet has attractions with outsize fame that are gaining popularity among tour planners. They are rooted in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s literary and TV classic “Little House on the Prairie.” The Ingalls Homestead is the core destination, complemented by stops such as the Loftus Store and the Depot Museum. Add to your prairie knowledge at the South Dakota Agricultural Heritage Museum in Brookings, only 45 minutes east.
Linger in Rapid City
Rapid City, or simply Rapid, as locals call it, is a jumping-off point for Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse and other Black Hills attraction, but it is gaining steam as a destination itself. Main Street Square hosts many activities, including live music in the summer, and Art Alley is a constantly changing attraction. Art Alley showcases outdoor murals that are periodically painted over with new scenes — with permission, of course. A notable sculpture installation is Passage of Wind and Water — 21 granite pieces by artist Masayuki Nagase — and everyone enjoys the street-level bronzes of America’s presidents dotted around town.
Look, Up in the Sky
During the Cold War, no one wanted to look up and see missiles streaking out from secret silos in America’s heartland. But today, many people are curious about that scary period. Satisfy that curiosity at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, with three locations along Interstate 90 east of the Black Hills. One stop is the Delta-09 missile silo site, where you can see a Minuteman II missile. It’s deactivated, of course, but it is a stark reminder of its 1,000 companion missiles hidden underground in several states.
State Game Lodge and Creekside Lodge
Why settle for just a room somewhere when you can score accommodations inside Custer State Park at the historic State Game Lodge, built in 1920, or the newer Creekside Lodge, built in 2008? The 71,000-acre park was South Dakota’s first state park, and it offers more outdoor variety than any one tour can consume. President Calvin Coolidge loved the place. Its most famous residents are 1,400 bison, one of the world’s largest publicly owned bison herds, and jeep safaris to see the massive animals are a special attraction.
Coolidge also stayed at the Alex Johnson Hotel in Rapid City, as have five other presidents, Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. The celebrities were there to film Hitchcock’s classic “North by Northwest.” The 1920s hotel is a home base for exploring the attractions of downtown Rapid City and then venturing to Mount Rushmore and beyond.
Three-In-One In Deadwood
Deadwood trivia: This historic gold rush and gambling town has equal numbers of residents and hotel rooms, about 1,500 of each. Cadillac Jack’s claims 293 of those rooms because this lodging-casino-dining-events property has hotels flying three flags. They are Tru by Hilton, with 108 rooms; DoubleTree, with 107 rooms; and SpringHill Suites, with 78 rooms.
Wall Drug, the once-little drugstore made famous for free ice water before air-conditioned travel, grew into an immense, multifaceted travel attraction. Its Western Art Gallery Restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and is known for homemade doughnuts, hot roast beef sandwiches, pies, ice cream, buffalo burgers and 5-cent coffee. Meals come complete with 300 original oil paintings and art illustrations. Bonus treat: photos of your clients riding a giant jackalope just outside.
Fort Hays Chuckwagon Supper and Show
Evenings are filling and musical at the Fort Hays Chuckwagon Supper and Show in Rapid City. A hardy cowboy dinner of sliced beef, baked chicken, potatoes, baked beans and chunky applesauce sets the stage for what’s described as a Branson-style musical variety show. Count on “Cool Water,” “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” some comic relief and perhaps Elvis, too. A bonus is seeing film set elements from “Dances With Wolves,” winner of seven Academy Awards.