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Western South Dakota Tour
Exploring the Capital to Mount Rushmore
Western South Dakota (“West River”, as many state residents say) offers a fascinating blend of natural beauty – from flat prairie grasslands to rugged, majestic mountains – and historic sites from Native American battlefields to Minuteman Missile silos. The Badlands and Black Hills beckon, along with some of the most amazing territory for bikers and drivers alike. From the state’s capital city of Pierre to the Black Hills containing Rapid City, Sturgis, Deadwood, Custer, and more, let’s go explore.
Start in Pierre, South Dakota’s capital city. With 13,000 residents, it’s the second-smallest state capital city in the nation after Montpelier in Vermont. The city sits amidst rough bluffs overlooking the Missouri River. The South Dakota State Capitol is a beautiful Greek Revival building that opened in 1910 and was given a full restoration in 1989 for the state’s centennial. Self-guided and free, guided tours of the building and grounds are available. Don’t miss the four memorials on the grounds, including the Fighting Stallions Memorial and the natural gas-fed Flaming Fountain, a tribute to South Dakota veterans.
The South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center is built into the side of a bluff on the Missouri River, just north of the capitol. The “Oyate Tawicoh'an” (Ways of the People) exhibit showcases the religious, social, and cultural practices of the Yankton and Teton Sioux, the Arikara and other Plains Native American tribes. Check out the Arikara bullboat just like the one William Clark described in his journal back in 1804, or the colorful beadwork and quillwork. For some interactive, occasionally scientific and educational play, check out the South Dakota Discovery Center. For fun in the middle of the river, take the causeway to the otherwise-foot-traffic-only La Framboise Island (Lewis & Clark called it “Good Humor Island” in their journals for some reason… maybe somebody told good jokes there?) With plenty of nature trails and some unique scenery, it’s a favorite for local runners and photographers.
Across the river is Fort Pierre, both the town and the old fort. Lewis & Clark met with the Teton Sioux where the Bad River meets the Missouri in 1804, and Fort Pierre Chouteau went up 28 years later to serve primarily as a trading post. Pierre Chouteau was the man behind establishing the fort, and the capital city is named after him. The Verendrye Monument overlooks Pierre, Fort Pierre, and the river from the Verendrye Site, an archeological site that was named a National Historic Landmark in 1991. The monument commemorates where Francois and Louis-Joseph Verendrye buried a lead tablet in 1742 to mark their exploration of the area in the name of France – 62 years before Lewis & Clark showed up.
Pierre is home to the Best Western Ramkota Hotel, a great base home base for starting south and west on this Tour!
From Pierre, take U.S. 83 south, which connects the capital city with the Interstate system. The 32 miles of open highway heads right through the Fort Pierre National Grassland, a 116,000-acre expanse of rolling hills and prairie where wildlife and waterfowl roam the land freely. A series of small dams help control water flow, creating small lakes for birds and fish and providing people with good opportunities for camping and fishing. It’s no surprise a portion of the movie Dances with Wolves was filmed here.
When you reach I-90, U.S. 83 turns west to follow the Interstate 22 miles to Murdo – you should, too. Murdo (Exit 192) is home to the South Dakota Auto Museum and the Pioneer Auto Show. Along with a great selection of cars from across brands and eras, the museum features an antique, wood-framed gas station from 1930 that originally stood in Yankton and an extensive rock collection in a section they call the National Rockhound Hall of Fame & Lapidary (we had to look up “lapidary” – that’s the definition for someone who cuts, polishes, or engraves precious stones.) To further explore history, check out South Dakota’s Original 1880 Town. It takes you back to the days of frontier living in a town’s old main street, complete with a saloon, cowboy show, train station, church, homes, stores, a bank, a post office…you get the idea. Most are original buildings to boot. It’s not all 1880-era stuff, though: a 1950s Santa Fe Train serving as a diner is also on the grounds. You can really immerse yourself by renting period costumes or taking a mule ride, too. Basically, there’s a lot to do here. To watch other people on animals – especially if they’re potentially getting thrown off of them – the Murdo Rodeo Arena features occasional rodeo shows. Call the Murdo Chamber at (605) 669-3333 for details on shows. Murdo features the Best Western Graham’s for a restful night’s stay.
Continuing west on I-90, you gain an hour by crossing into the Mountain Time Zone – and then you gain increasingly beautiful views and the famous Badlands of South Dakota begin. Badlands National Park covers nearly 380 square miles in southwestern South Dakota, protecting the largest undisturbed mixed grass prairie in the U.S. The park is filled with pinnacles, canyons, and eroded buttes with all sorts of shapes. Former home to ghost dances from the Ogala Lakota tribe and a U.S. Air Force bomb and gunnery range, the Badlands became a national park in 1978. Bison, prairie dogs and bighorn sheep roam the land and the black-footed ferret (the most endangered land mammal on the continent) was re-introduced in the Badlands Wilderness area, a 64,000-acre designated wilderness section of the park.
Off Exit 150 near Kadoka, the Badlands Petrified Gardens has an impressive variety of petrified wood, rocks, fluorescent minerals, even dinosaur tracks. Some of the wood in the gardens are in the form of petrified trees people can climb on, and the gift shop offers some unusual stones for sale.
Further west at Exit 131 we recommend leaving I-90 for a spell and following SD Highway 240. Less than three miles south of I-90, you’ll find the Prairie Homestead Historic Site & Visitor Center, which uses an original dirt-sod house built in 1909 to showcase farm and ranch life as the pioneers lived. Live farm animals are part of the interactive experience, including white prairie dogs and goats you can pet. There are very few original sod homes remaining, so this is definitely a must-see for frontier history buffs.
On a different tack, Exit 131 (Highway 240 and I-90) also features the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. The Minuteman Missile NHS preserves the last remaining Minuteman II ICBM system in the country, and the site explores the history and significance of these missiles, the arms race, and the Cold War in general. Established in 1999, the site offers free tours of their Delta-01 Launch Control Facility and the Delta-09 Missile Silo, which is located fifteen miles further west of Exit 116 along I-90.
For a two-lane road trip deeper into the Badlands, skip a chunk of I-90 and follow SD Highway 240, which takes you to the Badlands Visitor Center and then sends you through 27 miles of remarkable Badlands territory. Highway 240 re-joins I-90 at Exit 110.
The two roads reunite in Wall, a small city with several notable attractions. Being in the midst of grasslands and unique geography, Wall is where the National Grasslands Visitor Center provides information and offers exhibits on all National Grasslands. Over 20 exhibits in the Center showcase the prairie plants and animals, Native American history, recreational opportunities, and how the grasslands are managed. Just down Main Street is Wounded Knee: The Museum, which reflects on the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre that took place a little over 50 miles south of Wall.
Wall is synonymous with Wall Drug, which has become a “must stop” for travelers because… well, just because. Everyone’s doing it, so you should too. Wall Drug opened in 1931 with a policy of offering free drinking water to travelers. Thirsty and thrifty travelers responded, and happily spread the word via bumper sticker and other clever marketing bits. Today, Wall Drug is a complex of shops… a mini-village of sorts. It still has its drug store and pharmacy component, but everything from inexpensive coffee to books to souvenirs ranging from cool to kitschy can be found at Wall Drug. The bumper sticker is free if you want to slap one on your car and let the world know you’ve joined the “club.” The Best Western Plains Motel has you covered in Wall.
From Wall, follow I-90 about an hour west and you get to the largest city in western South Dakota and the second largest statewide: Rapid City. Named after Rapid Creek, water can run rapidly because the city sits right at the eastern slope of the Black Hills. The Black Hills contain many of the sights you’ll want to tour through. An excellent primer can be found at the Journey Museum & Gardens, which takes you through the geology of the mountains and the history of those who have lived in them; a museum section dedicated to the Sioux Indians and another to the European pioneers are also featured.
In town, plenty of attractions and museums await. The buffalo have roamed this area for centuries, and the Museum of the American Bison traces their history and current situation. Plenty of cold-blooded creatures can be enjoyed at Reptile Gardens, which boasts a widest collection of species and sub-species of venomous reptiles anywhere in the world. Further south on U.S. 16, Bear Country USA allows you to drive through a wildlife park filled with bears, wolves, elk, buffalo, and other wildlife you normally wouldn’t want near your vehicle. For imposing animals that don’t move, Dinosaur Park features seven life-size replicas of the animals that preceded us by millions of years – and when you see their size, you’ll probably believe that’s a good thing. For some unique architecture, check out Chapel in the Hills, a replica of the 850-year-old Borgund Stave Church in Norway. The soaring, intricate structure offers tours. The Berlin Wall Exhibit on 8th Street in Memorial Park features two sections of the original wall and features plenty of images, descriptions of events, and more about the wall and its effects on people and history from that time; it’s one of the largest exhibits on the Berlin Wall in the country. Rapid City is also home to Ellsworth Air Force Base, and the South Dakota Air & Space Museum is located on the grounds. You can check out antique aircraft including planes used in World War II as well as hot air balloons dating back to the 1930s.
Downtown Rapid City bustles with shops, restaurants, art galleries, and fountains. The Dahl Art Center focuses on arts and quilt displays from artists across the nation. Rapid City is known as the “City of Presidents,” with a series of life-size bronze statues on street corners downtown, each representing an American president.
Past Rapid City but before Mount Rushmore along U.S. 16 you’ll find tiny Rockerville, once a mining camp town founded in 1876 during South Dakota’s gold rush. The “rockers” inspiring the town’s name were the tools that separated gold from the gravel in streams whilst panning to get rich. The settlement has had its share of boom and bust times and interestingly lies in the middle of U.S. 16; today’s four-lane highway separates and goes on either side of the old main street. Just past Rockerville, the Cosmos of the Black Hills is a “mystery area” just off Cosmos Road, designed to bend the rules of physics where water runs uphill and other combinations of crazy curiosities can take place.
Right after, follow U.S. 16A south to Keystone, where the Best Western PLUS Four Presidents Inn is the perfect prelude to South Dakota’s primary icon, Mount Rushmore. Accessed of SD Highway 244 from 16A, Mount Rushmore’s colossal carvings of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln each rise 60 feet high on the side of the mountain and have withstood the elements since their dedication in the 1930s. Today, it’s the most iconic attraction in South Dakota. The carving was led by original sculptor Gutzon Borglum; his son Lincoln took over the project toward its end. Today at the Mount Rushmore Visitor Center, the Lincoln Borglum Museum provides an excellent vantage point view of the mountain and its famous carvings, features two 125-seat theatres showing a 13-minute film about the project and serves as the trailhead for several walking trails through the area.
Trivia: The presidents depicted on Mount Rushmore were originally intended to be carved from head to waist, but funding issues cut them short – literally.
Take your time at Mount Rushmore – there’s nothing else like it, after all. Once you’re ready to hit the road again, double back on Highway 244 and continue south on U.S. 16A (also signed as “Alternate” U.S. 16) to SD Highway 87 and keep heading south; it’s a beautiful drive or ride, depending on which vehicle you’ve chosen to bring along. The overlook at Mount Coolidge tops out just over 6,000 feet inside Custer State Park; you might also spot some of the 1,300 bison roaming the park. An 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road is a good side trip to fully explore the area.
This stretch of Highway 87 is known as the “Needles Highway” and you’ll see why when you run across the Needles of the Black Hills. It’s a spectacular set of granite rock “needles”, originally the setting for Mount Rushmore and now incredibly popular with rock climbers. You’re going through Wind Cave National Park here, home to the fifth largest cave in the world. Over 136 miles of passages, some in place for over 300 million years, help make this a fascinating place for hiking and exploration.
Trivia: In 1903, Wind Cave was the first cave in the world to be designated as a national park.
The Wind Cave Visitor Center is right along Highway 87 right before the junction with U.S. 385. Once you reach U.S. 385, head into Hot Springs. One of the warmest cities in the state, Hot Springs is named for natural springs with warm water sources long appreciated by the Native Americans. The city hosts the Miss South Dakota pageant each year, and strolling its downtown will reveal quite a few sandstone buildings, giving the town a distinct look. A great place to take the kids is the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, a National Natural Landmark, the world’s largest mammoth research facility and a major fossil interpretive site. Nearly 60 wooly mammoths have been unearthed here, as well as other Ice Age-era plants and animals. This working paleontological site features a museum and offers tours.
From Hot Springs, follow U.S. 18 west about ten miles and then head back north, up SD Highway 89 fifteen miles to Pringle, where we catch U.S. 385 again and head north to Custer. One of the oldest settlements in the Black Hills, Custer prospered early in the Gold Rush and laid out what some claim to be the widest Main Street in the U.S., designed years ago to accommodate a team of oxen and a wagon making U-turns. The town hosts Gold Discovery Days in July and the Buffalo Roundup & Arts Festival every November; the latter celebration combines buffalo (herded from the aforementioned Custer State Park), art, and cook-offs featuring Dutch ovens and chili… definitely designed to help keep you warm! A short side trip west on U.S. 16 will bring you to Jewel Cave National Monument, home to the world’s third longest cave at 160 miles; it’s open year ‘round for tours and exploration. The Best Western Buffalo Ridge Inn is right in town and ready for your crew.
The Tour continues north on U.S. 385, and just north of Custer you’ll find the Crazy Horse Memorial. Designed to honor Crazy Horse with the world’s largest mountain carving, it’s been under construction since 1948 in various phases. A 40,000 square foot Welcome Center features photos and historical information about sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski and Lakota Chieftain Henry Standing Bear, who commissioned the project. The Indian Museum of North America is also within the Welcome Center, featuring a large dream catcher, a large display of various tribal flags, craft items, and more. The Museum of the American Bison also relocated here from Rapid City in the fall of 2014.
A little further north along U.S. 385 you can spot Harney Peak, which at 7,242 feet is the highest point in South Dakota. Hill City kicks back below it, laying claim to the slogan “Heart of the Hills.” Hill City is where you can hop the Black Hills Central Railroad 1880 Train and enjoy a two-hour train ride between Hill City and Keystone during the May-October season. It’s also home to wineries and a new brewery. The Naked Winery has a tasting room in Hill City, along with over 100 rotating microbrews. Prairie Berry Winery has been in the winemaking business since 1876 and offers 15 varieties; they also have a sister brewery that opened recently within eyeshot, the Miner Brewing Company. Also nearby is the Stone Faces Winery, which also offers free tastings; these are all easily visited in a single afternoon and are located within a few miles of each other.
In a salute to the railroad history of the town, the Best Western Golden Spike Inn & Suites accommodates travelers in Hill City who seek to stay the night.
From Hill City, follow U.S. 385 north and enjoy a nearly 50-mile stretch of wilderness in the Black Hills; the next several towns await when you reach U.S. 85 and U.S. 14A.
At U.S. 85, you can shoot over to Lead and check out the Black Hills Mining Museum, which chronicles the colorful history of gold mining across the region and allows you to pan your gold yourself. Lead’s Homestake Mine was the largest and deepest gold mine in the Western Hemisphere until it closed in 2002, having delivered more than 40 million ounces of gold during a 125-year run.
Next door to Lead, just northeast via U.S. 85, is Deadwood. Established as a lawless mining town around 1876, Deadwood thrived in the gold rush and achieved notoriety for incidents such as the murder of Wild Bill Hickok; his final resting place as well as that of Calamity Jane is located in Mount Mariah Cemetery in town. The Best Western Hickok House takes its name after him.
Order was restored, although the town dealt with a fire that nearly wiped everything out in 1959, a huge economic downturn from I-90 bypassing it nearby in 1964, and the final brothels in this “Wild West” town being closed down in 1980. Deadwood was the first small town outside of Nevada and Atlantic City to experiment with legalized gambling as a means of pumping up the economy, which began in 1989. The town today is most famous for its Deadwood Historic District, a National Historic Landmark filled with early period buildings and a definite “Old West” vibe. As with nearby towns, you’ll find many saloons. The area’s history is well-chronicled at the Adams Museum and the Days of ’76 Museum, where “’76” refers to 1876. The Broken Boot Gold Mine offers tours and lets you pan for gold.
Just outside of Deadwood on Mount Roosevelt Road, the Mount Roosevelt Monument towers above the town. Commissioned by former Deadwood mayor Seth Bullock, it’s a salute to President Teddy Roosevelt, who spent a lot of time in the Dakotas. From the monument, you can see into Wyoming and Montana.
You’ll find two more wineries in Deadwood, too: the Belle Joli Winery has a tasting room in Deadwood, making wines from grapes grown just a few miles away in the Black Hills; meanwhile, the Schade Winery Tasting Room brings in grapes and fruits from their vineyards in eastern South Dakota near Brookings to offer wines ranging from plum to rhubarb to red table wine.
For the Tour, head east from Deadwood via Alternate U.S. 14, because a trip to Sturgis is obviously a must. Home to the famous – and occasionally infamous – Sturgis Motorcycle Rally every August, the town goes “hog wild” and hosts nearly one million visitors during what is one of the world’s largest motorcycle rallies (in a town of about 6,500, no less.) The Sturgis Motorcycle Museum & Hall of Fame features a wide selection of classic motorcycles dating as far back as 1907 and shares the fun and occasionally adventurous history of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally through exhibits, pictures, memorabilia, and more. Other history here includes the establishment of Fort Meade in 1878, replacing a camp named “Sturgis.” The Old Fort Meade Museum showcase the Calvary units and other elements of history outlining westward expansion; the grounds still include a functioning VA hospital and other personnel, so don’t be surprised at the activity in the area should you choose to visit.
Sturgis is “Rider City,” and the Best Western Sturgis Inn welcome riders and drivers alike for a relaxing and/or energetic stay in town.
To cap off the Tour, head west on I-90 one more time; where U.S. 85 intersects, only 11 miles from the Montana border, we reach Spearfish. This town of 10,000 was named after a favorite Native American way to catch a meal in the creek and is located at the base of the beautiful and popular Spearfish Canyon. A 19-mile scenic byway lets you explore the canyon, which Frank Lloyd Wright famously claimed was more miraculous than the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
Trivia: The world record for fastest recorded temperature change occurred in Spearfish on January 22, 1943. Driven by Chinook winds, the temperature rose from -4°F to 45°F two minutes later. About an hour and a half later, when the temperature had risen to 54°F, the winds died down and 27 minutes later it had fallen back down to -4°F. The dramatic change cracked glass windows and put the town in the record books.
Things to check out in Spearfish include the High Plains Western Heritage Center, the DC Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery, and the Spirit of the Hills Wildlife Sanctuary, which includes a series of exotic animals rescued from unfortunate situations. For a classy night on the town, the Matthews Opera House & Arts Center offers performances in arts and theater as well as an art gallery right in the heart of downtown Spearfish, in its original 1906-era building. The Best Western Black Hills Lodge will help you round out your evening in a comfortable and relaxing way.
You can throw some icing on the cake for this Tour by heading about a dozen miles north on U.S. 85 to Belle Fourche. There, you’ll find the Geographic Center of the United States Monument – which moved to South Dakota from Kansas once Alaska and Hawaii were admitted to the Union in 1959. Hey, you started in Pierre at the center of the state, why not finish an adventure-filled trip in the exact center of the country?
Western South Dakota offers boundless natural beauty, many scenic drives and rides, historic landmarks, and opportunities to experience the great outdoors. So let’s go!