For those that have never traveled across the United States from coast to coast, it’s easy to imagine South Dakota being just like its northern sibling in the theater of their imagination: flat, featureless, and a waste of time for those seeking the USA’s top line attractions and regions.
However, those that have journeyed along I-90 westward or eastward know that this stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth, as the diversity of landscapes (including mountains … YES, mountains!), wild west history and folksy and slightly tacky roadside attractions make South Dakota one of America’s biggest travel surprises.
In fact, one of America’s most beloved monuments is located in this state, as are the leftovers from one of the most paranoid periods in modern history.
So if you are bemoaning the days worth of driving separating the Rocky Mountains from the Eastern Seaboard, stop. There is plenty to do along the way, with South Dakota being worth the cross-country road trip all by itself.
What To Do – Culture & History
If you are rolling into South Dakota from the west, the most prominent cultural sight in the entire Great Plains will be within easy reach, as Mount Rushmore National Memorial is located within the Black Hills in the far western part of the state.
This historical site protects the mountainside carving of the likenesses of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, created over fourteen years from 1927 to 1941.
Representing some of the greatest leaders that the USA has ever known, this place occupies a special place in the heart of many Americans, making it a mandatory stop for foreigners looking to see places at the core of this country’s psyche.
Nearby, an even more ambitious mountainside sculpture is under construction (as it as been for over 60 years), and its name is the Crazy Horse Memorial. Commemorating one of the Sioux nation’s most prominent diplomats when it came to dealing with the westward traveling Americans that were moving into his territory.
While only the face, and outline of his body and horse have been completed, what has been finished is well worth seeing, as is the visitor’s center, which is filled with personal effects and artifacts from Crazy Horse’s life.
Heading east from the Black Hills into the Great Plains, you will likely be seeing tonnes of kitschy billboards for this place called Wall Drug. Located in sleepy Wall, South Dakota, an entrepreneurial couple saw all the traffic buzzing by on Interstate 90 and decided to transform their modest pharmaceutical business into a sprawling tourist attraction.
Bringing in carloads of tourists by promising them free ice water and bumper stickers, you will find a massive gift shop, restaurant, cheesy museums, as well as the original drug store, of course!
Further east, perhaps the tackiest (or most local) cultural attraction in the state can be found in the tiny settlement of Mitchell. Their world famous Corn Palace features a mural composed of dried corn kernels and other grains that changes every year.
Inside, the structure plays host to community events throughout the year, from rodeos to polka festivals, making it the corniest place to hang with the locals in the entire USA!
What To Do – Modern & Natural Attractions
While North Dakota has this type of terrain within Theodore Roosevelt National Park, South Dakota’s Badlands National Park contains much more extensive gorges, mesas, and buttes, making this state and park a better choice if you are strapped for time.
Home to countless spires, tall hills, and deep canyons, as well as a herd of plains bison, it is one of the most ideal places in the Great Plains to go camping, as all of the previous points will keep you busy during the day, while an uninhibited dark night sky will inspire your soul at night.
Further west, the Black Hills rise abruptly from the Plains to a maximum height of 7, 244 feet, making it the biggest surprise of one’s journey through this supposedly flat state. Not associated with the Rockies in any way (it was formed via volcanic activity independent of the tectonic uplifting that formed the famous range), this high ground draws enough moisture out of the dry interior air to allow pine and spruce trees to grow on its slopes (thus giving it its name, as the hills appeared black from a distance to natives and explorers).
Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, and the gambling and Wild West town of Deadwood can all be found here, granting a perfect mix of history and nature throughout much of western portion of South Dakota.
Nearby, a piece of America’s close brush with the thermonuclear apocalypse can be contemplated upon at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. Protecting the remains of Cold War era nuclear missile silo, this place goes over the history of the nuclear deterrent as it related to the Cold War.
While going down into the underground portion of the silo is not possible for safety reasons, you can peer down into the abyss and see the (decommissioned) warhead waiting for a launch code of which it will now never respond.
Those that love to paddle, fish, or just gawk at amazing scenery in the midst of a flat plain will want to explore the Missouri National Recreational River. Protecting much of the Missouri River throughout South Dakota, bluffs, abundant wildlife, and numerous locations for primitive camping make this river park an excellent place to get in touch with a natural environment that most outsiders to this region have no clue about.