We continue The Greatest Road Trip with a journey to and through South Dakota. Feted in song and dance in the movie “The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band” South Dakota is a state of great complexity. The flat plains of the eastern grasslands versus the rolling Black Hills. The population of the east (known as “East River” for its geography with the Missouri River) versus the Native and tourist west. We will talk more about the east/west divide on our trip through the state.
Remember the conflict South Dakota had with North Dakota that caused the kerfuffle about which state was admitted to the Union before the other? Don’t worry about it. They get along just fine…for now…the last time we checked.
South Dakota is bordered almost equally on the west by Wyoming and Montana. Wyoming has just a touch more of the western border. North Dakota provides (as one would expect) the northern border. Nebraska is to the south, and Minnesota provides the vast majority of the eastern border. Iowa checks the border box with a tiny piece of the southeastern terminus.
The wide-open spaces of the great American west are given full authority in South Dakota. It’s the 17th largest state of the Union with the fifth smallest population, making it the quintessential rural state.
The highest point is atop 7,244 foot Black Elk Peak, just west of Mt. Rushmore. The lowest point is 968 feet above sea level on the shores of Big Stone Lake at South Dakota’s shared border with Minnesota. The geographic center of South Dakota is eight miles northeast of Pierre, near SD-14 toward Blunt.
South Dakota is a dual-time zone state. West to east the time zone goes from Mountain to Central just west of Pierre. The entire state recognizes Daylight Savings Time.
Major Airports in South Dakota:
Aberdeen Regional enplanes about 20,000 passengers each year. Minneapolis/St. Paul is the top destination.
Rapid City Regional serves almost 300,000 customers every year. Denver shares top destination honors with Minneapolis/St. Paul.
Sioux Falls Regional (aka Joe Foss Field) says hello and goodbye to 350,000 flyers a year. Minneapolis/St.Paul is the favorite destination.
Top Movies Filmed in South Dakota:
North by Northwest (1959)
Dances With Wolves (1990)
National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007)
Famous South Dakotans:
Military/Politics: Hubert Humphrey, Tim Johnson, George McGovern, Sitting Bull, Clinton Presba Anderson, and Red Cloud.
Actors: Cheryl Ladd, Amy Hill, Madison Lawler, Dorothy Provine, January Jones, Rachael Bella, Eddie Spears, and Mamie Van Doren.
Entertainers: Myron Floren, Timmy Williams, Cole Andre, Tomi Lahren, Oscar Howe, Pat O’Brien, Shawn Colvin, and Jess Thomas.
Authors: Tom Brokaw, Rose Wilder Lane, and Joseph Hansen.
Athletes: Sparky Anderson, Billy Mills, Terry Francona, Adam Vinatieri, Brock Lesnar, Dallas Clark, Mike Miller, Chad Greenway, Ward Lambert, Becky Hammon, and Norm Van Brocklin.
Weird and Wonderful Facts About South Dakota:
Mount Rushmore, in the Black Hills, took 14 years to construct. The designer, Gutzon Borglum, took a break of several years in the middle to raise funds for the project to be completed.
Wild Bill Hickok was shot to death by Jack McCall near Yankton.
Belle Fourche is the geographic center of the United States of America.
Clark is home to the world famous Mashed Potato Wrestling contest.
Jewel Cave, on SD-16 near Custer, is the third-longest cave in the world.
Sturgis is the home of the annual Black Hills Classic Motorcycle Rally. Hotels in the Rapid City/Sturgis area begin planning for the rally the day after the previous rally leaves town.
The Pioneer Auto Museum in Murdo details more than 250 rare automobiles including the infamous Edsel and ahead-of-its-time Tucker.
The first and oldest daily newspaper in either Dakota is the Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan. It has been continuously published since 1861.
Let’s take a Trip Through South Dakota:
Come on you, we have another state to see. We’re going to see faces, some friendly and open, and some gargantuan and granite. I’ll explain later, but, let’s go! I know the sun is almost down. I’ll explain that later, as well.
We’re traveling the South Dakota east to west and will cover 380 miles in the process. We will briefly discuss the differences between the two Dakotas, but we will touch at greater length on what separates the cultures of the east and the west in South Dakota.
In a landlocked state known for wide open spaces and rugged plains, we start our trip off with a waterfall. That’s how we roll.
In the city of Sioux Falls, we find Falls Park. On our trip through the states, we loved to witness the power and majesty of Niagara Falls. We have seen the beauty and serenity of Koosah Falls in Central Oregon’s Cascade range. There is something picturesque and peaceful in Falls Park. It’s laid out as if the designers had photography in mind. The park at sunset, with the sound of the water as background music for the soothing of your soul, is magic in its own way.
That’s why we started this trip in the late afternoon. Sunset at Falls Park and a night at the Best Western Plus Ramkota Hotel for $93 a night sounds like just the start this trip needs.
The next morning we are on the road. Less than an hour from Sioux Falls we arrive at the famous Corn Palace in Mitchell.
First, what the Corn Palace is not. It isn’t a building made out of corn. It is a large Civic Center decorated with variations and iterations of corn. Husks, kernels, tassels, etc. A look inside reveals an auditorium that can be turned into a basketball arena. There is a large and incredibly well-appointed play area and learning center for children. Snacks and concessions abound in the area and the building itself is free to tour.
Next up, some truly bad stuff. I know, I promised there would be neither bad stuff nor (much) math on this trip, but some bad things must be seen to be believed.
Badlands National Park is bad. The park itself is a unique National Park experience. The terrain is harsh and unforgiving. It looks like the moon if the moon had a bad hair day.
BNP is 244,000 rugged acres of craggy geological formations, prairie grass & wildlife. Elk, bison (not buffalo), and bighorn sheep dot the landscape.
While here, we are going to hike the Door Trail. It starts with a short hike on a level boardwalk. We reach the sign that says “The Baddest of the Badlands”, and can either stay on the boardwalk or veer off. We choose the latter and walk on some steep rocks, carefully climbing on some treacherous surfaces. There are distance markers, but they are for orientation purposes. We will hike to Number Five and then have a look around.
Amazing, isn’t it? The landscape looks like nothing we have ever seen. It turns out the Badlands are bad…and that’s good.
We are spending the night at The Foothills Inn, in Rapid City. At $66 it is one of the best values we have experienced for quality lodging. Not just one of the best values in one of the Dakotas. One of the best values in the USA.
Before we head south to Rushmore we want to take a minute to appreciate western South Dakota in general, and the Black Hills, in particular. This area is the pride of West River folks.
Most of the population of the state is in the east and a certain business and commerce mindset is present there. Out west, oneness with the land and a spirituality born from that oneness is the order of the day. The difference is detectable for those who care to examine the two sides of the state. There are greater differences in culture, lifestyle, and political thought between western and eastern South Dakotans than between North and South Dakotans.
Is there a palpable difference between the folks of North and South Dakota? Some say South Dakota shows a greater openness to outsiders than does North Dakota. We didn’t experience that because everyone has been nice to us. We loved North Dakota, and we love South Dakota just as much.
Tourism is a big deal to the economy of the West River. Before we look inside Mt. Rushmore National Monument, let’s crunch some numbers. Each and every year, 2.2 million visitors come to pay their respects to the Presidents. Admission to the Monument is free and that came as a surprise, but it costs $11 to park. Assuming 2.5 people per car, that’s $9.8 million a year. Assume the average person spends $20 on shirts, hats, keychains, stuffed critters and the like. That’s $44 million more. Further, assume lunch at the extremely well-appointed and tasty buffet restaurant. (Bison burger. Mmmmm…). That’s another $22 million.
That sets the annual revenue of Mount Rushmore National Monument at almost $76 million a year. Sure, they have to pay people to sweep the park, sell concessions, and police the area. Still, though…
We don’t know where all the money goes, but The Greatest Road Trip Ever Taken hopes the public school system in western South Dakota is extremely well-funded. With that kind of tax revenue, the schools should have art, music, and theater programs.
Now to the Monument itself. We enter through the grand archway and walk toward a display of the flags of all the countries in the world. We are offered an audio tour, but decide to strike out on our own.
(Remember that when we get to Northern California. We will be making a different choice then.)
Ahead of us is the sight we came to see. From left to right, George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. Their faces are right there, but there is more to it than we can see on television! We can see a part of George Washington’s shirt, and Teddy’s eyeglasses. We can see part of Abe’s left hand. The sight is astounding, and we have seen pictures countless times!
We look around to see people and hear languages unfamiliar to our ear. We imagine, as awestruck as we are, what it must be like for them.
If you care about American history or the American political system, Mount Rushmore should be on your bucket list. If you were born here and don’t care about those things, well shame on you! Everyone should want to come here at least once.
The Hall of Presidents (otherwise known as the cafe) has information on the life and times of every President from Washington to Trump. It also has the flags of all the states of the Union. Can you find California’s? Cough…bear…cough. Can you find Washington State’s? Cough…green…cough.
On some summer evenings, fireworks light the wide western sky above the honored Presidents, but every evening the Presidents are bathed in a light and music show. As we stand with thousands of other people enjoying the show and swaying slightly to the music, we are reminded why we started the Greatest Road Trip in the first place. We live in a fascinating country, rich with texture. Our strengths are the virtues of living in community. Our trials are the evils of greed and inhumanity. Can we do better? Of course, we can. We must and together we can. Therein lies the lessons of yesterday and the hopes of tomorrow. We learn from the wisdom imparted, and the mistakes made, by the Presidents whose faces we came to see.
Mount Rushmore has been good for us. We have visited 38 states and the District of Columbia, and have 13 more states and 15 more parts of the tour to go. California is too vast to be done once, or even twice, so the Golden State is going to get three parts. With a renewed vigor and the giant visages of the Presidents at our back, we head out.
Next up: Nebraska.