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Trip Report Our explorations in South Dakota

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My dad grew up in a small town in eastern South Dakota. For many years, we have been discussing that it would be nice for my family (my two now older teenaged boys, husband and I) to travel with my parents to see where my dad grew up, and to explore the western part of the state. We finally got around to making the trip this year – I’m so glad we did.

We flew in and out of Rapid City, SD.

Black Hills/Western South Dakota

We spent 4 days exploring this very scenic area.

Mt. Rushmore – we visited here twice. On our first day in town, we drove here first, and walked the Presidential Trail. This trail gives you close up views of each President and is lightly scented with the sweet smell of pine. We saw the scupltor’s (Borghum)’s studio and got our National Park’s passports stamped.

On our last night in the area, Mt. Rushmore was also our last stop – we came to see the evening lighting ceremony. We had read it wasn’t anything very dramatic, but we found it meaningful in a way we weren’t expecting. First a ranger gave a short talk, then they showed a brief documentary. It gave some background about the creation of the Memorial, and on each of the four Presidents depicted. After the movie, all veterans or servicemen in the Military were invited down to the Amphitheatre stage. My dad was in the Army, so he got to do down. Each individual was asked to introduce themselves and indicate which branch of the service they were in. What a totally unexpected and wonderful surprise for my dad to be able to participate in this! It was very moving and my dad said several of the older men on the stage had tears in their eyes.

Scenic Drives – we did several:

Iron Mountain Road – this was the first drive we did. This road had pigtail bridges, tunnels and curves. Going through our first tunnel, we noticed that the tunnel perfectly framed a view of Mt. Rushmore! (We did this drive again, from the opposite direction, and from a different tunnel, in the other direction, you could also see a great view of Mt. Rushmore through the tunnel.) We got great pictures from the Norbeck Scenic Overlook – the mountains and forests in this area are very pretty.

Needles Highway – this road takes you through tall, pinnacle like rock formation called needles. One had a hole in the middle and looked very much like a sewing needle. This drive had a VERY narrow tunnel (I made my husband drive through that one). We got out of the car here and the boys loved scrambling up and around the needle rock formations.

Spearfish Canyon – this was a very pretty drive north of Rapid City. In the canyon, we got out twice and walked to Spearfish Falls, a pretty, high waterfall, and nearby, to Roughlock Falls - a series of 3 waterfalls, also very pretty.

Custer State Park – here we did the Wildloop Loop. Along this drive, we saw a huge herd of buffalo. We also ate a very good lunch in the Blue Bell Lodge. Further from the Lodge, we arrived at Sylvan Lake and walked the pretty one-mile trail around the lake.

Rapid City – We really enjoyed this town – and found it a great central location to explore the area. There is a main street/”center of town” area with shops and a pretty square with a large fountain. At each corner, there are statues of Presidents. We ate in some very good restaurants here – one was a converted firehouse.

Driving around West Avenue, where I had read there are some nice homes, we detoured up a large hill to:

Dinosaur Land – a collection of very large dinosaurs that is a tourist trap, but a good picture taking one. Somehow, my younger son climbed on top of one (they were very tall, so I’m not sure how he got up there – and I’m not sure I want to know). In Rapid City, we also visited the log cabin that was the first building of the town, and they had an interesting drawing of the map of the first settlement.

Keystone – we walked around the touristy stores (nothing special) and then discovered there is a historic piece a few blocks tucked away behind the main tourist drag. I love stuff like this – you can walk around and many of the old buildings are labeled with their former uses and pictures are on placards of what they looked like “back in the day”. The one room school house was very primitive –just benches (no desks/chairs for the students) and one teacher’s desk. There was an old antique/thrift store here that was fun to browse – old signs, license plates, bottles, rocks, all kinds of stuff. I didn’t buy anything, but probably would have if we stayed longer.

Alpine slide – in Keystone is an alpine slide. We talked my parents into riding it once, and then let my kids ride it several more times. On top of the chairlift was also a nicely landscaped area, with snack bar, and some nice views.

Thunderhead Falls – this was a pretty expensive tourist trap when you considered what it was. For $7.95 each, we walked into an old mine tunnel, and about 600 feet into the tunnel was an underground waterfall. The mine was interesting to see and the waterfall a nice sight, but when you consider we paid $48 for all 6 of us to see it, I don’t think I’d recommend it. The mine was located at the end of a 2 mile road off the main highway that was very scenic. You park and cross a bridge over a river to get to the entrance. This was aa pretty area that we wouldn’t have seen if we didn’t go to visit the mine, so in that regard, it was a nice stop.


Norwegian Stave Church. Outside Rapid City is a wooden church that is an exact replica of a stave church in Norway. The woodwork and church itself was impressive and, I think, worth a stop.

Custer, SD – this is a small town with a small but interesting historical museum (1880 Museum). There are fashions and bridal gowns from the turn of the century, the local (one room) jail, the courthouse jury room, early household equipment (a primitive clothes washer/dryer); one of the first log cabins in the area is preserved across the street.

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    Thanks, Jetset. I do think you'd like it.

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    Deadwood – we spent a few hours here.

    Adams Museum – this was an interesting small museum. There were all kinds of exhibits on early life in the town, fashions of the day, people from the town (Wild Bill Hickock, etc), a two-headed calf, mining implements, etc.

    Main street – the main street looks charming from the outside, but really is now just a bunch of casinos. We did stop in Saloon #10 with its bar and obligatory tourist sawdust on the floor. They kept the chair Wild Bill Hickock was sitting in when he was shot in this bar and it is on display.

    Mt. Moriah cemetery. We drove up here and walked around a bit, visiting the graves of Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane (who wanted to be buried next to Wild Bill). There is a great view of the town of Deadwood from up here. We walked up a steep hill, and at the very top, Sheriff Bullock is buried. He was said to have the highest, best site so he could keep watch over his town.

    Lead – we stopped here for lunch and ate at the Black Hills Roundhouse. It used to be a train roundhouse and was converted into a very nice restaurant, looking like a fancy restaurant might at the turn of the century – large wooden tables, very large and elaborate chandeliers, and even a train car you could eat in with Tiffany lamps.

    After exploring western SD, we drove from one end of the state to the other on the same day, in between, stopping to see:

    Wall Drug – yes, a tourist trap, but a few somewhat interesting shops and a very good bookstore. We got our free water and bought one of the donuts they tout (nothing to write home about).

    Badlands National Park – we drove the 20-plus mile scenic drive, stopping at several viewpoints and hiked one of the short trails. I wanted to do the Notch Trail, but was afraid my parents wouldn’t be thrilled with, but might attempt, the long ladder climb anyway, and I didn’t want us to split up and make them wait for us.

    Mitchell Corn Palace. Did you know this is the only corn palace in the world?! What I found much more interesting is that Mike Miller of the Heat played here (there’s a gym inside); Miller is from Mitchell. My relatives called this: The World’s Largest Bird Feeder, lol.

    My dad grew up in Madison,SD, still a small town about an hour off of the interstate. I met some of my cousins for the first time – they were all really nice, friendly people. They had a nice homes, one that backed up to a field and we could hear cows Moo-ing and see lots of stars at night. We had a small family reunion at a local lake. The lake was pretty and there was a frisbee golf course my boys enjoyed.

    Prairie Village, Madison, SD. This is a collection of preserved buildings from the area brought to this location. I eat stuff like this up, and I enjoyed walking around to visit the one room schoolhouse, jail (from Winifred, SD), the first library (from Howard, SD), an early hotel, several homes, opera (!) house, hospital, general store, etc. They were gearing up for a large festival they have every year with a tractor pull – they had many new and old tractors on display (they had a LOT of tractors!) My husband reluctantly came with me to Prairie Village, but he admitted he thought it was cool to be able to go in and out of each of the buildings – each one had furnishings and implements from the past.

    Sioux Falls, SD – my dad wanted to visit a childhood friend who now lives here, so while my parents were visiting, we explored the town a bit.

    Sioux Falls is an attractive small city. We ate lunch at the Wild Sage Grill, on the banks of the river in town. We explored Falls Park and my boys enjoyed climbing around the rocks, and even crossed the river by jumping several large gaps. I hate watching them do stuff like that, so I just sat in front of the largest waterfall and soaked up the sun.

    My son noticed that we were only 20 miles from Iowa, and he wanted to drive there so we could say we have been to Iowa. We were going to eat lunch in Iowa, and located the first town Google Maps showed us over the state line. The town consisted of a bank and 2 gas stations, so we didn’t eat there. We got out in a cornfield to take a picture so we were officially “on” Iowa soil. Google maps showed us the state boundary where Minnesota, South Dakota and Iowa meet, so we went looking for that. It was along a road surrounded by, guess what – cornfields. Driving by, we saw a small marker, got out of the car, and saw it was a Tri-State marker, showing where the 3 states meet. My son pushed my other son and said, “Now you’re in Minnesota”. Then he pushed him again, and said, “Now you’re in Iowa”. Good family fun, lol. While we were Iowa, a dog from Minnesota game over to join us.

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