Dirt roads. Wineries. Corn Palace. Sunflowers. Dignity. Cowboys and Indians. Rodeos. Monuments. Bikers. Old friends. Breweries and bison.
South Dakota has gems hidden in plain sight—just get off the highway to find them.
When I first drove through South Dakota on I-90 years ago with my mother (to Yellowstone where she would work for the summer), I was not impressed. It was in the late spring, just as the State was beginning to wake from the winter months. Not venturing off the highway, the landscape seemed barren and desolate. Cities and towns were few and far between. Houses, farms, and ranches were nowhere to be seen.
Traveling through South Dakota in the middle of summer this year with planned stops put the State in an entirely different, more flattering light.
Our first stop was Wilde Prairie Winery, about ten miles into SD from Minnesota. It was on what could possibly be considered a residential street, but it was a well-traveled dirt/gravel road. It seems that across the Dakotas and into Wyoming and Montana, most residential areas have roads that are dirt/gravel.
Wilde Prairie Winery was our first Harvest Hosts stop. We parked near a treeline in a field overlooking a vineyard and acres of corn. A small herd of cattle was also within sight, tucked behind a big, white barn that has been converted into the winery. There were four other RVs at this Harvest Host—a group travelling from Minnesota touring wineries. We enjoyed meeting and talking with them, gathering ideas of places to visit in Arizona, as they are all snowbirds and have congregated in AZ for the pasty several years during winter. Maybe we will meet up with them again when we are in the southwest.
If you are driving through SD on I-90, the World’s Only “Corn Palace” in Mitchell is a tourist must-see. It is pretty much the only thing of note in this small town, but it attracts a lot of attention. The Corn Palace is basically an indoor auditorium with a stage and gym floor combined, so it could be and is used for indoor sporting events, theater productions, concerts, and so on. The unique feature of the Corn Palace is that the outside is redone and transformed using real corn every year. The lobby is full of photos showing the Corn Palace through the years. It is a fun stop for a quick photo op.
Corn isn’t the only staple grown in South Dakota. We saw miles of acres of sunflowers. There was a blanket of golden yellow as we crossed South Dakota, with the petals drinking in the sun. In addition to the flowers and the seeds, they are used to produce biofuel.
A beautiful surprise was a 50-ft statue named Dignity at a rest stop overlooking the Missouri River near Chamberlain, SD. She easily stands out against the blue sky, capturing the attention of all who drive by.
As we got closer to Pierre (pronounced “peer”) in the middle of the State, we decided to take a less traveled route to our campground through the Lower Brule Reservation near and along the Missouri River. The beauty of the landscape took my breath away. We wound up, down, and through rolling hills and mountains dotted by just a few trees here and there. We caught glimpses of the glimmering river as we meandered around. No wildlife (although buffalo roam there), no homesteads, no other vehicles for miles and miles and miles. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day, and we were enveloped by the gentle yet harsh beauty of the landscape.
We stayed in Oahe Campground #2 in Ft. Pierre, just north of Pierre along the Missouri River near the Oahe Dam. A popular state park for the locals, it is comprised of three large campgrounds, boat ramps, fishing areas, a designated swimming area in the river (very cold water in early August!), a butterfly garden, woodsy campsites, and stunning views.
To be the capital of SD, Pierre is not what I would call a big town (nowhere close to a major metropolis). And it was blasted hot (95+ degrees) while we were there. We opted to stay cool and take it easy, but we spent a day driving around the area, finding a few of the highlights, eating at a local Mexican restaurant (not as good as La Cocina in Garner, in my opinion), and touring a rodeo museum. We talked with some of the local fishermen, and watched a couple of divers spearfish in the river. They were more successful than those sitting on shore!
We then headed toward the Badlands, making a quick stop in Wall, SD to say we had been there. Wall Drug is a tourist stop, much like South of the Border in South Carolina. It is mostly to shop for souvenirs. The place was PACKED with bikers who were heading to or coming from Sturgis for the biker rally (many not wearing masks). We bought a few postcards, ate lunch in our Airstream, and headed down the road.
I had been looking forward to a particular boondocking spot for a few months. Called “Nomad View Dispersed Camping,” it is located just a few miles outside the entrance to the Badlands National Park. And it is a popular dispersed camping location. We were one of about 25 or so other campers at this location, with six of us being Airstreams! We still had plenty of space, though, and we were situated on a cliff overlooking a small portion of the Badlands. The night sky was so dark, that we were able to easily see the Milky Way and to make out many of the constellations.
The formation of the earth in the Badlands is fascinating. I’m not sure about hiking through there because it is a harsh landscape with no shade. But it is another example of the overwhelming beauty of this microcosmic planet.
Custer State Park was next on our trip. We stayed at the Blue Bell campground within the park. We drove three different scenic byways (Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Highway, and Wildlife Loop Road—twisty, curvy, steep grades with tight, short tunnels). We visited Mount Rushmore during the day and again at night for the lighting ceremony. We saw the Crazy Horse monument from a distance. We stopped for bison and donkey as they slowly plodded across the road. We hiked and biked and took note of the large crowd of bikers touring Custer State Park as part of their trip to the Sturgis Rally. We had lunch at a delicious brewery in Custer, SD, called Mt. Rushmore Brewing Company (highly recommend the brews and food!).
Because of the ongoing heat wave, we rearranged our plans to stay at the Elks Lodge campground in Rapid City so we could have electricity. This gave us an opportunity to explore the northern part of Black Hills National Forest. We drove through Sturgis post-bike rally—deserted with vendors packing up their tents and wares—and to Bear Butte where we saw a small herd of bison. We drove to Spearfish to travel the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, a popular route to see several waterfalls, although we only saw a couple. We came upon an unexpected find—a filming location of Kevin Costner’s movie, Dances With Wolves! It was worth the drive down a remote dirt road to find the site. Kevin Costner is one of my favorite actors, and I’ve seen the movie a couple of times. It was a fun discovery!
Instead of backtracking, we looped through to Deadwood, SD, a touristy, wild, wild West town nestled in the middle of this national forest. While there waiting for a shootout re-enactment, I received a text from our neighbor from Garner. “Are you in Deadwood?” I knew she and her husband had flown to Rapid City a week earlier and were going to drive to Yellowstone during their vacation before heading back to NC, so I didn’t find the text completely strange although it seemed rather specific since our trip to Deadwood was not planned. I replied that we were sitting on main street waiting for a shootout. As it turns out, they were in Deadwood as well and found us! We chatted with them for awhile and met them later for a steak dinner. It was wonderful catching up with old friends in an unlikely place, and it was a perfect way to end our stay in South Dakota.
Our journey west continues…