The Intriguing Stories Behind 5 South Dakota Attractions
How a humble drug store became one of the state’s most popular tourist spots and more fun facts.
Beyond its natural wonders like Badlands National Park, South Dakota is home to several manmade marvels that you won’t want to miss when you visit. What’s the story behind that massive drug store and its “Free Ice Water” signs? Or that Moorish-style palace covered in corn? Read on to learn how these surprising South Dakota landmarks got started.
Wall Drug Store
You can’t drive through South Dakota without seeing a billboard (or 12) for this roadside stop. In 1931, Ted and Dorothy Hustead purchased a drug store in Wall, but their business struggled for several years as cars passed by the small town without stopping. On a hot summer day in 1936, Dorothy proposed an unusual idea: What if they put signs on Route 16A advertising free ice water to attract parched travelers? They gave it a try, and the results were immediate: Customers started showing up before she had even finished putting up all the signs. The following summer, they hired eight local girls to help with the steady stream of patrons.
More than 70 years later, Wall Drug now welcomes up to 20,000 visitors a day and offers far more than just free ice water. There’s a restaurant, an old-fashioned soda fountain, numerous shops, a chapel, a giant Jackalope (great for photo ops) and much more. Plus, the signs that made the store famous can still be seen in South Dakota and beyond. (Ted once hung a sign in the London Underground informing commuters that Wall Drug was only 5,160 miles away.) If you’re visiting Badlands National Park, stop in on your way and give yourself plenty of time to explore the maze of eccentric sights.
Crazy Horse Memorial
Mount Rushmore isn’t the only memorial worth visiting in South Dakota. More than 70 years in the making, Crazy Horse Memorial is the largest in-progress mountain carving in the world. Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who had previously worked on Mount Rushmore, started the project in 1948 after Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear asked him to create a lasting monument to the Native American people. Korczak dedicated the rest of his life to the project, steadily chipping away at the mountain for nearly 36 years, sometimes enlisting the help of his 10 kids. Though the sculptor passed away in 1982, his family has kept the Crazy Horse dream alive, and many of his children and grandchildren continue to work on the memorial to this day. Under the direction of Ruth Ziolkowski, Korczak’s widow, the 87 1/2-foot-tall face of Crazy Horse was completed in 1998 – a major milestone for the project.
The memorial depicts Lakota war leader Crazy Horse gesturing to his lands, though no photos exist of him; Korczak relied on descriptions to capture his likeness and spirit. The ultimate mission of the memorial is to protect and preserve Native American culture and tradition. When you visit, be sure to watch a performance from American Indian dancers, or browse art and artifacts at the Indian Museum of North America.
The World’s Only Corn Palace
Another popular roadside attraction, the one-of-a-kind Corn Palace in Mitchell got its start in 1892, when South Dakota was only three years old as a state. The kernel-covered structure was intended to attract farmers to the burgeoning area by highlighting the state’s healthy agricultural climate. It was rebuilt twice: once in 1905, and again in 1919 as a permanent gathering place. Today, the attraction receives around 500,000 visitors annually and hosts concerts, sports tournaments, banquets and other events year-round.
If you’re looking for an ideal time to visit this folk art icon, look no further than the Corn Palace Festival, which celebrates the annual redecorating of the attraction. Each year, the building is adorned with new murals made from native grasses, grains and 13 colors of corn. From the initial design phase to the installation, the entire process takes several months to complete, and you can see it in action at the festival.
Recently brought to life by HBO’s Emmy Award-winning Deadwood series, this town is steeped in Old West history full of colorful characters. Deadwood was founded in 1876, when thousands of gold miners descended on South Dakota’s Black Hills. With its lax laws, the town also attracted outlaws, gamblers and gunslingers including Calamity Jane, Poker Alice and – most notably – Wild Bill Hickock. Before he arrived in Deadwood, Wild Bill was already a larger-than-life figure; he had been involved in several deadly shootouts and had supposedly fought a bear with his bare hands. Though he was only in town for a few weeks before he met his demise, he remains Deadwood’s most famous figure to this day. Today, you can visit Old-Style Saloon #10 to see the chair where he was shot by Jack McCall – a gambler who had lost to Wild Bill – while playing poker.
The entire town of Deadwood was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1961, which was the first time an entire community received that distinction. The town faced several fires and other setbacks over the years, but it bounced back in a big way in 1989 when gambling was legalized. Today, Deadwood is booming with modern casinos, hotels and restaurants, yet its historic architecture and spirit have been largely preserved. Transport yourself to the Old West by touring an authentic 100-year-old gold mine, taking a ride on a vintage steam train, or visiting a cemetery where some of the town’s most notorious figures rest. In the summer, you can also watch historical reenactments along Main Street.
If you visit Rapid City, you’re bound to notice a group of bright-green, life-size dinosaurs overlooking the city from atop a hill. What’s the deal with those dinos? Opened in 1936, Dinosaur Park is one of the first tourist attractions in the Black Hills area, meant to attract the influx of visitors to the then-in-progress Mount Rushmore. Sculptor Emmet Sullivan (who also designed an 80-foot dinosaur for Wall Drug Store) created the creatures from iron pipe frames covered in concrete. More than 80 years later, the sculptures remain largely intact and offer an interesting glimpse at what dinosaurs were thought to look like in the ‘30s.
A fun (and free!) stop for families, Dinosaur Park lets the little ones get up close with a T-Rex, a Brontosaurus and other extinct reptiles. For the adults, the sweeping views of the Badlands and Black Hills are definitely worth a visit.
Badlands National Park
With its striking rock formations and distinctive layers of color, Badlands National Park has a surreal, otherworldly quality. The Lakota people were the first to call the area "mako sica," or "land bad," and in the early 1900s, French-Canadian fur trappers called it "les mauvais terres pour traverse," or "bad lands to travel through." Today, this stunning landscape is easy to navigate, thanks to the 31-mile Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway. Give yourself at least a couple of hours to complete this drive, and to admire the views at a few of the designated scenic overlooks. If you want to stretch your legs, there are numerous hiking trails to explore, including the popular Door, Window and Notch trails.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Nearly 3 million people visit Mount Rushmore each year to behold the 60-foot faces of four great American presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. Almost 400 people worked on this incredible sculpture, which took 14 years and $1 million to complete. Visit at sunrise — when the mountain takes on a golden hue — for some of the best photo ops. Be sure to walk the Presidential Trail for a close-up view of the faces, and check out the Sculptor’s Studio to see artist Gutzon Borglum’s last scale model of the monument, made in 1936 during the construction process.
Custer State Park
South Dakota’s largest state park, Custer State Park boasts 71,000 acres of diverse terrain — from grassy meadows to soaring rock formations — and a wide array of wildlife. The park is home to about 1,300 bison, one of the largest publicly owned herds in the world. You’re likely to see them while driving the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road, along with pronghorn, prairie dogs, mountain goats and burros. Visit early in the morning or later in the evening, when the animals are most active.
Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup
Each September, cowboys, cowgirls and park staff saddle up to corral Custer State Park’s 1,000+ bison. While the primary purpose of the roundup is to sort and vaccinate the herd, it makes for quite a show: Thousands of people (more than 21,000 in 2017) visit the park to watch the event and feel the thunder of the stampede. Two viewing areas — north and south — are set aside for spectators. The roundup starts at 9:30 a.m., but you’ll want to arrive early (between 6:15 and 7:30 a.m.) so you don’t miss any of the action.
Of Custer State Park’s five lakes, Sylvan Lake is the most recognizable, perhaps for its role in National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets starring Nicolas Cage. In the film, the lake appears to be directly behind Mount Rushmore, though in reality it’s several miles away. Take a stroll along the picturesque waters, or you can rent a canoe or go for a swim. Sylvan Lake — and nearby Sylvan Lake Lodge — are also popular spots for weddings.
Black Elk Peak
At 7,242 feet, Black Elk Peak is the highest point in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains. If you’re up for a hike, there are several trails that lead to the summit, the most popular being a 3.5-mile trail starting in Custer State Park near Sylvan Lake. At the top, take in the amazing views of the surrounding Black Hills, and explore a historic stone fire tower dating back to 1939. Originally named Harney Peak, Black Elk Peak was renamed in 2016 in honor of respected Lakota elder and medicine man Nicholas Black Elk.
Towering over Custer State Park, these dramatic granite spires are a must-see. Get a prime view of the formations by driving the 14-mile Needles Highway, where you’ll also discover pine and spruce forests, and meadows surrounded by birch and aspen trees. Completed in 1922, this roadway was meticulously planned by former South Dakota Governor Peter Norbeck, who marked the entire course on foot and by horseback.
Iron Mountain Road
This winding, 17-mile road connects Custer State Park and Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Along the way, three tunnels frame the monument for an unforgettable view. Iron Mountain Road is also famous for its three spiral-shaped "pigtail bridges," which allow travelers to drop or gain altitude quickly. This motorway was designed to be driven slowly — take your time and enjoy the scenery.
Crazy Horse Memorial
The world’s largest mountain carving in progress, work on Crazy Horse Memorial started in 1948, after Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear asked sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski to create a lasting memorial to the Native American people. Today, his family and supporters continue his vision for the sculpture, which will be 641 feet long and 563 feet high when completed. During your visit to Crazy Horse, browse some of Ziolkowski’s other work in his studio, then compare a scale model of the memorial with the colossal carving that's underway. Your admission fee helps finance the project, as the memorial does not accept federal or state funding.
Crazy Horse Up Close
In 1998, workers completed the 87 1/2-foot-tall face of Crazy Horse, who was a Lakota war leader. If you want an up-close look at the mountain, visit during the annual Volksmarch, a 10K roundtrip hike to the arm of the sculpture. You can also take a trip to the top by becoming a Crazy Horse Story Teller through a $125 gift to Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation.
Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave, one of the oldest national parks in the country, offers two very different worlds to explore: Above ground, the park’s 33,851 acres of prairie grasslands and forested hillsides are home to elk, bison, prairie dogs and other wildlife. Below the surface lies one of the longest cave systems in the world.
Jewel Cave National Monument
About a 30-minute drive from Wind Cave National Park, you’ll find another underground marvel: Jewel Cave. The third-largest cave system in the world with more than 190 miles of mapped and surveyed passages, this national monument was named for the glittering calcite crystals that line its walls. Guided tours are available at scheduled times throughout the year.