More than Mt. Rushmore: My South Dakota Travel Guide

I recently took a poll via Instagram on whether I should do a travel guide on South Dakota or Colorado. I kind of suspected that Colorado would win, but a whopping EIGHTY PERCENT said to do a guide on Colorado. I was SHOOKETH (Translation for non-millennials: I was pretty dang surprised)

Initially I was also a little disappointed, because South Dakota is one of my favorite states (so far). But I figured I would write about what people wanted to hear. Then I remembered when I was also unaware of the beauty and history of South Dakota. I assumed the state was boring, flat and in total, nothing special. That’s when I realized that people needed to know that South Dakota is probably one of the most underrated places I have ever been. So without further ado, I am going to try my very best to convince you to South Dakota is SO much more than Mt. Rushmore. This is my guide to South Dakota.

Me, excited to knock a state from the list but TOTALLY unaware of the amazing stuff I was about to witness

Me, excited to knock a state from the list but TOTALLY unaware of the amazing stuff I was about to witness

I visited South Dakota on my second cross country road trip. Initially we were only going to drive through in one day (on our way to Yellowstone and The Tetons) but after we had heard some pretty great things, we adjusted our itinerary and decided to make it a true stop. In total we spent 3 days there. We entered in on the Iowa side, and essentially drove the length of the state.

DAY ONE:

FIRST STOP: MITCHELL CORN PALACE

Our first stop was a true Americana, road side attraction classic, the Mitchell Corn Palace. As the name would suggest, this is a multi-purpose facility made with… you guessed it, corn. The design of the palace changes every year. The year we went (2017) there was a giant Willie Nelson on one of the panels. I’m sure you’re fighting off the urge to chant USA USA USA while you read this. While in Mitchell, we explored the little tourist area across from the palace and found the neatest cotton candy shop which had custom made to order cotton candy in every flavor from banana to classic blue raspberry. We spent around 45 minutes here in total, it was the perfect bathroom/leg-break/quirky road side stop, on our journey to the rest of the state.

SECOND STOP: THE HOME OF LAURA INGALLS WILDER (KIND OF)

So we didn't ACTUALLY get to stop here (unfortunately). Since it was Sunday, the historic site was closed. However we totally would have, had it been open. It’s around at 45 minute drive off the interstate. Although we didn't get to go, I would highly recommend this as a stop to any Little House on The Prairie Fans.

THIRD STOP: BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK

Let me just tell you, the Badlands are incredible. I will be honest, eastern South Dakota is relatively flat, but once you reach Badlands National Park, that’s all replaced with jagged limestone formations dipping and rising from the ground. There is a park entrance fee (like with most national parks that aren’t on main roads) so when entering, you will need to decide if you would like a one day pass, multi-day, or year long national park pass. We did several short hikes while there and drove the main loop which circles the park.

So that was day one! We ate at Dakotah Steakhouse in Rapid City for dinner, which was quite delicious.  Then, we made our way to Sylvan Lake Lodge after 30 minutes of a winding drive (at night) up the mountain. It was totally fine and not terrifying, Keep in mind, we assumed that South Dakota had Black Hills, and that those hills weren’t truly, ya know, mountains. Since it was dark when we arrived, we were excited to see what awaited us in the daylight.

DAY TWO:

FIRST STOP: NEEDLES HIGHWAY

We awoke in the heart of the Black Hills, surprised and in awe of their unique natural beauty. The lodge where we stayed was in Custer State Park, where the Needles Highway is located. If staying in the park you will need to buy a state park pass. These are 20 dollars for the week. Needles Highway is a scenic byway which curves through the towering rock formations that are scattered all over the mountains. There is something magical about this drive and the whimsical nature of the rocks that line the road.

SECOND STOP: CRAZY HORSE

Before seeing Mt. Rushmore, we went to the Crazy Horse monument. That was probably a mistake because 1.) Crazy Horse, although unfinished, is HUGE 2.) The entire monument is privately funded and is basically a response to Mt. Rushmore being built of very sacred native mountains 3.) While at the visitor center, it becomes more apparent how disrespectful it was to build Mount Rushmore in the area it was carved. Crazy Horse is an incredible monument and I highly recommend not only seeing the work in process, but also visiting the adjacent visitor’s center and learning more of the indigenous history of South Dakota.

THIRD STOP: MOUNT RUSHMORE

I am not going to beat around the bush… I am just gonna say it. Mount Rushmore is kind of small. And after seeing Crazy Horse, it was hard to view it as the symbol of American patriotism that I previously viewed it as. However, I did appreciate that I was able to see something that I had heard of since my childhood and appreciate the effort behind carving it off the face of a mountain. So yeah, Mount Rushmore.

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FOURTH STOP: PRAIRIE BERRY WINERY
Several Peanut Butter Sandwiches later, we needed a break from the sight seeing, and what break is better than wine tasting. Prairie Berry Winery offers free wine tastings, and boy, is it yummy. This is a great little stop from one adventure to the next. I highly recommend the Wild Bill.

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STOP FIVE: WIND CAVE NATIONAL PARK

After trying (and buying) some local wine, we made our way to Wind Cave National Park on the hunt for some wildlife! While Wind Cave is known for, well, caves. We went after Cave tours had ended for the day, so we were on the look-out for bison, prairie dogs, and deer. We enjoyed stopping along the road and watching the prairie dogs play and hide in and our of their little holes, and after asking park rangers and driving through the park, we finally found a lone buffalo!

After a long day of driving and exploring we made it back to Sylvan Lake Lodge where we enjoyed dinner at Sylvan Restaurant located on the property.

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DAY THREE:

I’ll start off by saying, we didn't intend to have a true “day three”, but after we realized our rental car was due for an oil change, and we still had 2000 miles to go, so we had no choice. Our appointment was made around 1:30 for our oil change, located at the Sears in the Rapid City Mall, HIGHLY RECOMMEND.

FIRST STOP: ART ALLEY IN  RAPID CITY

After grabbing a quick coffee we checked out Art Alley in Rapid City. This is an ever changing urban art space filled with murals and graffiti exploding with meaning and color. This is a perfect spot for an Instagram photo-op and to enjoy the variety of works that cover the buildings.

SECOND STOP: GET YOUR OIL CHANGED

Just kidding, but we did get our oil changed, and while checking out we were told about a place called Spearfish Canyon that just added a few minutes to our route of Casper, Wyoming. We decided since we were all about flexibility, we would continue the trend and head that way.

THIRD STOP: SPEARFISH CANYON

There is nothing better than unexpected beauty on a road trip, and that is exactly what Spearfish Canyon provided. In some ways, we were incredibly grateful for our inconvenient car maintence, because without it, we would have never gotten to experience the winding rocky byway that followed the river and led to scenic pull-offs and waterfalls.

So there you have it, South Dakota (In 3 days). It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this is one of my favorite states, but I think its definitely a combination of the unique rocky landscape, low-key atmosphere and rich history this state holds. Maybe more than all of those things, I was constantly surprised by what this state had to offer. Maybe it’s because I kept my expectations to a minimum, but everything beautiful we saw just felt all the more magical. I hope this guide might convince you to pass through this state if you get the chance, because sometimes the greatest adventures are the ones we least expect.

NOW, for some Real Life Adventure Girl Links:

Mitchell Corn Palace:
https://cornpalace.com/

Home of Laura Ingalls Wilder:

https://www.ingallshomestead.com/

Badlands National Park

https://www.nps.gov/badl/index.htm

Custer State Park:

https://gfp.sd.gov/parks/detail/custer-state-park/

Prairie Berry Winery:

https://www.prairieberry.com/

Wind Cave National Park:

https://www.nps.gov/wica/index.htm

Art Alley:

https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/art-alley

Spearfish Canyon:

http://www.spearfishcanyon.com/scenicbyway/index.html

Sylvan Lake Lodge:

https://custerresorts.com/lodges-and-cabins/sylvan-lake-lodge/