When you consider America’s most iconic landscapes, the names Mount Rushmore and Badlands are certain to be among them. Yet when you disclose that you’re taking a trip to South Dakota, many of your geographically-challenged friends give you a puzzled looks. In spite of its many treasures, South Dakota maintains a humble simplicity (with one exception being a small town called Wall). From hikes, to monuments, to roadside oddities… South Dakota has everything that makes a great road trip!
After a long drive into Rapid City there was one important order of business that needed to be taken care of… BEER! So, I rounded up my local pal Dan, and in great haste made it to Downtown Rapid City. We settled on a cavernous Main Street pub (with an equally gigantic patio) called Thirsty’s (819 W Main St.). There was no question that I would try the Dakota Buffalo Burger, which was made with locally raised buffalo. I also wanted to try a local beer, however I was disappointed to find there wasn’t any local microbrew selections on the menu. Despite this hurdle, Thirsty’s does offer a wide selection of regional brews, so I settled for the Colorado-based Tommyknocker Maple Nut Brown Ale. The food was great, and the atmosphere at Thirsty’s was festive. During our meal, the patio became swarmed with men all wearing red dresses. This was a sight that I became very used to during my years in San Francisco, but not what I expected in Rapid City. We learned the group was a local running club, and there was speculation that the event may have been for charity. Nevertheless, the show sparked great debate on who-wore-it-best.
Dan insisted on a brief after-dinner walking tour of Downtown Rapid City. I was glad that he did! For an American history buff, I was excited to learn that Rapid City exhibits bronze statues of each former US President at different intersections throughout their downtown. A map of statue locations can be found at downtownrapidcity.com
. After snapping a few photos with some of my favorites – like Bill, Jimmy, and Dwight, I moved on to the shopping. Dakota’s Best
(818 W Main St.
) only sells South Dakota made items, including more items made out of buffalo than you could ever imagine. If you want to explore Native American culture, Prairie Edge
(606 Main St.) may be your best bet. Visiting this store reminded me of my trips to Chinatown back in San Francisco. There were so many interesting items for sale, but I had little knowledge of what to do with the merchandise. Nevertheless, it was an interesting cultural experience which became a reward in itself.
Before the sun started to set, we headed south to Mystery Mountain Campground (13752 US Hwy. 16) to camp for the night. Now, I’m not one to typically choose a private campground, but I have to tell you… this place rocks! Mystery Mountain offers all types of camping for all types of people. We were primitive campers, but the campground offers sites for trailers, and even cabin sites. All of the sites are covered by a pine forest, and are equipped with a concrete fire pit. Mystery Mountain also has a pool, hot tub, extremely nice bathroom and shower facilities, a basketball court, and horseshoe pits. It’s not exactly roughing-it, but you still get the experience of sitting around a campfire and telling stories with your friends. At the end of the day, that’s truly what camping is all about for me.
One of the incredible amenities at Mystery Mountain is that they offer $1 all-you-can-eat pancake breakfasts in the Summer. That was a deal that we could not refuse. Our $1 breakfast featured add-ons, like coffee for $1.50. So, I was able to get my fill of caffeine too. We were met at breakfast by the Mystery Mountain ambassador, Mr. Fluff. A big, smoky-gray, fuzzy, lover of a cat, Mr. Fluff made no qualms about hopping up on our picnic table and introducing himself. He was a gracious host until he left us for a nap in the sunny grass.
The weather was sunny, and the temperature was in the low 80s; it was time to see Rapid City’s most famous men. Mount Rushmore National Monument (13000 Hwy. 244, Keystone (605)574-2523) was completed in 1941. Upon arrival at Mount Rushmore, you enter a crowded area filled with guest shops, refreshment stands, and every state’s flag on display. This area is called the Avenue of the Flags. The vantage point here is quite good; but for the anxiety-ridden, the crowds can be a bit nerve-wracking. We snapped our pictures and headed down the hiking trail which takes you at the foot of the monument. Although these trails do take you closer to the presidents, the angle is not as photogenic as the main viewing spot. The surrounding mountainside and trees do make the very short hike worth the extra effort. After the hike, I would recommend walking through the museum to learn more about how Mount Rushmore came to be. You will leave with interesting trivia, and a greater appreciation for the teamwork involved in sculpting an enormous mountainside. I was surprised to learn that original plans for the monument were much grander than the finished projects. Also intriguing, was that no lives were lost in the sculpting of this massive project. For the intellectually curious, the museum has a great deal to offer.
After a brief lunch in the town of Keystone at a restaurant that I wouldn’t recommend, we made our way into Black Hills country for a scenic drive and hike. We headed westbound on SD Hwy. 244, then southbound very briefly on US Hwy. 16, then eastbound on SD Hwy. 87, and then northbound on Playhouse Road and US Hwy. 16-Alternate. The enormous loop winds its way through the terrain, and allows you to experience the multiple scenic tunnels and bridges that help to give the area its unique western charm. The route also circles Harney Peak, South Dakota’s tallest mountain. My tour guide Dan informed me that Harney Peak is the highest point between the Rockies and the Alps. (Think about that… pretty cool, eh?) Along the southern portion of the loop, we stopped in Custer State Park,
and hiked the Cathedral Spires Trail
. The trail is three miles round-trip, and winds along the pine forests and steep rock formations. The end of the trail is met with the Cathedral Spires. The hike was beautiful, but also made me aware of the Mountain Pine Beetle infestation that is ravaging the area’s forests. For more information on this issue, please visit the Black Hills Forest Resource Association’s web site (http://bhfra.org/mountain_pine_beetle.asp
After the hike, we stopped back into Keystone for a refueling and a round of beers. For gas, we stopped at the Keystone Country Store
(408 1st St., Keystone). What made the Keystone Country Store interesting was the site-layout. The gas pumps are right at the street curb, and the experience is much like a trip back to the ’40s. This may be the only time in my life that I’ve had to parallel park to get gas. If you fill your tank in Keystone, go here. If you drive a vintage car, take a picture for me! After the pit stop, Dan took me to the Rushmore Saloon at Halley’s 1880 Store
for a one-of-a-kind drinking experience. Imagine an antique store, filled with stuff that would make the guys from American Pickers
melt. Now, imagine a bar in this antique store. Yes, this place was quirky. For part of my time there, I sat down in a floral-print, perm-processing salon chair while I enjoyed my brew. Where else can you say you did that? This is a friendly place, so be sure to say hi to the bar staff.
Our dinner that evening was at ¿Que Pasa? (502 Main St.), a trendy, new Mexican cantina in Downtown. ¿Que Pasa? seemed to be the place where Rapidians go to be seen, and you’ll be seen for quite a while – as getting a table for a weekend dinner here proved to be quite an ordeal. Fortunately, the tequila bar is incredibly stylish and comfortable; and the clientele is equally attractive. After a long wait, we were settled in for a feast. The food here was divine, and portion sizes were extreme. Although, I didn’t get the opportunity to do this, I would recommend saving some time for an after-dinner drink at the Wobbly Bobby (510 Main St). This local bar is definitely stands out for it’s incredibly British facade, fully equipped with gargoyles. The menu is authentically British, including Spotted Dick and Scotch Eggs.
I have to admit that I was excited about breakfast. Dan had raved on Black Hills Bagels (913 Mt. Rushmore Rd.). Typically I’m a skeptic, but Dan sold me on this place. The thing that makes Black Hills Bagels great is that the texture of the bagel isn’t hard and chewy. It has all the great flavor of a bagel, but a softer, less-rubbery texture. There are a variety of breakfast sandwiches to choose from. I ordered a Westerner Bagel sandwich (sour dough bagel, ham, egg, cheddar pepper cream cheese, pepper jack cheese, green pepper & onion). It was amazing. They also feature Dark Canyon Coffee; (a local coffee company) which has incredible flavor. The staff at Black Hills Bagels is extremely friendly, too. Even if you’re just passing through, this place gets my highest recommendation.
Although the day was gloomy, we were going to make the most of it. We headed eastbound to Minuteman Missile National Historic Site (21280 SD Hwy. 240, Philip). The site held the power to launch a nuclear attack during the Cold War. Opened to the public as a national historic site in 1999, it is here that you can find the only remaining Minuteman II missile in the United States. Unfortunately for us, we didn’t do our homework before we arrived. This site has limited space available for tours. When the site opens at 8:00 AM, there is usually a line of patrons waiting to sign-up for these tours. We arrived after 11:00 AM, and there were only two tour spots available at the end of the day. Reservations are not taken in advance, so you book your tour on a first-come, first-serve basis.
We moved onward to the day’s true headliner – Badlands National Park (25216 Ben Reifel Rd., Interior). We entered the park from the northeast entrance, and made our way westbound on the Badlands Loop Road. We parked at the western trailhead of the Castle Trail, and decided to explore. This area was highly crowded with tourists, probably because it’s directly near the Park’s entrance. This is a great area for kids to explore without having to take steep, dangerous hikes. We decided to walk to the far eastern end of the area, and venture off on the Notch Trail. This was a short, but challenging trail that included a wooden ladder at one point. Once we ventured up the ladder, the crowds dissipated. The interesting thing about the Badlands is that once you crest a ridge, it’s almost as though you’re in a new room. So don’t be fearful of the crowds, a small climb can put them out of sight and mind. The Notch Trail’s terminus is a bit anti-climactic, the real treat is the adventure along the way. So stop, look around, and take it all in.
We continued on the Badlands Loop Road to the Ben Reifel Visitor’s Center. It is here that you can learn a great deal about the formation of the Badlands, and buy all of the souvenirs that your heart desires. Further west is the Saddle Pass Trailhead. This trail can be fun or frightening depending on your adventure-tolerance. The badlands are steep and slippery; and the Saddle Pass is as steep and slippery as anything we tried. On two occasions, we watched hikers fall on their a$$, which was both alarming and entertaining. My guess is that those that fall, often deserve it. Slow, sure-footed steps was my plan of action, and it served me well.
There are a number of turnouts along the Badlands Loop Road, but the one true highlight that cannot be missed is Yellow Mounds Overlook. It is here that the Badlands you see in pictures exists! Bizarre, rolling mounds of purple and golden hues stand before you. Don’t just stop at the parking lot. Get away from the car and truly explore the mounds. Not only do great photographs await, but upon closer inspection, you can see the delicate hues of each rock. For me, this place was the apex of my time in the Badlands.
From natural splendor to man-made awe, we headed out of the Badlands and into the small town of Wall. It is here that you find South Dakota’s most unapologetically flamboyant attraction – Wall Drug (510 Main St., Wall). For many over-the-top attractions, it’s easy to miss everything there is to offer, but the folks at Wall Drug want to be sure you experience everything; so they’ve erected billboards every 100 yards or so along the highway to cover all of the highlights. They even have a billboard dedicated for their free ice water. Wall Drug can best be described as a western-themed mall with a carnival flair. There’s something for everyone at Wall Drug, but for me the highlights were riding a jackalope and looking at the 50 States Christmas Ornaments. Western Wear, Indian Tacos, Photo Opportunities, Souvenirs, Wall Drug is sure to have something that grabs your attention. Also, we did find that free ice water.
Back in Rapid City, we made a brief stop at another roadside oddity. Atop a hill in the center of Rapid City, you might be surprised to find… dinosaurs. Dinosaur Park (940 Skyline Dr.) is a city-owned park along the Hogback Ridge. Constructed in the 1930s, the park contains multiple giant dinosaurs overlooking the city. It won’t be the highlight of your trip, but you’ll certainly take a few good pictures and have some fun along the way.
After a long day and a short nap, the plan for the evening was in the neighboring community of Hill City. I had heard rave-reviews of a restaurant there called the Alpine Inn, and I was truly excited to explore it. Dan insisted that we first stop at Prairie Berry Winery (23837 US Hwy. 385, Hill City). We each sampled five wines. The most notable for me were the 3 Rednecks Cabernet Sauvignon, and the best of the bunch (which I brought home with me) the Red Ass Rhubarb wine. A clear favorite of the winery, the Red Ass Rhubarb has won countless International Wine Competition awards from around the country. I look forward to opening the bottle at my next dinner party.
We headed off to the Alpine Inn, only to learn that they are closed on Sundays. We were annoyed, disappointed, and hungry. We researched the internet to find a replacement dinner spot and decided to eat at Desperado’s Cowboy Restaurant (301 Main St., Hill City). Desperado’s was crowded, and obviously capitalizing on it’s competition’s absence. I was pleased to learn that one of the daily specials was a Buffalo Steak. I had to order it, paired with mashed potatoes with gravy, and a Cowboy biscuit. They also had a decent selection of local and regional beers. Desperado’s is a western-cowboy themed restaurant with a friendly staff and good food. If you’re in Hill City on any day of the week, they’re there and they’ll serve you. I was grateful for that.
The final stop on my Rapid City trip was for pie. Dan had told me legend of the best pie in Rapid City, and I had to be certain that he was correct. We stopped into the Colonial House Restaurant & Bar (2501 Mt. Rushmore Rd.) right before closing time. The manager was happy to stay open a few minutes longer to sell to us. I chose the Banana Creme Pie, and I have to admit that it was a damned good pie. The selection (even at the end of the night) was unbelievable. There were at least eight different kinds to choose from! I fully recommend it as a “sweet” ending to a weekend full of adventure.
Now this blog entry only chronicles my adventures in the Rapid City area. But half of the fun of road trips is what you find along the road. Stay tuned next week for my mini-reports called Along The Way. I’ll feature my travels to Chimney Rock, Carhenge, the Center of America, and the Vore Buffalo Jump.
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I'm a lover of life and all the experiences that come with it.
September 12, 2013 at 8:54 AM
Love the article!
I am visiting Rapid City in 3 weeks and I’m very excited! This post has me on the edge of my seat. I can’t wait to try the Dakota Buffalo Burger at Thirsty’s!