We spent the better part of three days driving through South Dakota on our road trip through the midwest. Spending three days exploring South Dakota and driving nearly 1000 miles through the state we learned some interesting facts about The Rushmore State. Here are ten of our favorite facts about South Dakota that you may not have known.
Because the state is fairly large and one of the least densely populated, there can be long stretches of highway where there is nothing to see but corn, sunflowers, or soybeans. South Dakota may be home to the largest number of
tourist traps roadside attractions per capita. From a 12ft. tall prairie dog, to a jackalope you can sit on, the billboards will keep you guessing “what’s next”.
You’ll see a lot of billboards claiming “world’s largest…”. World’s largest Prarie Dog, World’s Largest Pheasant, etc. Also, you’ll see claims of being the world’s only, or world’s best… The billboards in South Dakota range from hilarious to head-scratchingly confusing, but one thing is for sure they are kind of entertaining.
The king of all South Dakota
tourist traps roadside attractions, Wall Drug. Part diner, Part Drug Store, 100% ridiculous. If you traveling west on I-90 in South Dakota you’ll see no less than 300 billboards advertising Wall Drug. Famous for their “Free Ice Water” and “5 cent Coffee”, Wall Drug is more than just a sleepy little diner and drugstore that you’d expect to see an exit away from one of America’s great National Parks. I would describe Wall Drug as a cross between a carnival oddities tent, and a classic American rest stop. Even though it may be a tourist trap, you can’t visit South Dakota without stopping at Wall Drug.
Another roadside attraction that may actually be worth a stop while driving through South Dakota is the Mitchell Corn Palace. While the building itself is made of brick and mortar, every year the outside is fully decorated with murals made of corn and other local grains. Pretty fitting for the self-proclaimed corn capital of the world.
Everyone knows about Mt. Rushmore, 4 heads each 60 ft. tall carved into the side of one of the Black Hills Mountainsides. Mt. Rushmore took only 14 years and less than $1million to complete. Crazy Horse, on the other hand, was begun in 1948 shortly after Mt. Rushmore was completed. To this day only the face and part of an outstretched arm have been completed. If it were ever to be completed it may be the world’s largest sculpture at a staggering 563 feet high and nearly 650 feet wide.
Driving through South Dakota, you’ll see many signs that say “Think” on one side and “Don’t Die” on the other. I couldn’t believe how many of these signs I saw during our drive through South Dakota. When we finally decided to look it up we were kind of sad to learn each one of those signs marks a fatal motor vehicle accident, and even more sad is that more than 50% of them involved alcohol. These signs serve as a reminder to drive safe, drive aware, and to not drink and drive.
I knew there were two sites I wanted to see while driving through South Dakota: Mt. Rushmore and Badlands National Park. We had quite the experience on our (very) early morning drive into Badlands National Park. We nearly hit several mule deer bucks as they came out of nowhere. We got to enjoy a South Dakota traffic jam as a herd of bison crossed the road in front of us, and we got to take in a beautiful sunrise as it peaked over the prairies in the distance. When looking up information about the Badlands, I discovered that the name comes from the local Lakota Tribe’s description “Mako Sica”, which translates to “land bad”. You could imagine how difficult this stretch of land would be to cross with the steep mountains, hot dry summers, and freezing cold winters.
Strangely enough, South Dakota is now the geographic center of the United States, but millions of years ago South Dakota was nearly entirely covered by sea, and it was home to several now extinct species. South Dakota has one of the richest fossil beds in the world and is home to some of the best-preserved dinosaur bones to ever be uncovered including Sue the T-Rex.
One of the places that we didn’t make it to, though now I’m wishing we stopped was the first cave system to become a US National Park, Wind Cave National Park. Wind Cave National Park has over 130 miles of mapped underground passages. You wouldn’t believe the intricate system of passages with beautiful rock formations existed beneath the calm swaying grasses of the prairie above.
I was not prepared for how beautiful driving through South Dakota was. I’ll be the first to admit that there is a ton of space where all you can see is farm or prairie, but once you get to the badlands and black hills, you almost instantly forget that you spent the last six hours driving through corn fields. Seeing the formations in Badlands National Park change colors as the sun rose above them was well worth getting up at 3:30 AM to get there. The view from the top of the Horse Theif Lake Trail hike was more than worth getting a bit sweaty and having a few mosquito bites. I can’t recommend the western part of South Dakota enough, I know I’ll be going back to take in more of South Dakota’s beauty and you should too.
We spent a lot of time driving through South Dakota, but really there is no better way to see this part of our great country. During our three nights in South Dakota, we spent one night in an Airbnb that was fabulous, and two nights at Under Canvas Mt. Rushmore. I’ll have a full review of Under Canvas Mt. Rushmore coming very soon! You can check out how beautiful South Dakota is in my latest vlog on YouTube!