Thinking the only thing to see in South Dakota is Mount Rushmore is like thinking the only thing to see in Texas is the Alamo.
Make no mistake. Both are magnificent testaments to our nation’s resiliency and our fight for freedom, equality and independence. Mount Rushmore is impactful, the scope alone tends to elicit whispers and reverence, and Texas’ Alamo has the same effect.
For those seeking adventure without crowds, open roads with miles of farmland and educational opportunities so engaging that you’ll have to pry your kids away, South Dakota also delivers. It doesn’t take long to feel the wealth of open space, thanks in part to the lack of crowds. You’ll want to plan ahead because there are major attractions that appeal to the masses but take a few steps to the left or walk down a quiet trail and you’ve got it all to yourself.
A City of Presidents
Located east of the Black Hills National Forest, Rapid City is the gateway to Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. A worthwhile destination to kick-start your vacation or to wrap it up, whichever you choose, don’t miss exploring this friendly, walkable city. Its historic downtown, purposefully void of national chains, will welcome you to its quaint shops full of locally-made items, authentic Native American art and at least one coffee shop that boasts a variety of homemade pop tarts complete with a vintage VW bus not-so-subtlety parked inside.
Don’t miss the historic Hotel Alex Johnson, built in 1927, complete with authentic Native American art and modern, comfortable rooms. Positioned on most corners, you can stroll by bronze, life-sized sculptures of every American president who has completed his term of office. And this, just like a fresh scoop of ice-cream on a hot summer day, appeals to every age group. During the winter months, residents will often place hats and scarves on the statues for anyone in need to take without question.
As you discover the nearby Black Hills National Forest and surrounding areas, there is something for everyone. Reptile Gardens and Dinosaur Park for the kids, Custer State Park, the aforementioned Black Hills and the Badlands National Park for those who want to get out and hike, kayak and/or ultimately lose the day to repeating, “Just one more picture”. You can save the airfare to Norway and visit the Stavkirke Chapel (the Chapel in the Hills)– an exact replica of the Borgan Stavkirke in Norway and the only one in North America.
We’ll Finish on Tuesday
Close to Mount Rushmore are small, personable towns. Some delight kids and tourists and others attract those interested in art galleries and fine wine. And then there’s the Crazy Horse Memorial. Describing this monument under construction is like describing the ocean. You have to see it to fully appreciate it. Started in 1948 by Korczak Ziolkowski, his family continues the effort today. When asked when she thinks it will be completed, Ziolkowski’s daughter responded, “We think it will be a Tuesday.” (No mention of the year.) The statue of the Native American Lokata leader and his horse, when complete, will be 641 feet long and 563 feet high. To put that in context, all of Mount Rushmore will fit on the forehead of Crazy Horse.
Believe in Possible
The freedom of driving through countryside dotted with cattle, horses and fields of grains will lead you to two sights you will never see anywhere else. Chamberlain is a small town with a big river and the home of Dignity. The 50-foot sculpture honors the courageous and wise women of the Lakota and Dakota nations.
A little more than 100 miles north, sits the close-knit town of Faulkton with a 110-foot white grain elevator like no other. The little town, whose motto is “Believe in Possible,” commissioned world-renowned muralist Guido Van Helten to paint an image so large that it can be seen from most any point in the town.
When we think of South Dakota, we think of Mount Rushmore. Yes, it’s awe-inspiring and well worth the visit. But don’t stop there. This state welcomes you, and almost dares you, to let your sense of wonder come out to play.
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Cover photo Custer State Park courtesy South Dakota Department of Tourism
Haven Lindsey resides in Austin, Texas. She is a freelance writer with more than 20 years of experience writing on topics including healthcare, addiction, public policy, education, travel, food and human interest.