Exploring South Dakota from Rapid City
Before Pretirement, if you asked Jordan where The Badlands is, she’d have told you that every national park is “in Utah, probably, and if you’re so smart, why don’t you list the locations of every single international trip the Real Housewives ever took? NOT SO GOOD AT GEOGRAPHY NOW, ARE YOU?”
Joe, on the other hand, thanks to a photographic memory and a U.S. map placemat (“PLACEMAP”??) he had from 1989 to 1994, can list the location, capital, state flower, and GDP of every state in the Union.
So, when Joe started talking about where we should be “based” when we visit South Dakota and Jordan laughed and moved on as you do with any joke, Joe realized he was going to have to take charge of this particular itinerary.
Initially, in an effort to warm Jordan’s feelings toward the reality that there is, in fact, days and days of incredible shit to see in South Dakota, Joe planned to be based in Wall. Wall Drug, the massive general store and apparent jewel of South Dakota, judging from the fact that there are signs advertising it starting no less than 500 miles away, is in Wall (duhr).
And Joe knows that if Jordan is a moth, a giant room full of old-fashioned candy in barrels is the flame.
Luckily, though, we met a South Dakota native in our travels, who told us that the best place to base to see all the things we wanted to see is actually Rapid City. We didn’t know any better. She did. So, that’s the story of how we wound up spending three days in a city we’ve never heard of in a state Jordan quite possibly still couldn’t point out on a map.
And it worked out perfectly.
Day 1: East
Badlands and Wall Drug
If you had a long day of driving yesterday (like we did – we drove to Rapid City from Omaha), we recommend doing The Badlands Scenic Loop and Wall Drug Store on your first full day in South Dakota.
Without stops the entire journey takes about three hours. Of course, you will be making stops, but it’s a short enough day that you can sleep in, take a leisurely drive through the park (unless you intend you hike, which…why?), and get home around dinner.
- Start: Rapid City
- Take I-90 East to Exit 131 (75 miles)
- Take Exit 131 for SD-240, which is the scenic loop through Badlands National Park
- Proceed to the Northeast Entrance of the park
- Entry fee (2018) is $20 per car – Included if you have an annual National Park Pass
- Follow the scenic loop (40 miles)
At a 45 MPH speed limit, without stops the scenic loop would take about an hour.
With stops, including a picnic at Bigfoot Pass (OBVIOUSLY), it took us around two.
The nice thing about the scenic loop is that it actually takes you right to Wall, which is the second stop of the day.
South Dakota is a huge state. That being said, if you’ve ever driven through even a tiny corner of it, you are guaranteed to have seen signs for Wall Drug Store in – dunt da-na-naaaaa – Wall, South Dakota.
This two-acre shopping center, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling with country-style desert kitsch
in this 700-person town is one of South Dakota’s biggest tourist draws.
Jordan could not wait to get to Wall Drug. She was so looking forward to a room full of candy, which, as we all know comes standard in any general store-style tourist trap, that she kind of torpedoed the first part of the day and mailed it in for the scenic drive through The Badlands.
She’s also kind of maxed out on being impressed by red-rock style desert dirt formations after our month in the Southwest, but the candy at the end of the dirt rainbow is really what had her lead-footing it through the park.
Our honest assessment of Wall Drug is this: Meh.
(And not only because they did NOT, in fact, have a room full of old fashioned candy in barrels which is JUST PLAIN UNAMERICAN. Wall Drug, you’ll be getting a strongly-worded email from us here at Fahr + Away).
We can’t even tell you what we expected out of Wall Drug (besides the candy barrels, of course), but what we got was something like a two-acre Cracker Barrel.
If you have not spent the last thirty years of your life in the American South, or the last month hitting all the faux-vintage tourist traps in America, we can see being dazzled by Wall Drug. For both of us, of course, neither of those things is the case, so we didn’t even stick around long enough to get a picture.
We walked in, used the bathroom (which was very clean, for what it’s worth), and left.
Day 2: Southwest
Mount Rushmore, Iron Mountain Road, Custer, Needles Highway
We were only in Rapid City for two full days, which was poor planning on our part – or, more uninformed planning. We didn’t know how much there was to do in South Dakota. We smashed days two and three into one day, which was about a twelve-hour day. That did not include significant stops in any of the towns along the way. So, it can be done in one day, but if we had it to do again, we’d split the Southwest and Northwest loops into two days.
That’s how we’ve structured it here. Do as we say, not as we do.
The Southwest loop took us about six hours, and we stopped fairly frequently. That sounds long, but if you leave around 7 am you could conceivably be back in Rapid City by 2 pm, so very manageable by sightseeing-day standards.
- Around 40 minutes from Rapid City
- Opens at 5 am
- No Pets
- “Free” Admission but you have to pay to park, so admission is essentially $10 per car
- If you have an annual National Parks pass, it does not cover parking fees
It’s important to note that we are come-and-go tourists: We come. We gawk. We leave. We are not people who walk through every exhibit, or read every plaque, or take every tour. We probably never get our entry price’s-worth out of any tourist destination.
So, that being the kind of tourists we are, we spent about thirty minutes at Mount Rushmore. That included setting up our tripod a couple of times, going to the bathroom, and gawking our utmost.
There are exhibits. There are museums. We heard that you can even go behind the sculpture inside the mountain. We don’t know because we didn’t look it up because that’s not the kind of tourists we are.
But if you are, make sure you do some research and adjust your schedule accordingly.
Iron Mountain Road
- 17 Miles
- Leads from Rushmore to Custer State Park
This is a scenic drive that takes you through the Black Hills right to Custer State Park. It’s popular, slow, and winding, but really worth it if you have a steel stomach and you enjoy driving.
The highlights are the tunnels, which are usually only about 8 feet wide, and some of which perfectly frame Mount Rushmore from a distance. Luckily for us, the leaves had also started changing, which made for an especially pleasing drive.
Custer State Park
- $20 per car
- South Dakota State Park, so annual National Park Pass not accepted
We’d heard the Wildlife Loop through Custer State Park was worth our time, and the Iron Mountain Road leads right through it.
The loop was good, more of a nice drive than anything. We saw some buffalo from quite a distance, as well as a few big horn sheep and some burros.
We wouldn’t ENCOURAGE you to skip it, necessarily, but if you are looking for something to drop from the itinerary, this could be it.
- 14 miles
- Picks up at the exit of Custer State Park Wildlife Loop
Another scenic drive, but nothing like the Iron Mountain Road and absolutely not to be missed.
Conveniently, the Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park leads right to the Needles Highway. You can’t miss the signs for it.
Another winding mountain road that gives a new meaning to scenic “overlook” – to take in the sights, make sure you’re looking up. The rock faces have, over time, been whittled and sharpened into thin, massive points that resemble – you guessed it – needles. We’ve driven all over the country and it’s the only thing like it we’ve seen.
Day 3: Northwest
We recommend going to Devils Tower first and working your way back to Rapid City via the cute and kitschy towns along the way.
The Journey to Devil’s Tower will take you across state lines into Wyoming, and not just one or two steps over the state line, either. Allow two hours to drive the 100 miles from Rapid City.
Devils Tower, like many national parks, is the only thing worth seeing for miles – and you CAN see it for miles.
You can hike and climb there. Devils Tower also holds spiritual significance for many people, so we don’t want to discount that some may be visiting for that reason.
However, if, like us, you are mere box-checking tourists, here’s a tip: to get the full effect of Devils Tower, you don’t need to pay the $20 to go into the park. Just outside the gates are two general stores that have excellent views of Devils Tower. Perfect for taking pictures. Once you’re inside the park, your picture taking abilities are nil – you’re too close.
It may seem strange to truck out to the middle of nowhere to not go in the park, but if you have no plans to do anything once you’re inside besides read placards and take pictures, the $20 may not be worth it. Annual National Park Passes are accepted.
On the way back to Rapid City, you’ll go through a couple of towns, the most notorious of which are Deadwood and Spearfish.
Deadwood is known for being the home and burial pace of Wild Bill Hickock. The entire town is on the historic register and maintains the aesthetic of an Old Western town.
Spearfish was suggested to us by an ex-South Dakotan. We didn’t spend much time there, but we did stop for dinner at Steerfish, which he specifically recommended. It was incredibly delicious BBQ. That from a native Tennessean and a Carolinian. So, if you happen to be in rural South Dakota and you’re in the mood for BBQ, Steerfish is your place.
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