Rapid City, South Dakota is one of those vacation destinations that may not be high on everyone’s bucket list. But as my wife and I discovered on a recent three-day road trip, this town, surrounded by the Black Hills, is so packed with fun and interesting adventures that three days is hardly enough to see and do everything available.
The drive from our home in Fort Collins, Colorado took about six hours among gentle rolling hills and ranchland. Along the way, we passed the city of Lost Springs, Wyoming, designated by the U.S. Bicentennial Commission as the smallest incorporated town in America with a population of four.
We arrived in Rapid City in the early afternoon with hearty appetites. After checking into our hotel, The Comfort Suites on North Elk Vale Road, we headed out for lunch. We had read good reviews about the Colonial House Restaurant and Bar so we decided to check it out.
The owners of this family-run business, Kevin and Vicky, take real pride in serving home cooked meals made from scratch. This is just the sort of place that makes you feel that you are eating in grandma’s kitchen.
My flat iron steak was tender, lean and flavorful and it came with a bulb of roasted garlic and thin cut, crispy home fries. Their Cordon Bleu trained pastry chef arrives early each day to prepare delectable pies, pastries and caramel rolls that sell out each morning.
In contrast with the traditional American cuisine, the restaurant’s eclectic décor features three one-of-a kind paintings from the movie The Wizard of Oz. These were commissioned by the owner with local artist Richard DuBois and one depicts the house and the witch flying through the air in a dark tornado.
Before you leave, check out their gift shop and take home a box of their cashew crunch. These are addicting little squares of joy and were once reviewed in a segment of 60 Minutes with Andy Rooney.
After lunch, we drove a short 30-minute ride to Mt. Rushmore. Seeing pictures is one thing but to actually view these four presidential visages immortalized in stone is truly breathtaking. The park also has a bookstore, cafeteria and small museum with a 15-minute documentary film about the creation of the monument. Classic movie aficionados will also remember that the film North by Northwest was partially filmed here although the chase scene across the faces was done on a sound stage.
It took the Danish-American born sculptor Gutzon Borglum and his team 14 years to carve the faces of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln out of solid granite. His original plans included more of their bodies and a hall of records but fate had other plans and Borglum died in Chicago in 1941 following surgical complications.
At dusk, there is a very moving ceremony where the faces are slowly illuminated to the strains of patriotic music. At the same time, all military, active as well as veterans, are invited to come on stage and be honored by the grateful audience for their service.
After a good night’s rest, we drove to downtown Rapid City for breakfast at Tally’s Silver Spoon, located on the corner of 6th and St. Joseph’s streets. This isn’t your typical coffee shop but one that has a modern look and unusual menu. Breakfast items included duck confit with sweet potatoes and smoked salmon Benedict. I opted for the chicken fried steak with country gravy, a dish that was enough to feed three. Tally’s also serves lunch and dinner and has an extensive wine list.
Rapid City is also known as the City of Presidents because there are about 41 life-sized bronze sculptures of past presidents placed downtown on almost every corner. We spent some time exploring the area that has retail shops, restaurants and a microbrewery located in an old firehouse. In fact, on the drive up, there were billboards advertising the Firehouse Brewing Company along with full-sized vintage fire trucks.
We’re always looking for something unusual and different when we travel and here in town we found such a place between buildings known as Art Alley. Located in the north alley of St. Joseph’s and west of 6th Street, this is an amazing place that any photographer would love. Strung overhead is a spider web grouping of electrical wires and transformers with colorful graffiti art painted on the walls on either side. Using the walls as a canvas, spray paint artists ply their trade on bricks and stucco, creating bold, iconic and ever changing frescos covering an entire city block.
For our next stop, we took Highway 90 east for an hour- long drive to the small town of Wall. Wall you say? That’s what we wondered as well. Seems that way back in 1931, Ted Hustead and his wife Dorothy had a small drug store here but were desperate for customers. Dorothy came up with the novel idea of offering free ice water to thirsty travelers to entice them off the highway to visit. It worked and the rest, as they say, is history.
Today, Wall Drug is still run by the original family and has one of the largest private collections of Western art gracing its, forgive the pun, walls. Their café can seat up to 530 people, and during summer months, the town swells with thousands of visitors.
We tried the drugstore’s legendary hot beef sandwich and found it tasty and filling. There are also homemade fruit pies and ice cream, $.05 coffee and, of course, free ice water.
From humble beginnings, the town has expanded to a long city block with all sorts of family-style attractions, retail shops and entertainment. If you continue east of Wall, you will come to the Badlands National Park. This 244,300 acres takes some time to explore and is known for its scenery, wildlife and foliage.
From Wall, we headed back west and took Exit 67 off of Hwy 90 to see the South Dakota Air and Space Museum adjacent to Ellsworth Air Force Base. This is a free attraction, and even before you enter the museum, you will be amazed at the number of aircraft displayed out front. Among the collection are huge planes, including a B-52 and jets flown in various wars.
As I started taking photos, I heard the roar of a jet engine and taking off from Ellsworth right over my head was a huge B1 bomber with the sun glistening off its fuselage. This was truly an inspiring sight. Inside the museum are interesting exhibits, including memorabilia from past conflicts, ordnance displays and even one thermonuclear bomb.
Still being full from our meal at Wall Drug, we decided to skip dinner and head back to our hotel for a quick nap before heading into town to see a movie.
Our hotel offers a serve yourself full breakfast, and after a morning meal of yogurt, fruit, eggs and ham, we made our way to another major South Dakota attraction— the Crazy Horse Memorial. This was about an hour’s drive but is both scenic and pleasant. Along the way, we saw many other attractions including Reptile Gardens, various caves and even a wild animal bear park.
Like Mt. Rushmore, there is an admission fee to Crazy Horse that includes parking. Our first stop was the welcome center. Inside is a huge multi-room facility with Native American artifacts and paintings. One of the vendors displaying her handcrafted jewelry was Lula Red Cloud, the great, great granddaughter of Chief Red Cloud. Humble and soft-spoken, this accomplished woman has earned a master’s degree and one of her hand-stitched quilts is on display at the Smithsonian Museum.
Before heading out to the monument, we watched a short film about the making of this site, which is still in progress. One interesting fact is that all four heads on Mt. Rushmore will fit into the head and hair of Crazy Horse!
In 1939, Boston born sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who also worked on Mt. Rushmore, was invited by the elders of the Lakota tribe to carve an image of Crazy Horse into the 600-foot Thunderhead Mountain. Toiling in almost complete anonymity for five years, Ziolkowski fought incredible odds to begin what would become a lifelong dream. Working with a single jackhammer and an old compressor that kept breaking down, he also fought the elements and bad health for a good part of his time on the mountain.
He had started work in 1948 with the first dynamite blast that removed 10 tons of rock. Work has continued ever since and when KZ, as he was known, died in 1982, his family took over and is carrying on the project until its completion.
Unlike Mt. Rushmore, which only allows visitors to view the faces from afar, here tour buses will take you right up to the base of the 90-foot sculpture. Visitors can also walk out on what will be Crazy Horse’s outstretched hand.
We spent several hours here exploring the exhibits and retail shops, and there is a restaurant on site serving, among other things, buffalo stew and burgers. Before you leave, be sure to stop at one of their concessions for a free souvenir piece of granite from the mountain.
From the monument, we drove north along Highway 385 and stopped at the town of Hill City. This is where we stumbled upon Teddy Bear Town, home to the Guinness World Record holder of the world’s largest teddy bear collection. Owner Jackie Miley has collected teddy bears from all over the world and today she has more than 7,600 of all sizes and types.
Just around the corner is the South Dakota State Railroad Museum as well as a privately funded railroad— the 1880 Train. For a fee, you can take a scenic ride between Hill City and the historic town of Keystone.
As unlikely as it seems, there are several wine tasting rooms in this area, including one with a large billboard proudly advertising their Red Ass wine. Intrigued, we deviated off of Hwy 385 for a small taste. Red Ass is made from raspberries and rhubarb and they have many others made from various fruits and honey.
Continuing along Hwy 385 to our next destination of Deadwood, we encountered mountainous terrain with pine trees and large, sprawling meadows. This was broken abruptly, however, by a little enclave called Boondocks. Apparently somebody who loved the 50s and 60s created an entire village dedicated to this period complete with a 50s style diner, classic cars, museum filled with vintage Studebakers, and complete set of carnival rides for the kiddies. A sign on one of the walls declares that Boondocks was built in memory of the lost children who never had a chance to play.
After a root beer float and some lively chat with the folks, we were back on our way reaching the infamous town of Deadwood in about 10 minutes. The name might sound familiar as this was the home of James Butler Hickok and Martha Jane Canary Burke both better known as Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.
Hickok was assassinated after a card game, and when he died, his cards fell on the floor showing a combination of black aces and eights, which became known as the dead man’s hand. Both Wild Bill and Calamity Jane are resting eternally side by side in the Mt. Moriah Cemetery and for a $1 admission fee, you can visit them and a host of notable Civil War veterans on what is commonly known as Boot Hill.
The town of Deadwood has quite a few casinos as well as restaurants and souvenir shops but the name itself is reason enough to say you’ve been here.
After a long day, we made our way back to our hotel to conclude our quick three-day exploration of this beautiful part of Rapid City and South Dakota. The people are friendly, the hospitality is genuine and we really just scratched the surface in terms of all there is to see and do.
For more information, visit www.visitrapidcity.com. They have a helpful trip planner on their site that will make your vacation planning experience a great one.
Where to stay:
Comfort Suites Rapid City
1333 N Elk Vale Road
Rapid City, SD 57703
This hotel is located in a new area of town, close to the freeway and major arteries that lead into the city. They have nice quiet rooms, comfortable beds and a free full breakfast each morning.
FTC Disclosure: Although the Accommodations and meals at The Colonial House and Tally’s Silver Spoon were sponsored, this didn’t affect my opinion in reviewing them.