My husband and I have a combined bucket list goal of visiting each of the 50 states together. This goal equates to a whole lot of traveling. We both hold down demanding full time jobs (me as a social worker and him as an alarm/fire system technician) so an all-out road trip across the country, albeit our dream come true, is completely unrealistic until we retire. Instead we settle for little excursions here and there, as often as possible.
When I gave Chad first choice for our recent vacation, Mt. Rushmore was his priority, so expedia became my best friend while I searched vacation deals. Pretty soon we had 2 plane tickets, a rental car and four nights in Rapid City for less than one economy ticket to Europe. Score!
Coming from Los Angeles, Rapid City was a bit of a shock to the system. It is the 2nd largest city in South Dakota but manages to maintain an endearing small-town feel. The laid-back vibe was admittedly a shock to our Angelino systems but we began winding down from our busy lives as soon as we pulled out of the airport and realized we were in the American heartland. Windows down, we breathed in the clean country air and enjoyed the sights of deer grazing lazily on the hillsides.
We used our smartphones for mapping routes and were confused by the heavy traffic indicators. Where our phones indicated congested areas, we found just a few cars. In Los Angeles, a heavily congested indicator means you might want to bring a book! Finding restaurants open past 10pm was a bit of a challenge but, with a bit of effort, we learned our way around quickly. I was ecstatic to find an endless supply of cheese curds at practically every eatery. A child-hood favorite of mine ( growing up,we often visited family in Wisconsin), they are practically unheard of in California!
Rapid City may be located in western South Dakota, but the best sites in the state are all within driving distance. Mt. Rushmore, our draw to the state, is just a mere 30 minute drive from town. So close, in fact, that it’s worth doing the trip twice – once to see it during the day and enjoy a beautiful nature hike along the trail, and again at night to see the founding fathers lit up in all their glory! The monument is lit nightly from 8:30 to 11:00 during peak season and is accompanied by a presentation about its history and the presidents it features. Definitely not to be missed!
Located in the heart of the Black Hills National Forest, Mt. Rushmore is surrounding by a seemingly endless amount of attractions. From the Crazy Horse Monument ( a Mt. Rushmore-like sculpture that has been in the works since the 1960’s) to Custer National Park with its picturesque scenery and impressive array of resident wildlife, you can wander the entire forest at your leisure. The roads are not only well-maintained but are sometimes tourist-attractions themselves. The Iron Mountain Road, connecting Custer State Park with Mt. Rushmore, is an 18 mile trek of winding roads with corkscrew turns and tunnels that frame the impressive presidential bust in the background.
From Rapid City, head off in the other direction into the Badlands National Park for a complete change of scenery. A far cry from the forested Black Hills and Custer, the badlands is an expanse of countryside filled with bizarre rock formations of all colors and sizes. Big horn sheep, antelope,bison and prairie dogs dot the landscape, adding to the amazing sights and sounds of the park. There is nothing in the world quite like the little screaming noises prairie dogs make when talking to each other!
Wall Drug is located just north of the Badlands and is a legitimate attraction in its own right. Impossible to miss, it’s located in town of Wall, with billboards advertising it a state away in each direction. Once a haven for weary travelers,Wall Drug is famous for offering free ice water. While it still offers this refreshing nourishment, it is now a tourist haven offering every nic nac imaginable and boasting a 6 foot rabbit, a miniature Mt. Rushmore, and an opportunity to pan for gold! We were a little overwhelmed at first but found ourselves going back for a second visit after a drive through the Badlands.
South Dakota is one of the most beautiful states in the country and as the home of Mt. Rushmore, it is a definite must-see for anyone interested in exploring America. Road-trip friendly, it has easily navigated and well-maintained roads and highways, as well as great sites and attractions along the way.
Stay tuned as my 50 state adventures continue!