South Dakota: Where Buffaloes Roam and Skies are Not Cloudy All Day

A palace in South Dakota? Made of… corn? Are you serious???

Jeff was giving me the look of disbelief when I shared with him where our latest stop was going to be. He just couldn’t imagine that such a thing even existed and, if it did, how could it be at all impressive?

Fortunately, he humors me and we stopped.

The Worlds Only Corn Palace located in Mitchell, South Dakota is the perfect short stop for a long drive across what amounts to a whole lot of not much.

Upon driving up to the corn palace the best word to describe it is, well, interesting. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect even though our travel guides, The Charming Millers, had been here and absolutely LOVED it.

The corn palace is an event venue. Think small concerts, local basketball games, etc… When there are no events going on, it’s open to go inside for free, and worth doing so. Plan to spend at least an hour because there is a LOT of history on the walls around the main concourse (including upstairs).

And the history may be the most fascinating part. One might think the Corn Palace is a relatively recent thing. Maybe something that was created in the travel boom of the 50’s and 60’s to attract visitors. One might be wrong if one thought that.

In fact, the Corn Palace dates back to 1882! Mitchell, SD only had around 3000 residents at the time but they wanted to show that they had a great agricultural climate. While the first two Corn Palaces were more temporary and designed to host the annual Harvest Festival, a permanent building was completed in 1921.

We were there for the 100th anniversary for the permanent Corn Palace.

But WHY do people come?

The exterior of the Corn Palace is redecorated every year based on a theme. The murals are made entirely out of corn and other agricultural products from the area. This year was the 100th Anniversary.

After how much fun we had in Baraboo with all its Circus attractions, we are definitely going to miss next year’s theme.

We Hit the Wall

No matter where the heck you are in South Dakota and even into Minnesota, you can’t miss road signs for Wall Drug. But seriously…

Wall, SD is a very small town, population 766 in 2010, on the northern edge of the Badlands National Park.

Wall Drug is one of the world’s most well-known tourist attractions, thanks, in part, to the Wall Drug signs that are now located ALL OVER THE WORLD!

It all started with Dorothy and Ted Hustead when they bought a drug store in 1931, right at the start of the Great Depression. They made a commitment to give it five years. Since the town of Wall was so small, Dorothy had an idea to attract travelers from Route 16 by placing  a sign on the road. Advertising free ice water, the cars started coming. With the initial success, more signs were put up and more cars came.

Today, Wall Drugs signs can be seen as far as Morocco, Amsterdam and London.

Wall Drug has grown from a small-town drug store to a MASSIVE tourist attraction.

There are plenty of shops and tourist stores, a complete restaurant and even your typical drug store.

But there’s also a giant (life-sized?) T-Rex.

And a splash pad for the kids, or dogs, to play in on a hot day. Despite Rizzo’s love of catching waves, she was totally freaked out by the mini-geysers.

Wind Cave National Park

Since we are on our way back from being gone for almost 7 weeks, we opted not to spend as much time in the Black Hills of SD as one could easily do. This is at least a week long trip to get in all of the things there are to see here.

Instead, we picked a few key points to focus on that didn’t take us too far from our campground.

First up was Wind Cave National Park. We originally wanted to do Jewel Cave but learned that it is having an elevator system installed and the tours are limited. So we set out on what was supposed to be a short 30 minute drive from our campsite. Unfortunately, no one informed Google that the main road to Wind Cave was closed for construction. Our short drive turned into quite the adventure through back roads that weren’t paved! It’s a good thing we weren’t towing the trailer and had a nice sturdy truck to get us there. It’s a good reminder that…

At several points on the drive, I was about to say, “Let’s just forget it and turn around.” I’m glad I didn’t.

Wind Cave is one of the largest mapped caves in the world with over 151 miles of the cave currently mapped.

It’s name came from the first non-indigenous person to discover the cave. He realized that, when he placed his hat over the small hole in the ground that it would either blow out or get sucked in.

While Wind Cave doesn’t have the typical stalactites and stalagmites most people think of when it comes to caves, it does have an incredible amount of boxwork. In fact, 95% of the boxwork in the world is located in this cave.

As far back as the late 1800’s Wind Cave was a tourist attraction. A young gentleman would take tours into the cave for the small sum of $5! Now just imagine: First, $5 back then was equivalent to just over $150 today. You had to REALLY want to go on an adventure at that price.

Also, they didn’t have the modern conveniences of electric lights throughout the caves. They didn’t even have battery operated flashlights. Tours were conducted strictly by candlelight. They had no idea the vast structures they were crawling through.

Custer State Park Wildlife Loop – Where Buffalo Roam

After making it back (via a slightly shorter route) to the campground, we picked up Rizzo and headed out to do the Custer State Park Wildlife Loop, because buffalo…

This loop is the most likely place to see buffalo while in the Black Hills. The park maintains a herd of around 3000 buffalo and they can often be found stopping traffic along the route.

While we didn’t get stopped by a buffalo-jam, we did have another kind of animal-jam on our way to the Wind Cave. This little calf thought he was pretty tough and could take on our ¾ ton truck.  Even at around 500 or 600lbs, he was just no match.

In addition to the buffalo, we were treated to the awesome experience of wild burros! These guys definitely weren’t afraid of people.

It reminded us of our trip to Lake Pleasant this past New Year’s. I guess we have a think for asses…

After visiting the park, we headed into town and found another nod to the FAST fiberglass graveyard.

The Rush of Mount Rushmore

We took the Iron Mountain Road to Mount Rushmore. This road was quite an awesome experience. Our campground is proud of the road they are located on and have an entire theme dedicated to the experience.

I was fortunate to catch a few great shots and one that was truly a lucky “is that photoshopped” moment. It is photoshopped but only to clean it up a bit since it was taken through our windshield in with little chance to get things just right.

You may have seen it in pictures and I’ll even share a few here but there is one conclusion EVERYONE who’s ever been to Mount Rushmore has made. You just can’t appreciate the grandeur of it without being here in person.

We splurged on the trip and purchased a very special piece of art for our home. I spent a lot of time chatting with the artist, Lane Kendrick, and purchased this beautiful print which she added a Remarque to just for us.

After Mount Rushmore, we went into Keystone, SD where we stopped in for pizza at veteran-owned Cruizzers. It was good pizza and I was brought to tears by their tribute to our fallen heroes in Afghanistan.

While I’m feeling patriotic, don’t miss Dahl’s Chainsaw Art in Keystone where you can sit on an enormous wood chair or check out the world’s largest Big Foot who also happens to be a patriot.

And, in the afternoon, we hiked up American Flag Trail.

Next week, on to Colorado and then homeward bound.