When you have a goal to visit all 50 states, and you realize you don’t have plans to check off any new ones in the coming year, you start brainstorming ways to fix that. I typically like to take advantage of holidays when possible, and when I started thinking of what I could do over 4th of July weekend, I somehow decided visiting Mount Rushmore (and therefore, South Dakota) was a good idea. A number of other stops were bolted onto this plan, and the end result was a 6-day, 5-state, 2,329-mile, Wild, Wild West Roadtrip!
It wasn’t until a few hours before I left St. Louis that I realized I would be driving through Kansas City where I could have some delicious BBQ – one of my favorite foods! I have a very reliable resource when it comes to all things BBQ, and he quickly replied to my inquiry with four possible dinner choices. I ended up at Jack Stack – partly because of location, partly because I could eat at the bar and avoid a line, and partly because of its reputation for being delicious! My pulled pork was good, but the jalapeño cornbread with honey butter stole the show!
The next morning, I headed for Omaha. I drove through torrential rain, but thankfully, that was the only bad weather I faced on my trip. Driving into Nebraska meant checking off state #42!
My first order of business was a visit to the Omaha Zoo. A colleague told me about this zoo and that it’s one of the top zoos in the country. St. Louis has a pretty stellar zoo, so I wanted to see how it compared. Turns out, TripAdvisor named it the “World’s Best Zoo” in 2014. I love zoos, and it really was incredible. However, admission is $19.95, and the St. Louis Zoo is still free. Thankfully, the weather was really comfortable, and almost all of the animals were out playing! It was so fun to see so many of them showing off!
After the zoo, I headed downtown to visit the Old Market – one of the city’s historic neighborhoods. There were a lot of antique shops, which were fun to see. I went to Ted & Wally’s for ice cream and had to try one of their daily flavors – Velveeta Cheese & Crackers! While I didn’t order a scoop of it, I have to say, it tasted JUST LIKE the real thing. How they made that into ice cream, I’ll never know!
I stayed at Magnolia Hotel downtown, which was a beautiful, historic boutique hotel. The next morning, I had breakfast at 11 Worth Cafe, which was a dive with some delicious sausage gravy (which they put on everything)!
Before leaving town, I had to visit the Bob Kerry Pedestrian Bridge, so I could stand in two places at once – Iowa & Nebraska! (I laughed thinking about the scene in “A Walk to Remember” where Landon takes Jamie to the state line, so she could fulfill a life goal of being in two places at once – ha!)
I snapped a picture of this amazing sculpture, because I thought it was just that – amazing! It’s called “Labor,” and I could just feel how hard the men are working. I love that it’s also a fountain. The gold lines on the statue mark the water levels from the Missouri River floods in 2011 (the lowest line) and 1952 (the highest line).
Onward to South Dakota – state #43! I drove from Omaha to Mount Rushmore with two stops for some epic roadside attractions.
First, the World’s Only Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota! While the exterior is grand, I was shocked to find that it’s basically a gym / multi-purpose space inside. Each year, the exterior design changes. It is made up of ears of corn! This year, the theme was Rock of Ages. Wikipedia tells all about the history, which is quite comical.
[Can you see all of the ears of corn in the murals?!]
The next stop was Wall Drug. Several friends told me to stop at Wall Drug, and I just assumed it was some kind of quirky drug store with souvenirs of I-don’t-know-what. Someone told me to watch out for all of the many, many, MANY roadsigns about Wall Drug, and I’m so glad they did, because counting all of them became a game. From the time I spotted my first one somewhere near the South Dakota border, until I pulled into the parking lot, I counted 81 signs for Wall Drug. Everything from promotions from People, USA Today, Reader’s Digest to a lot of signs touting their 5 cent coffee and free ice water. I (carefully) snapped a few to be able to show you. Don’t worry; there are very few cars in South Dakota!
As it turns out, Wall Drug is so much more than a drug store. It’s almost like a mall. There’s a number of different stores within the store. Lots of souvenirs for sale, but also items you would typically find in a drug store, home decor, toys, a full-service restaurant, ice cream shop, an outdoor playground, art galleries, and a giant T-Rex that comes to life with a roar every once in a while. It was so strange! I later found out that their donuts are delicious, so I stopped again a few days later to have one for breakfast.
After those outrageous stops, it was time to find Mount Rushmore National Memorial. People had undersold Mount Rushmore, so my expectations were pretty low. (Though after watching Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest the week before my trip, I was wishing there was a way to climb on the faces!) So I was pleasantly surprised with how much I loved it! I arrive about an hour before sunset. This gave me enough time to see it in the daylight and to walk the Presidential Trail. They do a lighting ceremony each evening, but after being in the car all day, I didn’t want to get stuck in a traffic jam leaving the monument after the ceremony, so I lingered near the parking (vs. in the outdoor amphitheatre with all of the other visitors) and made a getaway as soon as they lit up the faces.
Construction began in 1927 by Gutzon Borglum. He chose the four presidents featured on the monument – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. To him, these four represented the most important events in American history – gaining independence from Great Britain, authoring the Declaration of Independence & the Louisiana Purchase, constructing the Panama Canal, and abolishing slavery & holding the nation together through the Civil War, respectively. The explanations given about how they used dynamite to remove the weak stone and to expose the granite they would eventually carve, the models they used, the math they used to create that model at a much larger scale…everything about its creation fascinated me! The heads are 60 feet tall!
It was finished in 1941, and there were no fatalities! This is particularly amazing, since they were using so much dynamite and hanging off the side of the mountain with bungees and harnesses! Washington’s face was finished first and revealed on July 4, 1934 – 83 years ago! It was fun to be at such an iconic place for 4th of July weekend!
[I assumed there would be a long walk to get to them, but I walked up out of the parking garage, and BOOM – there they were!]
[The US State flags line the pathway to the monument]
The Presidential Trail takes you on a loop where you can get closer to them. It also affords a lot of different angles.
I learned an important fact about Thomas Jefferson…
…I just know we would’ve bonded over ice cream, if we would’ve met in person! All of these years, I had no idea he’s who I have to thank for my ice cream obsession.
I lingered to see them lit up, but my iPhone camera couldn’t capture it in the dark. And honestly, I think I liked seeing the detail of it in the daylight.
For the next two nights, I stayed at Sylvan Lake Lodge in Custer State Park. It was really dark when I arrived, so it was fun to wake up and see a beautiful scene outside my window!
I went into the town of Custer for breakfast at Baker’s Bakery & Cafe. Their slogan is, “You’ll Love Our Buns!” I tried one of the small caramel ones, and it was delicious. They had some that were probably 3-4 times the size of the small one – at least the size of the plate!
After breakfast, I went to Jewel Cave National Monument – the third longest cave in the world! They’ve uncovered more than 189 miles, but they assume they’ve only explored approximately 5% of the cave! I did the Scenic Tour, which is a 1/2 mile trail way down in the cave. I took loads of pictures, because it was so cool, but the lighting is really tricky, so none of them turned out. The one I am going to include is of the 22-foot long Cave Ribbon. It’s the longest in the world, and yes, it looks like bacon!
I went to Bobkat’s Purple Pie Place for lunch to refuel before continuing the adventure.
In the afternoon, I visited the Crazy Horse Memorial. This is an incredible undertaking. When completed, it will be one of the largest statues in the world. But, it’s all privately funded, so it’s slow going. In the photo below, the white statue in the forefront shows what the statue will look like when complete. In the background, you can see the progress made to date.
After seeing Crazy Horse, I drove the Needles Highway. Again, I was SHOCKED at how cool it was! It felt like I was stopping the car every few feet to snap another picture.
[At two different points, you drive through the Needles!]
[And I particularly loved the eye of the needle in this rock!]
After driving through the Needles, I drove the Wildlife Loop Road. In only one day, I had seen a variety of deer, cattle, prairie dogs, etc. Even some bison fenced in on farms. But the Wildlife Loop is supposed to have most of those things roaming wild. The prairie dogs were fun (but hard to photograph), so I was on a mission to find some bison! Just when I was giving up and ready to be out of the car, I noticed one making his way down the middle of the road. A car had been driving alongside him, but by the time I made it to where he was, it was just the two of us. I rolled down the window and snapped a few pictures – one of which I love…
Then, he got closer (like, within a foot of my car!!), and I got nervous that he would headbutt me through the open window (is that even possible?!), so I rolled up the window in self-defense and took two more really poor photos proving how close he got!
There were a whole lot more out in the fields, but I’m so glad I got an up-close view of one!
I was debating with my family about the difference between bison and buffalo. I don’t know the answer, but the photo caption from this article seems to clear it up.
In honor of my new friend, I ate a bison burger for dinner on the terrace of my hotel.
The next day, I headed to Devils Tower, Wyoming – state #44!
I had never heard of this place, but one week before my trip, a colleague told me about it and encouraged me to go. (Sadly, she passed away the day before I left for this trip, so while I can’t share with her how much I loved all of these new places, I’m grateful she clued me into all of these “must see” destinations.) My hair stylist confirmed that it’s amazing and mentioned Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” I watched the movie the week before my trip in preparation. (For those of you who’ve seen the movie, Devils Tower is where the aliens land.)
While on my Jewel Cave tour, I learned that Devils Tower was America’s first National Monument! It’s wild driving up to it, because the land around it is so flat.
[A patriotic shot in honor of 4th of July!]
I hiked the Tower Trail, which runs around the base of the monument – taking it in from every angle! People climb this thing, which is wild!
The Native Americans view this place as sacred, and there were several prayer bundles hanging in the trees around Devils Tower.
Coincidentally, some of my St. Louis colleagues were on a very similar roadtrip, and we ended up at Devils Tower the same morning. We got to have lunch together after visiting the monument! They are expats who are taking advantage of seeing as much of the US as possible while they are living here. I love that!
I spent the night at Hotel Alex Johnson in Rapid City, South Dakota. This is where the fictitious George Kaplan character is scheduled to stay in “North By Northwest.” It’s also right in the heart of Rapid City.
I walked through Art Alley…
…had dinner at Firehouse Brewing Company, and had some delicious ice cream at The Silver Lining Creamery, where I tried their Lavender Honey flavor – yum!
On my final day, I visited the Badlands. They go on and on and on, which is amazing. It’s like being on the surface of the moon or some other planet! I really enjoyed driving the main road through them. It was probably 30 miles long, and again, I was pulling over constantly to take pictures or to take a short walk. It was really hot, and I was driving all the way back to St. Louis after this, so I didn’t do any of the longer hikes.
[After seeing this sign, I was on guard for the rest of my time in the Badlands – yikes!!]
All I can say in summary is “who knew?!” I had no idea how fabulous southwest South Dakota would be! I’m so glad I got the crazy urge to check off some more states. While it was A LOT of time in the car (I had enough time to listen to THREE audiobooks), it was so fun to see so many unusual places! I highly recommend this adventure to anyone looking to take a wild, wild west roadtrip!