On the Road in South Dakota


From movies to monuments, Karen Yates takes the American road trip less travelled, through the Badlands of South Dakota…

Ever had the feeling that you’d really like to get away from it all? Me too, which is why when my American pen pal Randi got in touch and said, “Come to America,” I dropped everything and went. Incidentally, we started writing when we were teenagers (back in the days when people actually wrote letters), and our mothers were also pen pals when they too were teenagers, so this is a road trip with a back story almost as long as those US highways.

From Randi’s home in Minneapolis, the city that was home to the late Prince and more appropriately birthplace of the freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the road to Rapid City, where we were to spend the first night, is a 10-hour, pretty-much-dead-straight drive with farmland as far as the eye can see. This is the setting of many a cowboy and native American movie – Dances with Wolves, for instance, is just one of the films shot in South Dakota.

Although the landscape eventually changes to become rockier and drier, there is very little to distract from vast open plains topped with a huge skyscape other than massive road-side signs telling you how many miles to go until you reach Wall Drug. I’m told there’s even a Wall Drug sign in China.

This Western-style drug store in the town of Wall is the place to go for Lakota (the preferred name for Sioux) Black Hills Gold jewellery (don’t miss the poignant black-and-white photos of Lakota families on the walls), cowboy gear, raccoon tails and gifts galore. Stock up on liquids here, because the next stop is the Badlands National Park, 244,000 acres of huge sandstone rock formations and prairie grass where you may well encounter prairie dogs, bison, bighorn sheep and, if you are unlucky, rattlesnakes. Much of the landscape is how one might imagine the moon: rocky, jutting, otherworldly. Considering that fossils and prehistoric bones are still being uncovered, it’s not hard to imagine the giant carnivorous mosasaurs who swam here millions of years ago when the area was under water.

Forty-five minutes further down the road, in the foothills of the Black Hills, is Rapid City and the characterful Alex Johnson Hotel. It was built in 1927 by its namesake, who became an honorary Lakota member ­– in the spacious entrance hall, a picture of him in Lakota headdress hangs over a hand-carved fireplace surrounded by original artworks and carvings celebrating the hotel’s Lakota past.

Presidents Coolidge and Eisenhower stayed here, as did Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint during the making of North by Northwest. Upstairs is an elegant ballroom with 1920s fittings, and at the very top of the hotel is the Vertex Sky Bar, with its dramatic fire pit and views of the city and the Black Hills beyond. Cocktails include the excellent Heather Hendrick’s; the Black-Berry Hills Smash (with bourbon) and Ye Olde Manhattan, a cross between a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned.

As you hit the road in the morning, it’s worth a drive around Rapid City to spot the bronze statues of former presidents including Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy and Clinton as well as a Lakota chief among the gas stations and coffee shops. No wonder Rapid is also known as ‘the city of presidents’.

From Rapid City, it takes about 40 minutes to reach the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore, where presidents Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Lincoln’s faces are sculpted into the side of the mountain, and where the final section of aforementioned North by Northwest was filmed.

The massive sculpture is the vision of Gutzon Borglum, who together with 400 workers created these colossal faces between 1927 and 1941. It’s worth watching the short film in the information centre to understand just how demanding was the process of sculpting the faces from solid rock and how dynamite was used to remove only certain sections of the mountain. You can also see Borglum’s original scaled-down models of the presidents’ faces and watch video footage of the original creators discussing their incredible experiences, including surviving snapped cables and playing in the work baseball team.

Seventeen miles away is the 563ft Crazy Horse Memorial, another astonishing creative vision, this one, believe it or not, dwarfing Rushmore, where the heads each measure 60ft. What you can see here is the 87½-foot face of 19th-century Lakota leader Crazy Horse emerging from the slope of the mountain. His steely gaze extends past the ledge that will one day become his arm and out over the Black Hills. Eventually, he’ll be pointing at his land, where his ancestors lie.

Unlike Rushmore, which has National Monument status, Crazy Horse Memorial is funded entirely by entrance fees and private donations. Again, it’s a labour of love, this time the vision of Korczak Ziolkowski, who arrived in South Dakota to work on Rushmore but was asked by Lakota chief Henry Standing Bear to help create a mountain carving. “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes also,” wrote Standing Bear to Ziolkowski in the early 1940s.

A hero Crazy Horse certainly was, having helped to defeat General George Custer and his cavalry in 1876 at the Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand. So great was the project, Ziolkowski didn’t commit straight away, instead volunteering for service in World War II and taking part in the Normandy landings at Omaha Beach. He later returned to the Black Hills and in 1947 began work on the Crazy Horse sculpture.

After enduring broken bones, back surgeries and heart attacks, Ziolkowski died in 1982, before the face was revealed. His wife, Ruth, took charge and the face was finally unveiled in 1998. Today, ten of the Ziolkowski’s offspring work on the project – the men on the mountain and the women at the visitor centre. Much speculation surrounds when the project might be completed, many think possibly not in our lifetimes.

As well as Crazy Horse, a drive through magnificent Custer State Park, with its vast fertile landscapes, includes the Needles Highway, where you’re likely to see large herds of bison and their red-coloured young, as well as burros (wild donkeys), mountain goats and plenty of deer against dramatic stalagmite-like rock formations and Norway fir trees, making this highway arguably as beautiful as the Badlands. London certainly seems a world away.

To stay, Blue Bell Lodge cabins are cosy with comfy beds, a kitchen, bathroom and a stuffed deer head in the main room. Don’t expect mod cons – this is simple, outdoorsy living and a fire pit comes as standard. The restaurant serves simple, wholesome food, including bison steak and burgers, and the bar, where you can sit on Western-style saddles instead of bar stools and sip a large selection of American craft ales, wines and cocktails while contemplating more stuffed animal heads and a big wild turkey hanging from the ceiling. Taxidermists must do well here. If you like family fun, you can join the Svenson family between 5.30 and 8pm each day and jump aboard a chuck wagon excursion accompanied by country-style singing and, at the destination, a choice of steak or burger served with coleslaw, melon, cornbread, potato salad and a cookie to enjoy while the band plays all-American songs from Route 66 to Ring of Fire.

Not far from Blue Bell Lodge is the scenic Sylvan Lodge. Appetisers to enjoy in the restaurant include buffalo meatballs, curry-fried shrimp (king prawn) and fried mozzarella balls in a rich and spicy sauce; buffalo steak, elk chops (also native to the area) and pan-fried trout are among the main dishes on offer. The rooms have balconies overlooking the fir-tree tops and Sylvan lake towards the mountains, making this the perfect place to share a bottle of red and watch the stars, so vivid against the dark sky, while listening to the whispering pines as the breeze gently rustles through the tree tops. It’s a far, far cry from London. Getting away from it all indeed.

For more information about South Dakota, including where to stay, what to see and do, visit www.travelsouthdakota.com.