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The long, long RV Trip, Week 19: Amazing and amusing South Dakota attractions

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This week’s stops at South Dakota Tourist Attractions:

  • Porter Sculpture Park, Montrose, SD
  • Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, Chamberlain, SD
  • The World’s Only Corn Palace, Mitchell, SD
  • Pioneer Auto Show, Murdo, SD
  • Feeding the World’s Fattest Prairie Dogs, Jackson County, SD
  • Badlands National Park
  • Wall Drug, Wall, SD

In this week’s episode I leave the beauty of Minnesota behind and enter the equally beautiful but different South Dakota. RVing here provided so many different tourist attractions to visit, from the cute and kitschy, to the odd and unusual, to the breathtaking magnificence of nature.

I always love a good tourist trap of the classic roadside Americana type, and this week offers a whole lot of that, along with one of our most spectacular national parks.

I quickly discovered that South Dakota rest areas are not very friendly to overnighting RVers. Strange how vastly different rest area rules can be from state to state. In South Dakota, you are only allowed to stay three hours.

Instead, on my first night, I found clean and safe overnight parking on the street in an industrial area near a Walmart in Rapid City.

Porter Sculpture Park

Porter Sculpture Park

The next morning, I drove to what has been my favorite Harvest Host location of all (so far), and my favorite of all the South Dakota tourist attractions I visited, the Porter Sculpture Park. In fact, I loved this place so much, I wrote a separate article about it.

For here, I just want to say I have had a lot of high-watermark Harvest Hosts experiences, but the Porter Sculpture Park takes the prize for most unusual. Harvests Hosts offers lots of wineries, and breweries, and farms, and alpaca ranches. And they have all been wonderful, but there is NOTHING else like the Porter Sculpture park.

Check out my article about it here, and if you are ever driving through South Dakota, be sure to stop. It’s off Interstate 90 at exit 374, easy to get to, and there’s plenty of room for RV parking and turning around.

Dignity with Lewis and Clark

Dignity statue, Lewis and Clark Center

As I was leaving, artist Wayne Porter advised me to be sure to stop at the rest area in Chamberlain, as it’s far more than just a rest area.

He said that at Exit 264 off the I-90, I would find the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, a free museum that traces the expedition through these parts, and a piece of metal art that I just “had to see.” If the artist who created the Porter Sculpture Park says there is another nearby piece of art I need to see, I am going to listen.

Interactive maps, exhibits, artifacts, and tableaus illustrate this fascinating part of American history, and Lewis and Clark’s challenges and triumphs. You could easily spend a few hours in the free museum without even realizing it.

But the bigger attraction of the rest area in Chamberlain, both literally and figuratively, stands outside.

“Dignity of Earth and Sky” a 50-foot tall stainless steel sculpture of a graceful Native American woman, clad in a quilt of stainless steel blue diamonds designed to move in the wind, towers over the land.

Representing the rich Native American culture in South Dakota, it was impossible not to be moved by the art’s beauty, grace and, yes, Dignity.

World’s only Corn Palace

South Dakota Tourist Attractions, World's Only Corn Palace

Next on my itinerary was Mitchell, home of the World’s Only Corn Palace.

I used to collect vintage postcards and have been seeing spectacular images of this attraction since I was a kid. I was always intrigued by its odd beauty, but I had never seen it in person.

Some 500,000 tourists come each year to gawk at this folk art masterpiece. And each year brings a new theme and decorations.

I got there just in time. That’s because 2022’s circus theme was just starting to be removed.

South Dakota Tourist Attractions - Corn Palace

So exactly what is the Corn Palace? It is an event venue where concerts, shows, special events, etc., take place. But what makes it a tourist attraction is that each year it gets decorated, and I mean the ENTIRE BUILDING gets covered, in elaborate murals made entirely of corn.

The buildings have changed a few times in the interim, but this practice has been going on in Mitchell since 1892. Today’s Corn Palace is a huge auditorium, accented with Moorish Minarets, just as it was back in the 1930s.



Once the new theme is chosen, twelve different shades of corn create the intricate and enormous murals. Ears of corn, not individual kernels, create the artwork with each ear of corn being nailed to the building.

At the end of August the murals are stripped, and the new ones are completed by October.

If you’re a fan of the bygone days of roadside Americana, this South Dakota tourist attraction is a must-stop.

Classic cars and more

Pioneer Auto Show, Murdo, SD

After leaving the Corn Palace I traveled to my next Harvest Hosts stop, the Pioneer Auto Show in the tiny town of Murdo.

Signs for this attraction had been tempting tourists on I-90 for hundreds of miles. What car enthusiast doesn’t want to see the Dukes of Hazard’s General Lee?

Like several museums and attractions in the area, Pioneer Auto has been featured on American Pickers. It’s easy to see why. Somebody was a hoarder…

There is an overwhelming amount of all kinds of antique “stuff” to see here, in addition to the General Lee and barns full of other priceless collectible cars. Among all that stuff are some incredibly rare treasures in various states of repair and restoration.

I confess, I’m not a car nut (although one of the earliest ever motorhomes also on display was cool). But if you ARE a car nut, you will want to add this as a stop. And if you are a Harvest Hosts member, you can also spend the night in their large level parking lot. There’s a cafe that serves breakfast and lunch attached, and a gas station right next door.

Feeding the world’s fattest prairie dogs

South Dakota Tourist Attractions - feeding prairie dogs

The Badlands National Park was on the following day’s agenda. But wait!

Before you go into the park, there’s a really fun stop that’s right before the northeast park entrance. In fact, it’s about as much fun as you can possibly have for a dollar!

At the Badlands Ranch Store you can buy a bag of peanuts and go out to their field to feed the prairie dogs. The little creatures are EVERYWHERE, popping up out of their holes to get the peanuts the tourists throw.

Now, to be sure, these are without a doubt the world’s fattest prairie dogs! The ones close to the store are so full, they don’t even care about the peanuts anymore. But if you walk further away to the outskirts of “Prairie Dog Town,” they get more interested in the treats.

Either way, it was well worth the buck to get to interact with these cute little chubby critters. I smiled a whole lot the entire time!

Once the peanut bag was empty, I continued on to the Badlands National Park.

Visiting Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park

There was so much to see in South Dakota and not enough time to do it all, but I could not just pass by the Badlands National Park.

There were so many varied vistas and hiking opportunities, this is definitely somewhere I would love to return to. But for this trip, I opted for a driving tour of the park on the Badlands Loop Road. But I did make frequent stops.

I will confess to being bad at planning, so, of course, the campgrounds were booked. But this scenic driving loop gave me a great overview of the varied terrains of peaks, gullies, buttes, and wide open prairies.

Some of the scenes looked almost other-worldly, like they could stand in for some fictional planet in a science fiction movie.

Along the route were lots of pull-off scenic overlooks that could even accommodate large RVs or buses. I stopped at several and did some short hikes on the many trails that start from the overlooks.

Taking in the rugged landscape you can understand how this area got its name. With today’s modern comforts and amenities we can appreciate it for its natural beauty, but to traveling settlers and even the Native Americans who lived in the area, the harsh landscapes and brutal and unforgiving conditions of the Badlands had to also inspire terror.

Wall Drug

South Dakota Tourist Attractions - Wall Drug

The scenic loop road ends in the town of Wall, famous for Wall Drug, a classic old-time “tourist trap” that features shops and restaurants, souvenirs, and photos ops. Wall Drug is just as famous for its prolific highway signs that beckon tourists to stop for hundreds of miles, as it is for the attraction itself.

It had been about 30 years since I last visited and it has grown substantially. But covering more space has not changed the kitschiness of this old-fashioned roadside attraction one bit.

NEXT WEEK
Mt. Rushmore, Deadwood, Montana Bound

Previously in Cheri’s long, long RV trip:

##RVT1074

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Brian
1 month ago

Fun article! I have made this trip a few times also, being from Minnesota. One comment: As you travelled east to west in SD, you must have stopped in Sioux Falls, not Rapid City on your first night. The latter is on the western end of SD, on the east side of the Black Hills (another amazing place to visit in SD).

Last edited 1 month ago by Brian
Uncle Swags
1 month ago

I love South Dakota because they have the friendliest people. The first time a person ever waved to me in my RV was in South Dakota by a farmer in his field on a combine. Just was in Badlands and at Wall Drug but came in from Roy Lake and Lake Mina, 2 great state parks.

Backcountry164
1 month ago

It’s worth noting that staying more than 3 hours at a rest area is considered a petty offense and you can only be fined an amount that covers any damage you caused. So if you’re too tired to drive I wouldn’t worry much about the limit.

DW/ND
1 month ago

Cheri, you must have missed the Aviation Museum at Ellsworth Air Force Base east of Rapid City. (on I-90). Also, there is a tour of a Minuteman Missile silo. Fascinating history of the area defense systems et al! (A beautiful camppground at Pactola Dam reservoir). (The dam failed years ago and flooded all of Rapid City).

Spike
1 month ago

Cheri mentions many of the mainstream tourist attractions along the I90 corridor, and rightfully so. My wife and I love South Dakota and fortunately don’t have far to go to get there from our home in Minnesota.

For a three week trip this year, however, we abandoned our normal I90 attractions and spent our time exploring the Glacial Lakes area of East-Central and NE South Dakota. From DeSmet to Watertown, to Aberdeen, and Sisseton. This wonderful area was definitely worth the time spent!

Last edited 1 month ago by Spike
Hubert Rosch
1 month ago

We have driven South Dakota dozens of times from Minnesota to the Black Hills and are never bored. Having stopped at all of the attractions you listed many times we also enjoy the scenery of the drive. Fields of corn, wheat, sunflowers, sorghum and more are beautiful. We have driven in the spring when crops are just starting out, in the summer when they are at their peak and in the fall after the harvest. Don’t miss this drive!

Jean Maly
1 month ago

Hi Cheri! I don’t often comment, but this morning I was compelled to tell you that i really, really love your postings about your travels and the things that interest you. Your pics are helpful too. I know it takes effort to do a good job of documentation. As a result of reading about your wanderings I’ve been inspired to explore a whole new part of our great country. Living in SE Texas and traveling solo will make it a challenge, but I’m going to do it anyway. Thanks to you!

Cheri Sicard
1 month ago
Reply to  Jean Maly

Wow. I am honored. Thanks for sharing!!! Solo traveling can be so much fun. You get to do things 100% on your terms and you will meet and talk to people you never would have otherwise. Good luck to you!

Last edited 1 month ago by Cheri Sicard