The first thing you’ll notice about Rapid City is, of course, the brontosaurus.
High atop the tallest nearby hill, silhouetted against the endless South Dakota sky like some prehistoric wonder horse, Rapid City’s bronto is visible all over town. He (or she; genetic data is not available) presides over the millions of tourists who each year speed right past, each of them anxious to arrive at one of the several world-famous destinations just a short drive from here.
They seldom take the time to turn off the main road and head up to Dinosaur Park. But you, you will be different. You will follow those little dinosaur-logo signs through the business district, past a hillside neighborhood, and up a winding road to the top. And you will be rewarded.
It was in the mid-1930s that FDR’s Works Progress Administration decided that Rapid City ought to have its own collection of life-size concrete dinosaurs. The bronto dominates the scene, but as you mount the stairs to its feet you’ll pass, on a terrace below, a 20-foot-tall toothless Tyrannosaurus Rex threatening a spunky little triceratops. Just like that scene from the 1939 movie “Fantasia,” except these guys came first.
From the bronto’s feet, turn slowly and soak in the 180-degree vista that confirms your conviction that Rapid City is the perfect home base for a three-day stay.
To the south and west roll the Black Hills, sacred to Native Americans and treasured by people who like to carve giant Presidents’ heads into solid rock.
To the east is Rapid City airport—a single change of planes away from virtually every major airport in the country. And beyond that, across the prairie and barely etched against the horizon, ripples the bumpy profile of Badlands National Monument. Over to the northeast sprawls Ellsworth Air Force Base, home to a first-rate air and space museum. And at your feet spreads Rapid City itself, a ranch town that got swept up in the tourist influx created 70 years ago by nearby Mount Rushmore.
There are a few ways to drive to Mount Rushmore. The quickest is to get on Eighth Avenue, also known as the Rushmore Road, and head out of town. It’s four lanes most of the way. Lots of folks like to meander a bit and take Iron Mountain Road. It’s narrow, winding, and dotted with tunnels and “pigtail” bridges with steep approaches that loop over themselves. You can get some amazing views of Mount Rushmore framed in the tunnels. And you can also get a nasty case of motion sickness aggravated by elevation. You’ve been warned.
No matter what approach you take, you’ll see the gigantic heads of Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lincoln from miles away (The lighting is best in the morning). Still, they charge you eight bucks to pull into the new parking structure. Old timers still mourn the passing of the old parking lot, and of the tree-lined path that once led from the lot to the viewing area. Now you walk along a granite-pillared causeway, past snack bars and souvenir stands, a grandiose monument to a monument.
Psst. You can bypass the mall—and park for free—if you turn off the road just north of the pay parking lot entrance. This smaller, shaded National Park Service-operated lot does require you to walk up about 60 steps. It fills up fast, though, so get there early.
Despite a bad case of overdevelopment, there is no ruining the exquisite effect of the sculpture itself, its angular, vaguely art deco portraits somehow in perfect harmony with the mountainside, as if they were miraculously formed by forces of nature. The best feature of the recent development is a one-mile boardwalk leading from the visitor’s center to the very foot of the mountain. You walk right to the edge of that curtain of slag, massive squared-off boulders.
Beneath the heads, you’ll notice a little spur trail that disappears into the rock field. Take it. A very short walk takes you into a kind of grotto. Look up through a gap between two huge chunks—and hold your breath as you view the sculpture perfectly framed.
Afternoon thunderstorms often rumble through here in the summer, but don’t let that stop you from continuing past Rushmore on Route 16—stopping to admire some truly amazing “profile” views of George Washington—to a project that, when completed, will make Mount Rushmore seem more like a quaint little chip off the old mountainside.
The Chief Crazy Horse memorial, now taking recognizable shape after more than 50 years in the making, is so huge that the chief’s face covers more ground than all four of Rushmore’s heads put together.
When I first headed up the road to see Crazy Horse 25 years ago, the approach was made of dirt, and it took a little faith and a lot of imagination to make out the profile of the chief and his horse in the distant rock. But today the monumental face is completed, and the horse’s head, contorted downward in full gallop, is clearly taking shape. Despite the scale of the project, you might never have heard of it.
The family of sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who died in 1982, has continued his work—and like him they refuse to accept government money to finish. So they collect donations from those who visit. Thus, there’s no built-in National Park exposure, and not much of a publicity budget. But you must make the trip, if only to tell your great-grandchildren you were there when old Crazy Horse was still taking shape.
Say goodbye to Bronto and head east from Rapid City. It’s 35 miles to Badlands National Monument, but with the official speed limit 75 on Interstate 90, it’ll feel like a spin to the neighborhood grocery store. First stop: the town of Wall, gateway to the Badlands.
Now Wall, as anybody who’s driven within two or three hundred miles of the place knows (thanks to the areas of billboards that precede it), is the home of the Wall Drug Store. Wall Drug Store is to drugs what the American Telephone and Telegraph Company is to telegraphs.
There may indeed be some corner of Wall Drug where you can actually buy drugs, but its true trade is in hot dogs, pizza, souvenir hand towels, miniature Rushmores, steer horns, novelty thermometers, card tricks, t-shirts, flip-flops, sunglasses, bumper stickers, plaster prairie dogs, instant film, naughty post cards, and vending machines. Oh, yes, and free ice water. Since 1939, the signs say. You will stop at Wall Drugs, as everyone else does.
Here’s what you do. Wend your way through the maze of shops. Stroll across the courtyard where you can take a friend’s picture on a dinosaur. Duck into the shooting gallery near the snack bar, and note the sign that reads “no flash photography.” Take careful camera aim at the gallery targets, and take a flash picture. You’ll thank me later.
Get a five-cent cup of coffee before you leave. Now head down Route 240S, the lonely, dusty road to the Badlands. Like a range of candles dripping in the South Dakota sun, the peaks and valleys of the Badlands seem to flow like liquid rock.
An extinct sea floor of dried mud, the landscape has been carved by rain and runoff over the eons. Mud sediments trace horizontal lines across the water-worn walls, which retreat into small canyons, giving the appearance of a colorful, undulating curtain. Most visitors stick to the overlooks, emerging briefly from their cars to get a peek at the vista.
But you’ll be more adventurous. Trudge out a bit along one of the marked pathways. You’ll find yourself walking along a high ridge that slopes off to your right and left, revealing dramatic new aspects with every step. Shortly after you enter the park at the Pinnacles Entrance, you’ll notice a gravel road that turns off to the right, called the Sage Creek Rim Road.
The 30-mile road is not a loop, so you’ll have to double back to see the rest of the park, but along its length is your only chance to see up-close the 600-strong bison herd that the National Parks Service has reintroduced to the area. If you’re a bit less adventurous, stay on the main park look road, stop at the Pinnacles Overlook, and gaze west through a good pair of binoculars. You may get a glimpse of the herd. As you exit the park at the eastern gate, you may be tempted to hit the gas and head for your hotel.
But slow down, pardner. Or you might miss the sign that reads “Helicopter Rides, $15.” It seems too good, too cheap, to be true. But no, Helicopter the Badlands does, indeed, give you a heli-lift ($15 each, double occupancy). Sure, the flight lasts all of four minutes. But you’ll get an unforgettable eagle-eye view of the Badlands. And if you ask, your pilot will even point out where several movies have been shot.
Today marks your most distant trek from Rapid City, a two-hour drive across the border into Wyoming.
Duck off the interstate at scenic Route 14, click off 25 miles—and hold your breath as you drive over a rise and see Devil’s Tower National Monument.
Thrusting 865 feet into the sky, the core of an ancient volcano is still sacred to many Native Americans. You can hike all the way around the thing, but visitors are asked not to disturb prayer banners tied to sticks at various spots along the way.
Up close, the tower is almost too big to take in. Your best view is back on the main road just beyond the park’s entrance. Pull over for a moment and admire the monolith, set like a sculpture atop a sloping green hill.
Just before you rejoin the interstate, stop off at one of the little diners in the town of Sundance. Order the mashed potatoes and sculpt them into a mini-Devil’s Tower, muttering the lines Richard Dreyfus made famous in Close Encounters of the Third Kind—“This means something!” Then imagine how often the waitress has heard that one.
Back in South Dakota, get off at Spearfish and follow the signs to the D.C. Booth Historic Fish Hatchery. You have never seen so many trout in your life—and best of all, there’s an underwater viewing window that showcases fish so big you’d swear the thing was a huge magnifying glass. Despite the town’s name, there’s no fish spearing allowed.
Now head back toward Rapid City, stopping at the town of Sturgis. If you’re there the second week in August, you’ll be smack in the middle of the largest motorcycle gathering in the nation. Each year, some 100,000 bikers descend on this little burg for a week of, well, let’s be charitable and call it merry-making.
Any other week, park on the lazy main street and duck into one of Sturgis’ premiere dining establishments, the Road Kill Café (“From Your Grill to Ours!”) Sad to say, they serve only regular dinner fare, although the menu does feature such fanciful names as Smear of Deer, Pig in a Blanket, and Guess That Mess.
As the sun begins to settle behind the Black Hills, double back to Spearfish for the world-famous Black Hills Passion Play. For most of the 1900s, local folks and a handful of professionals have staged this three-hour drama recounting the last week in the life of Christ in a vast outdoor amphitheater. One night as I sat in the audience, at the moment of the crucifixion, a spectacular shooting star streaked across the sky.
For a moment, at least, everyone there was a believer.
Well, that’s three days in Rapid City, and we haven’t even touched on the area’s great kitcshy wonders, like the Cosmos Mystery Spot (where “the laws of nature seem to have gone completely berserk”), Reptile Gardens, Pan for Gold or the World’s Largest Prairie Dog. And you really shouldn’t miss The Journey, a classy new museum right in Rapid City chronicling human habitation in the region.
Then there’s Yellowstone, just a day’s drive away. But that’s another story.
A considerably shorter version of this story appeared in Modern Maturity Magazine in 2003