Like many before us, we packed up our belongings and headed west. The lakes of Wisconsin were now summer memories and adventure stretched in front of us, across the flat Western plains. We had half-planned a driving route on rural backroads, which meant a slow pace and lots to see.
The first planned stop was Wall Drugstore in South Dakota – the ultimate middle-of-nowhere road trip pit stop.
Started in 1931 in a town of just 326 people, and made profitable with a promise of “free ice water” to tourists, Wall Drug now sees up to 20,000 people visit a day.
There’s still free water and five cent coffee, as well as gold panning, historic exhibits, homemade food and plenty of photo ops.
With almost 50,000 square feet of souvenir shopping, there’s all the usual tourist kitsch, too. Badlands ashtrays and coffee mugs, souvenir shot glasses and prairie dog toys are among the top sellers. You’ll also find Black Hills gold jewelry, $400 cowboy boots and replicas of Mt. Rushmore.
The hot prairie sun must have gotten to us, because Mr. H. and I each bought a cowboy hat. I rationalized that mine would add style to jeans and scarves whether or not I was ‘out west’. I planned on picking up some turquoise jewelry somewhere along the way, too, which would pair nicely with a hat and my SmithHönig Kashmir crossbody and travel bag.
After shopping, we headed over to the Wall Drug restaurant for some grub. A bison burger for Mr. H., a grilled cheese for me, followed by homemade donuts and peach pie.
The restaurant features dark, high-backed booths, wood paneling, Formica tabletops and an extensive collection of western art. My city-born husband, in his new hat and road trip beard, looked like a wanted poster in an old Western.
Bellies finally full, we headed towards Badlands Loop Scenic Byway, a 31-mile stretch of SD 240 that meanders through some of the most amazing buttes, cliffs and spires of Badlands National Park. This loop regularly places on top-ten scenic drive lists and it didn’t disappoint.
In addition to the stunning scenery, we met some locals in the middle of the road…
…and I found the perfect spot to model my Wall Drugs hat.
Then, it was a detour to Historic Deadwood, and a stay at the Holiday Inn resort there. Deadwood is the historic gold-rush town made famous (again) by the popular HBO series. Full of casinos, restaurants and costumed reenactors – with a slogan of “we didn’t make history by being well behaved” – it’s definitely a unique road trip stop on a Western tour.
The next day we headed out to Mt. Rushmore.
This giant carving of American presidents was started in 1927 and completed in 1941. The faces of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt were selected to represent the birth, growth, development and preservation of the Nation, but the project was not without controversy.
Before the current faces were dynamited into the mountain, the Lakota tribespeople of the region saw the shapes of six wise protectors in the stones and, as a result, called the mountain Six Grandfathers (Tȟuŋkášila Šákpe). Eventually, however, they agreed to allow the mountain to be used for the Rushmore project – partially to help preserve more sacred mountains.
Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear was determined to create a monument to a tribal hero, Chief Crazy Horse, at the same scale as the US presidents, however. He wanted everyone to understand that the local tribes had their own heroes.
Today, near Mt. Rushmore, his dream is being carried out by a mountain carver of Polish descent (the late Korczak Ziolkowski) and his descendants.
The strong, granite profile of Crazy Horse is visible at the top of the mountain. Eventually, the carving will show his horse, his headdress, and his pointing hand.
The stories of Crazy Horse, Standing Bear and the Ziolkowski family who have made this their lives’ work, are utterly fascinating. The Crazy Horse Monument became one of our favorite stops. Amazingly, the project is funded entirely by donations.
Each night through September, the Legends in Light® laser show is projected onto the mountain, and night blasts can sometimes be witnessed as well. Tribal cultural events occur throughout the year.
Our next stop was a “monument” of another sort – a quirky artist’s take on Stonehenge, in a flat field in Alliance, Nebraska. This to-scale version of the English stone circle is crafted from 39 automobiles.
Additional car sculptures and a gift shop round out the experience. Carhenge regularly ranks as a top-visited tourist attraction, with about 100,000 people visiting each year.
We didn’t spend a ton of time at Carhenge – you don’t need to. But if you’re in the area, it’s worth a stop.
If you’re planning your own road trip, I’d highly recommend the Roadtrippers app and site. To plan a personalized itinerary, note that other nearby attractions include the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum and homestead, the Wounded Knee Massacre monument and museum, Chimney Rock and Scott’s Bluff, as well as numerous wildlife refuges and quirky roadside photo ops like the Jolly Green Giant statue.
And, while we decided to head to Cheyenne, Wyoming next, you could easily travel towards Yellowstone National Park, Jackson Hole, Aspen or Vail.
For our western road trip soundtrack, find our two-hour playlist here.
Next Thursday, my cowboy hat takes a trip to Cheyenne Frontier Days. Join us then, and all summer, as we travel across America.