South Dakota: Where Presidents Compete with Tumbleweeds and Brontoburgers
Mount Rushmore is the main attraction in southwestern South Dakota, but there's considerably more fun to be had in the area's weirder, wilder parts
The parking lot at the Fairfield Inn in Spearfish, S.D., is full of vintage Chevy Impalas, as our visit coincides with a convention. We take our cue from them and have an evening of retro pleasures: a brownie sundae at the Bay Leaf Café and Air Hockey at an arcade, where we rock out to "Thunder Road" on the jukebox.
- Fairfield Inn2720 1st Ave. East, Spearfish, 605/642-3500, fairfieldinn.com, from $55
- Chute Roosters101 Chute Rooster Dr., Hill City, 605/574-2122, breakfast $4
- Moonshine Gulch Saloon22635 N. Rochford Rd., Rochford, 605/584-2743, $2.75
- Bay Leaf Café126 W. Hudson, Spearfish, 605/642-5462, $5
- Mount Rushmore National Memorial Keystone, 605/574-2523, nps.gov/moru, $8 parking fee
- Crazy Horse MemorialHwy. 16/385, Crazy Horse, 605/673-4681, crazyhorse.org, $10
- Devils Tower National Monument307/467-5283, nps.gov/deto, $10 per car
Day 4: Spearfish to Rapid City
Having spotted the Geographical Center of the U.S.A. on our map, I decide it'd make a fun photo op. We skip the Center's office in Belle Fourche, figuring all we really care about is the actual spot, and drive for 30 miles on a road that has more roadkill than we've ever seen. But there's no sign where the map has a dot, and the big empty nothingness doesn't have the same appeal as it did on Day 1. (Next time, I'll stop at the office.)
On the return south, I want to check out another dot--the Government Experimental Farm. It sounds like a locale from The X-Files, and therefore worth investigating. Again, nothing there, except a lot of empty corrals. I try to convince Shawnda that federal scientists have found a way to turn animals invisible; it would certainly explain why cars keep running them over.
Being neither bikers nor gamblers, we drive right through Sturgis, home of the big motorcycle rally every August, and Deadwood, an Old West town converted to a gambling destination. We stop for another burger, at Boondocks. It's full of Hollywood memorabilia, and we enjoy watching the bikers roar in.
What we need is a challenge, and we find it at the Black Hills Maze. The maze is 1.2 miles of walkways, divided by wooden fences. There are four towers, and each one has an ink stamp with one of the Rushmore faces on it; the goal is to get all four stamps. We need an hour and four minutes to complete the maze, which is a huge victory if only because an hour and a half gets your name posted on the Hall of Shame. Two 9-year-olds solve it in 45 minutes.
Built in 1928, Rapid City's Hotel Alex Johnson has neat old bones, though the water pressure and air-conditioning are feeble. It's a relief to be downtown, where we can walk rather than drive. There are statues of presidents on many corners, starting from both ends of American history, more or less (Washington, Bush Sr.); 25 are completed. Shawnda, obsessed with politics, can't resist chatting up the woman at The Presidents Information Center and posing with JFK, whereas I'm entranced by a Pomeranian that's been half-shaved to resemble a tiny buffalo.
We've never met M.J., but by this point it feels like she's been in the back seat the whole time. In 1996, she moved from New York to Rapid City, where she opened The Corn Exchange. Her goal was to serve good food, using fresh ingredients. I'm happy to report that her restaurant is delightful. The room feels both sophisticated and homey--with a tin ceiling, hardwood floors, and exposed brick--and M.J. dotes on all her customers, including us. Shawnda and I split everything: a cheese plate, smoked trout on a white corn pancake, entrées of salmon and duck, and a bottle of pinot gris listed on the menu as Mr. Skikkels's favorite. Mr. Skikkels, M.J. informs us, is the cat who lives out back, and I should think he'd like the Belgian chocolate pot de crème even better than the wine. We certainly do.
- Hotel Alex Johnson523 Sixth St., Rapid City, 605/342-1210, alexjohnson.com, from $110
- Boondocks21559 Hwy. 385, Deadwood, 605/578-1186, burger $6
- The Corn Exchange727 Main St., Rapid City, 605/343-5070, entrées from $15
- Black Hills MazeHwy. 16, Rapid City, 605/343-5439, blackhillsmaze.com, $7
- The Presidents Information Center631 Main St., Rapid City, 605/342-7272 Resources
- Center of the Nation415 5th Ave., Belle Fourche, 605/892-2676
Finding your way
The tourist season is mid-May to mid-October, and many establishments hibernate in winter. Despite the northern latitude, summer is broiling, and August thunderstorms can be vicious. The good news: Rapid City has an efficient airport, with rental cars outside. Ours, from Thrifty, had a 150-mile-per-day restriction. We bet we wouldn't need the unlimited mileage upgrade, and were penalized $37 (148 miles over, at 25¢ a mile). We gained some of that back by using the Mt. Rushmore parking pass ($8 value) in the glove compartment. Thrifty says customers often leave theirs for the next driver.