ROAD TRIPS

South Dakota: Presidents, Tumbleweeds, and Brontoburgers

Mount Rushmore is the main attraction in southwestern South Dakota, but don't miss the area's weirder, wilder parts.

By Erik Torkells, Tuesday, Mar 21, 2006, 3:54 PM

Mount Rushmore

(Erik Torkells)

Mount Rushmore

(Erik Torkells)

Day 1: Rapid City to Badlands

Pre-trip research showed that the region has something for everyone, from wholesome families to thrillseeking bikers. Shawnda and I fall somewhere in between. Friends since high school, we now live on separate coasts and meet up once a year for a generally silly road trip.

After arriving at the Rapid City airport, we drive 50 miles east to Wall Drug. It became well-known for the barrage of signs you pass on the approach, and now the glorified gift shop is famous because it's famous. I prefer my kitsch organic, not preprocessed; we make the best of it, posing atop a giant jackalope, laughing at the coin-operated diorama of dancing rabbits (one's arm has fallen off, another's arm is dangling by a mere thread), and watching kids get all atwitter as the animatronic T. Rex growls.

Continuing east through Buffalo Gap National Grassland, we stop to admire a never-ending meadow of yellow flowers. What keeps us loitering there, though, is the deep silence.

Badlands is Shawnda's kind of national park. You can hike, but you can also just pull over at a viewpoint, walk 50 yards, and snap a photo. The Badlands is my kind of national park, too, if for different reasons. It's gorgeous, but not in a standard way, with weird, desolate spires rising out of the prairie floor. The rock in the spires is composed of multicolored layers, and the colors change with the light.

We check in at Cedar Pass Lodge, a collection of 22 cute, basic cabins on the park border. While Shawnda takes a nap, a thunderstorm blows in. The atmosphere turns primal. A curtain of black clouds draws across the sky, and lightning streaks on the horizon. I walk behind our cabin, dodging the tumbleweeds whizzing by. Even more tumbleweeds, driven by the wind, are forced up and over the back side of one of the spires. It looks like lava erupting from a volcano.

The other research I did was to get restaurant recommendations from M.J. Adams, owner/chef of The Corn Exchange in Rapid City (which I'd read about in Gourmet). Near Badlands, she suggested Circle 10, off I-90, not far from a 15-foot prairie dog statue. We have salads with dried cherries, blue cheese, and walnuts, then BLTs on homemade English muffin bread. The people who own Circle 10 are very sweet, but Shawnda still wants to steal their pet mutt.

At 10 p.m., we go on the Night Prowl. A Badlands ranger leads a group of about 30 on a 400-yard walk into the park, past some of the rocks. The goal is to look at the stars. We lie on the ground, while the ranger sermonizes about light pollution. We don't learn a whole lot, but just being outside at night, away from civilization, is a highlight of our road trip.

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Day 2: Badlands to Custer

The drive out of Badlands, along Route 44, is one of the most sublime Shawnda and I have taken. We generally rent convertibles, and we worried that it'd be too hot to go topless in July. But the weather stays bearable, and the sky is breathtaking: white at the horizon, turning bluer and bluer as you look up, until it peaks somewhere between cornflower and royal.

We hightail it, as we're booked for the 1 p.m. Candlelight Tour at Wind Cave National Park. I've sworn off caves, having found them indistinguishable. But the Candlelight Tour goes to parts of Wind Cave not accessible on other tours, and you carry "candle buckets"--metal pails rigged so you hold them on their sides, with candles inside--just like 19th-century settlers did. Besides, the cave interior is 53 degrees year-round, and the day is really heating up.

The 10 of us--11 if you count our guide, Michael--ride an elevator down 190 feet, then trudge single file through a lighted area. After about 15 minutes, Michael lights our candles and we head off into the dark. Candle buckets let you direct the light laterally, but not up or down, so you don't know how low the ceiling is or how bumpy the ground. I spend the two-hour tour in a perpetual stoop.

There's a lot of interesting geology--grid-like formations called boxwork, nubby "popcorn," which looks like it sounds, and delicate crystals known as frostwork. We stop in a nook named Pearly Gates, and sit on ledges. Michael, who is highly earnest and from Malta, which makes for an entertaining combination, slowly scans the room. "Do you want to experience something . . . different?" he says, and Shawnda begins to giggle uncontrollably. He tells us to blow out our candles. In total darkness, your eyes try to adjust, but they can't--so you give in, and it stops mattering if your eyes are open or shut.

The only food at Wind Cave is sold in vending machines, and when we surface we're starving.

I'm excited to go to Flintstones Bedrock City, a campground in Custer with exhibits and photo ops, where you can actually order a Brontoburger. But the place is lame, in a word, and we head to Hill City, where we prepare to get an Old West photograph taken. The young women at Looking Back Photo (now closed) decide that I should be a "rugged cowboy" and Shawnda a "saloon girl." Let's just say that her credentials are more impressive than mine.

When we call that afternoon, Sage Creek Grille, another M.J. favorite, says we don't need to reserve. But we arrive to find there's no room. We sulk our way over to Pizza Works (now closed), where we sit outside and peer up at the glowing Custer sign atop the hill. For dessert, we split a satisfying piece of blueberry pie at Reetz's, also known as the Purple Pie Place because, well, it's hard to miss.

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Day 3: Custer to Spearfish

The Comfort Inn puts out a nice breakfast: Styrofoam cups hold single servings of waffle batter, and there are two waffle irons in the common room. But we can't pass up Chute Roosters, outside Hill City, if only because of the name. The food is forgettable, but the owner's a charmer. Roberta Wilburn, who bought the place in 1998, tells us about the ghost who haunts the building, an old dairy farm. When I try to buy a Chute Rooster mug (it's a rodeo term) she can't find the key to the vitrine, and promises to mail the mug if she ever locates the key. I fear she won't remember, however, as she's quite excited about the Elvis impersonator who'll be stopping by that evening (note: The restaurant is now under new management).

And then, Rushmore. It might just be the world's greatest tourist trap--the idea for it came from state historian Doane Robinson, who in 1923 proposed that a monumental carving would draw more visitors to the Black Hills. It was a rare case of a historian actually making history. We're moved by the ambition and the artistry, but Rushmore is a bit of a yawner. Should it be seen? Absolutely. Does it take long? Not so much. We felt the same way about Crazy Horse Memorial, the Native American rejoinder to Rushmore, when we passed it yesterday. The scope is astounding, but we just didn't get much out of it--of course, we also didn't stop. Why pay $10 when we could see it from the road?

M.J. raved about a burger in Rochford, a blip of a town, so we take Route 17 out of Hill City. It's unpaved part of the way, and the Black Hills are beautiful. At times, the road runs parallel to the Mickelson Trail; popular with hikers and cyclists, the trail traverses the length of the Black Hills from Edgemont to Deadwood.

Moonshine Gulch Saloon, the burger place, is dingy and strange--words that can mean good things to me, but not to Shawnda. The ceiling is covered with business cards (including mine, now), baseball caps, snarky signs, all sorts of things, all coated in dust. We get a kick out of a rock next to our table. Painted on one side: PLEASE TURN ME OVER. Painted on the other: M-M-M THAT FEELS GOOD. The burger isn't bad, but the place freaks Shawnda out--particularly the photos of customers bottle-feeding a fawn next to an 8-by-10 glossy of a hunter holding antlers, the rest of the deer's corpse visible in his truck. She has to work up the nerve to go to the ladies' room. But not only is it fantastically clean, someone has written inspirational graffiti on the walls. It's perhaps the last place one would expect a quotation from Euripides.

While my obsession has never been as strong as the one in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I've always longed to see Devils Tower, across the Wyoming state line. (The apostrophe got lost when the government proclaimed it a national monument, and all the bureaucrats in the world can't squeeze it back in.) Shawnda and I are heartened to hear that after climbers discovered that the tower is especially sacred to Native Americans in June, the number of climbers that month has dropped 80 percent. Scrambling over the boulder field at the base is enough climbing for us. We have a good laugh over the names given to the climbing routes ("Old Guys in Lycra"), the exhibit asking visitors to write what Devils Tower means to them ("It gives me the creeps"), and a tasteless T-shirt in a nearby gift shop ("I like it on top").

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.

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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.

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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.