Don't go south over the holidays. Head west to South Dakota, instead
So you're thinking of heading south: Maybe Florida and the Disney parks for the holidays, Texas and environs for spring break, the Carolinas for a tour of the East Coast. I fully endorse heading south for a family outing, but with a twist: Go west to South Dakota.
My family and I took a two-day trek through South Dakota in August as we chased totality for the solar eclipse, and I returned solo six weeks later on a five-day hosted trip to explore the state. On both visits, I found a mix of cultural delights, contemporary kitsch and family-friendly stops.
The state's tourism board created a "Great Eight" itinerary on its website at travelsouthdakota.com. The selections intrigue me but I haven't been to them all, so I offer my own, listed in order as you approach them from Minnesota. From the Twin Cities, plan on a seven-hour drive to the farthest of these locations—and enjoy the drive along the way.
World's Only Corn Palace
You want fun, you want corny? Our first stop on our marathon drive for the eclipse was the World's Only Corn Palace in Mitchell. If you enjoy the crop art displays each year at the Minnesota State Fair, you'll marvel at the exterior of this Moorish Revival building. Each year, a themed display, often of an international or pop culture celebrity, is created entirely of different colored corn cobs, husks, seeds and native grasses, and mounted to the exterior of the building. Willie Nelson is this year's spectacular creation. Go inside for a free look at the modest museum and simple displays dedicated to corn and agriculture. Make sure to step inside the auditorium, too, which hosts concerts, fairs and other community festivals. We got a kick out of the fact that the Mitchell High School Kernels basketball team calls the palace home.
Don't miss: Signing the guest book at the entrance window and seeing where other visitors are from and the Corn-Cession stand serving popcorn balls.
Badlands National Park
This site is simply surreal. It looks like the surface of the moon and surprises first-time visitors who don't expect the ribbon-striped spires and canyons that seem to appear magically from the flat, drab-colored plains. The geologic deposits that make up the Badlands contain amazing fossil beds, and erosion explains why visitors can see the layers upon layers of these deposits.
While you can camp throughout this 244,000-acre park, we explored it by driving the 39-mile Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway. We stopped at many of the various overlooks along the route, amazed at how different each location was. Each stop offered some fantastic photos and quick hikes—and often the chance to listen to the chirps of our favorites, the pudgy prairie dogs.
Don't miss: Door Trail and Window Trail through the Badlands Wall for easy hikes with revelatory vistas.
Wall Drug Store
As we left the otherworldly topography of the Badlands on the western end, we continued straight into the tiny town of Wall for a wholly different experience—shopping and snacking at Wall Drug Store. You can't miss the hundreds of signs and billboards for this tourist stop along the interstate, some of them cheeky and intriguing. This attraction is an early version of an enclosed shopping mall, with a drug store, restaurants, clothing shops and even a chapel all under one roof and covering nearly a full city block. It started as a small, struggling drug store in the middle of nowhere when the owner's wife suggested the store offer free water to all the passersby and tourists heading to Mount Rushmore, about 60 miles away. The promotion was a success, and Wall Drug now attracts nearly 2 million visitors per year. The complex still offers free water, and also free bumper stickers, 5-cent coffee and dynamite doughnuts.
Don't miss: The 6-foot-tall jackalope statue in the courtyard for a goofy photo opportunity to match the tourist-trap vibe. (And, no, jackalopes aren't real!)
You have now officially entered the Black Hills area. We used this city of about 75,000 as our home base on both trips to explore the sights, and I found the city charming, with a burgeoning craft-beer and farm-to-table dining scenes, good mix of boutique and big-box shopping, an art alley of graffiti and other visual arts downtown and delightful "City of Presidents" sculpture tour of life-size bronze tributes to each president on the corners of the downtown streets.
Don't miss: Press Start, a speakeasy-esque trove of nearly 200 vintage video games, pinball machines and other '80s-inspired arcade games—complete with cocktails. Find the entrance to the basement-level arcade under (kōl) restaurant, which owns it.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Can you name the four presidents carved into Mount Rushmore? Can you name the sculptor who started the project in 1927? If you can, you probably already know Mount Rushmore is in South Dakota—yet some visitors have remarked they thought the towering monument was in a neighboring state! (South Dakota's motto for a time was "Great Faces. Great Places.")
The 60-foot faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln represent the birth, growth, development and preservation of the United States.
The park is open year-round and the carvings look best in the early-morning light. The faces also provide a wonderful backdrop to the amphitheater below. During our August trip, we caught the U.S. Navy Band playing an exquisite version of "Stars and Stripes Forever."
Check out the history of the memorial in the lower-level museum, stroll the half-mile Presidential Trail for different views of each of the four faces and stop along the trail at the workshop of sculptor Gutzon Borglum for a 1:10 ratio model for scale and perspective.
Don't miss: The ice cream at the on-site restaurant. It's made from Thomas Jefferson's own recipe, which locals say he introduced to Americans after sampling it in France. He was the ambassador to France from 1784 to 1789.
Crazy Horse Memorial
It's both easy and difficult to miss the impact of Native American culture while visiting South Dakota, and this destination has me most conflicted. It's a tribute to an influential Lakota leader—but created by Korczak Ziolkowski, a Polish artist, who started the project in 1948. It has been a labor of love for his entire large family, which I respect.
Don't miss: Volksmarch. Twice a year, the public is invited to make the 6.2-mile walk up to stand on the carving's arm. One of those times corresponds with the weekend of the Buffalo Roundup (see below). Book your days, it's worth it. The other this year was on the 70th anniversary date of the initial blast in June.
Custer State Park
Touring this park in August was a thrill. My family and I witnessed buffalo pass our vehicle on their way to better grazing, sidestepped mules as they followed us thinking we had a snack and peered the skyline for deer, pronghorn and mountain goats.
But returning here in September was sensational because I participated in the annual Buffalo Roundup, when men and women on horseback drive the herd of about 1,300 buffalo to pens to be counted, examined, vaccinated, branded and culled. A crack of a whip started the roundup, as I stood in the back of a flatbed truck with eight other journalists and dignitaries. We followed along with the cowboys and cowgirls as they drove the herd toward the pens over the hills, valleys and ruts of the 71,000-acre park. Spectators cheered as the herd rounded a hill or traversed a glen of trees, and many of us enjoyed a "cowboy corral" meal after the drive.
Don't miss: The Buffalo Roundup at the end of September, with a corresponding art fair and several events in and near the Black Hills. It's worth planning a trip around.
You may know Deadwood from the popular HBO series of the same name. It's about a lawless town in the late 1800s during the Gold Rush and the many characters who lived there. In reality, the fictional portrayal isn't far off.
Deadwood relishes its reputation as a Wild West haven, and stores, tours and community festivals pay tribute to that era. Prostitution was still legal here into the 1980s. When that was outlawed, legalized gaming was approved to replace the vice, so visit here if you're interested in playing slots or other gambling.
I can't recommend Deadwood as a family destination, but see the "Don't Miss" for a place to bring your kids.
A trip to Mount Moriah Cemetery above town contains the graves of legendary Deadwood personalities Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and Seth Bullock. Visit Saloon #10 to check out where Hickok was killed Aug. 2, 1876, by Jack McCall. History has it Hickok arrived in Deadwood only a few weeks earlier, played several card games but never sat with his back to the door—until that fateful day, when McCall shot him in the head.
Don't miss: The Tatanka Story of Bison Museum. While much of Deadwood's identity comes from the Wild West era, this small museum pays tribute to Native Americans in the region and their relationship with bison (also called buffalo). Commissioned by actor Kevin Costner after his 1990 film "Dances with Wolves," the museum provides good background about the near extinction of bison, which the Lakota call "tatanka."