South Dakota – Border to Border

Over the past five years my partners and I have traveled South Dakota from border to border, north/south and east /west putting together a travel disc, website (www.travelinfomap.com) and e-book.  We chose 10 two lane highways and two interstate highways that run from either Minnesota to Wyoming or North Dakota to Nebraska (border to border) and featured each and every town on these highways.  The towns all have a Main street picture, no matter how small the town might be, a brief history and points of interest. As you travel with us down South Dakota’s highways and back roads, you can explore a land that is alive with the history of great Indian warriors, French fur traders, immigrant farm settlers, hard riding cowboys,  cattle ranchers,  and gold prospectors.

With this intro made let’s start our journey across South Dakota, the land of infinite variety;  which describes the landscape, the weather and the people who call South Dakota home.

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South Dakota Highways – Which one next?

My website – www.travelinfomap.com – has 10 two lane highways and two interstates highways as the main subjects.  I have taken one of the  most traveled highways, 385/16, and will post my first traveling blog from it.  Highway 385/16  is the South Dakota tourist mecca, containing  “The Black Hills” ,  Mount Rushmore, and Crazy Horse monuments.   The next series of blogs are Interstate 90.  I choose to do this interstate highway because so many of the towns along this long stretch of asphalt has really great things to see and do before you even reach the Black Hills or the Minnesota border.  These blogs,  in combination with the website,  can show you things  to see and do and even where to lodge or to eat.  My main frustrations when I have taken road trips to unfamiliar parts of the country is “what is there to see around here – do they have any neat museums or antique shops  here”?  Also the times when I was traveling  just to explore a new area and twilight descends and I can’t find a motel.  Then end up driving into the night because the  GPS isn’t showing the Mom & Pop motels and there isn’t any chains for miles and miles.  From one such vacation like this was born Travel InfoMap for South Dakota.  Word of warning if you haven’t looked at the blogs before or the website – DON’T plan your Black Hills vacation in the first two weeks of August UNLESS you are on a motorcycle and made reservations months and months ahead OR you will be like me in New Mexico a few years ago; driving into the wee hours of the night because of an annual event I knew nothing about.  The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally brings in thousands of bikers every year and Sturgis can only accommodate a small percentage of these people – thus the spill over covers most of the Black Hills and Northern Hills area.   Trust me, this is not a fun family time. 

If you have an iPod, smart phone or any other device that you can pick up the internet on, then this blog, website and e-books are the one stop shop while you are buzzing down the road.  Have a particular state or area that you are interested in traveling to and want to know more about it – just ask and we will do our best to accommodate your requests.

South Dakota I-90 – East River area

As we leave the Missouri River and head east down Interstate 90 we are entering what is known by the locals as East River South Dakota.  This means we have left the prairie lands and entering into the fertile farmlands of South Dakota.  The scenery has changed into miles upon miles of corn, soybeans and hay land.  Herds of Black Angus cattle are a common site along the highway.  The small towns lying just off the highway are communities’ that depend upon their existence more with the local farmers and ranchers than tourist.  Towns like Pukwana (lawnmower races in the summer), Kimball (tractor museum), White Lake, Plankinton and Mount Vernon can provide fuel for your car and good home cooking restaurants to fuel the stomach and soul.  Don’t hesitate to stop along the way, the friendly people of South Dakota are always glad to see you and have time to chat for a few minutes.

Our next town is Mitchell, home of the world’s only Corn PalaceThe Los Angeles Times described the Corn Palace as “The World’s Largest Bird Feeder”; this is not a quote that the citizens of Mitchell agree with.  Each year the local artists, using 275,000 ears of different shades of corn and 3000 bushels of other grains and grasses, change the intricate crafted beautiful murals into a universal theme.  The Corn Palace is a multi-use building that conducts many special events, from dances to big name concerts.  The high school and college hold their basketball games here during the season.  Check the events calendar and you will find numerous annual events being held at the Corn PalaceMitchell is also home to several unique museums that you don’t want to miss, such as:  The Dakota Discover Museum,  McGovern Library and Legacy Museum, Prehistoric Indian Village, Model Car Museum and Harry’s Antique Safe Museum.  Mitchell can easily be a day trip or a long week-end vacation with over a dozen or more motels, seven campsites, and 56 restaurants available.  If you are looking for specialized shopping, try Cabela’s and the Prairie Breeze Art Gallery. 

The 65 miles on Interstate 90 East to Sioux Falls has several small towns, Alexandria,  Bridgewater,  Salem,  Montrose, Humboldt and Hartford, which are basically farming communities that can provide a traveler with food and fuel if needed.  Our next town on Interstate 90 is the largest city in South Dakota, Sioux Falls.  Interstate 90 crosses the northern section of Sioux Falls while Interstate 29 South has the exits that take you directly into the heart of Sioux Falls.  Interstate 90 exits will take you into the more Industrial section and the airport.  There are several worthwhile attractions in this area, Adventure Park & Wild Water West (the kids will love it), Ramkota Hotel and Water Park, Greatest Show on H20, and for the motorcycle enthusiast J & L Harley Davidson’s showroom.  We will cover in depth all that Sioux Falls has to offer when we go down Interstate 29 and take the exits off that highway.  

We have almost reached the Minnesota border and the end of our Interstate 90 tour. The towns of Brandon and Valley Springs lie between Sioux Falls and Minnesota.  Brandon is one of the fastest growing communities in South Dakota.  There are two great motels, Holiday Day Inn Express and the Comfort Inn, along with an exceptional restaurant, Tailgaters, just a short jog off Interstate 90.   Valley Springs is a small farming community town that sits a short distance off Interstate 90.

SD Interstate 90 – Small town South Dakota

For the next sixty miles the towns along the Interstate are very small town South Dakota.  The towns of Draper, Vivian, Presho, Kennebec, Lyman and Reliance have a history of being early railroad towns that played a vital role in the settlement of South Dakota.  Unless you are a pheasant hunter, probably have never heard of Draper and Vivian.  Today Vivian sets just off the busy State Highway 83 into Pierre and has a large truck stop and a steakhouse just off the highway.  Presho is still the cattle town it was in the beginning but only smaller in stature.  The historical museum in Presho is well worth the stop and browse.  The museum is run by the volunteers of the Lyman County Historical Society – you will love these ladies and the knowledge they can pass on.  Kennebec, Lyman and Reliance have motels, campsites, restaurants and “watering holes” for the tired, hungry and thirsty traveler.  The people are “small town friendly” and will strike up a conversation without an introduction: just tell them where you are from and where you are going and can be good for a 20 minute conversation.   

As you leave Reliance you will notice the prairie has disappeared and is being replaced by high rolling bluffs.  These are the bluffs of the Missouri River and home to Oacoma and Chamberlain.  Oacoma-Chamberlain sits on both shores of the Missouri River and has numerous motels, restaurants (both fast food and home cooking), campsites and boat docks.  Outdoor enthusiast can be found year around in Oacoma- Chamberlain enjoying the hunting, fishing and boating.  In Oacoma there are two well known South Dakota landmarks.  Cedar Shore Resort and Marina on the Missouri River providing every amenity expected in a resort atmosphere, hotel, restaurant, lounge, massage therapist and outdoor activities.  The Cedar Shore Marina is a floating convenience store with fishing licenses, all the necessary fishing accessories plus fuel, snacks, beverages and even a guide service.  Al’s Oasis still serves 5 cent a cup coffee, Buffalo Burgers and homemade pies plus a wide range of other menu items.  For many years Al’s Oasis has provided a large supermarket, gift shop, clothing store, and restaurant & saloon all under one roof.  South Dakota native born will tell you stopping at Al’s when traveling from Sioux Falls to Rapid City is a South Dakota tradition.  Chamberlain provides two excellent museums; Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center and the South Dakota Hall of Fame.   The Akta Lakota Museum provides beautiful preserved Lakota Indian displays and stunning artwork.  South Dakota Hall of Fame takes you on a stroll through the lives of the people who have made South Dakota what it is today. Be sure to stop on your way out of town at the Information Center atop the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River.  Much like the Clark Lewis and  expedition, you will find the sights from this location breath taking.  The Information Center has a museum within the building recreating the Lewis & Clark expedition as it was over 200 years ago when they stopped for three days.

SD Interstate 90 – Badlands, Movie locations and Ghost town

For the next 20 miles you will be driving through acres upon acres of rolling prairie land. The second exit past Cactus Flat is the small friendly town of Kadoka.  Because of the close proximity to the Badlands National Park,  Kadoka has been called the “Gateway to the Badlands”.  If you are planning on making a day or two stop off to explore the Badlands;  Kadoka can be an excellent base point.  There are at least nine motels, five restaurants, two campgrounds, one truck stop and two convenience stores all located within short driving distance to  Interstate 90.   Also spend some time exploring the Kadoka area as there are several unique attractions here.  The Badlands Petrified Gardens display a unique collection of petrified wood and fossils found in the surrounding area. The Kadoka Depot Museum is a National Historic landmark and the Incredible Metals art studio has one of a kind metal sculptures.  Did you bring the golf clubs?  Kadoka has a nine hole golf course with sand greens – a little different challenge. 

Nine miles down  Interstate 90 is the small prairie town of Belvidere.  There are two service stations, a motel and a bar and grill in Belvidere. The people are friendly and the drinks are cold and it is a good place to stretch the legs if you haven’t stopped since leaving Rapid City.  Seven miles further down the highway is Exit 170 and, no, your eyes aren’t deceiving you that is an 1880 Town. The buildings are historically correct in structure, some of them rescued and refurbished from early South Dakota towns.  A few of the buildings were donated by movie production sites over the years.  In this area you will recognize landscape scenes from “Dancing With Wolves”.  1880 Town is an attraction that is well worth the stop and walk back through history into another time. 

The next town is Okaton.  The highway sign says it is a Ghost Town, not quite but Okaton is working on it.  There is one store still open and they sell gas and souvenirs.  Okaton is an interesting drive through as the few residents there have fixed up Main Street to look just like an Old Prairie Ghost Town.

Murdo is the next town on Interstate 90, home to the Pioneer Auto MuseumAlso home to Elvis’s motorcycle and over 275 antique cars, motorcycles, tractors and trucks, all housed in 39 buildings. If you are looking for a rest stop, Murdo has 10 motels, 2 campgrounds, 8 restaurants and 5 service stations.

SD Interstate 90 – Badlands – a land unlike any other.

Badlands National Park is 244,000 acres of grassland and craggy buttes, sharp pinnacles, deep ravines and steep canyons.  This land may look dead and dry but up-close the land is teeming with life.  The grasslands produce an abundance of wild flowers and almost extinct prairie grasses which sustain life for the hundreds of wild animals and birds that call the Badlands home. A word of warning if you are hiking or getting out of your car to take pictures; there are venomous prairie rattlers in the park,  so look before you start wandering off around rocks and shrubs.

There are two entrances off Interstate 90 to the Badlands National Park ; one is just outside of Wall on State Highway 240. Highway 240 is also known as the Badlands Loop because it circles through 32 miles of rainbow-colored bluffs and several hair-pin turns.  Highlights in the park are the numerous Prairie Dog Towns, the park’s herd of buffalo, herds of antelope, mule deer, and Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep.  Look up and you may see one of the Golden eagles that rear their young on the high inaccessible cliffs.

On the eastern entrance, exit 131, is the ghost town of Cactus Flat.  All that remains of Cactus Flat is a modern convenience store, motel, campsite and the headquarters for the Minute Men Missile Sites MuseumFor those who don’t remember the early 1960’s or the Cold War Era and the strategic planning of underground missile sites, this is one Museum you will never forget.  They even arrange tours down into the missile sites in the area.   You will also find the World’s largest prairie dog, a six ton statue, but behind the gift shop you will find the real thing; a huge prairie dog town with a very large family of hungry “dogs”.  For 50 cents you can even feed them a bag of peanuts.  As you enter the Badlands National Park stop at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, which serves as the park headquarters.  There is an 18 minute information video on the Badlands plus Park Rangers are available to answer all questions and offer daily educational programs. There are several restaurants, motels and camping sites within the Badlands Loop.

Small South Dakota towns on I-90 – Surprise things to see and do

Interstate 90 now stretches out across the plains of South Dakota with several small farming communities like New Underwood (home to the smallest biker’s bar in the world) and Wasta. Wasta is a tiny town but can provide a traveler with gas, food, motel, campgrounds AND an amazing military museum just next to the service station. For such a small town this is a state of the art museum built by a father and son in honor of this nation’s war veterans.
The next town exit will be Wall. By now, if you have been noticing the numerous billboards along the interstate, you will know Wall is famous for a drug store – Wall Drug. There are over 3,000 signs across the U.S. announcing how far it is to Wall Drug, plus signs that are in at least a dozen foreign countries. What is Wall Drug: a 1931 drug store that attracted visitors by giving away free ice water and then sold food and dry goods. Today Wall Drug is a sprawling complex that sells just about anything you can imagine and will put your name on most of it. The kids absolutely love this store – it’s better than Wal-Mart.  The ice water is still free and the coffee is a nickel a cup.

Another site worth stopping for is the Wounded Knee Museum. Learn why Wounded Knee, the last major conflict between the U.S. Army and the Great Sioux Nation, wasn’t the U.S. Seventh Cavalry’s finest hour. Just down the street from Wall Drug is the main office for the Buffalo Gap National Grassland Visitors Center, whose slogan is “Anyone can love the mountains, but it takes the soul to love the prairie.” In South Dakota, Buffalo Gap Grasslands intermingle with the Badlands National Park.  On a windy day (which is about any day) the tall grass moves just like waves in a sea – thus the pioneer’s comments of  how the prairie lands reminded them of the ocean.