Posted by: Tommy | August 25, 2010

South Dakota – like Florida, but not as classy

Our month-long road trip was, mentally, divided into4 parts.  First was the Amarillo/Denver/Rodeo part.  Then, the Grand Teton/Yellowstone section.  Then Glacier/Waterton parks.  Finally, South Dakota and the drive home.  At first glance, it probably looks like the South Dakota section would be the worst part (and it was).  But when we did some research before and during the trip, we were legitimately excited about the South Dakota portion of the trip.

The Black Hills are home to Deadwood, Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Monument (approximately 8 times larger than Mount Rushmore) and the worlds 2nd largest herd of buffalo.  The Badlands are supposed to be the some of the best star-gazing on the planet, have a prairie dog town and was once referred to as “hell, with the fire burned out” (a ringing endorsment).

And all of those things are true.  But it was still a major disappointment.  For the following reasons:

A lack of motel rooms that cost less than $100.  Even the most run-down motel that made you want to carry your sleeping bag inside and put it in the bed, cost $109 a night.  A Best Western went for $149 – all over the Black Hills.  Towns with 300 people and 700 motel rooms, charging $119 at minimum.  We ended up driving 45 miles and shelling out for a Motel 6 one night, because the previous nights accommodations had been so lacking.  Which brings me to…

The worst campground ever.  A longer rant about this is coming tomorrow, but I’ll summarize by saying that we were told that the best spot in the campground was to pitch the tent in the stables…and we wish we’d taken the advice.

Paying $20 to look at something.  Anything that you want to look at in South Dakota, there’s a $20 charge.  Hey, here’s a pit of bones – that’ll be $20.

Here’s a house built on the side of a hill.  I think the gravity is weird here.  $20 (plus a day of nausea).

Kevin Costner owns a statue of some buffalo – you can see it….for $20.  Worst of all, the Crazy Horse Monument.  Also $20, but it it currently just a face in the side of a mountain.  Eventually, there will be a full body, riding a giant horse, all carved in the mountain.  And when that happens, it’ll be worth $20.  But for now, you are 1.5 miles away, looking at the side of a face carved high on a mountain, with the horse and body drawn in chalk so you can imagine it.  Oh yeah, and you can see all of this from the highway.  It looks exactly the same.  I feel like such a sucker.

Even Mount Rushmore, which was admittedly cool, gets in on the act.  Sure, the monument is free, just like the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, the Vietnam Memorial and all the other national monuments.  But, since this one is in South Dakota, they have to charge something.  So the monument is free and the PARKING is $10.  This is all explained on a very neatly written sign as you are paying for the parking.  Monument – free, parking $10 to cover…..the costs of the parking.  Of course, you are parking in a state-of-the-art facility with at least 5 visible employees and a computer system that reads your license plate and prints it on your receipt as you pay.  It seems to me that you could eliminate this state-of-the-art facility and just have a regular old parking lot like they do EVERYWHERE else and save everyone $10.

The only bargain in the whole Black Hills area that we found was in the casinos.  Deadwood is very much a casino town and is much cheaper than Vegas.  I found a $2 minimum 3 card poker table, which was a lot of fun.  Of course, it’s saying something when the biggest bargain in the Black Hills still cost me $20 with nothing to show for it.

The Badlands was not nearly as commercial and probably would have been pretty enjoyable.  We were excited for the whole month about getting to see the stars there.  Coming from Dallas, where there are approximately zero visible stars, we were looking forward to seeing a lot.  So of course, we were in the Badlands during a full moon, when all the stars are washed out by the light of the moon and it is difficult to see anything.  It was 105 during the day and 85 at night, with a howling wind that filled our tent with a fine coating of dirt.  Anna and I both agreed that we didn’t need a second night of that, so we left the Badlands after 1 night and hightailed it all the way to Kansas City.  Thanks to Emily, a friend from my time in Prague, who opened the door and her spare bedroom to us at 11 at night.

Reading back on this, it sounds pretty negative.  And our experience in SD was pretty negative, so that’s ok.  But there were some bright spots.  We really enjoyed our afternoon at Evans’ Plunge, a small waterpark in Hot Springs, SD fed entirely by the natural hot spring that runs through town.  The Mount Rushmore lighting ceremony, held each evening, was a very moving, patriotic experience.  And who can forget the massive drug store in tiny Wall, SD or the Mitchell, SD Corn Palace.

And please, don’t let this affect your opinion on North Dakota.  We enjoyed our time there, however brief.  It was clearly the best Dakota.


  1. Wow — I have always wanted to see Mt. Rushmore and you have just about changed my mind. All of this reminds me of a West Wing episode that had the character Donna assigned to traveling to North Dakota to represent the White House on the issue of North Dakota changing its name to simply “Dakota” so people wouldn’t think it was so cold. Donna’s response “Well isn’t it cold?” Your experience of 105 might actually back that up if it wasn’t an abberation.

    The goof balls wanting to change the name also asserted that the “South” in South Dakota had something to do with their superior tourism and Donna responded “Isn’t that because of Mt. Rushmore?” And of course it is. What you learned I guess is that if you only have a very limited number of months someone wants to go there then one response is rip off the tourists. Sad because you might have spent more money and had a more positive review if the hotels had been decent and a little cheaper and you hadn’t left feeling like a sucker.

    Your pics are great and I am glad I got it see it a little through you.

  2. Oh and one more thing — not as classy as Florida — that is quite an indictment.

  3. Hey Tommy,

    Your head and T-shirt with the Longhorn Logo fit in nicely with the Presidents’ heads on Mount Rushmore. Interesting shot! I have been to both Dakotas in a much younger version of my current self, and I do have to agree with you. The descriptions were pretty much on target. Give my best to Anna. Both of you…….stay safe!

  4. I think Tommy looks SO good next to Lincoln that they should add him to Rushmoore…way better than the giant ear of corn! xoxo

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