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Going Bad In South Dakota: Tourist Traps and the Badlands

As we headed out to Yellowstone, I heard a slight grinding sound coming from the nether regions of my 2003 Chevy Suburban. It wasn’t particularly disturbing, but I casually asked Traveling Companion to keep an eye out for an auto repair shop as it couldn’t hurt to ask if this was a concerning sound.

Just as I said that, an AMCO shop appeared on the hill before me as if by divine providence, forcing me to heed the warning. At the shop, the manager practically shouted, “Hell, yes, you need to have that looked at.” And the clincher, “I wouldn’t take my daughter on the steep and winding roads of Wyoming without getting that fixed.”

The AMCO shop couldn’t fit me in until late in the day, and referred me to another shop that could take the car only a little earlier. But, again, luck was with me, and I stumbled into Tri-State Tires in the aptly named Rapid City, SD that not only took care of our brake problems quickly and well, but also provided a clean and comfortable lounge to await repairs.

This was just the latest of several less than ideal stops in South Dakota.

Ice Cream Capital of the World

We started the day’s journey with candy and ice cream in Le Mars, Iowa.

Since we somehow missed Palmer Candy Company in Sioux City, IA, we stopped at a local grocery to pick up a few bars of the local favorite, the Bing Candy Bar. That’s when we realized that it was a nut-filled chocolate that would be lethal to one of our traveling companions. We bought a few bars anyway, and stored them for later, but the hot South Dakota sun reduced them to hard lumps before the day was done.

Dubbed the “Ice Cream Capital of the World,” I expected an immersive experience in Le Mars along the lines of Hershey Park, but was disappointed to just find an ice cream parlor carrying Blue Bunny ice cream and products. The ice cream was fine, hard to go wrong there, but the “museum” did not deserve the title as it just featured a few small glass cases in a big, empty room.

The best thing I can say about our ice cream stop was that it was deliciously quick, and we were soon on our way through South Dakota.


Bad Asses in the Badlands

The highlight of our road trip through South Dakota were our stops in Badlands National Park. Since many visually stunning sedimentary rock formations of buttes, pinnacles, and spires are accessible from the park road, it’s easy to stop long enough to climb, shoot photos, and move on. The exhibits at the visitor’s center were also well done, packing a lot of information about the rich geological, paleontological, and human history of the area into a hands-on concise display. As we still had a lot of road to cover before the day was done, this made for an ideal pit stop.


Tourist Traps Aren’t All Bad

South Dakota elevates kitschy road stops into an art form. Where else will you find a tourist trap town built on offers of free water? And while I don’t recommend these stops as destinations in and of themselves, they are handy when you need a break from the road.

On this particular road trip, I can highly recommend the clean bathrooms at the FREE Corn Palace, a building whose walls are covered by murals made of corn, I was also happy to get gas, snacks, and another bathroom break at the gas station next to 1880 Town, which boasts movie props from Dances with Wolves, including a tribute to one of its horses.

Oh, and if you’re looking for a bargain on Black Hills gold, there is a liquidation sale going on at one of the shops found at Wall Drugs.


There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute

My least favorite overnight stop, but the one that brought joy to my son’s heart, was our stay at the La Quinta Inn & Suites in Rapid City, SD. We put off searching for a hotel into late in the day, waiting to see how much distance we could cover. And while I would have avoided the area around Mount Rushmore, an attraction that inspired many heated arguments between my eco-sensitive son and surprisingly patriotic daughter on a previous road trip, seeing this monument was high on Traveling Companion’s bucket list.

Thus, even with the able assistance of Expedia, we ended up at the most expensive hotel on our US road trip – $209/night for a room that smelled like it had survived more than one wet towel on the carpet, and whose cleanliness left a lot to be desired. But the kids were happy. For just an additional $14.95/kid, they got to play in the adjacent WaTiki Indoor Waterpark for the half hour left until closing and from 8-10am the next morning. WooHoo! Again, they were ecstatic, and really, nothing else matters, right?

The next morning was spent fixing the brakes and saving the $11 Mount Rushmore parking fee by doing a Chevy Chase photo moment in the turn around parking lot.

Sorry, South Dakota, we’ll do better next time.

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