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South Dakota Travel Tips

Met a motorcyclist today who warned that beyond the Black Hills there's nothing else to see in South Dakota. "This is the only part of the state worth seeing," he cautioned. "Head east, and there's nothing." But he is wrong. Yes, the west has the Black Hills, the caves, the monuments and the Badlands, but the less-publicized eastern part of South Dakota has a raw, untamed, expansive beauty that is exquisite. The Missouri River that so captivated Lewis & Clark on their expedition almost 200 years ago is an aquamarine ribbon that winds through the middle of the state. It swirls around little islands of tall grasses that spew out like fringe, and rushes past tan suede sand dunes dotted with pale green prickly pears. Onshore, rows and rows and rows of sunflowers the size of pizza pies bob in the breeze, creating an image of a wavy sea of lemon yellow. East to west, South Dakota is full of stunning natural beauty.



Statehouse, Pierre (605) 773-3765

South Dakota's Statehouse sits on a small hill by Capitol Lake, surrounded by thick, soft grass that welcomes visitors in a cushy carpet of emerald green. Unfortunately, the public entrance to the Capitol is in the rear. (One of our pet peeves because an architect took the trouble to design a main entrance that would create a certain desired effect, which is denied today's visitors for the sake of practicality.) But compensation for coming through the back door is seeing the Italian terrazzo tile floors that look like colorful confetti covered with layers of glaze. Up the white marble staircase to the second floor (the first floor if you come in the main entrance), is the rotunda with a brilliant floor of the terrazzo tile and an America-laid prism glass that allows light to rise up and cast a surreal glow to the oversized area. Off from the rotunda is the grand marble staircase flanked by columns of scagliola, a manmade white marble with veins and speckles of gold, black, brown and gray. Above the staircase is a vaulted ceiling of Victorian leaded stained glass. The play of light and colors against the marble white and gold projects a lighthearted feeling of happiness. Half-moon murals of Dakota scenes line the hallways.

Off the side of the rotunda is the Supreme Court, solemnized in hard-carved mahogany. Upstairs, the House of Representatives is subdued in oak and earthy colors while the Senate is set in deep mahogany and tranquil green. Both senators and representatives have the original rolltop desks, magnificently restored. Beautiful old doors retain the original brass doorknobs depicting the State Seal. (Other statehouses had to remove their State Seal brass doorknobs because visitors would nab the knobs for souvenirs. Don't know why South Dakota doesn't have this problem.)

Check it out . . . The first floor displays the "First Lady Gown Collection," miniature recreations of the dresses each First Lady wore to the Inaugural Ball. Most of the recreations are made from the actual material from the dress.

Check it out . . . Walkways lead to a nearby park and memorials, such as the enormous bronze "Fighting Stallions," a sculpture dedicated to Governor Michelson and seven others who were killed in an air crash in 1993. The "Flaming Fountain" memorial is a flowing artesian well containing natural gas, ignited to provide a "water on fire" illusion.

Check it out . . . Across the street from the rear of the building is Hilger's Gulch, a 1.5 mile walking trail, garden and "Governor's Grove," established by Governor Michelson with the hope that every elected Governor henceforth would plant a tree as a remembrance of his or her term.

Corn Palace, Mitchell (800) 257-2676

The Corn Palace was designed in 1892 for The Corn Belt Exposition. Early settlers decorated the exterior of this palatial building with the fruits of their harvest: corn, grain, wild oats, grass, bluegrass, straw and wheat. It was such a success in 1892 that they have continued this practice ever since. Every year the new harvest brings a new look to the palace as the exterior of this extraordinary onion-domed, Moorish style building is stripped and redone with new corn murals depicting a new theme. The 1998 theme, Youth in Action, will change in September. Hard to believe: Admission is Free.

Enchanted World Doll Museum, Mitchell (605) 996-9896

Directly across from the Corn Palace is a castle, complete with moat, turrets, and drawbridge, housing 4000 antique and modern dolls displayed in 400 different scenes. Dioramas of nursery rhymes, fairy tales and scenes from life in the 19th and early 20th century, such as winter skating parties, afternoon teas, Dicksonian Christmases, and church services -- including a choir of nuns -- keep the dolls from getting dull. Each scene offers an enrichment for the imagination of times and dolls gone by.

Prehistoric Indian Village, Mitchell (605) 996-5473

This archeological site was once a fortified village of native American gardeners and hunters who lived here 1000 years ago. The assumption is that these people were the ancestors of the Mandan Indians. About 500-1000 people lived in 80 earthlodge dwellings on the shores of Firesteel Creek, now Lake Mitchell. The museum has a recreation of the earthlodge where you can walk inside and imagine how life might have been. Remains of underground food storage units and garbage pits show that these people lived off fish, bison, corn, squash and wild berries. The museum shows the remains of pottery, as well as household, gardening and hunting tools.

Tip: An archeodome research center will be open to visitors next year featuring an "open dig" of some of the actual archeological remains of the village.

Middle Border Museum of
American Indian and Pioneer Life

Mitchell (605) 996-2122

See it. Feel it. Touch it. Live it. Pioneer life is sprawled out behind this modest little brown ranch building. Visit an actual old schoolhouse and read the teacher's duties (such as bringing enough water and coal for the day) and rules (i.e, male teachers are allowed "one day a week for courting, or two days a week if he goes to church on Sunday;" should he get a "shave at a barber shop," or visit a poolroom or barroom, his "integrity and honesty will be suspect;" a female teacher who becomes "engaged, marries, or exhibits any other unseemly behavior " will forfeit her job). Step inside an actual train depot and imagine waiting for a train 80 years ago. Visit the village church. See a dental office, a doctor's office, a barber shop (unless you're a male teacher), and best of all, walk through the old Beckwith house, the gorgeous Victorian home of the co-founder of The Corn Palace. All of this is self-guided, even the visit into the richly decorated Beckwith home, which means you can linger and imagine to your heart's delight.

Tip: Plan to spend at least two hours here. It's fascinating. And yet the admission for this overabundance of artifacts (and a museum that actually lets you touch and feel its exhibits) is only three dollars (the Victorian Beckwith House alone is worth a $5 admission fee.) What a value for the mind and the purse.

Soukup & Thomas International Balloon & Airship Museum Mitchell (605) 996-2311

The "world's largest" collection of hot-air history, including remains from the Hindenburg disaster. See homemade and corporate sponsored balloons and learn how tethered balloons were used for warfare reconnaissance as early as the 1700s in France, and later by Union forces in the American Civil War.

Little House on the Prairie
DeSmet (605) 854-3383

DeSmet is a town dedicated to author Laura Ingalls Wilder who wrote the Little House on the Prairie books. See the Surveyors' House where her family lived for a year until Pa got a homestead. Visit the homestead site. The shanty is long gone but you can see the actual Cottonwood trees Pa planted to cure Ma's homesickness as described in the book "On Silver Lake" (Silver Lake is also no more.)


Black Hills

Come eye to eye with bison, wild goats, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs and other fantastic creatures on the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park (605) 255-4515. Thread through giant needle rock formations along the meandering Needles Highway Scenic Drive. Hike the Black Hills among butterscotch-smelling Ponderosa Pines, which cover the ground in a bed of sweetly scented pine needles that cushion the tread of a hiker's tired, bootclad feet. See the fantastic mountain carvings of Crazy Horse Memorial (605) 673-4681 and Mount Rushmore National Memorial (605) 574-2523. Act like early cave explorers and crawl beneath the surface of the earth aided only by the eerie glow of candlelit lantern at the Jewel Cave National Monument (605) 673-2288.

Badlands National Park, (608) 433-5361

In the daytime the Badlands are huge, dry, pie crust-colored, pointy peaks that resemble a desolate, craggy moonscape. Climbing the trails of the Badlands in the midday makes the hiker's skin as dry as the land, which is so dry that it cracks beneath the weight of every step. In the evening, though, the air turns cool as a breeze picks up and the peaks take on a friendly sherbet color of raspberry, orange and lemon. Should a late afternoon thunderstorm occur, (more often than not in summer) a brilliant rainbow makes the treat doubly good.

Mammoth Site
Hot Springs (605) 745-6017

More than 50 Columbian and woolly mammoths have been unearthed in this ancient sinkhole. Apparently some frisky teenage boy mammoths all drowned here about 26,000 years ago in what appears to be a sad case of "follow the leader." The remains of these young male mammoths are astoundingly telling. The skeletons found are completely intact illustrating exactly how each one drowned in a futile attempt to save itself.


Lake Mitchell Campground, Mitchell (605) 995-4057

So far this is our favorite campground. A lot of forethought went into planning the sites to provide full comfort and privacy. It has everything . . . nicely maintained grounds, a lake with paddle boats, canoes and a small beach. It has good roads, convenient facilities, and strategically planted trees to provide not only the much sought-after shade, but privacy and a feeling of being outdoors even when indoors. It also has a chapel in the pines overlooking the lake. Every Sunday a traveling minister gives sermons from the outdoor altar. And a much appreciated feature . . . the campground is about a mile from town and all the attractions. Being close to town allows an RVer to grab groceries in a pinch, make phone calls in private, and pick up any last-minute supplies.

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