When we find ourselves waxing nostalgic, one trope that inevitably comes to mind is summertime. Many of us think about the sense of possibility on the last day of school, playing outside until our laughter mingled with the fireflies, Fourth of July barbecues and popsicles and fireworks…or a road trip that made us realize there is more to the world than, well, our own little world. While we can never go back to the days of our youth, we can always prioritize the sense of adventure and discovery that too many adults shelve in exchange for the minutia of daily life. South Dakotans are particularly fortunate. We don’t have to get on a plane or a ship to see wonders natural and manmade – we just need to make a playlist, grab the sunflower seeds, and get into the car.
Each year the 605 Magazine staff hits the road to explore different corners of our great state. In 2015, we camped on the Ft. Pierre National Grassland before winding our way down central South Dakota’s Native American Scenic Byway. This year, we decided to go west and really see the Black Hills. So often we make quick trips to one spot or another for stories, but never do we take the time to enjoy the scenery and immerse ourselves in our surroundings. We plotted a route that took us south from Rapid City before looping north and back down again. The 165-mile route could be driven in a day, but it could easily fill a week. And that’s the beauty of a road trip – the timing is all up to you.
We first traveled west at the breakneck speed of I-90, stopping only to refuel the Jeep and ourselves at the Oacoma exit. With gas prices the lowest they’ve been in years, this trip felt like less of a luxury and more of an inevitability. Being the week before Memorial Day, Al’s Oasis was quiet as we ate our biscuits and gravy and sipped our penny coffee. A mere three days later, we would have been competing for table space with tourists of every ilk, below the watchful eyes of taxidermied fauna.
After arriving in Rapid City a few hours later, we were all ready for a beer and headed to new craft brewery, Lost Cabin. After partaking in flights of stout and Scotch ale and Prickly Pear Saison, we retired for a good night’s sleep.
Tally’s Silver Spoon is popular at all times of day, but breakfast is one of the best. It has something for everyone, from five-dollar biscuits and gravy to fourteen-dollar smoked salmon benedict. Located on one of downtown Rapid City’s busiest corners, across from the Hotel Alex Johnson (and behind the Ronald Reagan statue), it seemed like a good place to begin our day.
With full bellies and minds buzzing with caffeine, we headed south out of Rapid City on Mount Rushmore Road, toward Keystone. The drive to this popular tourist town gets prettier with every mile, as the rock faces get higher and the trees denser. Driving into Keystone, we knew we were in the calm before the storm, largely because of the ease with which we found a parking space.
For the next 30 minutes or so, we wandered through the touristy shops, buying little nicknacks – a train whistle, a baja blanket to fight the chilly air coming into our open-air Jeep, and the crown jewel, a jackalope for the office named Abe.
Back in the Jeep, we headed for Custer State Park via Iron Mountain Road. This is not a route for those under any sort of time constraint. It pigtails tightly through dense forest, winds around mountains, and soars across spectacular vistas. In some places, one can see what the Black Hills were like before they were touched by miners and men. In others, stone tunnels and towering pines frame the ultimate mark of humanity on the Hills, Mount Rushmore.
The landscape opened up a bit as we entered Custer State Park, and its signature bison began appearing in the distance. One bull stood boldly near the road, alternately munching on grasses and scratching his enormous head on a tree stump, aware of, but not interested in our presence. Not ones to push our luck, we moved on after a few moments, stopping again at the State Game Lodge. The palatial native stone and wood structure was once a favorite amongst presidents, and now serves as a hotel, restaurant, and general point of interest. We took the opportunity to grab a snack of buffalo ravioli, cheese, crackers, and fruit in the restaurant, accompanied by pints of Crow Peak Canyon Cream Ale.
It pigtails tightly through dense forest, winds around mountains, and soars across spectacular vistas.
Our drive through the park brought us passed waterfalls, bubbling brooks, and the summer camp-like Black Hills Playhouse, before coming to the entrance of Needles Highway. After paying our fee at the gate, and continuing for another few wooded miles, the trees gave way to the jagged namesake formations. At every turn, the landscape became more jaw-dropping as spires began rising from the roadside and in clusters all the way to the wooded horizon.
We pulled into Hill City mid-afternoon, ready to stretch our legs and get a little refreshment. Our first stop was Mountain Treats for a little ice cream. Then, after weaving our way through some of the artisan and souvenir shops, we popped into the Bumpin’ Buffalo for a Miner Chokecherry Brown Ale and to take in the view from the rooftop bar.
Our final stop for the day would be Deadwood, which is roughly an hour’s drive north from Hill City on US-385. This road is a little faster than some of the other Black Hills roads, but is still extremely scenic, hugging the sprawling, sparkling Pactola Lake near the midpoint.
When we arrived in Deadwood, we checked into the Deadwood Mountain Grand. Built from part of the historic Homestake Mine Slime Plant, the Holiday Inn resort looks more Old West than chain hotel. Due to its unique architecture, the hotel was a bit of a maze to navigate initially, but our rooms, with their tasteful cream and dark wood interiors, were a welcome oasis after a day on the road. However, we didn’t have much time to recharge before catching our dinner reservation at the nearby Franklin Silverado’s Legends
Steakhouse. At every turn, the landscape became more jaw-dropping.
Legends is a relatively new addition to the Deadwood dining scene, and is located in the casino’s lower level. The décor could be described as “upscale masculine.” Our server, Jason, was extremely knowledgable and helped us navigate the menu, which was both traditional and creative. We began our meal with Bang Bang Shrimp, then moved on to salads, including Legends’ Vanilla Fields (vanilla vinaigrette was a first for us, but
with dried cherries, pistachios and feta, it was surprisingly lovely). For the main course, most of us ordered steaks or salmon, but the entree that stood out was the prime rib.
When ordering, we were told that the prime rib was enough for two, maybe three, people. We politely chuckled and ordered it anyway. What came to the table was straight out of The Great Outdoors or perhaps The Flintstones. Even sharing portions with the rest of the table, the tender, medium rare portion of bovine bliss could not be fully conquered.
After dinner, we decided to burn off a few calories and walked down to Tin Lizzie Gaming Resort, at the end of the main drag. There, casino staff gave us a lesson in craps, one of Deadwood’s newest games. In the hour that we spent playing our fake chips and having the rules patiently explained, our group came to grasp the concept enough to muddle our way through. The dealers told us that they’re happy to help players any time (since it is new, this is a necessity), but anyone is welcome to come and learn Saturdays at 1 p.m.
When we were through learning the ins and outs of craps, it was time to wind down with a cocktail. So, we headed to the happeningest place on a Thursday night, Saloon No. 10. The rest of the evening was spent dancing to the live band below row upon row of taxidermied beasts.
Friday morning, we ate a breakfast of Black Hills Bagels and Sturgis Coffee at The Pump House, a charming gas station-turned-cafe. Half of the building is dedicated to food, while the other half is all about glass. Deadwood glassblower Toni Gerlach runs Mind Blown Studio out of the building. A natural teacher, Gerlach gave each member of our party a lesson on paper weights, but other would-be glass artists can make Christmas ornaments, cups or bowls. One of the best parts of returning home was receiving our creations in the mail a couple days later.
Before leaving Deadwood, we made the hike up to nearby Mt. Moriah Cemetery to pay our respects to the town’s Wild West legends. Then it was over to Belle Joli’s tasting room for some wine sampling, before capping off the stay with the “Wild Bill Tour” at Old Style Saloon No. 10. (Different from the Saloon No. 10 we’d patronized the night before, which is located down the street.)
To avoid the rather comprehensive construction happening outside Deadwood, we looped through Lead on our way out of town, before meeting up with Nemo Road en route to Rapid City. We could have taken I-90 most of the way back, but passing up the scenic route was not an option. Nemo Road is a route alternately hugged by dense forest and sweeping pastureland bookended by towering peaks, as it takes you passed charming mountain homes and communities.
After 36 hours roaming The Hills, our arrival back in Rapid City was a rather jarring return to reality. Our day-and-a-half felt much longer, due to the total sensory immersion demanded by the landscape. Returning home from a vacation is never easy, but at least this time, the transition back into real life was eased with waffle cones from Silver Linings Creamery, and a reflective drive back east across our great state.
Thank you to Amanda Kille and the team at the Deadwood Chamber of Commerce for showing us a wonderful time in your community!