SOUTH DAKOTA, the Mount Rushmore State

What to see

Sioux Falls City Tour
De Smet Little House on the Prairie
Mitchell Corn Palace
Kadoka Petrified Gardens
the Badlands National Park
Wall Wall Drug Store
Sturgis Sturgis Motorcycle Rallye
Custer State Park - Crazy Horse Monument - Korczac Ziolkowski
Deadwood Outlaw City - Tatanka
Lead Homestake Goldmine - Presidents Park
Keystone Borglum Museum - Presidential Wax museum
Mount Rushmore Mount Rushmore - Gutzon Borglum
Other pages other states | articles

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This is an extract of what to see in this state, with small photos. You will find the full description, history and full-sized photos, in my e-book View America: North West - Part 1

In the travel series View America, North West - Part 1 covers Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. It is not a traditional travelogue, but a non-commercial and more or less objective chronicle of an in-depth exploration of these states. Each state is described with its own brief historical background and its main sights, tourist attractions and points of interest.

My book does not describe lodgings, restaurants or entertainment, except where these may interact with the narrative. It is illustrated with more than 90 full-sized photos.

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SOUTH DAKOTA, also known as the Mount Rushmore State after the unique statue of the presidents, is mainly an agricultural state. The name Dakota comes from the name of the Dakota tribe. In 1889 South Dakota joined the US as the 40th state. Its capital is Pierre, and its largest city is Sioux Falls.

Its surface is approximately 200,000 km2, and forestation is at a paltry 3%. The main river is the Missouri river. There are approximately 750,000 residents in South Dakota, with a density of 3.8 per km2, which makes it the second least populous state after North Dakota.

The Western part of the state is too dry for intensive agriculture and the land is mostly used for livestock and sheep. The state is the largest gold producer in the U.S. with the Homestake Mine in the Black Hills.

The state offers many outstanding landscapes, especially in the Black Hills. Famous points of interest are the Mount Rushmore National Memorial with the 60 foot (18 m) high faces of four presidents carved out of the granite rocks, and the Badlands National Park. A statue of the Sioux chief Crazy Horse is being carved into the rocks, and that project started in 1947.

The Black Hills Roundup is one of the largest rodeos in the west, and it is held in Belle Fourche during the month of July. The village De Smet was named after de Flemish Jesuït and missionary Jean-Pierre De Smet, Mitchell proudly displays the remarkable Corn Palace can be admired, completely decorated with corn husks, and finally the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is the largest gathering of motorbike fans in the world, with more than 650.000 participants!

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Sioux Falls : city tour

The Sioux Falls Park is beautifully laid out around the falls that gave their name to the city. They may not be particularly high, but they are extremely picturesque. The worn red rock strata is very peculiar, and the tower offers a spectacular overview. At night, there is a splendid sound and light show over the falls.

The St Joseph Cathedral is a beautifully restored cathedral, dating from 1918. It was designed by the French architect Masqueray and it was built in a tight Gothic style, with sandstone walls and elegant towers, that were decorated with sculptured leaves. The interior offers a warm atmosphere, with heavy but stylish stone columns and a sculptured ceiling.

There is a truly massive organ, but what immediately strikes the eye are the beautiful windows in French stained glass. Their colors are really outstanding, even the difficult blue and yellow colors. The glass pieces are small, and the images are sharp and finely drawn.

The cathedral has several components, including the stunning Chapel of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, that has a beautiful marble floor. The sides are decorated with Russian icons, and behind the altar there is an elegant mural. These additions are recent (2003), and they were executed by a Russian and a New York painter. The chapel also has stained glass windows, albeit of a somewhat lesser caliber than the cathedral.

Sioux Falls Park 1 Sioux Falls Park 2
Sioux Falls : St Joseph Cathedral 1 Sioux Falls : St Joseph Cathedral 2
Sioux Falls : St Joseph Cathedral 3 Sioux Falls : St Joseph Cathedral 4

Mitchell : the Corn Palace

The Corn Palace is located in the fairly large city of Mitchell. In 1892 it erected a building to exhibit and promote the products of the rich farmland of South Dakota, and thereby attract more settlers to the region. The architects came up with a brilliant idea and they decorated the walls with various motives, that were executed in corn and wheat! It was an instant and enormous success.

By 1905 the exhibition hall had become much too small to receive the annual flood of visitors. The building was therefore demolished and rebuilt in a mere fifty-five days! In 1921 it was rebuilt for the third time, but this more "modern" version less resembled a "palace" than had been the case before. Therefore in 1937 several minarets, turrets and domes were added.

Every year a new theme is chosen, and the entire exterior is redecorated with a new composition. The decoration consists solely of corn, grain and grass, and its cost averages 130,000 dollars per year. Nine different colors of corn are used, and any paint or artificial colors are completely out of the question!

Mitchell : the Corn Palace 1 Mitchell : the Corn Palace 3

the Badlands : National Park

Sixty-five million years ago the climate changed completely, and geological activity lifted up the area of the Badlands. The former seabed was compressed into a two thousand feet thick and rock-hard layer of shale. Forests grew and disappeared again, volcanoes deposed thick layers of ash, and rivers eroded the surface and deposited new layers of sediment. Wind and water further eroded the dry and vulnerable soil, and carved through softer and harder layers, to form whimsical figures.

The layers of sediment contain the bones of animals that have been extinct for a very long time. Quite often new fossils are discovered, such as saber-toothed cats, mini-camel, mini-horses, and huge rhinoceros-like animals (titanothera). Even today new finds dating from the Eocene and Oligocene age appear on the surface.

The rugged terrain of the Dakota Badlands is interspersed with vast prairies, and the panoramas are a feast for the eyes. In 1939 the whole region was declared a National Monument, and in 1978 it became a National Park with a surface of 244,000 acres.

The Sioux Indians called the area "mako sica", which literally means "bad country". French-Canadian trappers called it "les mauvaises terres" (the bad lands), but both came to the same conclusion that the peaks and valleys formed an almost impenetrable and 1,650 feet deep (500 m) barrier between the northern and the southern prairies, called the Wall, that was nearly 3 miles (5 km) long.

The park contains wild herds of buffalo, horses and mountain sheep. There are different viewpoints along the road through the park, and the avid photographer can shoot an incredible number of fantastic photos!

the Badlands NP 1 the Badlands NP 2
the Badlands NP 3 the Badlands NP 4

Sturgis : the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

During our visit traffic was very busy, and there was an unusually large number of motorcyclists on the road. The reason for this was of course the annual Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis, South Dakota.

Every year this organization manages to assemble some 525,000 bikers in a city that normally counts only 1,500 people. The bikers not only come from all over the U.S., but they come from almost everywhere in the entire world. In 2005 the Sturgis Rally was organized for the 65th time, and they expected more than 650,000 visitors!

The Sturgis Rally has become an interesting and recurring source of revenue for the entire region, and so the residents gladly learned to live with the temporary inconvenience. During the two weeks of the Sturgis Rally all the regional prices receive a tremendous boost. The price of fuel increased by twenty cents per gallon, and hotel rooms that normally cost eighty dollars now found eager amateurs at two hundred dollars...

During the rally it is utterly impossible to find any parking space in Sturgis. The center of the city consists of two broad parallel streets, along which an incredible number of motorcycles are parked side by side. The atmosphere is simply incredible, and everywhere there are shops and stalls, trying to sell anything imaginable. Most items would be T-shirts and various motorcycle items, but you'll also find plenty of food and drink...

Harley Davidson and Budweiser are the two main sponsors, and the garish publicity certainly won't let you overlook it! An interesting anecdote; the fastest Harley Davidson reached the record speed of 183 mph!

Sturgis Motorcycle Rally 1

Sturgis Motorcycle Rally 2


Crazy Horse monument

In the city of Custer highway 385 leads to the Crazy Horse monument. Only moments later the hill becomes visible, in which the statue of the Indian leader is being carved. The monument is located at an altitude of 6,000 feet (1,828 m).

The Visitor Center is a fairly large complex, modern, well maintained and very extensive. The main subject is obviously the enormous statue under construction, but there is also an interesting exhibition about the life and work of sculptor Ziolkowski.

The Visitor Center also houses the Indian Museum of North America, the Native American Cultural Center, and the Crazy Horse library, that contains some 22,000 documents. The complex sponsors a scholarship program that already helped some 1,500 Indian students to finance their studies, and there are several teaching programs and classes from the Indian University of North America.

Custer : Crazy Horse monument 1 Custer : Crazy Horse monument 2
Custer : Crazy Horse monument 3 Custer : Crazy Horse monument 4



The Interpretative Center in Tatanka explains the history of the Buffalo. The name "Tatanka" became world famous through the movie Dances with Wolves with Kevin Costner, which was actually filmed in this region.

Deadwood 2 : Tatanka

Costner was very impressed by the region and came up with the concept of a resort, centered around the history of the American buffalo and the local Indian tribes.

However, he couldn't find any co-sponsors for his project, and so he used five million dollars of his own to acquire a piece of land, actually a landfill, and have it cleaned. Then he built Tatanka.

Besides the remarkable history of the buffalo, the center also recounts the background of the Lakota and Dakota Indians.


Keystone city

The drive to Keystone brings you through the beautiful Black Hills National Forest, bathing in the sun. At first, it presents you a rather steep fifteen percent slope, but after that climb, the striking countryside can be fully appreciated...

Keystone was built in 1891, next to the Keystone Lode. Three years later, the Holy Terror Lode was discovered, which became one of the richest gold discoveries in the Black Hills. As a result, Keystone immediately became a "large" city! The somewhat unusual name of this vein stems from typical American humor. Gold miners often named their claim after their wives, and this particular miner probably had a vixen of a wife...

Keystone city 1 Keystone city 2

Mount Rushmore

In 1922 historian Doane Robinson from South Dakota had a brilliant idea about putting his state on the map. He came up with a grand and bold plan, to wit the sculpture of various historical figures in a mountainside. He contacted the sculptor Gutzon Borglum, and explained his plan. John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum (1871-1941) was a celebrated sculptor, who had received several awards. In 1916, he started the sculpture of the Stone Mountain in Georgia, a commemoration of the Southern Confederacy, until a dispute with the authorities prematurely ended this work.

In 1924 Borglum visited the Black Hills, and after a careful study he picked out the current site on Mount Rushmore, because of its location, the right sun settings, and the quality of the granite. However, Borglum didn't want to portray local figures, but instead he chose the four greatest American presidents, so that the monument would become a national tribute.

They finally agreed on the figures of George Washington (the birth of the USA), Thomas Jefferson (the extension with the Louisiana Purchase), Abraham Lincoln (the preservation of the union), and Theodore Roosevelt (the development). His first draft portrayed the presidents to their waists, but after further measurements it was decided to carve out only their faces.

In 1925 they got a green light, and obtained federal subsidies from President Calvin Coolidge. The work started on 4 October 1927, and by then Borglum was already fifty-six years old. He designed several models in different scales and continuously adapted them to su bsurface faults in the granite.

Each head is about 60-foot (18 m) high and 11.5 feet (3.5 m) wide, and they were sculpted at an elevation of nearly 500 feet (150 m) above the valley. Ninety percent of the breaking-up of the rocks was done with dynamite, and about half a million tons of rock were removed. In the early days, 400 workers climbed the staircase with 762 steps every day, but later a chair lift was installed. The work took fourteen years, of which only six years were spent working, and the rest was lost by unfavorable weather or the waiting on further subsidies...

Borglum died on 6 March 1941 after a failed prostate surgery, and his son Lincoln finished the last face, which was Roosevelt's. The Visitor Center presents detailed information about the construction of Mount Rushmore, and the walk along the Presidential Trail obviously provides abundant photo opportunities!

Mount Rushmore 2 Mount Rushmore 3

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