The Black Hills are an over-looked destination by many in Denver, as we soon discovered. Strange looks and “why would you go there?” abounded. But South Dakota is full of so much history, epic monuments, and amazing drives.
My wife and I met the old-fashioned way; drunk at a bar. It was a Thursday night. We we found each other on the smoking deck at a bar in Larimer Square in downtown Denver. It was late in the evening and the terribly expensive drinks had been flowing for many hours. People were smiling, drinking, and there was inevitably more swearing. At some point there was an argument and someone yelled “cocksucker.” Gleefully, there was a chorus of people repeating the word loudly. This started a conversation about the far-too early death of HBO’s Deadwood. Fans of the show will understand the connection.
That was 8 years ago. This year we decided a short road trip to the town that sparked our first conversation was in order for our anniversary. I had been stationed in South Dakota many years back and wanted to show my wife the area. So, we packed up the truck with a suitcase, food, the pup and we were off on our first road trip together.
Day 1 – Destination Deadwood
We departed Denver around 9 AM and headed north up I-25. The Rockies kept us company until around Cheyenne. After that, Wyoming opens up. We headed past Chugwater (where Wyoming’s oldest working soda fountain lives) then east on Highway 26. The drive is…well boring… sort of. But in a majestic way. The wide-open spaces of Wyoming has a special charm with the rolling hills, rock outcroppings, and wind-swept landscapes. There are plenty of prong-horn antelope (which we eventually referred to as “pointed prairie squirrels”) to play a version of cow-poker. My wife won do to an unexpected herd of camels. (Here is our article on how to play cow poker)
Our first destination was Fort Laramie National Historic Site near Lingle, Wyoming. This Fort was instrumental along the Oregon Trail and as part of settling the west. Name a historic figure of the Wild West, and they have been there. Being our half-way point, it was a perfect spot to let the dog out for a walk and tail-gate our picnic lunch. We pulled in to a parking lot full of RV’s and C1 Corvettes. It was like we pulled into a car show in the middle of nowhere. After lunch, we walked the lot checking out the Vettes in various states of originality and restoration. Then we toured the old fort listening to the stories from period-dressed staff and rangers about those who traveled the same path we were taking, but in a wagon, across a field, getting cholera. We have it better.
It is another couple of hours north along US 85 (or as those from Denver know it, Sante Fe Blvd). There is not much for the 125-mile stretch to New Castle so I had time to actually have conversations and reconnect with my wife whom I never see because we work so much. OK, in reality she slept and I drove.
We arrived in Deadwood after a few puppy potty stops just in time for dinner. Our home for the next few days was the Deadwood Mountain Grand. This resort was a mining slime plant in its previous life and on the outside, has been restored beautifully. We chose the hotel is close downtown Deadwood and it is pet friendly. The staff was very accommodating to our pup, with daily treats and a new tennis ball. The hotel features a casino, restaurant, convention center, and theatre typically featuring country singers and comedy acts.
In town, the first place anyone should hit is Saloon 10. It is gritty, old, and historic. Upon entering you will see the original chair that Wild Bill Hickock was sitting in when he was shot holding the infamous Dead Man’s Hand. The bar is decorated with a unique blend of western life and modern bar. Signs from Charlie Utter’s Mercantile mixed with neon beer signs and mounted animals. We found our way to the bar, I ordered a shot of Jack and a local brew, and my wife a gin and tonic. We found a table and chatted. Another couple sat at the table next to us and before long we were all at the same table, drinking and telling tall tales while the live band played.
The bad about Deadwood is that there is no “great” place to eat. The Grand’s food was the typical of any Holiday Inn sadly. And most restaurants are what you find in a tourist town catering to those who likely won’t be back. The best place to grab a bite is The Pump House; a simple coffee shop in an old gas station. Breakfast sandwiches are hot and tasty and the lunches consist of fantastic sandwiches, all at reasonable prices. In conversations with the staff, even they are disappointed with the food quality in town and have set themselves to the task of elevating their own food. And they do so.
Day 2 – Black Hills
After breakfast at the Pump House, we loaded up and started the 1-hour drive to Keystone, the town at the foot of Mount Rushmore. The drive down is great, open roads, the world’s largest rocking chair, and Lake Pactolla. Keystone is a great little tourist town supporting Mount Rushmore. It was a cool day and we parked in the bottom of the parking garage. As we had the pup with us, she was not allowed in Mount Rushmore, so our time there was only 45 minutes. On a slow Thursday, that was plenty of time to see the monument, the workshop, and the gift shop.
Our next stop was Crazy Horse. I have been visiting Crazy Horse for nearly 20 years and the progress has been, at a distance, unremarkable. The grand plan for this monument is extensive and the rock blasting is slow. But when you realize how big the whole thing is, and that it is privately funded it adds some perspective. The visitor’s center is a fantastic look at Native American culture, particularly the Sioux tribes of the Dakotas. A must see, every couple of decades or so.
Custer State Park is the crown jewel of the Black Hills. There is so much to do and see you can spend an entire week just enjoying this park. The wildlife tours, hiking, and rock climbing are excellent. We had only an afternoon. We chose to stop at Sylvan Lake for a hike up the rocks, then a drive through along the twists and tunnels of the Needles Highway looking for bison (great drive, no buffalo).
Day 3 – The Bad Lands
For any road-tripper, Wall Drug is the must-see destination. An an oasis for those heading west that was made famous by free ice water. This was a big deal back in the day before air-conditioned cars and they still bank on this today. You are going to see signs for Wall Drug. A lot. It is a source of entertainment finding them along the way. But what is Wall? It is a town full of choochkies, oddities, and comfort food where jackalopes run wild. You will find plenty of new and lots you forgot existed. This is THE quintessential Americana, nostalgia, and road tripping stop. It is not to be missed. My wife was unenthusiastic headed there, and it turned out to be her favorite part of the entire trip.
Bad Lands National Park is another treasure. We came in through the eastern entrance and made our way through the park on our way back towards Rapid City. Bison, big horn sheep, and the amazing rock formations in this desolate area are awesome in the literal sense. The majesty of the rock, history, colors, and fauna make this driving tour a one-of-a-kind adventure. Just make sure you bring plenty of water and snacks. There are no convenience stores in the park.
On the way back, head to Rapid City and have dinner at the Firehouse. This used to be just a great place to get a burger. Now they brew their own beer, have a great outdoor area, and the burgers are still great.
Day 4 – Home
If you are not in a hurry to get home there are several sites to see to make the trip back to Denver more interesting. If you head west, it is a short drive to Devil’s Tower, then just head to Gillette and go south on Hwy 59 until you hit I-25 in Douglas. Devil’s Tower is worth the stop and extra time. A second option is to head back down US 385 and visit Hot Springs NP and Wind Cave NP. In fact, just make a day of this and stay in Hot Springs and go home the next day.