“My dog Bambino wrote all of this,” Wayne Porter says as we read poetry in his sculpture park just outside Sioux Falls, SD above Interstate 90. “He’s the brains of this operation. But I have the opposable thumb.”
His point is well taken. The poetry describes the 50-plus sculptures at the eponymous Porter Sculpture Park, and the wrought-iron figures would have been hard to do with paws. I tell him they make a pretty good team.
“I know,” he says. “He’s a good dog.”
Porter might seem a bit eccentric anywhere other than the world of South Dakota roadside attractions. But in a state that’s made itself into the United States premier drive-through destination, he’s yet another reason to pull off the road.
South Dakota is the northern vestibule between the east and the great national parks of the west. Its highways are filled with dinosaurs, sculpture parks, classic cars, and rideable jackalopes. Which is why no American road trip is complete without discovering the roadside treasures that wait off the highways of South Dakota.
Begin the trip in one of the US’ best small cities
Sioux Falls is South Dakota’s largest city with around 180,000 people, and it’s likely the first place you’ll encounter other than pit stops for gas on any trip in the region. If you don’t know much about it other than the address on your credit card bill, that’s fine. Sioux Falls revels in its place as an under-hyped small city, but it will win you over within a night.
Posting up at the historic Hotel on Phillips, I saw how the city has transformed from a regional hub for the eastern Dakotas into one of those small cities that seems to do everything right. The hotel’s craft cocktail bar, Treasury, could have come from any city 20 times Sioux Falls’ size, with creative drinks and an attractive young crowd inside. Across the street, I found Woodgrain Brewing, where professionals from the city came for after-hours drinks. Pedal bars full of bachelorette parties biked by. I realized that this city was the place to go for anyone within 200 miles looking for a good time.
The next morning I went for a run on the city’s immaculate greenway, which winds along the Big Sioux River through Falls Park and the quartz rock canyons that line the city’s famous waterfalls. It reminded me that on a smaller scale, many cities are still beautiful, cultural places with few problems. And that’s part of the magic of traveling through South Dakota.
A park with a sculptor as riveting as his artwork
About half an hour outside Sioux Falls, I noticed a multi-story bull’s head and a full-sized Trojan horse standing on a bright green hillside. These are what lured me into the Porter Sculpture Park and led to reading dog poetry with one of South Dakota’s most colorful characters.
The 18-acre park features more than 50 of former sheep farmer Wayne Porter’s original wrought-iron creations, ranging from that 60-foot bull’s head with the Creature from The Black Lagoon hanging inside to druid priests, butterflies, and a massive Trojan horse.
“That horse took me ten years,” Porter grumbles through the wind whipping over the hillside. “We still don’t get along. He kicked the shit out of me.”
The sculptures alternate with white boards sporting poems that explain the artwork. Porter insists Bambino wrote all of them.
“You live here a little while, you start to flip over the edge,” he says. “You start talking like sheep. Baaa! Baaa!”
In the distance, Bambino comes running.
Dam good corny puns abound
If there’s one thing the region loves almost as much as roadside attractions, it’s puns. I learned this when venturing south off I-90 and into Yankton, where I crossed the Gavins Point Dam to the Dam Fish Shack in Crofton, NE.
“Matt, your dam order is ready!” a child of about twelve yelled through a cardboard megaphone. “MATT…your DAM order is ready!”
The shack is a funky roadside outdoor eatery by the Missouri River with picnic tables, $2 craft beers, and a sunny patio that would draw hours-long weekend waits in a big city. Here, it’s just a quick place to grab a fish sandwich or buffalo burger after a long afternoon of fishing.
The pun-tastic adventure continued as I headed an hour and a half north of Yankton to Mitchell, home of the world’s only Corn Palace. It’s an arena and events center that looks like a Russian Orthodox church covered in corn, with turrets and minarets standing atop facades decked out in corn-cob murals. Each is made of a dozen different corn varieties, utilizing over 350,000 ears. The murals change each year with different themes, and the building is as important to Mitchell as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris.
Everyone here leans into the corn.
“We’ll say ‘are you corn-fused’ or ‘that’s a-maize-ing,’” Sonya Moller, the chief operations officer of Mitchell’s Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, told me as we perused the Corn-cession stand. “The high school team’s called the Kernels. Their mascot is Cornelius. We have all sorts of ‘em!”
Because it’s such an icon, the Corn Palace has grown from a venue to a community center and point of pride for everyone who lives nearby. And between its behemoth testament to corn and the endless puns, Mitchell’s a runaway winner for corniest town in the US.
An auto museum run by a man as entertaining as the cars
Continuing west on I-90 from Mitchell, you’ll see billboards for the Pioneer Auto Show in Murdo, the world’s most impressive car museum in the middle of nowhere.
It’s a display of over 250 classic cars ranging from an original Ford Model A, to a Lamborghini tractor, to entire barns of 1930s gangster cars. All are shown in historic buildings donated to the museum, like the old one-room schoolhouse and the vintage WNAX gas station.
“Let me show you something,” owner Dave Geisler Sr. says as he meets me at the front of the museum after entertaining a family from Minnesota. The 82-year old, who spent years on the South Dakota tourism board, hobbles into the museum’s first room and leans over a bright orange Dodge Charger. “You know what this is?”
“The General Lee?” I answer, assuming there was no other reason for a 1968 Dodge Charger to be in an auto museum in the middle of South Dakota unless it had been featured on The Dukes of Hazzard.
He leans in the window and honks the horn. It blurts out an auto-horn rendition of “Dixie.” Completely ignoring my response, he says, “That’s an original General Lee!”
Geisler takes me into another room with an original Yoda puppet. Then he gets a quarter from the cashier to show off a rare antique, animatronic big band Coke machine. He tells me stories about the time people from the show American Pickers came through, and he empties a box of press clippings about the museum onto a table at the attached restaurant.
“We’ve had everybody in here!” he brags.
Geisler’s been hosting people on this plateau in Murdo for decades, and he’s as much a fixture in the South Dakota countryside as green rolling hills and cattle. His children run most of the business now, but the eldest Geisler sticks around to entertain the dozens of curious road-trippers who stop in every day.
“It’s kind of like owning a farm,” the younger Dave Greisler tells me later in his office. “You own 10,000 acres, that land’s worth a lot of money. You try and work that land, it’s hard to make a living. You sell it, you’re rich. But trying to run it, it doesn’t make any sense.”
Follow the signs to Wall Drug
No road trip through South Dakota is complete without a stop at the godfather of all roadside attractions: Wall Drug. The billboards start almost as soon as you get on I-90, but become unrelenting as you approach the exit for Wall, SD. They promise everything from free ice water to fresh fudge to a roaring T-rex, and it delivers on every one of them.
“We pressure people to come in, to a certain extent,” says Wall Drug Chairman Rick Hustead. “But we want it.”
Hustead agreed to chat with me in Wall Drug’s massive 530-seat dining room (reduced by more than half for COVID-19 precautions), but before showing me the NC Wyeth originals on the wall or breaking bread over buffalo burgers he insisted on changing tables.
“Let’s sit in the middle, I never like to sit with my back to the door,” he said.
“Wild Bill Hickock still come in here?” I asked playfully.
“You never know,” he said without a hint of sarcasm.
He went on to tell me how the 76,000-square-foot Wall Drug was once the tiny Hustead Drug Store on Main Street, until one day when Hustead’s grandmother Dorothy got the idea to give free ice water to hot motorists on their way to Badlands National Park. People stopped, and stayed, and 89 years later it’s one of the most famous roadside stops in the world.
Now, over four million people a year stop in to find an epic mall of western wear and South Dakota souvenirs. You’ll also find a back patio with a splash pad for kids and a jackalope statue that millions of people pose atop every year. Inside stands an animatronic T-rex that puts on roaring shows every 15 minutes. The restaurant serves buffalo burgers and gravy-soaked daily specials, along with the five cent coffee the billboards all promised. And don’t forget the world-famous doughnuts.
Custer, the tourist town that over delivers
Wall is named for its place along the northernmost wall of Badlands National Park, which is best viewed from the 39-mile Loop Road that runs throughout. From the Badlands, it’s a straight shot up I-90 into the Black Hills, where Mount Rushmore, Sturgis, and Custer State Park await.
But before delving into the beauty that is the Black Hills, I made a stop in Custer, one of the most surprisingly cool tourist towns in the US. The city sits just outside Custer State Park, home of the Buffalo Roundup, Needles Highway, and hikes through granite spires and towering-boulders.
US-16A (also known as Mount Rushmore Road) is Custer’s main drag and far less of a tourist trap than one would expect. It’s a place where you sip on beers on a grassy back patio at Mt. Rushmore Brewing before heading down the street to find Mexican food and fantastic margaritas at Begging Burro.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise I found here were the EO Bungalows, a small check-in-less boutique hotel just off US-16A where individually decorated apartments include massage chairs, adjustable beds, sit-down arcade games in the living room, and a fire pit for smores in the common area. It’s a spot that immediately feels like home, and it’s a calming base in a place that feels miles from anything familiar.
My final stop on the road trip was in Rapid City, sort of the metropolitan center of the Black Hills. For some coming through the state, it’s simply a resource center to rest their heads before continuing west. But Rapid is much more than the gateway to Mount Rushmore, it’s a young, energetic city that feels a little like an Old West college town. Coffee shops, breweries, and quirky restaurants line the historic downtown. After delving deep into the state for the better part of a week, I stopped into the Tinder Box cigar lounge to celebrate with a stogie and listened to a local music duo entertain the handful of patrons inside. It was a sophisticated-yet-unpretentious end to a journey into a state where I’d only scratched the surface and discovered the people who make the road there such an exciting place to be.