This summer, almost a million American families will embark on the Great American Road Trip. They’ll hop on the Interstate in Chicago and Milwaukee and Minneapolis; St. Louis, Little Rock, and Kansas City; Columbus and Cincinnati and Louisville; and even the sprawling metro areas of the coasts. They’ll come up on I-29 and across on I-90, the reigning Best Interstate in America, and they’ll wind up … in South Dakota.
It’s a bit odd that a state that has a higher-than-average allocation of windswept grasslands and the dry crossroads should be such a summer tourist mecca, but for generations travelers have pointed the packed-up family hauler towards Wall Drug, the Corn Palace, the Badlands, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and of course Mount Rushmore. By the end of the month this year’s summer stampede to South Dakota will be in full force.
“Stampede” is not an exaggeration. The state estimates that more than 3 million travelers will visit the state this summer – maybe more, thanks to lower gas prices and fatter wallets. Most will come by motor vehicle, in family units that increasingly span multiple generations.
So why South Dakota? It’s a combination of things. For many travelers, South Dakota is just far enough. It’s not a full coast-to-coast jaunt, but it’s not just a two-hour car ride, either.
It also helps that the state’s most popular destinations are strung along I-90 like the battle scenes in an Avengers movie. From east to west, Sioux Falls is followed by the Corn Palace, which is followed by the Badlands and then Wall Drug and finally the Black Hills in all their astonishing splendor.
“We embrace the idea that a trip to South Dakota is America’s road trip,” said Jim Hagen, the state’s tourism secretary. “We feel like our state has iconic national parks and state parks, and then these quirky roadside attractions that make people’s top-10 lists, like Wall Drug and 1880s Town. So we’re A-OK with that status.”
The trip across South Dakota bisects the bottom third of the state. That leaves two-thirds of the state that most tourists never see and are hardly aware of. Now, to be honest, a good portion of that two-thirds is indistinguishable from most of the one-third that I-90 traverses. But there are enough differences to make the more adventuresome road-tripper want to take a side trip – even if the side trip is just a different Interstate.
“I-29 is becoming a very popular cultural corridor,” Hagen added. “There’s the National Music Museum in Vermillion, on the campus of the University of South Dakota. Its collection of rare musical instruments is one of the largest in the country, neck-and-neck with the one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Then as you head north on I-29 there are all kids of museums and galleries, like the Children’s Museum of South Dakota in Brookings, which was just voted one of the 10 best children’s museums in the country, the South Dakota Art Museum, the Terry Redlin Art Center in Watertown. There’s a wineries trail emerging along the corridor, and in Sioux Falls there are new pubs, new restaurants, a growing brewing scene, and a patisserie run by the winner of season two of Bravo’s Top Chef: Just Desserts.”
For more adventuresome tourists, Hagen recommends – well, he recommends a lot of things: the Native American Scenic Byway that traverses the Missouri River and follows the trail of Lewis and Clark; the Oyate Trail, which traverses a prettier brand of prairie than the Interstate and serves as a back way into the Black Hills; the Laura Ingalls Wilder country outside of Sioux Falls; the glacial lakes of the state‘s northeast corner; and Spearfish and Spearfish Canyon, with a lot more terrain than you would have expected from a non-Black Hills South Dakota address.
This year adds two special events to the traditional mix: “If you’re a biker, it’s the 75th anniversary of the Sturgis motorcycle rally,” Hagen said. “We’re anticipating 1 million bikers, up from 400,000 in a normal year. And then at the end of September it’s the 50th-anniversary buffalo roundup at Custer State Park, with more than 1,300 head of buffalo being rounded up by real cowboys and cowgirls. When you hear the hoofbeats of 1,300 buffalo, it’s really like rolling thunder.”
Regardless of its components, the term “rite of passage” really does apply to a South Dakota road trip. It’s something families have been doing since Teddy Roosevelt’s day, and it’s no less of a family-bonding experience today as it was back then. And Hagen is fine with that.
“In some ways, the South Dakota road trip has been a constant for decades,” he said. “Certainly people who come to South Dakota today are looking for more experiential trips, more culture, more education. They’re not only seeing sights. They want rock-climbing opportunities, biking, hiking. We have what they’re looking for.”
Sometimes, visitors are just looking for the pot of gold at the end of the road trip. After hours and hours of what seems to be a GIF of the same weary fenceposts and golden-brown pasture, the Badlands are almost incomprehensible, and the Black Hills are like a mirage. Kids press their noses to the windows, taking in the unexpected vistas. Families tumble out of vans and scramble to the deep, cool shade of the tall pines. The sight of bison sets the car shaking with excitement. And after a couple of days gallivanting through this wonderland of deep hills and dark woods, families are content to either head on to Yellowstone or make the trek back across the prairies, perhaps with a stop at the Spam Museum this time around.
So little has changed in this scenario over 50-plus years: Just air conditioning and the Spam Museum. Those are tiny changes in an institution as old as the auto, an institution that’s more popular today than ever.
And in case you’re counting: It’s only 690 miles to Wall Drug, and there’s free ice water. Everyone in the car!