Imagine visiting a state that features classic western towns from the 1800s that still look like they did back yore, a national park that resembles a visit to Mars, an ode to the birth of America that was erected controversially on sacred land belonging to Native Americans and down the street, the Indigenous response to it, along with gorgeous lakes, wildlife and a crazy "drug store" that extends for blocks and blocks.
That, and motorcyclists, 500,000 strong, who will be all over the town of Sturgis in early August.
Welcome to South Dakota, and what a place for a Photowalk.
-South Dakota Photowalk episode: bit.ly/3Krt1BF
Photo gallery: bit.ly/3OsgijE
The nation's 47th state, in terms of population (just under 900,000) could use your visit (it's ranked no. 37 in terms of tourists) and it's a place more people need to go to.
What to do when you get there?
Start with Mt. Rushmore, which was completed in 1941 to honor America and four of its greatest presidents. This is the iconic shot that is synonymous with the state, but don't expect to spend the full day here. Once there, you’ll pull in, pay $10 to park, walk the grounds, catch the exhibit on the building (excellent, but devoid of the controversy) of Rushmore, and take a look at that amazing view of the four presidents. That's about it. No, you can’t be like Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint and climb to the top like they appeared to do at the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film North by Northwest.
This photo I got while there is not an illusion, but of two workers doing maintenance atop George Washington’s head. Sorry, we’re not invited.
(For the cool, side angle view, which most people don’t get, this is an easy one. Just drive north, past the parking lot, to the lookout, and look up. I was using the Samsung Galaxy S23+ for this shot, which has a particularly great zoom lens with a bigger throw than the iPhone.)
For an alternate view of history, I suggest everyone also visit the Crazy Horse monument, the Native American response to the sacred land that was taken away from them to make way for Rushmore. You’ll get the other side of the story here in a much more comprehensive presentation, and you'll probably spend much more time, as there's more to see.(Unlike Rushmore, Crazy Horse is a long ways from being completed, which you'll hear about when you visit.)
You can’t climb to the top of Crazy Horse either, but for an extra $5 (on top of the $30 admission) there's a bus ride that brings you closer to the monument. It's definitely worth the extra expense.
From real history to fake, many people like to stop by the crazy Wall Drug, a road trip kitsch store in the heart of the Badlands that sells everything from aspirin, ice cream cones and western wear to giving away free ice water and bumper stickers. Even though it's silly, you still have to see it. On the plus side, it's in the heart of the Badlands, so it won't take long to get there. Have fun posing with the jackalope and old western characters.
The other theatrical tourist spot is Deadwood, an old western town that started booming in1876 with gamblers, ramblers, prostitutes and the like, in search of gold and never stopped. The old west is alive and well in Deadwood in a theme park like setting that’s chock full of casinos and kitsch shops.
When I texted my friend a photo from Deadwood, he thought I was on a movie set, so that’s saying something, Your images will pop here.
Deadwood is a fun visit, but I preferred the more authentic Custer, also home to gold prospectors and such since the 1870s. Custer is more real, and surrounded by scenic beauty of the Black Hills that’s amazing, like the Sylvan River, Needles Highway and the Wildwife Loop. That’s where I saw a bison taking a leisurely walk down the road.
The Custer area is closer to my favorite part of South Dakota, the Badlands.
Badlands is the 20th most visited national park, but it should be on your radar. Being here is like visiting another planet, with colorful buttes, spires, and pinnacles to explore. It’s hands down one of the most photogenic landscapes in the country.
South Dakota feels like two different states, explained Barb Pechous, a photographer who lives in the east. "On one side it's your prairie lands with your rolling hills and a lot of farming, and then you come to the west and you've got the hills and the trees and the Badlands, and it's like two different parts of the Earth."
Is Badlands bad? It was, once upon a time. Why did natives call it the Badlands? Consider this: as a local told me, "would you want to ride a wagon train over those rocks?"
--Drive or fly to Rapid City, which is about 70 miles away from the Badlands National Park. Spend at least two days exploring Badlands, then head over to Custer, your home base for Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Custer State Park and Sylvan Lake. Deadwood and Sturgis is a 90 minute drive from Custer.
--Where to stay: Circle View Ranch. You are right down the road from the entrance to the Badlands National Park in Interior, South Dakota, and you get to stay on a working farm with chickens, mules, cows, horses and even a white peacock. The family run ranch makes you a hearty breakfast every morning that you'll never forget it, and the location can't be beat. Rates start at $180 in the summer, and go down in the shoulder seasons. You'll never forget this experience.
--Where to eat? Circle View has you covered, but once you leave, our favorite breakfast and lunch spot was the Custer Baker's Bakery. This is a relic from another time, with sexist imagery of a hot waitress showing off her behind, but don't let that get in the way. They really do make fresh buns every day at the bakery, and sports some of the best burgers and fries you'll encounter on a road trip.
Have fun in Dakota! It was here where I got the perfect cover for my album. One day I'll have to record something to go with it.