American Road Trip: South Dakota & Mount Rushmore

I didn’t even manage to spend a night in South Dakota because I was having such an amazing day of driving that I just didn’t feel the need to stop.  Some days on this trip have been a real ordeal and I can barely get through 2-hours of driving before I want to curl up in a motel room with cable TV.  Others are so enjoyable that I have to force myself to stop for the night and this was one of them.

I crossed from North Dakota in the morning where I’d already been experiencing some incredible scenery and it didn’t let up for the rest of the day.  This north-western part of South Dakota was predominantly vast and beautiful prairie grassland.  It was a brilliant sunny day which only served to highlight the bright green vistas.  I traversed up and down rolling hills, through wide valleys and the odd picturesque small town.  It was just a pleasure to drive on these sweeping roads that never stopped delivering interesting and breath taking scenes.

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After an hour or so of this the grass began to give way to trees, rocky outcrops appeared and I soon wound up in the town of Deadwood, setting of the acclaimed HBO television series and home to a National Historic Landmark .  This illegally formed town (it was settled on land that was supposed to belong to Native Americans) has a fascinating history that you can click here to read about and it was everything you’d want a wild west town to be.

I was on a mission to get to Mount Rushmore as I had no idea how long it would take to visit there, so after pulling over to take a few quick photos and read some signs, I pretty much passed straight through Deadwood and Grand Rapids before climbing up into the Black Hills, a beautiful mountain range jam-packed with lots of interesting places to visit such as the Mammoth Site which is the world’s largest mammoth research facility.  They are also home to Mount Rushmore.

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I quickly realised how spoiled I’d been over the past several days of quiet driving when the traffic began to build with tourists from all over America making their Rushmore pilgrimage.  I hoped it would be worth it and as the traffic grew it became clear that even on a weekday at the start of the US vacation season this place was going to be very crowded.  I really don’t like busy tourist attractions or getting stuck behind painfully slow drivers on windy mountain roads so I’ll admit that I seriously toyed with the idea of just driving right past.  But I figured I was only a few minutes away so should just suck it up.

As I approached the main entrance I saw that you can easily see the faces of the presidents from a few spots on the road.  In fact, there are a couple of turnouts where you can pull over and get almost as good a view as you do from inside the monument.  Unfortunately they were pretty crowded plus the traffic was too heavy for me to make a sudden stop but if I ever return to that region I’ll be sure to use one of those rather than going into the actual monument.

I paid my entry fee and then tried to navigate the extremely confusing multi-level parking lot.  I wound up just managing to pull into an entrance seconds before the road spat me back out to the exit and I noticed the car ahead of me didn’t make it in time so no doubt had to sheepishly loop back in through the main entrance again.  The significance of this will become clear further down this post.

I wasn’t sure what to expect but it turns out that you enter a kind of large open-air concourse that is lined by state flags and the odd interpretive marker.  Immediately ahead of you are the carved faces but it is pretty impossible to stop and soak it up or take a photo because you are in the way of foot traffic or all your photos would end up being of complete strangers also taking photos of Mount Rushmore.  I knew some serious photo cropping was in store for me at the motel that night.

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I managed to dodge all the selfie sticks, bypass some concession stands and ended up in a kind of viewing area with a few permanent benches that has a great view of Mount Rushmore itself.  These 60-foot high carvings of four US Presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt) were carved into the granite face of Mt Rushmore between 1934 and 1939.  They are definitely an impressive site to behold.  I had always wondered why these carvings were made and I found out that whilst it was in some ways a patriotic gesture it was mostly economic.  They were created to draw tourism to the region and originally the plan was to carve the faces of important western pioneers like Lewis & Clarke but it was decided that more people would visit if a more national focus was given, thus these incredibly important US Presidents were featured instead.

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If you are American this place is probably very significant to you and you could spend quite a bit of time there taking it all in.  If you aren’t you probably need the same amount of time that you’d spend in front of somewhere like Buckingham Palace or the Sydney Opera House, so we are talking minutes not hours.  That doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t visit, I was probably only there for a few minutes but I’m still very glad I made the trip.

I hadn’t eaten all day and on the way out I was magnetically drawn to a hot dog stand against my better judgement.  It just seemed like such an American thing to do in such an All American place that it couldn’t be avoided.  It turned out that this hot dog was just plain un-American and I regretted it for the next few hours.  As I returned to the parking lot an even worse feeling started to grow in my stomach.  For some reason I had uncomfortable flashbacks of an unusual amount of people in wheelchairs or with walking frames in the area I had parked in. In the confusion of trying to navigate the parking lot had I accidentally parked in an area reserved for disabled parking?  The shame of it!

I thought fast and decided that if confronted I would use a tactic that worked extremely well when I was being harassed by meth addicts whilst getting gas off I-10 in West Phoenix.  I just pretended I was a German who didn’t speak any English which worked a treat.  They even apologized for bothering me.   I can recount numerous painful experiences that prove Americans have a hard enough time understanding a foreigner whose first language is English.  So when you start speaking to them in anything other than Spanish or English they just get completely confused and don’t know how to react.  This leaves you plenty of time to make a quick getaway from whatever bad situation you may be in.  Thankfully I didn’t have to resort to that and I’m still not even sure I had illegally parked plus there were plenty of open spaces all around my car, but when all was said and done I was pretty happy to slink out of there without drawing any attention to myself.

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The last part of my drive took me through more of the lovely Black Hills scenery before descending down the western side of the range and into Wyoming where the landscape drastically changed from mountain forest to sage covered desert.  I was to spend the next 4 nights in this beautiful state visiting Yellowstone National Park and driving the Bear Tooth Highway that I will talk about in my next update.

Highlights:  North West South Dakota (the only thing missing is east)  |  Deadwood  |  The Black Hills  |  Mount Rushmore

Travel Tips: 

Before buying hot dogs in the US always make sure Americans are buying them too and not just stupid foreigners like me.

Consider getting off the Black Hills/Mount Rushmore tourist path to spend half a day driving the western prairie land north of Rapid City.  I really loved driving there and it isn’t too much of a diversion.  If you have time keep driving north into North Dakota’s grasslands.

Try to hit Mount Rushmore in early-May or late-September and on a weekday.  These are shoulder seasons outside the school holidays and when there is less chance of winter weather impacting your driving.  I loved that so many people were visiting there and it was wonderful to see license plates from all over the US because everyone should explore their own country.  But at the same time I found it impossible to soak it all in with that many people around.

If you ever need to escape from any Americans in their home country follow these failsafe steps:  Make direct eye contact then back away slowly whilst shrugging innocently, shaking your head to indicate that you are genuinely upset that you can’t communicate, all whilst gibbering in a foreign language.  Just make sure you aren’t speaking Spanish and invent a language if necessary.  Never indicate that you understand anything they are saying.  Only about 35% of Americans have a passport and very few of those will speak a foreign language so you have a statistically high chance of them not understanding the language you are speaking.

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