OUR WRITERS and photographers have spent 25 years exploring South Dakota, so you can take it from us: there are a multitude of things worth doing and experiencing in our fair state, from the destinations and side trips every visitor can name to the cool stuff only locals know. That made whittling it all down to 25 Things Everyone Should Do in South Dakota an unenviable task.
We did not shirk our duty, and now it’s your turn. Tally your current score, and add as you go. With summer upon us you should be able to make a sizable dent in our “must do” list. Go forth, dear readers, and don’t be timid: tally your points to discover if you’re truly adventurous or more on the mild side.
ALL-AROUND SOUTH DAKOTAN
70 to 100 Points — Congratulations! You are a bold soul indeed, and probably good-looking as well. Feel free to brag and come up with a new list to keep yourself challenged.
40 to 69 Points — You may feel good about your accomplishments, but don’t get carried away. Remember: nobody ever won a gold buckle for sitting on the rodeo bleachers.
Under 40 Points — You’re living in the House of Meek, but there’s no reason you have to be a permanent resident. Get up! Get out! Be a South Dakotan!
DANCE AT A POW WOW
Polkas and waltzes are fun but our oldest ethnic dances are performed at pow wows. There are numerous opportunities to dance at a pow wow because the majority of our Native people live on nine Indian reservations, and all nine welcome visitors. Most pow wows feature an inter-tribal dance open to everyone. Even spectators with two left feet can soon learn the shuffle step. But be respectful; this is no time for the Twist.
Some pow wows are well-organized, competitive events while others are quite informal. Bring a chair — and a blanket. West River summer nights may be cool. Accommodations in reservation communities are quite humble, so be prepared to make yourself comfortable. Visit the tribes’ joint tourism site at www.attatribal.com or the state’s visitor site, www.travelsd.com.
Pow wows are good opportunities to learn and enjoy the Native American culture. But don’t sit on the bench like a sixth grader at the school dance. Join the dancers when you are invited. You just might find that your inner soul connects to the tribal beat.
• Four points if you dance at a pow wow.CANOE THE WILD MISSORI
• Two points if you watch a pow wow.
• Minus two points if you only go for the Indian tacos.
You can no longer canoe the Missouri River from source to mouth without stopping to haul your vessel around concrete dams that transformed the once wild river into a series of channels and reservoirs. But a 59-mile stretch below Gavins Point Dam near Yankton remains much the same as Lewis and Clark found it on their journey up the river over 200 years ago.
The Missouri National Recreational River winds from Yankton to Ponca, Neb. You’ll find snags, meanders, wooded islands and backwaters with sandbars where endangered birds nest each summer. White chalk and gray shale line the riverbank.
You say you have no gear? Not a problem. Outfitters like D.J.’s Sports Rentals in Yankton supply canoes and everything else you need.
• Four points if you paddle upriver from Ponca to Yankton.DISCOVER A PASQUE FLOWER
• Three points if you float downriver from Yankton to Ponca.
• One point if you float downriver in a tube.
A Plains Indian legend says when humans first walked upon the prairie, pasque flowers were eager to greet them. As men and women passed, the flowers turned and said, “Good morning.” But humans ignored them, so the pasques became shy. Today they turn away and whisper silent greetings when people approach.
Pasques may never speak to us again, but as ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote, “The chance to find a pasque flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.” No other flower’s arrival is as eagerly anticipated. The pasque, our state flower since 1903, begins blooming on hillsides in late March or early April, even if it has to break through snowdrifts to see the sunshine. The flower is a delicate harbinger of spring.
• Three points if you have a picnic on a pasque-covered hillside.CATCH THE GOOSMOBILE
• One point if you find a single pasque.
• Minus two points if you try to transplant it.
Batman drives the Batmobile, but Canistota farmer Tom Neuberger is usually behind the wheel of the famed South Dakota Goosemobile.
Neuberger and his wife, Ruth, are familiar sights all across South Dakota in their boxy, white Goosemobile. Inside are eight freezers stocked with grass-fed meat, free-range birds, farm fresh eggs and down pillows and comforters. The couple pioneered the “local foods” movement that is now sweeping the country.It all started in 1983 when Tom fattened 3,500 geese on his farm for a corporate buyer. But the company decided they couldn’t sell the birds, so he processed them and sold them town-to-town. The Goosemobile now visits the Sioux Falls farmer’s market every week during the summer and makes trips to Brookings, Madison, Vermillion and Yankton. The Neubergers also make special trips in early December and deliver through much of eastern South Dakota.
• Four points if you’ve cooked a Goosemobile goose.
• Two points if you’ve eaten a Goosemobile goose.
• Minus one point if your goose is cooked because you missed the Goosemobile.
FIND THE CONTINENTAL DIVIDE
In South Dakota’s crescent-shaped northeast corner, between Lake Traverse and Big Stone Lake, lies a north-south continental divide. Water from Big Stone Lake drains toward the Mississippi River and south to the Gulf of Mexico. Lake Traverse runs north, through the Red River on its way to Hudson Bay.
A sign on the highway just west of Browns Valley, Minn., marks the general location of the divide, but try to find the exact spot where the waters part. You might feel like a modern-day Moses, though we wouldn’t recommend trying to cross on foot even though the divide appears to be a swamp.
• Three points if you spit in the water (or toss a leaf if you consider spitting vulgar) and it floats north.
• Three points if it floats south.
• One point if you just take a picture from your car.
LISTEN TO CORN GROW
Some might think that listening to corn grow ranks with snipe hunting and jack-a-lopes. But East River farmers insist that you can actually hear corn grow if you listen closely on a quiet summer’s night. They might be right; a cornstalk explodes from kernel to seven feet tall in a few short months, so it’s bound to make some noise. And farmers would know, because who spends more time in a cornfield?
• Three points if you’ve planted corn.
• Two points if you know a corn farmer.
• Minus two points if you think corn grows in cans.
BUILD A STONE JOHNNY
This task could hardly be simpler. Find a rock. Find another, then another and another and another. Flat rocks work best, but you’ll have to use whatever is handy. Use a few big ones for the base, and the smaller ones near the top. Use tiny stones as shims. Pile them up, as many as you have a mind to, in whatever way you please.
Congratulations! You’ve built a Stone Johnny.
There’s some question about the origin of Stone Johnnies. Some say they were used as landmarks on an otherwise featureless prairie landscape. (It is amazing how a neat stack of rocks stands out in nature.) Others believe they were monuments to boredom: with nothing better to do than watch their sheep eat, sheepherders gathered stones and laid them up just to pass the time.
But Stone Johnnies are a part of our heritage, so piling a few rocks is a cultural activity, especially West River.
• Three points if your Stone Johnny lasts longer than your deck.
• Two points if it looks like a farmer’s rock pile.
• Minus one point if your neighbors report you to the zoning board.
RIDE THE 1880 TRAIN
William Heckman and Robert Freer were kids at heart. When passenger railroad service all but disappeared in the 1950s, the duo thought there should be an operating steam train in the Black Hills so everyone, young and old, with a fondness for locomotives could ride. They found an old steam engine and placed it on Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad tracks that were laid during the Black Hills mining boom. Today families fill the 1880 Train many times each day for the slow round trip between Hill City and Keystone.
The two-hour journey takes passengers past the abandoned Holy Terror Mine, over Tin Mill Hill, through tall stands of birch, pine and aspen and offers views of popular stops like Harney Peak and Elkhorn Mountain.
• Three points if you board in Hill City, disembark for fudge in Keystone, and make the return trip.
• Two points if you pass on the fudge.
• Minus two points if you miss the train back because you’re eating fudge.
CROSS DEVIL'S GULCH
Crossing Devil’s Gulch at Garretson is easier than it was in 1876, when outlaw Jesse James supposedly jumped it on horseback. Today an iron footbridge spans the 20-foot gap in the craggy quartzite that lines Split Rock Creek, so anyone can follow the trail of one of America’s greatest scofflaws.
James, his brother Frank, and a gang of six robbed the bank in Northfield, Minn., and fled west. That much is established fact. No one is entirely certain of their escape route, but one story says they split as they neared the state line and Jesse followed Split Rock Creek. As a posse gained on him, he spurred his horse and leapt the chasm.
The people of Garretson are a friendly lot, but try to argue that Jesse couldn’t have done it and you’ll get an earful. They’ll show you photos from the cowboy days that show a treeless, narrower gap, perhaps because the creek banks have eroded over the past 134 years. Visit and make your own decision.
• Six points if you can jump a horse 20 feet.
• Three points if you ride a stick horse across the gulch.
• One point if you win the argument at Garretson’s Bullet Bar.
FIND THE CAPITOL'S BLUE STONES
Visitors often wander the state capitol halls in Pierre as if deep in thought. Their heads may be down, a look of concentration on their faces. Are they pondering all the significant legislation that’s been debated and passed within these walls? Saying a prayer for the good legislators who toil here every winter, guiding our state gently into the future? Probably not. Most likely they’re searching for the blue tiles in the terrazzo floor. Italian craftsmen came to South Dakota to help build the capitol, and at the end of the project they laid tiny marble tiles in 30,000 square feet of floor. Legend says each worker was given one bright blue tile to place wherever he wished as a signature stone. Finding them has become a favorite pastime for capitol-goers. (Photo by S.D. Tourism/Chad Coppess)
• Six points if you find 40 or more of the 66 stones.
• Two points if you find 10 or more.
• Minus two points if you hire a lobbyist to help.
HOWL LIKE A COYOTE
South Dakota has a long-standing love/hate relationship with the coyote. In the Lakota culture, Coyote was often a figure of fun, though you never wanted to turn your back on him. Environmentalists see coyotes as a vital part of a balanced prairie ecosystem. Then there’s the other side — farmers and ranchers who fall victim to the coyote’s carnivorous ways. Even most livestock growers seem to have a grudging respect for the wily coyote, but they wish he’d move to the city.
For those who value the coyote as part of our state’s rich natural heritage, try howling on a clear, moonlit night in summer or winter. Find a lonely hilltop. (The full moon isn’t necessary, but it’s a nice touch.) Rear back and howl.
• Four points if your howl brings coyotes running.
• Two points if you get a ‘yote to howl back.
• Minus two points if your housecat yowls back.
CLIMB HARNEY PEAK
Here’s your opportunity to climb a mountain without the fuss of fancy equipment. At 7,242 feet, Harney Peak is the highest point in the state and the highest east of the Rocky Mountains. The least strenuous path to the top is a six-mile route starting at Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park. This rocky, tree-strewn trail has adventurous, steep slopes with plenty of places to rest and enjoy the scenery. The summit is home to an abandoned fire lookout tower. You can see Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska.
Plan ahead. The hike takes about a half-day so you should carry water and snacks. Wear sturdy shoes and dress in layers. You are as likely to feel chilly in the shadows of trees and rocks as you are to break a sweat from exertion. Also, it is windy on top so hold on to your hat!
An organized burro service once carried visitors to the top of Harney Peak, but the animals have been released to serve as friendly greeters in Custer State Park. You are still welcome to travel the Willow Creek trail with your own horse or mule.
• Six points for climbing the peak and the tower.
• Five points if you don’t climb the lookout tower.
• Minus two points if you are saddleback (give 10 points to the horse).
PLAY POKER IN DEADWOOD
You can play video poker just about anywhere in South Dakota, but real poker doesn’t belong in front of a computer terminal. You can’t hear the soft clink of chips as they hit the green felt tabletop, or pick up on the tell that lets you know another player is bluffing. And what fun is it to turn over your hole card and show a flush when you can’t see your opponents cringe?
If you fancy yourself a stone cold gambler rather than a frat boy poser, there’s one place you’ve got to play: Deadwood’s Saloon No. 10. It’s not the original, where Jack McCall dispatched Wild Bill Hickok, but there is plenty of gold rush memorabilia on the walls. With a little imagination you might (very temporarily) forget you arrived in a minivan.
• Four points if you quit while you’re ahead.
• Two points if you win enough to pay for your gas.
• One point if you play without humming The Gambler.
DON OCTOBER ORANGE
The opening day of pheasant season is considered a holiday in most South Dakota circles. Family members, scattered to the four winds, reunite to walk the family fields. Also, farm landowners and hunters form family-like bonds from their October gatherings. Many smalltown restaurants host special feeds, and churches hold soup kitchens, hoping to bag politicians (remember, it’s October) and hunters. The politicians wear smiles and the hunters wear orange.
Non-hunters can also experience the spirit of the season. Just wear something orange on October 16 — a vest, hat or jacket. It’s like wearing green on March 17.
• Three points if you wear so much orange people need sunglasses to look at you.
• Two points if you tastefully coordinate blaze orange and camouflage.
• One point for sporting an orange hat.
GET A BOAT
South Dakota's Great Lakes are well-known, but they represent only a fraction of the reasons why we have more than 53,000 registered boat owners — and thousands more people with unregistered boats under 12 feet long.
Yes, South Dakota has badlands, cactus and desert-like prairies. But we also have more than our share of the prettiest, wildest and most navigable rivers and lakes in the world.
The glacial lakes in the northeast are popular with anglers and water skiers. Sailors tack their way across Lewis and Clark Lake at Yankton. Kayakers float among the pelicans at Lost Lake by Humboldt, or camp and boat at Lake Vermillion near Canistota.
Canoeists and kayakers also love the state’s many rivers and creeks, where you are more likely to encounter a snapping turtle than another human being. Split Rock Creek near Sioux Falls takes you past high quartzite cliffs. The Grand and Cheyenne rivers in West River country offer adventurous passages in wet years when the waters rise.
There’s an old joke among the boating crowds in other states that the two best days of a boat-owner’s life are the day he buys a boat and the day he sells it. In South Dakota, the punch line falls flat. We have more water than most of us will ever have the time to explore.
• Four points if you have a licensed boat with PFDs and a fire extinguisher.
• Three points for anything that floats.
• Minus two points if your boat has gone more than 12 months without seeing the water.
Most casual observers would agree with Jerry Jeff Walker, who said that rodeo riders are “bordering on the insane.” Who but a crazy man would voluntarily strap himself onto a bull or a bronc specifically selected for its ornery disposition?
We’re not suggesting you enter a rodeo. Unless you are loony, in which case, “Vaya con Dios!” and happy landings. For a lot less dangerous taste of the rodeo experience try this. Find a length of stout rope, form a loop and fling it toward the nearest object.
• Four points if you lasso anything bigger than you with four legs.
• Two points if you lasso your mailbox.
• Minus one point if you lasso yourself.
DRIVE THE NEEDLES HIGHWAY
Think of driving the Needles Highway as riding the world’s slowest roller coaster. The 14-mile route twists, turns, curves, slopes and winds around — and sometimes through — the Black Hills’ granite spires. The speed limit is 20 mph, but even that makes you feel like a race car driver.
The Needles Highway is the most crooked part of the 70-mile Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, named for the governor and U.S. senator who wanted motorists to appreciate the beauty of the Black Hills and scrounged 150,000 pounds of surplus dynamite to carve South Dakota’s spectacular highway through a rugged mountain landscape. It’s a beautiful drive, but not one for the faint of heart — or stomach.
• Three points if you enjoy a hubcap-size cinnamon roll at Baker’s Café in Custer and complete the drive.
• One point if you pass through the tunnels without scratching your side mirrors.
• Minus one point if your camper won’t fit through the tunnels.
JOIN A BRANDING CREW
Tom Sawyer conned his buddies to help him whitewash a fence. South Dakota ranchers have been getting free help at brandings with the same shtick. “Hey, it’ll be fun!” they say.
The next thing you know, a 200-pound calf is dragging you through mud and manure. Your new Wrangler jeans are torn and bloody. You’re hungry, bruised and tired. And you hope you’ll have a fence to paint the next time your favorite rancher calls for neighborly assistance.
Seriously, branding is a cultural event in South Dakota and it isn’t hard to muster an invitation. If you can’t rope and ride, you’re likely to get a less glamorous job. But the bawling calves, the instant camaraderie of neighbors and strangers and the fresh springtime air will make it a memorable experience.
• Six points if you can rope from horseback.
• Four points if you can hold a calf down with five other people helping.
• One point if you bring the best dish to the post-branding potluck.
PAN FOR GOLD
Don’t rely on prospecting for your retirement, but recreational gold panning is a rich part of our Black Hills culture. You might earn enough to buy a straw hat and sluice box — maybe even a cheap mule at today’s inflated gold prices.
Don’t feel dumb if you find fool’s gold. Olaf Seim and James Nelson started Broken Boot Mine in 1878 at Deadwood, and soon realized they could make more from fool’s gold than the real thing. Fool’s gold is actually iron pyrite, which produces sulfuric acid, a chemical necessary in mining camps for processing gold ore.
Today a nonprofit group provides tours of the Broken Boot, and kids are invited to pan for gold in a sluice. They always go home with a flake or two of real gold. Several other commercial attractions also offer panning — including Wade’s Gold Mill near Hill City and Big Thunder Mine at Keystone.
You can pan for free in any Black Hills stream, except within the boundaries of the national parks system. (Photo by S.D. Tourism/Chad Coppess)
• Four points if you pan and find flakes.
• Two points if you fish for trout in a mountain stream.
• One point if you wear Black Hills gold jewelry.
TELL RATTLESNAKE STORIES
Forget about “what do you do for a living?” or “what’s the weather?” Rattlers are the number one conversation starter in West River country.
Everyone knows a rattlesnake story. The much-maligned reptile is intertwined with South Dakota history and mythology. Nine tributaries in South Dakota are named Snake Creek, for example, along with two buttes — including Snake Butte near Blunt where an ancestor of the great Native American writer Vine Deloria Jr. had a surreal vision quest in 1831.
According to the Deloria family history, a young boy named Saswe prayed for two days on the hill. On the third day his people could not see him on the butte so they sent Brown Bear, a cousin, to check on him. Brown Bear rode his horse to the top of the butte and found himself surrounded by hordes of rattlesnakes. He lashed at them and continued to the summit, where a large bundle of snakes was writhing over Saswe’s still body. Sure that Saswe was dead, Brown Bear made his escape.
As the tribe grieved, Saswe walked into camp. At first they thought he must be a ghost. Brown Bear asked how he survived the snakes, and Saswe expressed surprise. He had no memory of snakes during his vision quest.
Watch where you step on the West River prairie or you might have a story of your own.
• Five points if you hiss at rattlesnakes.
• Two points if your family has a rattlesnake story.
• One point if you go to Reptile Gardens.
CATCH A WALLEYE
The walleye was declared our official State Fish in 1982 for a reason. Nothing with fins is more fun to catch.
Fishermen come from across the United States to explore South Dakota’s reservoirs, lakes and rivers for the fish with the funny, reflective eyes that have evolved over eons to see in murky waters like the muddy Missouri.
Don’t know where to start? You can hire a guide with a boat for less than the price of a walleye dinner in Manhattan. Or just grab a pole, some string and a few minnows or worms and cast from shore — especially in the springtime when walleye prefer shallow waters. They move to deeper water as the summer wears on.
The world record walleye is an 18.3-pounder, caught in Saskatchewan. Georgine Chytka caught the state’s biggest, a 16.2-pound giant, in 2002 in the Fort Randall tailwaters.
But a bigger one waits, perhaps in a farm pond or 200 feet below the surface of Lake Oahe.
• Four points if you catch and release a 12-pounder.
• Two points if you catch and release a 25-incher.
• One point if you can tell a whopper of a fish story.
STARGAZE IN THE BADLANDS
If someone advises you to get out of town before sundown, you’ve either worn out your welcome or they want you to enjoy the night skies. It’s probably the latter. Dakota countryside has less “light pollution” and cleaner air than most places in America, so the stars shine amazingly bright.
On a clear night, you can enjoy the stars anywhere in rural South Dakota, but the most amazing night skies are over the moonscape peaks and valleys of the Badlands. On some summer nights, the sparkling stars seem within reach if you could climb one of the razor-like ridges.
The eroding pinnacles and buttes of the Badlands were created 69 million years ago — making them older than some of the stars in the sky.
Rangers at Cedar Pass offer a night sky program every evening in the summer for visitors who want to know what they’re seeing.
A favorite place to stargaze is atop Sheep Mountain, about five miles south of Scenic off Highway 33. A steep dirt trail leads to a grassy, windswept tabletop where you’ll feel one with the universe, even though the stars are still a few trillion miles overhead.
• Four points if you visit Sheep Mountain Table Top at night.
• Three points if you go in daylight.
• One point if you stay behind at Wall Drug Store.
WALK 41ST STREET
More vehicles travel 41st Street in Sioux Falls than any other thoroughfare in South Dakota — 43,000 on the average day. The state’s “main street” has much to offer, more than you can experience inside your car, honking and complaining about the guy who cut you off near the Louise Avenue intersection. So spend a day exploring 41st Street on foot.
Start by visiting one of the Empire Mall’s 180 stores. Shop for western gear at Haegle’s and smell the leather. Grab a burger at Fuddruckers or try the homemade buns at Gregg’s Substation. For dessert, buy a Twinkie at the Wonder Bread day-old store. Grab a cup of coffee at Camille’s Sidewalk Cafe. If the walking wrecks your shoes, get them sewed at John’s Shoe Repair. With luck, you’ll see the Ace Hardware sign at Minnesota Avenue before the sun goes down.
• Four points if you walk the entire route.
• Two points if you walk a portion of the route as a pedestrian.
• Minus one point if you drive from strip mall to strip mall.
WATCH BALD EAGLES
Get up early to go eagle gazing at Fort Randall Dam. Bald eagles like to eat in the morning, so you’re bound to see one of the world’s most graceful birds glide majestically over the surface of the Missouri River and pluck an unsuspecting fish for breakfast. Afternoons are for resting, and it’s far less fun to stare at eagles just sitting in nests.
Eagles like to winter along the river because they can always find open water and an unending supply of fish. Some of the river’s best eagle watching can be found around Fort Randall Dam at Pickstown, where so many now roost that the area has been declared a National Natural Landmark. But eagles are becoming more common throughout the Missouri River valley and other waters of South Dakota.
• Three points if you see an eagle catch a fish.
• Two points if the eagle steals your fish.
• One point if you see an Eagles cover band at Fort Randall casino.
ENJOY A COUNTY FAIR
County fairs once ranked with Christmas and the Fourth of July as signature events on every social calendar. Attendance has declined along with our farm and ranch population, but there is still something special about a county fair. Our favorite part is the 4-H kids exhibiting animals they’ve raised, from small children nervously clutching bottle-fed rabbits to their older brothers and sisters showing fat, 1,200-pound steers.
Stroll through the exhibits. Have some barbecued pork and homemade pie. Strike up a conversation with the 4-H families. Return to your agrarian roots and gain five pounds in the process.
Turner County Fair in Parker is the granddaddy of South Dakota fairs. Begun in 1880, it’s billed as “the best four days of summer.” On top of free admission and ice cream, the fairgrounds features Heritage Park, a collection of buildings that includes the town’s first jail, an old church, general store and other shanties. Nearby, amateur musicians perform on the Freedom Stage. This year’s fair is August 16-19.
• Three points if you’ve been asked to judge the baked goods competition, or any class at the fair.
• Two points if you enter a contest and win a ribbon.
• Minus two points if you enter your mother-in-law’s cookies.
From the May/June 2010 issue of South Dakota Magazine. Call 1-800-456-5117 for a copy of this issue or subscribe online!