Custer State Park, 13329 U.S. 16A, Custer, South Dakota 57730. (605) 255-4515
I’ve written about the Bullock Hotel, but Deadwood, South Dakota deserves an article all its own. I visited Deadwood on a trip that took me to Sturgis, Custer State Park, the Badlands, Devils Tower, and Mount Rushmore, among other places. I’m a huge fan of the old West, so I loved HBO’s series Deadwood (2004-2006), even if the dialogue was ridiculous. Even today, its population is tiny, but it’s the only city in the country that’s designated a National Historic Landmark District.
It’s rare to find a city with so much history, despite surviving predominantly off tourism. Nearly every hotel, bar, and restaurant in Deadwood doubles as a casino. My friend and I visited in early spring, so it was practically a ghost town. I imagine it’s flooded with tourists in the summer, especially when people come to nearby Sturgis for its annual motorcycle rally.
We stayed at the Bullock Hotel, named for Seth Bullock, the first sheriff of Deadwood. It’s one of the most famous haunted hotels in the United States. In 1992, it was featured on Unsolved Mysteries and is reportedly haunted by a host of spirits. The hotel has an entire guestbook where visitors can share stories of their ghostly encounters, although we didn’t experience anything unusual.
Seeing Mount Rushmore for the first time was almost a spiritual experience. In spring 2014, a friend and I traveled to South Dakota and parts of Wyoming, stopping at Sturgis, Deadwood, Custer State Park, the Badlands, Devils Tower, and elsewhere. While the Badlands and Devils Tower were visually magnificent, Mount Rushmore really left an impression on me. Two-dimensional media just can’t convey its size and grandeur. Photographs don’t do it justice.
Mount Rushmore, in the South Dakota Black Hills, is known as a batholith–a formation of igneous rock formed from cooled magma. The rock is smooth, fine-grained granite, resistant to erosion. Between 1927 and 1941, Gutzon Borglum and 400 workers sculpted the 60 foot carvings. Gutzon died in March 1941, and his son Lincoln took over construction. It finished prematurely in late October 1941 due to lack of funding.
The sculptures were originally supposed to extend further down, uncovering the presidents’ chests and shoulders. I think the faces peering from the mountainside look better, and apparently the National Park Service agrees. With over two million visitors annually, they could probably get the funds to finish the sculptures if they wanted. It costs $10 to park, but that fee goes toward maintaining the parking garage.
In spring 2014, a friend and I had the opportunity to travel out to South Dakota and parts of Wyoming. On the way, we ran into a freak winter storm that blew across the Great Plains. There were wind gusts of up to 64 mph in Rapid City. Thankfully, it cleared up by the time we made it to Custer State Park, south of Rapid City, and the weather was perfect.
Custer State Park is a state wildlife reserve in the Black Hills, named after George Armstrong Custer, who died at the Battle of Little Bighorn. It is 71,000 acres of scenic countryside. You can drive the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road through gently sloping terrain all around the park. There are also hiking trails, lodges, and lakes where trout fishing is popular.
Besides picturesque scenery, Custer State Park’s big draw is a herd of over 1,300 bison. The bison are known to occasionally block the road. We drove through a big herd and got pretty close, but luckily they stayed away from the road.
In the spring of 2014, I had the opportunity to travel to Badlands National Park with an old friend. On the way, we ran into “Winter Storm Xenia,” which hit parts of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and northeast Wyoming. There were 5-6 foot snow drifts in Roseau, Minn and wind gusts of up to 64 mph in Rapid City. The storm cleared up the next day, but left a dusting of snow all over the Badlands.
Growing up in Illinois, I had no concept of “wide open spaces.” It’s incredible to see golden, unbroken prairie stretching to the horizon under a big blue sky. At the Badlands, the earth just seems to fall away into huge rippling land forms. I got this shot of my friend (a better photographer than I’ll ever be) in action at the canyon edge.
Badlands National Monument was established on January 25, 1939, and it became a national park in 1978. It consists of 379 square miles of land, offering hiking trails, camping sites, and educational visitors centers. People even come to find fossils.
At the tail end of March 2014, a friend and I decided to drive out to the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, and Devil’s Tower. It was springtime in the Midwest, and thoughts of winter storms were long behind us. About ninety minutes west of Sioux Falls along Interstate 90, however, the temperature began to drop, the wind picked up, and dark clouds formed ominously on the horizon.
Apparently we had driven into “Winter Storm Xenia,” which hit parts of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and northeast Wyoming. There were 5-6 foot snow drifts in Roseau, Minn and wind gusts of up to 64 mph in Rapid City.
We decided to stop for gas and check the weather at the Conoco gas station off Highway 16 near the tiny town of Kimball, South Dakota. “Real Food,” a large sign announced as we pulled off the interstate. The sign referred to Doo-Wah Ditty’s Diner, located inside the gas station.
The Hotel Alex Johnson sits at the heart of beautiful downtown Rapid City, South Dakota. It is a luxury hotel with stores, a coffee shop, and a bar and restaurant on the first floor and a swanky rooftop club on the tenth floor. Prices are reasonable in the off season, so when a friend and I visited South Dakota in early April, we jumped at the opportunity to stay here. It helped, of course, that this hotel is rumored to be haunted.
Alex Carlton Johnson was Vice President of the Chicago-Northwestern Railroad. As construction began on Mount Rushmore, he knew tourists would need somewhere to stay, so he invested his fortune in a hotel. The Hotel Alex Johnson opened in 1928 and was described as the “showplace of the West.” Its famous guests included President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Alex Johnson died in 1938, but according to some hotel employees, part of him never left.
There are two rooms on the eighth floor that are widely believed to be haunted, so much so that the Hotel Alex Johnson offers a special “ghost adventure” guest package to stay there. The rooms are 802 and 812. According to authors Chad Lewis and Terry Fisk, a young couple staying in Room 802 had several hair-raising encounters. They described hearing music that did not seem to have a source, and both said they awoke to feel like they were being choked. Their pets also appeared agitated and behaved strangely.