As we plan our virtual trip , using travel guides and an atlas , it becomes clear that most of South Dakota’s attractions are along the I-90 corridor. North of it , the only things that might be of interest are the Indian reservations . Even Pierre, the capital of South Dakota , holds limited appeal for us. We’ve also decided that on these trips we’ll only visit those places that are a) unique to the state or b) exceptionally good for their kind , even if they are not unique. That means we will not be visiting as many museums of prairie life or frontier life, or colonial era houses or Indian reservations.
Starting out from where we left off ( Sioux City , Iowa) , we will begin our South Dakota sojourn in Sioux Falls and then take I-90 westwards through Mitchell, Chamberlain and Rapid City. Then we will veer off to take the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway through the Black Hills to Custer State Park and the Crazy Horse and Presidents Monuments with time out for the mining boom towns of Deadwood and Lead before ending our journey in Spearfish.
Day 1 of our virtual trip
We get off to an early start , leaving our Sioux City motel at 7 AM and taking I-29 north to Sioux Falls. It’s a cloudy day with the temperatures in the low sixties but as we cross over into South Dakota the sun comes out. Twenty minutes into our trip , we see a pair of elk and I realize why the nearby town is called Elk Point . It’s pleasant driving these Interstates in the mid-west , so different from the rush hour traffic back east . An hour later , we are in Sioux Falls a midsize town/city of about 160,000 which has an industrial base but has morphed into a center for finance , healthcare and retail trade. Attracted by South Dakota’s relaxed usury laws , the credit card divisions of Wells Fargo and Citigroup are headquartered here .
Our first stop is at the falls which give Sioux Falls its name. Located on the Big Sioux River , these falls drop only about 25 feet but they are set in a beautiful park and there are walkways and a tower which offer lovely views of the falls . It is wonderful walking around in the cool of the morning looking at the cascading waters and reading the informational signs. We spend an enjoyable hour there before grabbing a coffee at the restaurant and heading of to our next stop , the Sculpturewalk in downtown Sioux Falls .
Sculpturewalk consists of several sculptures ranging from the whimsical to the abstract that are on loan from the artists and are displayed on the sidewalks from May to September. The public gets to vote for its favorite sculpture and each year the most popular one is acquired by the city and put on permanent display . Great idea. My favorite is the girl riding a pig , her pigtails flying
Our last stop in Sioux Falls is the USS South Dakota Museum . The USS South Dakota was a battleship that saw extensive action in the Pacific during WW II and was scrapped in 1947 . When she was cut up , many of her features were salvaged and acquired for this museum . The “museum” consists of part of a city park with the exact dimensions of the battleship. Bits and pieces of the battleship ( the barrel of a 16″ gun, a smaller deck gun, the mast, a reinforced hatch door, propeller, part of the wooden decking, radar, and an anchor) are arranged in the approximate locations they would be on the real ship. The effect is like a battleship sunk in a city park. Bizarre and a little disappointing.
Still talking about our battleship experience , my wife and I head for the Carnaval Brazilian Grill on S. Carolyn Ave. Wanting to keep light for the afternoon drive , we pass on the Sunday brunch and content ourselves with small plates . As we sip our drinks and scan the menu , we nibble on chips and salsa and select three small plates which we will share.. They are Crab and Mango Fritters served with tropical slaw and lime -cilantro aioli , Ahi Tuna ( thin tuna slices marinated in soy sauce, sesame seeds and wasabi , seared and served on a bed of field greens) and Carnaval Fish Tacos ( 2 soft tacos topped with cabbage , fresh salad and citrus crema). Saisfied but not weighed down , we set off for our next stop, the Corn Palace in Mitchell, 75 miles away . The non-existent Sunday afternoon traffic allows us to cover the distance in just over an hour.
The Corn Palace is certainly unique. It is a Moorish revival building whose exterior murals and designs are completely rebuilt each year with corn and other grains . The original Corn Palace was built in 1892 to showcase the rich soil of South Dakota and to encourage people to settle in the area. It was a wooden castle structure on Mitchell’s Main Street that was twice rebuilt , the last time in 1921. Russian-style onion domes and Moorish minarets were added in 1937, giving the Palace the distinctive appearance it has today. At first glance , it seems to have been built of corn but appearances are deceptive. It is actually a reinforced concrete building whose exterior , each spring , is covered with thousands of bushels of native South Dakota corn , grain and grasses arranged in large murals. Typical yearly themes for the murals are South Dakota Birds or A Salute To Agriculture or Youth In Action. Thirteen different colors or shades of corn are used : red, brown, black, blue, white, orange, calico, yellow , even green ! The decoration costs $130,000 annually and the designs are created by local artists. The decorating process usually starts in late May . Ear by ear the corn is nailed to the Corn Palace to create a scene.The corn murals are stripped at the end of August and the new ones are completed by the first of October.The Corn Palace serves as an auditorium for touring celebrities ,as a sports arena , and as the headquarters of Corn Palace Week which marks the end of the harvest — and the beginning of the planning for next year’s Palace theme. After Corn Palace Week ends and winter sets in, local pigeons and squirrels make a feast of the tasty murals.
The Corn Palace is a surprising attraction , whimsical , gaudy , raffish . It occupies our minds and dominates the conversation in the car as we proceed to Chamberlain , the site of the next attraction on our list, the Alta Lakota Museum and our overnight stop. It’s 80 miles from Mitchell to Chamberlain and before we know it we have arrived . We could have left this last leg for the morrow but that would have meant a long drive from Mitchell to Rapid City . Now we are 80 miles closer and can be more relaxed.