Old Fort Mead Museum
Fort Meade was a central hub for the US Army in Black Hills during the Old West. Established during the winter of 1878–’79 by units of the 1st and 11th infantry and the reorganized 7th Cavalry, the mission of the 10-company post was to protect settlers and gold seekers who’d invaded the region before (and after) the Black Hills Treaty of 1877, from the resentful Sioux. Many celebrated frontier Army units saw service at Fort Meade, including the 4th Cavalry, which was headquartered there for more than 20 years. It outlived all other frontier posts of the Upper Missouri West, surviving as a military installation until 1944, when it became a Veterans Administration Hospital. If you want to experience that history for yourself, you can see it in the exhibits at the onsite Old Fort Meade Museum.
The Chinese Underground
While not as action-packed as a movie about opium smuggling or a Communist plot like its name suggests, Deadwood’s Chinese Underground has some great history. And you can get a feel for it at the Gold Nugget Trading Post. If you’ve been to Deadwood and never seen its Chinatown, look down. It’s right beneath you.
When Deadwood became a major hub for the Black Hills gold rush, it drew people from everywhere, including more than 500 Chinese residents. When the 1883 flood annihilated upper Main Street, townsfolk rebuilt atop the existing rock walls, creating an underground labyrinth that became Chinatown.
A local ordinance forbade Chinese people from being on Main Street after dark. It didn’t say jack about being under Main Street though. The immigrants used the tunnels for deliveries, laundry businesses, and, of course, opium dens. For a nominal fee, you can tour part of the tunnel system at the Gold Nugget Trading Post. Including one of the old opium dens. No, they don’t have free samples. The Chinatown Tour is held at the Gold Nugget Trading Post at 9 and 11 a.m. and 1, 3, and 5 p.m.
Tatanka- Story of the Bison
100 Tatanka Drive
1 mile north of Deadwood
Deadwood, SD 57732
Distance from Sturgis: 13.6 miles
“Tatanka” is a Lakota word that literally means “bull buffalo,” and bison were the basis of life for Plains Indians, providing spiritual inspiration, food, clothing, shelter, household items, tools, weapons, and ceremonial items. Plains Indians had more than 100 uses for the various parts. At one point, 30 to 60 million bison once roamed the great plains of North America. By the close of the 19th century, it’s estimated that less than 1,000 bison survived. Tatanka—Story of the Bison, is an installation display that’s the telling of that tale. The centerpiece here is a larger-than-life bronze sculpture featuring 14 bison pursued by three Native American horsemen.
WaTiki Indoor Waterpark Resort
With more than 30,000 square feet of swimming pools and water slides, WaTiki Indoor Waterpark Resort is the largest indoor waterpark in the Dakotas. The place is open all year long and is a great place to escape the summer heat and cut loose, especially for the kids. The resort is home to three hotels, Slider’s Bar & Grill, and a huge arcade. Be sure to bring your swimsuit!
Bear Country USA
Kids love themselves some bears. If yours do, Bear Country USA is a great opportunity to watch them play, roam, and just generally do bear stuff. Located 8 miles from Rapid City, the park features the world’s largest collection of privately owned black bears. Take a leisurely 3-mile drive through this spectacular wildlife park nestled on 200 acres of Black Hills beauty and you’ll see black bears, grizzly bears, and more than 20 other species of North American animals like buffalo, wolves, and elk, all from the comfort of your vehicle. After your tour, walk around Babyland where baby bears frolic in the outdoors. Tours take about 90 minutes.
Mount Rushmore Tramway Adventures
Rushmore Tramway Adventures has been around almost as long as the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. In 2000, the new owners updated it, replacing the gondolas with chairlifts and adding in other stuff to see and do. The alpine slide offers a high-speed alternate route for zooming back down the mountain. If you want to fly down though, you’ll want to take the zip line back. Hit the Aerial Park if climbing is your thing. It sports a rope course for climbers across a gamut of skill levels. If aerial adventure isn’t your poison, there are tons of gardens and hiking trails to see.
Vore Buffalo Jump
No, this is not a place where you go to jump your Harley over a buffalo herd. Vore Buffalo Jump is actually a really cool sinkhole filled with bones and artifacts. We’re not talking a few skeletons either. Try 10,000 bison. Some reports place the number of butchered remains at that number or more. There are also thousands of stone arrow points, knives, and other tools. The materials are contained within 22 cultural levels that extend downward to a depth of nearly 20 feet.
The Buffalo Jump was once the Vore family homestead in the late 1880s. In the early 1970s, Wyoming’s Department of Transportation built a crude road to a sinkhole on the southern part of the ranch to see if the hole could be filled and compacted for a planned highway over it. Sinkholes are known for their stability issues, and the highway engineers wanted to test this one to see just how unstable it was. The small rig they used to drill several holes in the bottom brought up buffalo bone almost immediately. University of Wyoming archaeologists were notified, highway plans altered, and that site is now the Vore Buffalo Jump. This site is open to the public June 1 through Labor Day, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Visitors have the opportunity to learn about the increasingly famous Vore site as well as the larger picture of the cultures that Plains Indians built around the buffalo.
If you want to see what that gator-skinned bike seat of yours looked like when it had teeth and claws, stop by the Reptile Gardens in Rapid City. There are lots of the cool big reptiles we loved as kids—from a komodo dragon and saltwater crocodile to a collection of venomous snakes. You can also wander the garden oasis of colorful flowers, lush vegetation, tropical plants, and more.
Unless you have a rash, this is the only time I will ever advise you to go to the drugstore. Wall Drug started off as exactly what the name entails: a drugstore run by a pharmacist. In the eight decades it’s been in business, though, it’s grown into much more than that. It’s also the one place in the world I know of where you can ride a Jackalope.
Nebraska pharmacist Ted Hustead and his wife Dorothy bought the place in the 231-person town of Wall in 1931. Business wasn’t exactly booming at first. Then Dorothy had a great idea: free ice water for travelers. It’s not the sort of notion we look on today as brilliant, but back then, it not only saved Wall Drug, but it turned the place into the Husteads’ personal gold rush. Drivers moving through town to the newly opened Mount Rushmore during the hot summer months loved what was then a new idea. They’d stop for the water, replenish their energy with a hot meal, and buy amenities they needed. From there, Wall Drug grew into a cowboy-themed shopping mall/department store. Now, Wall Drug includes a Western art museum, a chapel based on the one found at New Melleray Abbey near Dubuque, Iowa, and an 80-foot (24-meter) dinosaur that can be seen right off Interstate 90. It was designed by Emmet Sullivan, who also created the dinosaurs at Dinosaur Park in Rapid City and Dinosaur World in Arkansas. The Wall Drug Backyard has all kinds of photo opportunities and activities, especially for the kids, who can cool off at the Train Station Water Show, which features jumping jets perfect for splashing.