Your Doorway to Endless Adventure: Wall, South Dakota | Black Hills Travel Blog

Your Doorway to Endless Adventure: Wall, South Dakota

  • Your Doorway to Endless Adventure: Wall, South Dakota
Updated: 
Friday, September 18, 2020
By : 
Alyssa

Just east of the Black Hills on the edge of Badlands National Park exists a small, but world-famous oasis with warm Western flair and all the free ice water you can drink.

While the city of Wall, South Dakota is most known as the home of the World's Largest Drug Store, this town of just 800 residents is bursting with hometown hospitality, classic road trip attractions, scenic views, home-cooked dining and endless opportunities for adventure.   

Whether you're headed to the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup this fall, to Spearfish Canyon's colorful views or on your way to explore the otherworldly Badlands National Park, this South Dakota gem is a must-see stop. Come along with a local on a journey to see everything this one-of-a-kind destination has to offer.  

The City of Wall  

No matter which direction you arrive from, there's no doubt you've passed hundreds of quirky, hand-painted billboards beckoning you to the city of Wall. Whether the promise of handmade doughnuts, 5 cent coffee, free ice water or genuine Western flair drew you in, you're sure to be intrigued the moment you set foot in the town.   

As my family discovered when we moved to Wall, the small town is often bustling with rodeos, parades, concerts and a thriving tourism community. Main Street is the place to be, especially if you're on the hunt for your perfect keepsake or gift to take home.   

Unique pieces of turquoise, Western wear, Black Hills Gold, local art, handmade pottery, fantastic dining options, and even staples like t-shirts, magnets and keychains can all be found on Main Street. Find a classically cheesy souvenir from your childhood, a handmade item that can't be found anywhere else or stop for a juicy bison burger—all right on Main Street.  

Motorcycle lovers and collectors on their way to ride the Badlands should be sure to also make a stop at Badlands Harley Davidson for a piece of memorabilia. Take home a t-shirt and collect a full set of Badlands, Black Hills and Sturgis Harley Davidson souvenirs to commemorate your ride in the region.  

The World Famous Wall Drug Store

Of course, you can't hardly miss the largest building on Main Street—Wall Drug's bright green building and large painted signs are the first things to catch your eye as you make your way downtown. If you're driving, go ahead and make sure your cruise past the store is leisurely and take in the sights—everyone around you will be doing the same! In fact, you'll find yourself rubbernecking your way all across the store. Photos and articles about the world-famous store line the walls—many of them are decades old, compiled as a testimony to a worldwide fascination with the roadside attraction.   

And don't forget the dining rooms— each one is lined with the most extensive Western art collection in the country. On the ceiling, ornate Tiffany lamps light up the wood-paneled walls. Behind the counters, a well-practiced team of café workers sends out plate after plate of mouthwatering hot beef sandwiches, homemade doughnuts and pie, hamburgers and more. Add in a few dozen stores, photo opts, thousands of different souvenirs to peruse and it's little wonder you'll be stopped in your tracks. 

My advice is to satisfy your stomach first. Enjoy a doughnut (or six) with a cup of 5 cent coffee, a stack of flapjacks or a juicy buffalo burger before your tour through the entire store and its backyard area. Stopping into the café first gives you a chance to people watch, admire the art on the walls and maybe even chat with a local. Even better, you'll be able to focus on everything there is to see and do instead of the beguiling aroma of the café.   

Backyard Exploration

Once your appetite is settled, tour in any direction that catches your attention—don't be afraid to wander with wonder! As a former Wall Drug employee, my favorite area to explore is always the backyard. Besides having the opportunity to get outside and take in more of the clear South Dakota air, the backyard is filled with irresistibly kitschy photo opportunities that are sure to delight everyone.

Watch a gorilla serve drinks, ride on the back of the world's largest jackalope, go face-to-face with a grizzly bear or narrowly avoid becoming a T-rex snack. Whatever pose you choose, they're all must-have photos of a vacation in the Black Hills and Badlands.   

When temperatures are warm enough, as they often are near the Badlands, the interactive fountains are refreshing and great for everyone to cool off in. Enjoy your homemade ice cream from the soda fountain, doughnuts, and free ice water outside and take in the views outside or journey inside to marvel at the articles and photos wallpapering the building's insides.   

Souvenirs and Memorabilia Galore

Back inside, be sure to tour through the Western art shop. This slice of the Drug Store has a beautiful collection of art of all varieties from South Dakota artists. Original paintings, prints and sculptures featuring Western life and culture, delicate crafts, pottery, ceramics and more are in this shop to admire and even take home.   

Just cater-cornered to the shop and further down in the area known as the "Wall Drug Mall," you can also visit the apothecary and admire the shop front. Replicated from the original 1931 Wall Drug storefront, the shop also acts as a functioning pharmacy and has a small museum of antique pharmaceutical equipment in its windows.   

Bookworms can restock their reading supply (as I tend to do on road trips) with captivating Western literature at the bookstore further down.  Afterward, peruse the aisles of the nearby Black Hills gold jewelry or purchase a fine Western outfit across the alley. If jewelry and art aren't for you, maybe a pair of ostrich or crocodile leather cowboy boots are!  

Of course, not to be forgotten are the t-shirt and souvenir shops, each one a crucial stop in Wall Drug along with the café. After all, if you don't leave with a t-shirt and a bumper sticker, did you really stop at Wall Drug? Better grab a shirt just to be safe...  

Farm Fresh Dining

If you're on the hunt for farm to table dining and the freshest dishes in the area, the perfect dining option is just further downtown off the beaten path. Supplied with fresh beef, pork, and lamb from local ranchers and farmers, the Red Rock Restaurant & Lounge is a great stop for breakfast, lunch and dinner. You'll be amazed at the difference in taste and quality that local farming makes.   

Badlands National Park  

Only five miles from Wall, Badlands National Park begins to emerge from the landscape of the open prairie. Filled with the harsh beauty of crags and pinnacles and surrounded by the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, this incredible moonscape park is brimming with trails, scenic views of a lifetime, and awe-inducing wildlife.   

Whether you're staying overnight in Wall or camping in the Badlands, my recommendation is to hit the park after your stop in Wall. After you take in the open prairie and softly rolling countryside, the raw and powerful sight of the Badlands suddenly appearing is incredible.    

When traffic is lighter during the fall, you'll practically have all 160 square miles of the park to yourself. Juxtaposed against the 600,000 acres of the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, it feels like walking on another planet. It's startlingly easy to forget that the rest of the world exists once you step out onto the trails and away from the main roads.   

Have a Wild Time in the Badlands  

Most of your company in the park is the remarkable wildlife of the area. My first interaction in the park wasn't with another car or person, but a bighorn ram right on the side of the road with an ocean of rippling prairie grass behind him. In the distance, I was lucky enough to spot a few bison (a special treat in the Badlands), with the prairie dogs chirping at my arrival and turkey vultures soaring overhead.   

Whether you hike, bike, cruise on your motorcycle or take the car on a leisurely drive along the 27-mile Badlands Loop Road, you're more than bound to come across the park's inhabitants. Eagles, antelope, coyotes, deer and more are easy to spot on the prairie, especially when the temperatures dip and the traffic through the park is slow.   

If you didn't have a chance to get your bucket list photo of the bison in Custer State Park, this time of year is perfect to find the Badlands bison for a picture. Just remember to keep a generous distance from all park wildlife—especially bison.   

Fall is also a fantastic time to get out and take advantage of the park's endless outdoor adventure opportunities. Cooler temperatures and less traffic on trails, roads and campgrounds make for a relaxing time out in nature and away from the rest of the world. If you have a chance, take a moment to step out of your car and enjoy the sweet aroma of the many Juniper trees within the park—their scent even rivals the smell of pine trees in the Black Hills National Forest.

As an occasional hiker, I love the Badlands for their approachable nature and how photogenic they are. Whether you hike far, climb high or just stop off at the scenic overlooks, you're sure to take some incredible photos and create lasting memories. 

A few of the most common trails includes the Door and Window trails, Notch Trail, and Saddle Pass Trail. If you're looking for quick, fun hikes, these three are easy to moderate trails with great payoff in views and wildlife sightings. Otherwise, take time to explore your surroundings. Respect the land and see what incredible things you find.   

Of course, you can't beat a slow, scenic drive on SD Highway 240, also known as Badlands Loop Road. For most of the loop, you can set your own pace, but experience has taught me that you should expect to take at least an hour or more to make the whole 27-mile loop. There are many incredible overlooks, pull-offs and photo stops to make, and I recommend taking time to do as many as you can.  

Some of my favorite overlooks included Sage Creek, Pinnacle, Burn Basin, White River Valley and Norbeck Pass. Each one gives sweeping views of the park, some with towering formations and winding roads.   

Sleep at Cedar Pass

Further down along the loop, just before the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, Cedar Pass Lodge is a fantastic place to stop, stretch your legs and sit down for lunch. Give their mouthwatering Indian Tacos a try, or refill your water on a hot day. For a quiet lodging option right in the Badlands with very little light and amazing views, stay the night in a cabin or set up camp at the Cedar Pass Campground. It's a beautiful place to enjoy the park and reconnect with nature and your family. If you're lucky, you might wake up to pronghorn, deer or a magpie outside your cabin or tent.   

Adventure in the Skies  

One of the best ways to see the park and its stunning variety in formations is from the air. Take your most phenomenal photos, witness the park in a way few people do and take an exhilarating tour through the skies with Badlands Helicopters. Their small establishment is at the end of the Badlands Loop (if you're going east from Wall) and the perfect way to round out your tour of the park.   

The well-trained and friendly pilots can point out wildlife and formations that you might overlook during your drive-through. The best part? Flights are affordable and as low as $49 for a flight. In other words, it's the chance of a lifetime in one of the most remarkable places in the world.  

Preserved American Heritage 

Just down the road, experience life as it once was when pioneers bravely homesteaded and lived on the open prairie in sod houses. Built in 1909, the Brown family's original sod house still stands today and is one of very few remaining in the country.    

Surrounded by rare white prairie dogs that are only found on its property, the house is lined with replica newspapers of the time and filled with the pieces of the homesteader's daily lives. Dress up in the clothing of the period, take the interpretive tour of the property and pet the site's barnyard animals as you take in the fascinating American heritage preserved here.   

Hidden in Plain Sight  

Hidden beneath the ground and just on the edge of the Badlands lies America's history of the Cold War, the decades-long nuclear arms race and the historic Minuteman Missile system. Once restricted to the public, this compelling National Historic Site is the first and only national park in the world dedicated to commemorating the events of the Cold War.   

Start your tour at the Visitor Center and explore the exhibits and displays detailing the moments of near-war in the US and how the Minuteman Site played a key role in the arms race against Russia. Take a self-guided tour or cellphone tour of the Delta-09 Missile Silo at Exit 116 off of I-90 or take a ranger-guided tour of the Launch Control Facility Delta-01 to learn what it was like to have the responsibility of thermonuclear war at your fingertips.   

While this remarkable site hidden beneath the plains is easy to miss, it's one you're going to want to see. If you can, it is recommended to book a tour in advance as spots fill up quickly.

No matter how you experience Wall and the Badlands of South Dakota, the opportunities for adventure are endless. Whether you soar through the skies, connect with the awe inspiring beauty of nature or revisit the story of America's past, don't miss your opportunity to explore this fantastic slice of South Dakota.

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