The idea of carving four 18-metre (60-foot) faces onto a peak in the Black Hills is a bit mind-boggling, when you think about it. So is the sight of the giant visages of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln looming out of a pine forest. It took 14 years and $1 million to create Mount Rushmore, which was finally finished in 1941, and the promoters got what they asked for: a national icon that would lure tourists from across America and beyond.
The giant sculpture idea caught on. Just a few miles southwest of Mount Rushmore, an even bigger sculpture of the Native American leader Crazy Horse has been under construction since 1948. The site is also home to the informative Indian Museum of North America and the Native American Cultural Center.
While Mount Rushmore was being constructed, a pharmacist's wife in the tiny town of Wall—a couple hours' drive east of Mount Rushmore—got a brilliant idea for capitalizing on the flow of tourists the monument was already attracting. She talked her husband into putting up billboards offering free ice water to anyone who stopped at their drugstore. The billboard slogans were a bit corny, but they worked. Today, the kitschy tourist attraction—now much more than a drugstore—takes up almost an entire block.
If you've made it to Wall, you're only a short drive from Badlands National Park, with its eerie rock formations, rich fossil beds and fragile mixed-grass prairie. Bring your camera and your hiking boots to truly enjoy this unique landscape.
On the other side of the state, don't miss one of the most unusual agricultural buildings anywhere: the enormous Corn Palace exhibition hall in Mitchell. With its fanciful domes and minarets, it appears to have dropped onto the Midwest prairie from some exotic eastern land.