With just 800,000 residents within its borders, South Dakota is one of America’s least populated states. That means there’s plenty of room for those who want to stop, stretch their legs and enjoy a few minutes, hours or days — maybe even a lifetime — in the state. Here’s a guide (going east to west) to the towns motorists pass through as they drive along Interstate 90 in South Dakota.
Brandon has seen great growth in the past 20 years and now has a population of approximately 5,600. It’s located near Palisades State Park, which is a popular camping area in eastern South Dakota.
South Dakota’s largest town at approximately 125,000, Sioux Falls is home to a zoo, minor-league sports and the arts and is the economic center of eastern South Dakota. Any trip to Sioux Falls should include a stop at the city’s namesake, the falls of the Big Sioux River, which cascade down a series of quartzite cliffs in a scenic park near the city’s northeast edge.
Hartford, population 1,844, is a thriving community in western Minnehaha County that is located just a few minutes west of Sioux Falls. The town is home to an excellent golf course and a strong school system that produced 11 state football championship teams from 1993 to 2007.
Humboldt bills itself as the “Small town with a big heart.” With some 520 people living there, Humboldt is a small town, indeed, but by South Dakota standards it’s not really all that small after all.
Montrose, population 460, is located in a peaceful valley along the Vermillion River. Montrose has seen a building boom in recent years, with many new homes constructed along its outer edges.
Salem, population 1,300, is the county seat of McCook County. Located halfway between Sioux Falls and Mitchell, Salem could be described as a bedroom community for those larger towns, but Salem has its own healthy business district and school system. It also has a great small-town golf course.
Alexandria is a town of 563 that is home to the Fatima Family Apostolate, a shrine built for Mass and candlelight processions. The shrine features Our Lady of Fatima and areas dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, among others. Alexandria is also home to Lake Hanson, a small but easily accessible water body that’s used by locals for swimming, picnics and boating.
No trip to Mitchell is complete without a stop at the Corn Palace, located on north Main Street in the heart of the downtown business district. Each fall, workers place new murals – made from corn and other locally harvested crops – on the walls of the Palace. Local residents celebrate the Corn Palace Festival each August and in the winter, the town’s basketball teams play in the arena inside the Corn Palace. Although the Corn Palace is indeed a highlight of any trip to Mitchell, the town boasts so much more. In South Dakota, it’s one of the largest towns along I-90 and offers all necessary services for motorists, travelers and tourists.
Mount Vernon is a town of 477 in western Davison County that has seen a resurgence of late. The town has a new school, a new football field and many new homes that have sprung up in recent years. The town is also the home of NFL linebacker Chad Greenway, who as a quarterback led the local nine-man football team to two state championships.
Plankinton is situated at a key American intersection. Along its southern border runs Interstate 90, which stretches from Boston to Seattle. Along its eastern border runs the north-south Highway 281, which reaches from the Mexican border in Texas to the Canadian border in North Dakota. Highway 281 is 1,872 miles; I-90 is 3,099 miles.
According to the book South Dakota Geographic Names, White Lake was first called Siding 36 for its location – 36 miles west of Mitchell. Shortly after its founding, the town’s name was changed to reflect its location near the lake of the same name. Although small, White Lake hopes to become a player in the wind energy industry, with a large wind farm located northeast of town and another one proposed to be placed just north and west of town.
Anyone itching to learn more about the state’s agrarian heritage can stop in at the Kimball Tractor Museum, where farming relics of days gone by are on display – and with friendly guides at the ready to explain how the old machinery worked. Kimball is a town of 750 founded in 1880 and named for a railroad surveyor.
Pukwana is a small town along I-90 that gained fame a couple of decades ago for its famous turkey races. Those days are gone – these days, they race lawnmowers in the town of 280.
Chamberlain was all about transportation in its early days. A riverboat town, Chamberlain was a regular stop for the steamers as they came up and down the Missouri River in the 1800s. And founded in the early 1880s, the town was named for – like so many other towns in this region – a Milwaukee Railroad official. These days, Chamberlain is still a transportation hub, but it’s also a hunting and fishing mecca.
Oacoma, population 390, is the sister city to Chamberlain, being separated by the Missouri River. Founded in 1890, the town’s name means “a place between,” as in between the Missouri River and its nearby bluffs. For its size, Oacoma has plenty of amenities, including the popular Cedar Shore Resort and, of course, Al’s Oasis, which is not only a major tourist stop along I-90 but also a place where the locals eat, meet and shop.
Reliance lies near the landmark Medicine Butte, a tall hill that rises just north of the town. Reliance was founded in 1905 and was originally named Herron. The name was changed shortly after its founding. The town has a population of around 200.
Kennebec is one of the many towns that were built along a westbound rail line, whose route now is closely followed by Interstate 90. According to the book “South Dakota Geographic Names,” the town was either named by Milwaukee Road railroad officials or came when one of the town founders became stuck in sticky mud with a loaded wagon. Legend has it that a bystander who didn’t speak English well shouted “Can no back! Can no back!” Today, Kennebec has a population of 286 and is the county seat of Lyman County.
Although Kennebec is the county seat of Lyman County, Presho, population 588, is the home of the county’s high school, Lyman High. Because of sparse population in South Dakota’s western counties, many schools are countywide entities, with students driving dozens of miles — sometimes as many as 30 miles — to attend daily classes. In the true spirit of sharing out here in the Dakotas, the district is split, and Kennebec is host to the district grade school. Presho is named after an early settler to the area.
Vivian’s population is down to 131, but it still is a well-known town in central and western South Dakota because of its location at the intersection of I-90 and Highway 83, which heads to Pierre (pronounced “peer”), our state capital. The town was named for the wife of a railroad executive.
Like most towns in this region, Draper was founded in 1906 along the Milwaukee Railroad line. The village of fewer than 100 residents is named for a veteran railroad conductor of the time.
Murdo is a truck stop town, situated on the intersection of Interstate 90 and Highway 83’s southern stretch, which heads toward Valentine, Neb., from here. With a population today of approximately 600, Murdo was founded in 1905 and was named for Murdo McKenzie, an early-day cattleman. According to the book “South Dakota Geographic Names,” McKenzie was a one-time manager of the Matador Cattle Company, which ran upwards of 20,000 head of cattle on the western South Dakota ranges.
Belvidere’s population has dwindled to fewer than 60 residents, but that’s not terribly uncommon in South Dakota, with fewer than 800,000 residents and where there are only nine towns with populations higher than 10,000. Tiny Belvidere was founded in 1907 and got its name from settlers from a like-named town in Illinois.
Kadoka, the Gateway to the Badlands, gets its name from an American Indian word that means “opening” or “hole in the wall.” Drive westward out of Kadoka and you’ll understand – the town offers the opening scenes of the Badlands, which sprawl out past the town to the west and south. Tourists mostly will see the Badlands west of here, but the scenes to the south, along Highway 73 (which juts southward from Kadoka) are equally stunning but not as advertised or busy.
Wall is named literally – for the wall on the western edge of the Badlands. It’s also world famous for a drug store and locally famous for the huge, green dinosaur that’s perched along I-90 and greets westward motorists. The town is home to approximately 800 residents and was founded in 1907.
Wasta sits on the banks of the Cheyenne River and, according to the book “South Dakota Geographic Names,” derived its name from a Sioux word that means “good.” The name was selected by Doane Robinson, former state historian.
One of the last prairie towns on the prairie before reaching the mountains of the Black Hills, New Underwood is a ranch and rodeo town – the rodeo arena is visible from the interstate – much like other western South Dakota towns. This is real cowboy country and the region between the Missouri River and the Black Hills has a rich rodeo tradition and still produces some of the world’s top pro cowboys each year.
Box Elder gets its name from a nearby creek, but that hardly matters these days. The town is the home of Ellsworth Air Force Base, where B-1B bombers, their crews and support teams are stationed.
The state’s second largest city with a population of 59,000, Rapid City is a tourism and commercial hub for western South Dakota, eastern Montana and Wyoming and northern Nebraska. Named for Rapid Creek, which flows from the mountains through the middle of town, Rapid City was founded in 1876 during the original Black Hills gold rush. Although Rapid Creek and the region was mined for the precious metal, Rapid City gained its original fame as a hay camp, since the region was perfect for growing hay to supply miners within the Black Hills.
Population 1,200, Summerset is one of South Dakota’s most modern towns. It was founded in the suburbs of Rapid City in 2005, at the base of the eastern Black Hills.
Piedmont gets its name from a French word that essentially means “foot” and “mountain.” It’s no wonder – Piedmont is located at the very foot of the high eastern slope of the Black Hills, which begin here and jut westward into Wyoming. This area has been the site of large forest fires in recent years, some of which have stripped hillsides of ponderosa pines.
Anyone who hears the word “Sturgis” probably first thinks of the massive motorcycle rally that is held here near the end of each summer. The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally certainly is a sight, and anyone who hasn’t meandered through the region will have to see it to believe it. This year’s rally is the 70th anniversary rally, scheduled for Aug. 9-15. More than a half-a-million motorcycle enthusiasts converge on the area during the rally each year.
Whitewood sits directly between its better-known neighbors, Sturgis to the southeast and Spearfish to the northwest. The quiet town is home to some 800 residents and got its name from the white-barked trees that were nearby at its founding in the late 19th century.
Spearfish is the northern gateway to the Black Hills. With a population of 8,606, it’s one of the state’s largest cities, and that’s especially so during the summer, when tourists cruise use the town as a home base for tours through beautiful Spearfish Canyon. Spearfish Creek, one of the top trout fisheries in the Black Hills, winds its way through town after falling for miles from high points in the northern Black Hills.