It’s best to get out of the car and visit the many sights and towns along the Interstate 90 corridor. But for those places in between, check out our I-90 windshield tour (MM=Mile Marker).
Big Sioux River (MM 398)
The Big Sioux takes rise in the lake country of northeast South Dakota and eventually empties into the Missouri River at Sioux City, Iowa. Within the city limits of Sioux Falls, the 295-mile Sioux flows through an impressive series of falls that give the city its name. Shortly after leaving Sioux Falls, the Sioux forms the boundary between South Dakota and Iowa.
Vermillion River (MM 375)
The Vermillion isn’t much more than a creek in this location, but it gains in size as it winds toward its confluence with the Missouri River near Vermillion, S.D. Lewis and Clark noted the Vermillion on their journey up the Missouri River in 1804, and followed the river for a few miles on a side trip they took to a hill called Spirit Mound.
Spencer tornado (MM 353)
At sundown on a muggy May night in 1998, an F4 tornado ripped through the small town of Spencer, S.D., (just north of I-90 at this spot) killing six people and putting the town into the national spotlight. With a pre-tornado population of 320, the tornado ruined almost the entire town, its homes and businesses. Spencer has persevered, however, and has been rebuilt in the years since.
James River (MM 335)
Here, I-90 crosses the James River, which has been called the world’s longest un-navigable river. Beginning north of Jamestown, N.D., the 710-mile river meanders quietly through the Dakotas before draining into the Missouri River near Yankton. The Jim, as it’s known locally, is a peaceful waterway with a molasses-slow current. But it also can be a menace in the spring, when it often floods its valley and closes rural roads that cross it throughout South Dakota.
Wessington Hills (MM 308)
Look northward around Mile Marker 308 and see the Wessington Hills. Legend has it the hills were named after a trapper or trader named Wessington was burned at the stake by local American Indians. Whoever the hills are named for, they have long been known for the copious springs that flow from them. A town in the hills — Wessington Springs — is named after those springs.
Wind energy (MM 310)
Look to the north around Mile Marker 310 and see the dozens of wind turbines that line the prairies between Plankinton, White Lake and Wessington Springs. Just a decade ago, South Dakota was all but void of wind turbines. But since the wind is steady and strong around these parts, South Dakotans have realized that the best way to a cleaner — and more lucrative — future is through the construction of wind farms. This particular wind farm is one of the state’s largest. Another wind farm north of White Lake has been proposed and could be constructed in the coming years.
Bijou Hills (MM 278)
Along the horizon south of I-90 rise the Bijou Hills, which reach 2,100 feet above sea level and nearly 500 feet above the Missouri River, which flows southward nearby. These prominent, uniquely shaped hills, are the site of an old town of Bijou Hills, which was located along its slopes. The town is gone, but these notable hills will last an eternity.
Red Lake (MM 272)
Just off Interstate 90 near Pukwana is Red Lake, perhaps one of South Dakota’s most fluctuating water bodies. Most years, it has water and takes on the look of a vibrant, thriving lake. Other years — including as recently as 2006 — Red Lake is dry as a bone, even succumbing to fires every now and again.
Lewis and Clark country (MM 260)
At this point, I-90 crosses the path of explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who ventured up the Missouri River in 1804 and again back down the river in 1806. In South Dakota, Lewis and Clark killed their first buffalo, their first antelope and their first coyote. On their upstream journey, the group camped on an island near Chamberlain and marveled at the landscape. Somewhere at this spot, I-90 crosses the exact location of where Lewis and Clark stepped more than 200 years ago.
Missouri River (MM 260)
In its original state, the Missouri River flowed fast and muddy and was the butt of many jokes told by this region’s early settlers, including this one:
“The Missouri River: too thick to drink, too thin to plow.”
But after World War II, Congress took action to dam the Missouri, easing flood troubles along the river’s banks and adding opportunities for the region to cash in on the river’s hydroelectric potential. Today, there are four dams on South Dakota’s stretch of the Missouri River, including the Oahe Dam near Pierre, Big Bend dam at Fort Thompson, Fort Randall Dam at Pickstown and Gavins Point Dam at Yankton.
Oahe and Big Bend are both north of Interstate 90; Fort Randall and Gavins Point are south.
A wonderful benefit of those four massive dams has been the recreation opportunities that have been created in the years since. The Missouri River in South Dakota is a haven for fishermen — especially for anglers in search of walleye. Also, the once wild and muddy river these days is slow and blue, creating a mecca for boaters, skiers and swimmers.
Medicine Butte (MM 248)
To the north of the Interstate 90 Reliance exit, just west of the Missouri River, a butte rises 2,200 feet about the surrounding plains. It’s topped by television, radio and other antenna-tower equipment today, but it reportedly got its name, Medicine Butte, from the plant-roots and medicinal herbs that American Indians found years ago along Medicine Creek, near the butte’s base.
Warner D. Miller, an amateur ethnographer and artist and a teacher on the Standing Rock, Cheyenne, and Rosebud reservations, recorded stories told to him by Indians in the 1930s and 1940s about Medicine Butte’s formerly prominent place in Indian culture.
“In that distant age, the butte was a place of worship where the Dakotahs made offerings to their tribal deities,” Warner wrote in notes maintained by Cornell University Library. “Four days and four nights the braves stood at the top of the butte to pray and fast. Then they would dream, and the things they dreamt of would come to pass.”
Highway 83 to Pierre (MM 212)
Winding through a remote and nearly treeless stretch of the state, Highway 83 heads north from I-90 at this point, taking travelers to Pierre, South Dakota’s capital. This seemingly lonely stretch of highway is actually a major thoroughfare, and especially so during the two months of the year that the state Legislature is in session.
Early each year, citizen lawmakers, leave their jobs, farms and families to attend the legislative session, which generally lasts approximately 40 working days.
Pierre — pronounced “peer” – is usually a rather quiet town of 13,800. The old riverboat town’s pace picks up considerably when those 105 legislators move in for their annual session.
Pioneer Auto Show (MM 192)
In the town of Murdo stands a shrine to automotive history. Opened in 1954, this attraction — owners call it “an experience,” but definitely not a museum — is chock full of automobiles, tractors, motorcycles and other transportation memorabilia.
“Dances with Wolves” country (MM 183)
North of this point and 30 or 40 miles over the horizon is where the bulk of the movie “Dances With Wolves” was shot. Although the movie was mostly filmed on private land west of Pierre, motorists here can get a feel for the geography — rolling, treeless plains — that was so prominent throughout the movie. Kevin Costner’s 1990 masterpiece not only won seven Academy Awards, but it gave South Dakota tourism numbers a shot in the arm.
White River (MM173)
To the south of Interstate 90 runs the White River, a waterway typical of South Dakota. The White gets its name from its chalky, milky appearance and usually runs slow and steady on its way to the Missouri River, south of Chamberlain. From approximately mile marker 177 to 163, motorists who look southward can get a glimpse of the White’s deep valley.
“Thunderheart” country (MM 150)
Just south and west of Kadoka, the movie “Thunderheart” was filmed in 1991. With the filming came dozens of film crew and actors, who would spend their days on sets constructed on the prairies and in the Badlands. At the end of their day, many would come back to Kadoka, the quiet town that served as the film’s headquarters.
First sight of Badlands (MM 149)
Kadoka bills itself as the “Gateway to the Badlands” and for good reason. Soon after passing Kadoka, westbound motorists will get their first glimpse of the Badlands, a region known for its wildly shaped and colored formations.
Badlands wall (MM 110)
Wall, South Dakota, is aptly named. It’s the site of the actual Badlands “wall,” which rises sharply from the prairie floor and roughly marks the end of the Badlands for the westbound motorist.
First sight of Black Hills (MM 109)
On a clear day, westbound motorists at Wall often get their first glimpse of the Black Hills, which rise 50 miles away as a dark mist from the western prairie. Look closely — often the most discernable feature of the Black Hills is Harney Peak, which is in the southern Black Hills and rises 7,242 feet.
Cheyenne River valley (MM 101)
The Cheyenne River valley isn’t considered in South Dakota’s Black Hills mountain range, but its terrain tries to convince travelers otherwise. Just west of Wall, motorists dip sharply down into the valley, only to drive in a steady, miles-long climb out of the valley on the other side. The Cheyenne may not look like much, but it collects much of the water from the streams in the southern Black Hills and deposits it in the Missouri River north of Pierre.
The Cheyenne has been a major landmark in this territory for centuries.
Ellsworth Air Force Base (MM 67)
At Box Elder, S.D., is Ellsworth Air Force Base, home of the Air Force’s 28th Bomb Wing and its fleet of B-1B bombers. According to The Associated Press, the base creates an economic impact on the region of $324 million a year, providing more than 7,800 jobs. If you don’t see any of the black B-1B bombers at the moment, it usually doesn’t take long — the skies above the base are usually busy with the distinct-looking jets.
Custer’s trail (MM 46)
At this point, in 1874, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer led a group of approximately 1,000 men out of the Black Hills after spending more than two weeks in the mountains as part of the U.S. government’s first expedition into the previously unmapped region. Custer, who exited the Black Hills just west of this point on I-90, wasn’t specifically told to find gold, but he did have two experienced miners on his staff. Sure enough, they found the treasured mineral in paying amounts, sparking a gold rush that transformed the wilderness of the Black Hills into a series of thriving communities.
Just one problem: All of those miners in the gold rush that ensued came to the Black Hills illegally, breaking the U.S. government’s treaty with the native Sioux Indians.
Whereas gold-rush towns like Deadwood, Custer and Lead still exist, George Custer wasn’t nearly as lucky. Angered by the loss of the Black Hills, American Indians rallied and in 1876 defeated Custer in a climactic showdown on the Little Big Horn River in Montana.
Black Hills National Cemetery (MM 34)
Two miles east of Sturgis on I-90 is Black Hills National Cemetery, the final resting place for hundreds of men and women who have served their country.
The cemetery was originally formed on the Fort Meade Military Reservation.
Bear Butte (MM 32)
At 4,422 feet above sea level, Bear Butte looms high and alone east of Sturgis. A religious center for American Indians and a popular visiting place for all, Bear Butte State Park welcomes visitors to learn about its history and, for those so inclined, an opportunity to climb to its peak on a trail system.
Bear Butte has been one of the Black Hills’ most notable landmarks for centuries. Throughout the 1800s, it was a summertime meeting place for American Indians and in the last few years of the 19th century, it was the site of Fort Meade, a military post erected to protect the settlers who were flowing into the region.
It got its name from American Indians who compared its image to that of a bear, lying down.
Spearfish Canyon (MM 14)
Spearfish Canyon winds its way into the mountainous Black Hills from here, near the Spearfish golf course. The canyon is known for its sheer cliffs, a beautiful winding creek that creates several waterfalls, and a pleasant highway that takes travelers 22 miles from its start to its end.
McNenny State Fish Hatchery (MM 2)
For the westbound traveler on I-90, McNenny State Fish Hatchery is South Dakota’s last outpost. Located on the prairie outside the Black Hills proper, the hatchery — north of I-90, two miles from the Wyoming border — raises trout that are stocked into fisheries throughout the Black Hills. Although fishing at the hatchery itself is obviously forbidden, great trout fishing abounds on the hatchery’s grounds, including in Crow Creek and also in two healthy ponds.