This Wild West Town in the Black Hills Is the Ultimate Summertime Road Trip
Deadwood is a blast from the gold rush past in western South Dakota
Most American road trips are to destinations like the Grand Canyon or Disney World, but hidden in the Black Hills of South Dakota is an equally worthwhile but underrated spot that’s rich with real-deal wild-west kitsch. The next time your summer vacation takes you to the Badlands or Crazy Horse Memorial, consider a stint in nearby Deadwood, a tiny town filled with saloons, defunct brothels, clamorous casinos, and faux gunfight reenactments from men dressed in period garb. All it takes is a quick stroll down historic Main Street — past the cigar lounges, chainsaw art galleries and coffin photo ops — to discover a slice of Americana you never knew you needed.
Located in northwestern South Dakota, about an hour north of Custer State Park, Deadwood is an authentic blast from the past, complete with all the dusty saloons you could ever dream of, each one boasting different superlatives and claims to fame, like “Oldest Bar in Deadwood” and “Site Where Wild Bill Was Shot.” A frequent haunt for miners, madams, and infamous gunslingers like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, both of whom flocked here as part of the gold rush in the 1870s, the whole place is like Dollywood for renegades. With its frontier-like landscape, anchored by a downtown corridor lined with Colonial Revival- and Queen Anne-style architecture, and its myriad vices at every turn, Deadwood feels like a thematic mix of Disney World and Las Vegas — an oddly family-friendly mix of whimsy, well-mannered debauchery, a reasonable amount of sin, and zany fun unlike anything else in the Black Hills.
Where to stay
Nestled in the northern Black Hills, sandwiched between well-trod towns like Spearfish and Sturgis, Deadwood is the stuff of road trip dreams, an off-highway oasis accessible via meandering roadways through a sea of ponderosa pines. After a day spent driving through the Black Hills (might we suggest a squeeze through Needles Highway and a beer run at Miner Brewing Co. in Hill City), you’ll want to hunker down someplace close to all the old-timey action. Fortunately, the Main Street drag in Deadwood is lined with cozy kitsch, including the Historic Bullock Hotel (allegedly still haunted by the town’s first sheriff, Seth Bullock), the ornate Silverado Franklin Historic Hotel & Gaming Complex, and Hickok’s Hotel & Gaming, a former department store that now houses suites, a polished casino and a pizza pub.
While much of the lodging and dining in Deadwood is heavily themed and unabashedly ostentatious, one refreshing exception — in case you’d feel more comfortable staying somewhere that feels more this century — is the Four Points by Sheraton Deadwood, a sleek and stylish alternative that trades gimmickry for craft beer, rooftop terraces and some of the best food in town. Located at the edge of historic Main Street, the contemporary and comfy property is far enough from the calamity that the fake gunfights won’t rattle you, but still close enough that you can easily mosey to dinner and drinks. Plus, it’s got a tamer gambling floor, fluffy-soft beds, an impressive lineup of local beer on tap at the lobby bar, and a swanky steakhouse called Snitches, where filet mignon beef tips come glazed in whiskey.
What to do
With so much history to be found in this gold rush town, many of the experiences feel like a time warp to the 19th century. Start at Mount Moriah Cemetery, a forested resting place with “celebrity” graves like Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and Seth Bullock. Perched atop Mount Moriah, overlooking Deadwood Gulch, the cemetery also provides a sweeping panorama of the whole town. It’s $2 to enter, and it’s an oddly serene setting — even at Hickok’s headstone, where visitors leave everything from dollar bills to bullet shells.
To experience what drew these gold-hungry rebels to Deadwood in the first place, take a tour at Broken Boot Gold Mine, where visitors venture underground into old mining tunnels to see where prospectors pillaged for gold with dynamite and pickaxe. Originally established in 1878, the mine became the epicenter of one of the last gold rushes in America, and remained that way until closing in 1918. Reopened as a tourist attraction in the ‘50s, Broken Boot (so named for a tattered boot found in a dingy chamber during renovations) now takes tourists through tunnels and on candlelit ghost tours, with the opportunity to try your hand at gold panning — and whatever gold you find, you keep.
The main attraction in Deadwood, though, is historic Main Street, the primary thoroughfare that’s lined with most of the town’s saloons, restaurants, museums, casinos and reenactments. The latter is a real crowd-pleaser, as gun-toting frontiersmen in vintage garb regularly tangle in the middle of the brick-lined road, arguing over card games and threatening to hang each other — it’s weirdly quaint. The hoopla is courtesy of a company called Deadwood Alive, which conducts historically accurate reenactments several times a day six days a week (“no killin’ on Sundays,” they say). The same company also offers stagecoach rides, guided walking tours, and hosts a long-running play called the Trial of Jack McCall, about the murder of Wild Bill Hickok, shot in the back of the head while playing poker in Saloon No. 10 on August 2, 1876.
Brothels played a big role in Deadwood’s heyday, and while these discreet bordellos have long since been banned, their history is on full display at museums like The Brothel Deadwood. Located up a nondescript set of stairs off Main Street, the museum provides an insightful — and saucy — tour of the former Shasta Rooms, where madams reigned as kingpins, and prostitutes played an important role in the local economy for upwards of a century. Guided tours rove through bedrooms and into the back office where money was stored, ultimately casting a light on the reputable role of sex work in Deadwood in history. For obvious reasons, guests need to be at least 16 to attend a tour.
Another prominent piece of Deadwood’s lore is gambling. Like a mini Vegas, the town is filled with intimate casinos — many of which are open 24 hours a day and loaded with roulette tables, craps, slots and sports betting. Befitting Deadwood’s wild west aesthetic, each casino feels vintage and luxurious, from grand staircases and shimmering chandeliers to the world’s largest slot machine, a Wheel of Fortune-sized contraption at Bodega Casino.
Where to eat and drink
For a town that straddles timeworn history and newfangled touristy novelties, Deadwood’s small-but-mighty dining scene scratches that road trip-worthy itch.
In the morning, start off at Pump House at Mind Blown Studio, a cafe that doubles as a glass-blowing studio in a former gas station, where you can eat a bagel sandwich and sip a cold-brew tonic while perusing kaleidoscopic glass art.
Just down the block, Jacobs Brewhouse & Grocer is a boutique pub with a plethora of house-brewed beers and guest taps, and eclectic grub like tater tot poutine, smoked buffalo sausages, smoked pork steak, and fish & chips. The restaurant also has a central bodega-style shop stocked with sundries and snacks, great for stocking up on dried fruit, branded beanies, and souvenirs for your road trip.
Back on Main Street, Deadwood Social Club is a former brothel-turned-restaurant nestled above Saloon No. 10, with an impressive cocktail program (get the smoked Old Fashioned permeated with pecan wood) and a meaty menu of buffalo sausage ravioli, lamb burgers, wild boar bolognese, and prime rib-eye melting in black truffle butter.
Downstairs, and all along Main Street, saloons are to Deadwood as twee coffee shops are to Portland, each one fittingly dusty, boozy, and overstuffed with antique photography and taxidermy. Take your pick: Saloon No. 10 pours craft beer and whiskey in a barn-like space that features “Wild Bill’s Death Chair” as decor, while the Wild Bill Bar across the street — the original location of Saloon No. 10 — is where the town’s most infamous resident was actually shot. The Nugget, meanwhile, is known for its saddle barstools and Bloody Marys.
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