Who would have thought that a drug store in the middle of nowhere could become such a popular tourist attraction for millions of visitors every year? That’s exactly what has happened to the wonderfully acclaimed Wall Drug Store in the heart of South Dakota.
Let’s start with the facts. Neither of us had ever heard of Wall Drug Store before visiting South Dakota but from the moment we hit I-90 driving west from Sioux Falls, we were immediately introduced to this tourist trap.
For over 250 miles, travelers along I-90 are reminded of Wall Drug Store and the apparent need to visit here with large signs on the side of the road advertising everything this place has to offer.
Is it really worth the time and effort to visit? Well, we were certainly drawn in by the huge marketing stunts that have taken place in South Dakota and we had to find out for ourselves exactly what Wall Drug Store was all about.
WHERE THE HECK IS WALL DRUG STORE??? It’s a legitimate question because we honestly had ZERO clue about this before our epic road trip through South Dakota.
Ok, so we have established that Wall Drug Store is located along I-90, but for those of you geographically challenged, let’s take a look at exactly where it is located. In terms of convenience…well it’s not very convenient at all unless you are in the western half of South Dakota. But there are a couple of iconic reasons why you would be heading over to this side of the state – Mount Rushmore and Badlands National Park.
If you plan to visit Mount Rushmore, the likelihood is that you will be driving along I-90 and past the town of Wall to reach Rapid City before heading up into the Black Hills of South Dakota to see this iconic monument.
Meanwhile, the entrance to the iconic Badlands scenic drive is at the same exit as Wall Drug Store, so it’s a perfect reason to kill two birds with one stone!
Exit 110 is the exit along I-90 that you need to be on the lookout for, but don’t worry if you forget there will be plenty of reminders in all directions. Rumors suggest that Wall Drug spends over $400,000 every year in billboard advertisements and they run all the way from Minneapolis to Billings, Montana.
History of Wall Drug Store
So you now know where Wall Drug Store is located but what is it all about? The history of this ‘drugstore’ is what makes this such an iconic location today.
It all started in December 1931 with something that none of us today would even turn our heads at…the promise of free ice water! Seriously, who would have thought that a glass of ice water would create such a huge tourist attraction in South Dakota.
No matter where you live, you can succeed, because wherever you are, you can reach out to other people with something that they need! (Ted Hustead)
Ted and Dorothy Hustead purchased the only drugstore in the quiet town of Wall on the edge of South Dakota’s Badlands National Park. They were trying to figure out a unique way of generating income and eventually had the crazy idea of giving away free ice water.
It wasn’t rocket science but what it did was create a revenue stream from visitors heading into the town of Wall to grab the free ice water and subsequently purchase an ice cream cone or other refreshments.
When Bill Bryson wrote in his infamous novel, The Lost Continent, that Wall Drug was one of the world’s worst tourist traps, he was so right!
It’s an awful place, one of the world’s worst tourist traps, but I loved it and I won’t have a word said against it. (Bill Bryson)
Bryson loved Wall Drug and what epitomizes our experience because it really is a cool location that is uniquely different from anything we have visited before.
Imagine a modern day shopping mall but now consider what that would have been like 50 years ago. Wall Drug Store still offers free ice water today along with coffee for just 5 cents, but it is of course much more than that.
From delicious donuts to homemade fudge and a plethora of souvenirs, Wall Drug Store is a great shopping and dining experience for visitors. A drugstore wouldn’t be the same without a pharmacy and despite its size, it’s the only one within a 50-mile radius.
The peripheral amusements inside Wall Drug Store have taken over and now extend across a series of connected buildings.
Grab A Bite To Eat
We decided to spend some time wandering around before heading over to the restaurant for lunch. A wide variety of options are available on the menu, many of which are home cooked such as the iconic fresh pies that are a popular choice. We opted for a cheeseburger each and a maple donut which we ate later on our scenic drive around Badlands.
The food wasn’t the best and the prices were a little high, but they don’t pretend to offer luxury cuisine and it’s better to sample this than just dine at the local Dairy Queen.
We both couldn’t resist experiencing the free ice water in a souvenir plastic cup and just contemplating the simplest of offerings and how this created such an amazing experience in this small town is worth the visit. It certainly put both Wall and South Dakota on the global map!
Be sure to sample some of the fine local ice cream before heading out.
As the great Bill Bryson indicated, Wall Drug Store is the ultimate tourist trap but once you have visited here you will realize it is a great place worth all the hype. I love how the history of Wall Drug and how a local couple took this from a tiny drugstore to such an iconic tourist attraction.
The use of billboard marketing is also epitomized throughout South Dakota and regardless of your stance on how this impacts the landscape, it certainly works!
When you look at an attraction like Wall Drug Store, yes it is the ultimate tourist trap, but that doesn’t mean that the negative stereotype should apply here. In fact, on the contrary, this is a tourist attraction that has a rich history and one that I think we could all learn something from.
Have you visited Wall Drug Store in South Dakota? What was your experience? Do you believe in the term ‘tourist trap’ and do you generally agree with this stereotype?