Years ago, on a road trip from Virginia to Colorado, we paused briefly in St. Louis to see the famous Gateway Arch. Built to represent the city’s role as the Gateway to the West, it became a launching point for explorers learning about the quickly expanding United States as well as people who wanted a life in the Wild West. In time, towns popped up across the land acquired through the Louisiana Purchase, but it didn’t get much wilder than it did in Deadwood.
At its peak, Deadwood, South Dakota was characterized by gold, gambling, and gunslinging. It attracted a certain lawlessness that eventually morphed to its own lore, which was further popularized by an HBO series of the same name. When we planned our road trip to the Dakotas last year, there was no way we could leave Deadwood off our itinerary. Two months later, while driving through Montana and Wyoming, we realized we had a chance to extend our drive just a bit for one more night in Deadwood. We couldn’t say no.
Time rarely stands still, but it seems to in Deadwood, where the same spirit of rebellion and excitement reverberates throughout the saloons and hotels lining its main street. If you’re thinking about what a trip to Deadwood might offer, here are some of the spots we know you won’t want to miss!
Walk Through Mount Moriah CemeteryDeadwood remains the final resting place for Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, and you can pay your respects to them and others from their time with a self-guided walk through Mount Moriah Cemetery. Wild Bill Hickok was perhaps Deadwood’s most famous resident, although his stay was cut short on the night of his murder. While playing cards on August 2, 1876—just a few weeks after his arrival—shots rang out at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon when Jack McCall shot him from behind. He was buried at Mount Moriah Cemetery. Buried next to him is Calamity Jane, who was known for drinking beer, wearing men’s’ clothing, and possessing a decidedly foul mouth. Jane also had a heart of gold; she took care of Deadwood’s sick, especially when smallpox broke out. She died a few years after Wild Bill, and Deadwood saved the spot next to him just for Calamity Jane.
Mount Moriah Cemetery is a historical and peaceful spot to walk around. Toward the back is a nice overlook where you can see more of the town, but spend some time walking through the cemetery itself to get a glimpse of the names that built the town in its earliest years.
Learn Deadwood’s History with a Museum Visit
You wouldn’t want to separate Deadwood from its history, and almost every business in town is dedicated to preserving the same spirit that has persevered since the 1870s. There are two museums worth adding to the beginning of your Deadwood itinerary to provide some context: the Adams Museum and the Days of ’76 Museum. Each experience advances a different part of Deadwood’s historical narrative.
The Adams Museum serves to preserve and displays the history of the Black Hills in a building donated by its namesake, W.E. Adams. If learning about the personalities who called Deadwood home would heighten your visit, the Adams Museum provides exhibits on famous residents including Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Seth Bullock, and Charlie Utter. It’s also a good place to learn about the seedier parts of life in Deadwood: gambling and crime are among the vices the museum highlights.
Fame and notoriety weren’t born in Deadwood; they came by horseback and covered wagon like most of the westward-bound pioneers who made their way to town. The Days of ’76 Museum pays tribute to the roads that led to Deadwood, with artifacts including wagons and clothing that illustrate how people traveled decades ago. The exhibits make it easy to picture how different the world looked at that point in time.
Join a Ghost TourBetween the historic buildings and the prominent Mount Moriah Cemetery, a few ghost sightings are to be expected from time to time. Deadwood offers a few ghost tours that share some of the curious and downright spooky stories of residents long since passed. One, operating from Saloon No. 10, is run by a historian with deep local knowledge. Another begins at the Fairmont Hotel and features a different look at Deadwood’s past.
Really, you may not need a ghost tour to have a supernatural encounter. During our stay at the Bullock Hotel, Adam left our hotel room for a few moments to buy a few souvenirs in the lobby. While he was gone, I realized I couldn’t find my room key. As I moved some receipts and other papers out of the way, I heard a jingling behind me. Turning around, I watched as my room key dragged itself from one side of the nightstand to the other. It didn’t feel frightening or creepy; honestly, I appreciated the help. The next morning, as we checked out, the receptionist asked if he had any encounters with Mr. Bullock. Seth Bullock was the hotel proprietor during his lifetime, and guests often report examples of someone “helping” them while staying at the property. We were excited to be part of that tradition; it was nice to have some assistance locating the room key!
Watch a Main Street Shootout!
The Wild West was known for its shootouts, and visitors to Deadwood can experience reenactments six days a week right on Main Street. Designed to reflect history and portrayed by actors playing out real scenes that once took place in Deadwood, you’ll know when a shootout is about to begin when the roads close and hundreds of people line the streets. Actors set the scene before they slip into character; they explain the historical context of what they will act out and introduce the characters. There are a few different shootout scenes that take over Main Street each day, which means you can watch them all and see something different each time.
For an extended experience, the reenactment of the shooting of Wild Bill Hickok takes place four times each day inside Saloon No. 10, where you can learn more about Wild Bill and the moments leading to and after his death. It’s an entertaining and interactive experience that draws a big crowd, so arriving early is a good idea for an unobstructed seat close to the action. If you still need more, the Trial of Jack McCall takes place after the shooting is over and continues the story in what is one of the longest-running plays in the USA.
More Information: DeadwoodAlive.com
Take a look at our video below for a preview of some of the live reenactments in Deadwood!
Relax with a Great Meal
There are lots of meal options in Deadwood, and you’ll find no shortage of bar food, steak dinners, and pizza during your visit. For the very best meal, though, you’ll need to travel about 20 minutes past Main Street to a little place called Cheyenne Crossing.
We visited Cheyenne Crossing in July 2021 to try fry bread tacos, which piles favorite taco toppings on top of a serving of Woodenknife Indian fry bread. It has the kind of small-town charm that made us wonder if we would see any other travelers during our meal; looking around at groups of locals enjoying a late lunch, we realized we were the only ones from out of town. We devoured our fry bread tacos and lamented the fact we only had time for one meal there. Fast forward to just eight weeks later, and we were within a short drive of Cheyenne Crossing thanks to our second road trip of the year. We prioritized it for our lunch break, and after we were seated the restaurant owner walked by us, paused, and turned to look at us. “Weren’t you both just here?” he asked. Suddenly, we felt much more like locals who knew where to find the best meal in town rather than lucky tourists who stumbled upon a gem on the way to Deadwood.
More Information: CheyenneCrossing.org
Cheyenne Crossing has also been featured on the Food Network! Check out the clip below to learn more about their famous fry bread tacos.
Have a Drink or Two
Deadwood was defined by its saloon culture, and in the 1800s those saloons were packed with people tossing back mug after mug of beer—and plenty of the harder stuff, too. You can’t go wrong with any of the bars that line Main Street; that said, Saloon No. 10 is a popular choice because of its connections to Wild Bill Hickok. Similarly, the Nugget Saloon and the Wild Bill Bar are popular choices with plenty of beer on tap.
Toward the end of Main Street, take some time to visit Belle Joli Winery, a pleasant spot that serves local wine. We weren’t expecting to find anything close to a local wine in Deadwood, but South Dakota is a wine-producing state. Of the wines we tried, the sparkling options were our favorites and the most fun to drink. With plenty of seating outside, on a nice day it’s a great place to take a break from the crowds that inevitably take over the Main Street experience.
Visit the Homestake Mine
Gold lured thousands of people to Deadwood, and there was plenty of gold to be found at its peak. From the time it was opened in 1876 until it closed in 2001, more than 40 million ounces of gold and 9 million ounces of silver were mined in that location. It was the longest continuously operating mine in US history. Today, the mine is again open to the public, but not for those looking for precious metals; instead, visitors can explore a series of exhibits and, for a nominal fee, hit golf balls into the 1250-foot-deep expanse. Additionally, the mine is now the home of the Sanford Lab, and science research continues there today. Specializing in world-leading research in particle and nuclear physics, Nobel Prize winning research has been conducted onsite.
Day Trips from Deadwood
Deadwood is a destination in itself, but it’s not the only bucket list-worthy spot in the Black Hills. Here are a few others worth considering.
► Devils Tower
Stretching almost 1,300 feet into the sky, Devils Tower is just 90 minutes from Deadwood and is well worth the visit. Easily recognizable not only for its size but for the columnal jointing that produced vertical columns not unlike what we saw at Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, it’s a popular destination for travelers. Movie enthusiasts may also recognize the location from Steven Spielberg’s 1977 sci-fi film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Devils Tower is also known as Bear Lodge Butte in tribute to native tribes from the region. Several, including the Kiowa and Lakota, Cheyenne, and Sioux, tell stories of a bear that tried to chase children but was stopped when it could not pass the rock formation. Most legends explain what look like giant claw marks as incisions made by the bear as it tried to climb it. Hiking trails are available and rock climbing is permitted but discouraged, especially in June when tribes conduct ceremonies at the tower. Devils Tower is sacred to many tribes, and it’s important to show the land respect when you visit.
► Mount Rushmore
One of the most famous destinations in the USA, Mount Rushmore is another great day trip option from Deadwood. In the summer, visiting early in the day will provide you with a break from the heat and crowds to provide plenty of space to enjoy the view.
Our Post: Mount Rushmore: A Day at an Iconic American Landmark
► Crazy Horse
We share plenty of information about what to see and expect when visiting the Crazy Horse Memorial, which will be the largest sculpture in the world when it is complete. Just over an hour away from Deadwood, it’s an easy trip with plenty to see and learn.
Our Post: Crazy Horse Memorial: Visiting (What Will Be) the Largest Sculpture in the World
► Wall Drug
If Wall Drug isn’t otherwise on your trip itinerary, consider taking a few hours to visit one of the USA’s great tourist attractions. While it is primarily designed to sell tourist items like shirts and magnets, there’s something kind of special about getting your own free cup of ice water after seeing all of the road signs advertising it!
Our Post: Wall Drug: Ice Water and Americana in South Dakota
Where to Stay in Deadwood
We loved our stay at Bullock Hotel, the first hotel to be established in Deadwood. Still operating today, the rooms are pretty spacious and comfortable, and if feeling like you are being transported back in time helps make your vacation feel special this is a not-to-be-missed spot. Deadwood has several historic as well as a few more modern properties; we found a great rate on Booking.com, where we could easily compare amenities and decide which hotel would be best for us. Take a look at Booking.com while planning your trip to see if there is a great hotel for you, too!
Although Adam had watched every episode of Deadwood before our visit and had even driven through (without stopping) on previous cross-country trips, I was way less prepared for what our experience would be when we first arrived. I was surprised to enjoy my brief trip back to the Wild West as much as I did, and then not surprised at all when we prioritized a return visit just two months later. We loved learning about Deadwood’s colorful history and equally distinctive characters, the people who embodied the spirit of that part of the world at that moment in time. For whatever reason Deadwood makes it into your vacation plans—for the history, the connection to the TV show, the fry bread tacos—we think you will enjoy it as much as we did!
More Information: Deadwood.com
Want to learn about more interesting wild west places we’ve written about? Check out these posts from our archives!