The year was 2008. Adam and I had set off from Virginia toward our destination of Portland, Oregon, by way of Adam’s trusty yet road weary sedan. The car, while reliable and comfortable, was getting up there in years. We knew it wouldn’t be long before its dashboard would start to light up like a Christmas tree, with bright lights to indicate what kind of gift the car might want. Some gifts, like a new engine or transmission, just weren’t going to come off the wish list; that money would be better invested in a newer car with even more potential. Adam’s father had graciously offered to give us some pointers to sell the car ourselves, and somehow the conversation devolved into our decision to celebrate the vehicle with a cross-country excursion—one last hurrah before a new owner could welcome it home. The decision also provided us with an excuse to drive across the country together, a lengthy vacation with the promise of being a memorable adventure.
Armed with folded maps, a Garmin GPS that proudly sat on top of our dashboard, and a green three-ring binder loaded with my notes and printouts of some of the places we wanted to visit along the way, we left home to follow an itinerary that balanced notable stops with the flexibility to pull off the highway if we saw something interesting. Our favorite addition started with a simple, somewhat humble promise: free ice water.
From the moment we crossed the South Dakota border, it seemed our road trip would not be complete without a stop at Wall Drug. The first sign was intriguing: free ice water is a gift for travelers, and we consider water to be a form of currency when we travel (never pass on a complimentary bottle: you never know when you’ll be thirsty!). The next billboard was almost as good: coffee for just five cents. From there, the billboards ranged from simple mile markers (150 miles to go! 125 miles to go!) to advertisements (ice cream! museum! belt buckles!) to subtle threats (one billboard with a dinosaur recommended we “do lunch or be lunch”). There was barely any conversation about whether we would make the stop as the nice signs insisted, but there was plenty of conversation about the experience for years after our trip was over. So, when we planned another road trip that included South Dakota on our route, Wall Drug was the very first place we added to our list.
Whatever you happen to need while on the road through South Dakota—a break to stretch your legs, a sweatshirt, a snack, some ice water—Wall Drug has it. If you have visited before, there’s a good chance you share some similar happy memories of one of the USA’s most popular and iconic roadside attractions. If you have never found yourself amidst the crowds at Wall Drug, though, we think the history and kitsch might have you packing your own vehicle for a road trip in no time.
The History of Wall Drug
Wall Drug Store defies an easy explanation. It’s certainly a drug store, but it’s much more than that these days: it’s a restaurant, a coffee shop, a souvenir store, a museum, an art gallery, a church, a bookstore, and a playground. But before it was all of these things, it was a drug store. And it was a drug store with a problem.Dorothy and Ted Hustead bought the only drugstore in Wall, South Dakota in December 1931. It was a tiny structure, taking up just 1,500 sq. ft. of space on Main Street, and it was a great asset for Ted, who was a pharmacist. Unfortunately, the small store didn’t do the kind of business the growing Hustead family needed it to do. During the first five years, the Husteads added two children to their family, but customers just did not find their store. In a town of just over 300 people, they needed to find more business. It was Dorothy who thought of exactly the gimmick that would put Wall on the map.
Lying awake as she listened to traffic pass by outside, Dorothy thought about how many of the people in those cars must be thirsty. She realized that Wall Drug could solve their problem: they could offer free ice water to people who might otherwise drive right by. Ted commissioned a local artist to hand paint signs advertising Wall Drug as a place to get a free glass of ice water, and sure enough, the first customers started to arrive before all the billboards had been placed.
Wall Drug’s fame and popularity exploded over the years, with thousands of tourists pausing for refreshments. By the time Ted and Dorothy’s son was grown and a trained pharmacist himself, he helped his parents to expand their little store into a sprawling 76,000 sq. ft. complex that had far more to offer than ice water and cheap coffee. Today, the population of Wall has almost tripled to 900, but the number of daily visitors swells that number to more than 20,000 most of the time. Wall Drug is practically a town itself, and it boasts a history you can’t help but want to be part of yourself.
What to Do at Wall Drug
Wall Drug is a noisy, busy, colorful maze that weaves through dozens of rooms, each of which has a unique offering. If you are planning a visit of your own, here are a few spots you won’t want to miss.
► Wall Drug Backyard
The Wall Drug Backyard is an epicenter of sorts; in addition to ice water, there is a giant jackalope, a roaring dinosaur, a miniature Mount Rushmore, and a water show. Most of the activities are oriented around kids, but it’s the kind of spot that kids of all ages will enjoy; even Adam couldn’t resist climbing onto the jackalope’s back for a quick photo before a group of kids arrived, hoping to steal his spot. When the shops within Wall Drug are too crowded, the Backyard provides a nice respite, some fresh air, and a few fun photo ops.
Need a souvenir to let the world know you made it to South Dakota? Wall Drug has thousands. Looking for a new book for the rest of your road trip? Wall Drug has one of those for you, too. Forgot your toothpaste at home? There’s a store for that. Forgot to refill a prescription before you left home? Wall Drug is still a pharmacy at heart. Looking for a new pair of moccasins or a spare lasso? Wall Drug has a great selection of both. Plan on plenty of time to wander through the huge array of shops; you’ll find everything from standard shot glasses and coffee cups to beautiful western pottery for sale. Although we typically avoid souvenirs, we both left with Wall Drug sweatshirts; we like to think we can be walking billboards since their famous wooden ones don’t quite extend to our home state.
► Free ice water
To this day, a visit to Wall Drug is not complete without your own glass of free ice water. There are a few places to fill up, but we always stop by the ice water wells in the Wall Drug Backyard. You’ll find cups as readily available as the cold water, and if you’re lucky you can also grab a seat at one of the picnic tables to rest and enjoy it.
Art plays a bigger role in the Wall Drug experience than you might expect, and they host the largest privately owned Western and illustration art collection in the country. Spend some time walking through the gallery to explore the oil paintings that capture the Western experience, including two paintings by Gutzom Borglum, who sculpted Mount Rushmore.
Wall Drug’s restaurant tends to be a popular stop; we saw many people who seemed torn between turning toward the restaurant itself or the soda fountain, where there is a great ice cream menu. Although the restaurant menu has plenty of standard fare, Wall Drug is more famous for hot beef sandwiches, homemade donuts, and five cent coffee than anything else. The lines tend to be long but move quickly, and the donuts are baked fresh in the kitchen and are guaranteed to lure you in for one or two.
► One-of-a-Kind Attractions
Wall Drug is a lot more than the shopping and eating that will bring many visitors in for a visit. It’s also animatronic bands, like Ted Hustead’s Cowboy Orchestra, that greet you at the entrance. It’s turning a corner to see Dr. Feelgood smiling at you from a corner, clutching a bottle of Wall Drug Tonic. It’s standing in front of a big wall of pictures, each of which has a sign displaying how far the featured locatiom is from Wall Drug; we were surprised to learn it’s just 10,728 miles from the Taj Mahal in India and 11,568 miles from Antarctica, but we weren’t surprised at all to find travelers who proudly remembered the drug store from those far-away spots. Like such bucket list-worthy destinations, Wall Drug is the kind of place worth traveling to see.
Where the Heck is Wall Drug?
As our visit ended and we made our way back to our car, we saw a man slapping a bumper sticker on his Volvo; it asked, Where the Heck is Wall Drug? It’s great advertising; we could imagine plenty of people seeing the bumper sticker and Googling that phrase, perhaps even deciding to make it a stop of their own. After all, Wall Drug isn’t really the kind of place you stumble upon.
Wall, South Dakota is located just beyond Badlands National Park, making it a great launch point or a fun stop for snacks and ice water after a day of driving and hiking. It’s conveniently located just off I-90, and it is also less than an hour from Rapid City and just over an hour from Mount Rushmore. While most travelers don’t plan a trip to South Dakota only to see Wall Drug, it’s an unmissable spot if you find yourself driving through the state.
More Information: WallDrug.com
Where to Stay Near Wall Drug
Wall has a few hotels to choose from if you are planning to stay in the area. We stayed in Rapid City to be a bit closer to our planned early arrival at Mount Rushmore. We made the decision to stay in Rapid City after comparing some of our options on Booking.com, which is our favorite website for researching and selecting hotels. If you are thinking of a trip to South Dakota, take a look at Booking.com to see if they have a hotel that meets your needs as well!
Visit Wall Drug!
More than a decade after our first visit to Wall Drug, our second visit was almost reflexive in how well we remembered it. We spent some time walking through the numerous gift shops, pointing at mugs and hoodies we liked and making mental notes about which ones we would return to buy on our way back to the car. We drank free ice water. Adam had his photo taken on the jackalope. It was a moment of levity in a long travel day, a chance to experience the kind of childlike wonder that you just don’t get to enjoy after you reach a certain age.
There is also a lesson to be learned from Wall Drug’s history and the story of how it grew from a tiny pharmacy into massive tourist attraction. As she wondered how to help her husband grow their business, Dorothy Hustead realized the simple act of giving something to someone for free—no purchase necessary, no reciprocity expected—could help others see the value they offered. At the end of the day, it’s always about what we can do for someone else. If you can make someone’s day brighter, do it. If you can ease their thirst, offer them a glass of ice water.
Our visit to Wall Drug brought back some great memories and provided plenty of souvenirs for us to remember our time there. We’re just as grateful for the reminder to always offer someone a glass of ice water if they need one.
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* From time to time, our travels are directly impacted by a service or company. In this case, we visited Wall Drug in South Dakota. This post includes our candid review of our experience. We selected this locations and items based on our own research and travel needs; we were not offered and did not receive compensation of any kind from them or any other party in exchange for our review. Learn more about our travel philosophy here.