America's Grandest Roadside Attraction Is A Vortex of Dinosaurs, Cowboys, And Kitsch
Come for the $.05 coffee. Stay to ride the jackalope.
The lure of a five-cent cup of coffee is powerful.
For hundreds of miles along Interstate 90, billboard after billboard offers an impossibly cheap cup of liquid relief to ease highway hypnosis. They pop up with alarming frequency, along with hand-painted promises of free ice water, a roaring T-Rex, ice cream, belt buckles, and a rideable jackalope.
They all summon you, like a tractor beam of Americana, to a mythical roadside utopia called Wall Drug. Each sign is like a mile marker drawing you closer, pummeling its existence into your brain. By the time the exit for Wall, South Dakota approaches you pretty much can’t not stop.
“We pressure people to stop, to a certain extent,” says Wall Drug chairman Rick Hustead.
Whether you’re giving into the pull of Wall Drug out of curiosity or necessity, once you enter this paragon of the American roadside experience, you’ll no doubt be there for a while.
A mega-attraction hundreds of miles from… well, anything
Wall, population 876, is named from the northern wall of the Badlands on which it sits. It could have been a blip on the radar for folks zipping into neighboring Badlands National Park or en route to the Black Hills or Yellowstone.
But nobody just drives through Wall these days, and they're not here to visit the town's telecom company or West River Electric. To most of the world, the entire town is the 76,000 square foot roadside wonderland that is Wall Drug.
“People think the whole town of Wall is Wall Drug,” says Hustead’s assistant Kelsey Huether, who grew up in Wall. “It’s funny, I just thought it was cool I lived in a town that had this famous attraction.”
Trying to box Wall Drug into a single category is a little like trying to describe Burning Man (most go with "attraction"). It’s everything, but it’s nothing specific. Wall Drug is a maze of souvenir shops, clothing stores, and benches where you can post up next to dead-eyed statues of Annie Oakley. It’s a place to fill up on Midwestern comfort food, then visit an animatronic T-rex who makes regularly-scheduled roars or be serenaded by band of rickety robot cowboys.
“It is classic, kitschy Americana,” Hustead says proudly from his 530-seat dining room, where you can grab an iconic gravy-soaked sandwich while surrounded by Old West art and life-sized statues of Sioux war chiefs. “And we like to say we’re the most loved roadside attraction in America.”
A melting pot forged from the world's most famous billboards
On a typical summer afternoon, Wall’s small, western-themed Main Street is packed with cars showing license plates from nearly every state, many sporting the iconic “Where the heck is Wall Drug” bumper sticker. The sidewalks are thronged as any in Manhattan, and often just as diverse -- Wall’s dead-center location between coasts and proximity to road-trip destinations like Yellowstone, Rushmore, and Badlands make it a magnet for everybody from Sturgis-bound bikers to long-haul truckers and RV nomads.
Go at the right time, and Wall Drug stands alongside places like Disneyland and Las Vegas in its ability to draw folks from all corners of the country and, in non-pandemic times, the world.
But, as is the case with most mind-bogglingly huge American institutions, Wall Drug started small. Eighty-nine years ago it was a 24-by-60-foot drug store that stood across the street from its current location on Main Street. Hustead Drugs, owned by Ted and Dorothy Hustead, opened in the thick of the Great Depression, and struggled to stay afloat until one summer afternoon in 1936 when Dorothy was struck with inspiration.
“She couldn't sleep because of the constant drone of tourist cars coming out of the Badlands on US-16 and 14 on their way to the Black Hills,” says Hustead. “And she thought, ‘We’ve got this great big soda fountain, all the ice in the world, and no customers.’ So she told Ted, ‘You’ve got to let people know we're here. We should put up the sign… Free ice water, Wall drug store.’”
Keen on the idea, Ted and a local high school boy went down to the highway and put up a sign. Before they returned, Ted had his first customers.
“He thought, ‘gee, if one sign had that kind of impact, what would 20 or 30 signs do?’” Hustead recounts.
Or, perhaps, 300 signs? That’s how many Wall Drug has today, with an annual budget of nearly $350,000. The impact is obvious: The store draws over 20,000 people a day during the high season, and a slew of restaurants and saloons has popped up in its orbit.
Wall Drug’s explosion from small-town drugstore into international phenomenon is largely credited to Ted’s son Bill Hustead, a relentless huckster who put signs everywhere from the docks of Amsterdam to double decker buses in London.
“He came back in 1951 and just built and built and built,” says Rick Hustead, Bill’s son. “He built our western shopping mall. He took our cafe from a little soda fountain to a cafe that seats 530. He expanded the backyard where the roaring T-Rex dinosaur. He just kept expanding the drugstore over his career, and when he finished up, we were at 76,000 square feet.”
You found it. Now what the heck do you do at Wall Drug?
With nearly two acres of western ware and famous donuts to navigate, one might have a number of questions upon arriving at Wall Drug. Like, “What can I buy?” or “What should I eat?” or “What is the cool way to ride a jackalope?” Read on for a quick primer on all there is to do the roadside legend of Wall Drug.
Cavort with robots and score western wear
Perhaps the most impressive -- and intimidating -- area of Wall Drug is the massive western mall that runs through most of the building and has the facade of an Old West town. Within it you'll find wayward statues of bad hombres along with a Zoltar machine, mounted guns, enough taxidermy to fill the Bates Motel, and a rickety animatronic cowboy band. Should you overdo it on Wall Drug's signature donuts, you can atone in the attached chapel or fill a heartburn prescription at the drug store.
You’ll also discover crafts from local tribes, wood-carved everything, raccoon caps, and a pressed-penny machine. It is the perfect place to get a Wall Drug baby doll T, or literally anything else you could imagine with the Wall Drug logo (if you leave without a bumper sticker, you did it wrong). But the indoor mall is also chock full of stores where you can finally discover how dashing you look white leather cowboy boots. Or how a well-sized western shirt can cleverly hide those road-trip pounds.
Ride the jackalope and roar with the T-Rex
“The two most photographed places at Wall Drug are, number one, the sign out front,” says Hustead proudly from the store’s sunny back patio. “And number two, the jackalope.”
What the heck is a jackalope, you ask? In case you forgot how to break down portmanteau words, it’s a jackrabbit with antelope horns.
Still confused? That’s ok, jackalopes aren’t real outside the world of taxidermy and the famous 10-foot statue on the Wall Drug patio. The mythical creature comes complete with a staircase to climb so you can sit in the saddle for your iconic Wall Drug photo op.
But that’s not all on the back patio. There’s also a shooting gallery and a splash park where kids can cool off while burning some of that donut sugar before getting back in the car.
Across the patio, inside a second building, lurks the famous Tyrannosaurus , which has overshadowed the also-impressive 90-foot brontosaurus. Though fossil-rich South Dakota has no shortage of dino-related attractions, Wall Drug has the only animatronic dino head shrouded in banana plants and protective wiring. It roars over sirens every 15 minutes. Get there early to get a seat.
Peruse fine western art in the dining room
Though one wouldn’t expect to be dining on buffalo burgers under NC Wyeth and Dean Cornwell originals, along the rich American black walnut walls of Wall Drug’s dining room sits one of the best collections of western art in the country.
“We have 11 Harvey Dunn paintings, the most famous South Dakota illustrator of all time,” Hustead adds as he tours me around the artwork in the dining room. “You see this here? Harvey Dunn wrote on the bottom of it, ‘Dean Cornwell wouldn't buy this painting.’ They used to buy each other's pictures back and forth.”
Hustead also pointed out that people are free to check out the art even if they’re not enjoying food from the restaurant. But, really, doesn’t art always look better with a fresh maple donut?
Chase donuts and buffalo burgers with that famous coffee
Though the billboards may lure you in with promises of unfathomably cheap coffee and world-famous maple donuts, you don’t fill a 530-seat restaurant with cop food. And though one might expect the menu here to lean tourist-trappy, that’s not the case. The selections have been pared down in the Covid-era, as has the seating capacity, but you can still get a fantastic, flame-broiled buffalo burger.
In a true sign of the times, you can also get a plant-based hamburger at Wall Drug, alongside other grilled favorites like traditional burgers and chicken. The daily special usually involves gravy, potatoes, and a food coma on the drive out.
The ice water is, as advertised, free. And that five-cent coffee? It’s self-serve, on the honor system, with a wooden box to deposit your nickels. Even as Wall Drug grows, it still sticks with what made it a draw to begin with.