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Kids take a liking to area's tourist traps

Certain natural laws govern the Black Hills, and they're not just the laws of wind, weather and earth that have created the peaks, caves and rock formations.

Take, for example, the Law of Commercialization: anywhere there's a concentration of natural beauty, history or culture, money-making enterprises spring up like mushrooms.

So it is in the Black Hills, which has a teeming crop of kitsch, Americana and just plain weirdness. Here's a sampler of things we visited.

Wall Drug

Perhaps this country's greatest example of making something out of nothing, Wall Drug (www.walldrug.com) has achieved giddy heights of international recognition on the strength of ice water.

By giving it away free to travelers who stopped by their little drug store — and aggressively advertising that fact along the highway and, eventually, around the world — Ted and Dorothy Hustead turned their store into one of the world's great tourist traps.

And I do mean trap. Once you're in, it's mighty hard to get back out. The store, which now covers a big chunk of downtown Wall, contains in its mazelike layout 26 shops, several restaurants, art galleries that double as dining rooms, the life-size head of an animatronic Tyrannosaurus rex, which roars menacingly every so often, and an actual drug store.

There's also a backyard plaza containing animatronic scenes, activated for a quarter, that are wince-inducing to adults but kids seem to like them. Our daughters also enjoyed clowning around on the stuffed horse posed like a bucking bronco, collecting their free Wall Drug bumper sticker and, of course, guzzling down a glass of that ice water, which is still free.

Wall Drug is in Wall, 51 miles east of Rapid City on I-90 at the western entrance to the Badlands loop.

Reptile Gardens

Based on the castle-like exterior, I expected something much less enjoyable than this zoo-cum-gardens-cum-amusement-center.

True, there are things you won't find at a nonprofit zoo, like a "Death Row" of the most deadly snakes in the world and massive signs advertising the violent exploits of the Gardens' 15-foot saltwater crocodile, Maniac. Also, you have to walk through the gift shop to get out.

But the Gardens' huge collection of reptiles, birds and amphibians is remarkable. The descriptions by each animal are interesting, thorough and scientific and take into account the animals' individual traits, like the sign explaining how an albino Burmese python got that way.

There's also a stunning collection of orchids and other tropical flowers in the Sky Dome, a walk-through jungle-style exhibit that also houses fossils and live turtles, snakes and birds. Our kids loved searching for lizards on the walls and trees and squealed when they saw their first snake lazily dangling from a bar on the wall.

Our highlight, however, was petting Methuselah, a 600-pound, 123-year-old Galapagos tortoise, as he napped on the path through the Gardens' tortoise area.

Reptile Gardens is five miles south of Rapid City on U.S. Highway 16. Web site: www.reptilegardens.com.

Americana eats

What's a vacation without stops at restaurants with a uniquely local flavor? We tried a few, including Al's Oasis (www.alsoasis.com), which is not in the Black Hills (it's several hours east just off I-90 in Oacoma), but is a must-stop for travelers seeking good pie, 5-cent coffee and all the buffalo burgers you could want.

Custer, named for the unfortunate general, is home to the Dakota Cowboy Cafe (www.dakotacowboyinn.com), a crowded, happy place with good food and a laid back, even wry, sensibility. There's good service, lots of kitschy decor to look at and a great kids' menu with good selections, crossword puzzle and, printed in the margins, such items of local interest as, "What nearby mountain is called the opposite of 'slow down less?' "

To start the day, we couldn't beat the open-air breakfast tent for guests of Palmer Gulch (www.palmergulch.com), a campground and hotel complex just down the road from Mount Rushmore. For a nice low price, we got freshly cooked flapjacks, breakfast meats, juice, milk, coffee and grouchy advice from the head cook on how we should have gotten up earlier.


E-mail: skratz@desnews.com