South Dakota's Frontier

United States: Dances with Wolves

Connecting to South Dakota's movie history.

South Dakota's Frontier

By Chad Coppess

Chad Coppess has been the Senior Photographer for the South Dakota Department of Tourism since 1993. His photographs have appeared in many publications, including National Geographic Traveler.

Here he shares his favourite ways to connect with South Dakota's (movie) history.

Places connected to 'Dances with Wolves':

As fans of Dances With Wolves will know, many of the locations used in the filming were very remote. Most of the sites are on private property and not accessible to view now. However, two attractions have collected props and buildings used in the movie and are available for tours – the 1880 Town near Belvidere and the Fort Hays Chuckwagon Dinner, both in western South Dakota.

The 1880 Town is a collection of real western buildings all moved onto a site and put together as a sort of movie-set style town. Inside the large round barn that serves as their visitor center is a large collection of Dances With Wolves props, including teepees, a recreation of Lt. Dunbar’s sod hut and many photographs. Timmons’ freight wagon is parked outside and one of the horses that played Cisco lived the last years of his life here.

Fort Hays Chuckwagon has preserved the buildings that served as Fort Hays, Kansas in the movie. They were originally constructed at a site several miles away, but moved here just south of Rapid City on the convenient route to Mount Rushmore National Memorial. You can stand in the exact spot on the headquarters floor that Lt. Dunbar (Kevin Costner) received his orders from the mentally-unstable Major Fambrough.

In Spearfish Canyon in the northern Black Hills you can visit the location of the winter camp that is featured in the final scenes of the movie. On a gravel road near the popular Roughlock Falls you will find a small turnout parking spot and a metal sign that marks the spot. No matter what time of year you visit, it doesn’t take much imagination to visualize the teepees in the snow and the wolf howling from atop the rocky point above the site.

Landscapes of the Wild West:

Much of the landscape in western South Dakota is unchanged from the year that Dances With Wolves was filmed and even from the 1800s time period that the movie portrays. A 175-mile drive across Highway 34 from Pierre to Sturgis gives you never-ending views of the wide open prairie grasslands that Lt. Dunbar and his Sioux friends lived in.

Visits to Custer State Park in the southern Black Hills will put you in the middle of buffalo herds like the one seen in the movie. In fact, the buffalo stampede scenes from the 1963 film How the West Was Won were filmed in Custer State Park and inspired Costner to create the buffalo hunting scene in the movie.

Badlands National Park was featured in a very brief scene in Dances with Wolves where Dunbar and Timmons are traveling to Fort Sedgewick. A visit to the park today is an experience in prairie wilderness, with pinnacles and buttes rising out of the grasslands. Buffalo, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope and more wildlife can be seen throughout the park.

Additional travel tips:

For a taste of a slightly more modern sod dwelling on the South Dakota prairie was like to live in, check out the Prairie Homestead at the east entrance to Badlands National Park.

The centerpiece of tourism in the Black Hills region is Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Another mountain carving with an inspiring story and huge museum complex dedicated to Native Americans is Crazy Horse Memorial, just a few miles from Mount Rushmore. And finally, the Black Hills National Forest offers a myriad of outdoor recreational opportunities including hiking, camping, water recreation and rock climbing.

For more travel inspiration on Wild West and Native American experiences, visit us on Travel South Dakota.

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