When Kevin Costner made the Academy Award winning Best Picture Dances with Wolves in 1989, he wanted the film to have an authentic look and feel so he set his sights on several areas in and around South Dakota’s Black Hills. The Cinerama epic How the West Was Won also filmed major sequences here, especially the spectacular buffalo stampede, back in 1961. The commercial buffalo ranches where Dances hunting scenes were filmed are private businesses that cannot accommodate tourists, though you can see plenty of buffalo roaming free in Custer State Park… just keep your distance.
Five miles south of Rapid City on Highway 16 is the Fort Hays set where Costner’s Lt. Dunbar gets his orders to travel to distant Fort Sedgwick. The three main buildings—including the major’s quarters, the blacksmith shop, and the supply building—were relocated a short distance away from the original site and now house a gift shop, museum, and chuckwagon breakfast and dinner.
The winter campsite of the Lakotas, where Costner and his co-star Mary Mac- Donnell leave the Sioux at the end of the film, is further north near the charming little town of Spearfish. It’s a three-mile hike through public land up Spearfish Canyon from the Spearfish Canyon Lodge parking lot and a sign, sometimes the victim of light-fingered souvenir hunters, often marks the spot. The freight wagon journey to Fort Sedgwick was filmed at several spots in the Sage Creek Wilderness Area in Badlands National Park east of Rapid City and south of the famous Wall Drug on Interstate 90.
Wild Horse Sanctuary, Hot Springs, S.D.
Several years ago I directed a History Channel show called Comanche Warrior at this great location. Disney’s Hidalgo (2004) also filmed a few of its Dakota based scenes here, as well as all of TNT’s TV movie Crazy Horse (1996). Now there weren’t ever any Comanches in South Dakota, but Texas and Oklahoma didn’t have any Comanche re-enactor types, so we transformed a group of modern Lakota horsemen into the “Lords of the Southern Plains.”
The Wild Horse Sanctuary is just a few miles south of Hot Springs and one hour south of Rapid City. It’s a spectacular area with wide canyons, high bluffs, shallow riverbeds, and 500 wild horses, both rescued domestics and feral mustangs.
Susan Watt, program director for the sanctuary, says that the site was another of the locations for Dances with Wolves. Most recently they hosted a German documentary team that was filming for 1491, a look at what the Americas were like before the arrival of Columbus. (www.wildmustangs.com)
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Tatanka and Jake’s / Deadwood
Just a mile north of Deadwood on Highway 85 is Kevin Costner’s museum and buffalo statue tribute, dubbed Tatanka. A small but top-quality museum tells the story of the Lakota and the buffalo and is staff ed with local Lakota experts. The site also features a spectacular group of larger-than-life-size bronzes of a mounted Lakota buffalo hunt. (www.storyofthebison.com)
Back in Deadwood on Main Street is Jake’s restaurant, atop the Midnight Star Casino, named after Costner’s character in Silverado. Jake’s is probably the fi nest restaurant between Billings and Sioux Falls. For sightseers there are great displays of Costner’s movie costumes and memorabilia from Dances with Wolves, Open Range, Silverado, and Wyatt Earp in Diamond Lil’s sports bar below Jake’s. (www.themidnightstar.com)