In Iowa, we got to go on the set for Field of Dreams. A few states later, we had the opportunity to go on set for another great Kevin Costner movie: Dances with Wolves. We skipped this one, like we did many of the South Dakota tourist traps like the Ranch Store, Reptile World, Storybook Island, 1880s Town, the Pioneer Auto Museum and other spots that have billboards for literally hundreds of miles.
Somehow we still had fun. Here goes with the much delayed South Dakota blog post.
Crossing over into South Dakota from Minnesota, we steamed into Brookings. You may not know it, but we owe Brookings a huge debt as it is home to South Dakota State University where students in the dairy program once invented cookies and cream ice cream. The dairy department on campus sells their own ice cream by the scoop or by the carton and it is one of the top two ice creams I’ve ever had (it almost unseated my previous No. 1, Chaney’s Dairy Barn in Kentucky).
SDSU is also home to one of the few Chick-Fil-A’s in that part of the country. I had gone about a month since eating at Chick-Fil-A while we were up north, which honestly may have been the longest Chick-Fil-A drought of my life. We put a stop to that.
Apparently, our arch nemesis Luke Bryan was coming to play in Brookings some time soon. The weird thing was that people there seemed to think it was a good thing.
Oahe Dam and the Missouri River
Arnie, a telephone company board member I met in Brookings recommend we stop at the Corps of Engineers Oahe Campground on the Missouri River near Pierre (there’s another state capital for you). Oahe was our prettiest campsite yet, with knobby hills right on the banks of the Missouri, which we described to Braden as Lewis and Clark’s River.
It was our first time seeing the Missouri River and we got there just in time for a beautiful sunset.
Just past Oahe, we crossed into our third time zone of the trip. Welcome to Mountain Time!
Here’s a surprising statement for you: driving across South Dakota is interesting. The first thing you see is the golden sunflowers and giant wind turbines everywhere.
It’s a good place for wind turbines because the wind is constant. Not so much strong gusts, as just a constant drone. As I drove our 25-foot rectangle across the state, I couldn’t help but hear that Garth Brooks songs where he sings about “I will sail my vessel, ’til the river runs dry.” It felt like sailing, a little bit. Two hands on the wheel please.
There’s also an amazing lack of trees. We drove for hours with only seeing a handful of decent sized trees.
I mentioned in an earlier post how we’d had a hard time finding biscuits on our trip. When we finally did find a McDonalds serving biscuits, Braden was excited. “At last! I can finally have a biscuit!” he said.
Braden also asked us lots of questions about Indians on this part of the trip. He’d read about Indians in his Lewis and Clark book. He said he knew they lived out here in South Dakota because he had seen their village on the side of the road. We had passed a collection of teepees set up as a tourist trap somewhere back a few miles. We’re going to use this as a learning moment.
Badlands National Park
Our next stop was our first big National Park of the trip. The National Seashores, Lakeshores, Monuments and Historic Sites have all been great, but when people talk about road trips they talk about the National Parks. In a span of two and a half weeks, we would be hitting several: Badlands, Wind Cave, Yellowstone, Grand Tetons and Rocky Mountain. It all began for us with the Badlands, which was a memorable stop for many reasons.
For starters, it was the first stop where a group in a camper was more clueless than we were and I got to help them figure out how to hook up their electrical connection. It was a simple mistake (they left the 110v 20 amp adapter over their 30 amp plug and couldn’t get enough power), but it was different for us to be an “expert” on something to do with the RV. Selfishly, it helped us out because they were parked next to us and I heard them talking about running the noisy generator all night since they couldn’t get power.
We were also fortunate to be in the Badlands for the 100th birthday of the National Park Service. They had a big party with cake, ice cream, fresh lemonade and all kinds of ranger activities. The coolest activity was the rangers from nearby Minute Man Missile National Historic Site coming over to make air-power paper rockets.
Braden and I also attended several evening ranger programs where we learned that prairie dogs can carry the bubonic plague, Black Footed Ferrets were thought to be extinct but are making a nice comeback, and both of those species likes peanut butter. After one of the classes, a volunteer opened up the a telescope and let Braden and I see Saturn in the super dark sky.
I went out and messed around with some night sky photography and it looks like we were camping on Mars. (Can you find the big dipper?)
During the days, I worked while Braden and Jess earned a slew of Junior Ranger badges from the Badlands, Minute Man Missile and the National Grasslands Visitor Center.
The campsite was inside the national park and while the scenery was beautiful, the site was little more than a wide spot in the road with an electric plug. We also met another batch of Vermonters Lynn and Anne who were very nice. We’ve liked 4 of 4 Vermonters so far.
But while the activities were fun, the reason to come to the Badlands is the scenery — and there’s nothing like it. In the evenings we took some really unusual hikes through the formations. Up close, the buttes and peaks are sealed in with hard, bumpy mud. The bands of pinks, browns and even yellows in the landscape seem to light up in the sunset. Several places don’t have trails, but do have numbered signs you can see along a designated route to show you how to get around. One on drive to a hike, we even saw a half dozen big horn sheep climbing a butte 100 yards away.
It was cool to me that the first time we opened up Braden’s curtain so he could see while we drove into the park he noticed this place was different. “Whoa this is cool!” he said. “I want to stay here for a lot of days.” We’d never told him that formations like that were beautiful. He just knew it. That’s what makes our national parks special. Even a four-year-old knows in one glance that these places are special.
The Black Hills
From the Badlands, we eased out farther west, stopping first at the renowned tourist trap Wall Drug. It was an interesting place with a mediocre buffalo burger. They had statues and mannequins of everything from wild west to dinosaurs. The coolest thing they had was a frisbee that looked like a buffalo patty. I’m still not sure why we didn’t get one for each of you for Christmas.
We also drove past Sturgis, SD, home of the famous motorcycle rally. The rally was over, but there were still signs up for “Topless Tuesdays” and a concert lineup that included Willie Nelson, Kid Rock and Weird Al. I’d like to think they all shared the stage for a song or two.
We also stopped briefly at the Laura Ingalls Wilder homestead of “Little House on the Prairie” fame.
Custer State Park
Like the UP, Custer State Park is a well known destination for many RVers we’d talked to. Simply put, there’s not other state park like it. We came to see the large heard of bison the park allows to roam and were not disappointed. They were everywhere and pretty awesome. They also didn’t not care anything about where roads were. As we sat in one Buffalo Jam, as the rangers call traffic backups caused by bison in the road, it occurred to me that some of the bulls out there weighed as much as our little 2200 lb Fit. And they had horns!
Beyond the buffalo, we were pleased to see burros, prairie dogs and pronghorn antelope.
What we did not know about Custer State Park was the area around Needles Highway, where jagged spires jut out above everything else. Keep in mind, we’d been driving through prairies for days. Custer State Park suddenly had trees and then jagged mountains. The unexpectedness only added to the beauty. The area around Sylvan Lake is one of the prettiest spots we’ve ever been. It looked like the kind of place Vegas or Disney would try to replicate with fiberglass, except this was the real deal.
At Sylvan Lake a lady with a stroller we met one evening asked us if we were vacationing. It’s was a common enough question, but Jess and I looked at each other without knowing how to answer. I had worked an 8-hour day earlier. Jess said “Kind of,” but it was a thoughtful moment for us. “No, we’re just living” sounded too much like a hippy answer.
We used Custer State Park as a base of operations for us to run over to Wind Cave National Park and later Mount Rushmore.
We took a short tour of Wind Cave, which gets its name from the air that rushes into or out of it’s natural entrance depending on the days outside air pressure. Our area of Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama is known for it’s caves, but Wind Cave was a very unique one. It’s one of the only places in the world to see a formation called box work. According to the rangers, before there was a cave, the limestone in the area fractured allowing harder minerals to fill in the cracks. Then when water eroded away the limestone, the box work of hard minerals was left behind almost like a waffle in a waffle iron. It was a neat tour that was free because Wind Cave was also celebrating the National Parks’ 100th Birthday.
In other notes, another RVer came to us for advice on towing a vehicle. I answered his question (why was the tow vehicle battery dying?) and began to like being an expert on RVing. Then we had a flat tire on the Honda which brought me back down to Earth. We got the front two tires replaced and an oil change at the Rapid City, SD Walmart on our way to Mount Rushmore.
To top it all off, Kevin Costner narrates the film at the Custer State Park Visitor Center, which Jess thought made it the dreamiest welcome center film we’ve seen so far. She’s now checking to see if he narrates any audio books.
I’m on the record here on the blog as saying I think the St. Louis Arch is the coolest national monument and I went in expecting Mount Rushmore to be a let down. I was wrong and Mount Rushmore might just give the arch a run for it’s money.
First off, it’s way bigger than I expected, especially when you hike the little trail just below it. We went in the evening in time to see the faces in the daylight, but then also illuminated at night.
A few months back, Jess had gotten a CD for 90 cents at McKay called “Songs for Junior Rangers,” and on it Braden found the gem “Four Presidents on a Hill in South Dakota.” We only listened to this about 60 times before going to see the presidents and their hill for ourselves. The CD also continues with underrated hits like “Humps, hooves and horns (Bison, Bison)” and “We’re going spelunking.” We’ve heard those about 60 times each as well by this point.
Back to the four presidents, Stars and Stripes Forever played over the loud speakers as we finished up the hike and took our seats in the amphitheater. After a film and short talk from a ranger about the history of the monument and the parks service, he brought all of the veterans in the audience up on stage to take down the flag. I know at least two people there got major lumps in their throats when the flag was folded up.
On the way out, we met Ranger Bryan who works at the park seasonally while living and traveling in his RV full-time with his wife and six kids. We compared notes about places to visit and he swore Braden in for his latest Junior Ranger badge. I think of Ranger Bryan and his family often whenever I feel our little family push against the seams of the RV. They’re managing more than twice as many people. Kudos to Ranger Bryan.
In summary, I never thought I’d write 2200 words about South Dakota, but the state really surprised us. The wildlife and varied landscape left us excited to head to Wyoming, but eager to go back to South Dakota. In the summertime. Only in the summertime.
A ranger discussed how wolves, coyotes and dogs mark territory. It made me wonder if O’Malley now thinks his territory covers 21 states.
At Badlands, we had to institute a three kiss limit on Braden kissing the rangers. This kid. Sorry Ranger Dakota.
Living most of my life in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama, I’d assumed most states had helmet laws for motorcyclists. I’d assumed that wild and crazy states like South Carolina and Kentucky that didn’t require helmets were the exceptions (albeit exceptions with a strong list of organ donors). It appears, based upon all of the motorcycles we have seen, that there are more states that do not require helmets than those that do.