Our original plan was to spend two weeks in western South Dakota, splitting our time between the area around Custer State Park (Rapid City) and the area around Badlands National Park (Wall). However, because of persistent cold and snowy weather, we repeatedly extended our stay in Colorado and shortened our visit to South Dakota. In the end, that left us only four days in each location which wasn’t nearly long enough, but we tried to make the most of the time we had.
As much as I’ve been whining about our awful weather, we knew we were taking a gamble by going up to South Dakota early in Spring. During its short summer tourist season, the region can be a madhouse, but visitors willing to gamble on early Spring (or late fall) are sometimes treated to beautiful weather and empty parks.
Or, if you’re us, it’s 36 degrees and raining for days on end and the dog has diarrhea because of course he does…
Anyway, while, for the most part, our gamble was a huge fail, we did have a couple days where things worked out perfectly. Not only were temperatures comfortable, but we found empty parks, empty roads, and empty famous stops on the great American road trip.
Nowhere was that more evident than Mount Rushmore.
There were only a handful of other people milling about while we were there, rather than the busloads of tourists who materialize during the Summer.
Nighttime was even better….
We arrived around 9:00 to find the gates to the parking garages completely open (usually you have to pay 24/7) and maybe 6 or 8 other visitors at the monument.
As an aside, I had read online that some folks found Mount Rushmore to be disappointing. They thought the sculptures would be bigger. In our professional opinion, those people are nuts. We thought it was fantastic.
Finally, if you’ve ever wondered why the faces of four presidents were carved into the side of a random mountain in South Dakota, wonder no more (spoiler: it was a really expensive marketing campaign)…
Custer State Park
Custer State Park has two pretty distinct landscapes. The northern section is home to massive granite spires, forests full of Ponderosa Pines, and twisting turning roads that offer drivers and motorcyclists some of the most beautiful roads in the country.
The southern section is home to prairie grasslands that stretch as far as the eye can see, and those grasslands provide lunch to the park’s sizable bison population.
Throughout the park, spaghetti-like roads meander through dense forests, cut across huge swaths of open prairie, and cling to the sides of the mountains.
Scenic routes in the northern section of the park include: views of the famous granite needles…
single vehicle tunnels carved right into the mountains…
and access to several picturesque lakes.
Sylvan Lake is famous for the large rock formations located both in and around the water.
The wildlife loop is an 18 mile long road that travels through the grasslands in the southern section of the park. There, herds of bison, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, deer, prairie dogs, and friendly burros make their home.
We ran into several bison before we even got on the road. These guys were hanging out outside the visitor’s center:
Once on the loop, we found several smaller herds…
as well as a couple pronghorn. However, they were too far away to get decent photos.
We had the opposite issue with the burros.
These famously friendly, adorably pushy, and just-a-tad obnoxious animals have learned that humans are where it’s at when it comes to free food and they are NOT shy about begging for handouts.
As we drove up, they made their move.
This one tried playing shy… batting her eyelashes at Kevin…
While this derp went with a more direct approach….
Also, they lick cars….
Thor was not a fan. We had to roll up the windows almost immediately because he was about to have a stroke.
Nope. Not a fan.
The Minuteman Missile Museum
After leaving Rapid City, we headed east about an hour and set up in Wall, South Dakota. This gave us easy access to several sites we wanted to visit, one of which was the Minuteman Missile Museum. When we were in Tucson, we visited the Titan Missile Museum. The Titan was the 1960’s era ICBM program designed to end the world. The Minuteman followed Titan and is still active today. While the Minuteman missiles were (and are) designed to be strategically launched rather than launched en mass, they were still part of the incredible build up of nuclear weapons that occurred as part of the mutually assured destruction (MAD) strategy.
At its height, there were over 1,000 Minuteman missiles buried in silos all over the Great Plains. As a result of the START Treaty of 1991, 400 of the silos were decommissioned and destroyed. The rest remain today – with modern ICBMs and active missileers maintaining them.
The museum is actually located in 3 different places along I-90. First, there’s the museum itself – a freestanding structure containing a theater, a series of exhibits, and a gift shop. The documentary that plays in the theater recounts the historical, political, and scientific background of the arms race and was absolutely fantastic. The museum exhibits explored the history of the conflict, the effects of the buildup on everyday Americans, and the procedures involved in operating, maintaining, and securing the missile sites.
It also included an eye opening (read: horrifying) look at some of the near misses that have occurred over the years.
The second site that makes up the Minuteman Missile Museum is one of the old missile silos. Located off the highway in an otherwise unremarkable field, the silo, which contains a de-weaponized missile, and supporting structures are available for viewing through protective glass.
Finally, if you reserve tickets beforehand, you can go on a Ranger led tour of a decommissioned control center. Our Ranger was a former missileer and we were fascinated by the various similarities and differences between the Titan and Minuteman programs.
This was a really interesting stop for us – not just because we had spent so much time at Titan, but because it was so well done. The museum did a good job of showing how the Cold War escalated organically and explored all facets of the political, historical, scientific, and environmental impact of these weapons and events.
Badlands National Park
Finally, we visited Badlands National Park. Fortunately, this is a park that can be visited in just a day – which is all we had after 3 days of unrelenting rain and misery. Of course, had we had more time we could have kept ourselves busy with hikes and further explorations, but with just a day, we were able to drive the main scenic loop and get a decent feel for the park.
Going in, we thought we knew what the landscape would look like. After all, we’d just recently visited the Painted Desert at Petrified Forest National Park, another famous landscape known for its colorful rock formations.
And parts of the Badlands certainly looked like the Painted Desert…
But in other ways, it looked completely different. Most notably because there was so much green!!
We were blown away by how much life we found in this brutal area.
Hell, sometimes, it was walking right next to us…
We thoroughly enjoyed visiting this region and are only sad we didn’t have more opportunity to explore. As we so often say, we’ll be back….
Next up: We head east – directly into the path of a freight train full of aggravation and some of the biggest headaches we’ve faced thus far. A veritable cavalcade of clusterfucks! A symphony of shitstorms! A dynasty of disasters!
Ugh… It was exhausting.
More on that next.
Where we stayed:
Happy Holiday RV Resort, Rapid City, South Dakota
Sleepy Hollow RV Park, Wall, South Dakota