We made it to the Dakota Prairie – and it is incredible. Steve and I are more mountain lovers – we crave mountains, rivers, and lakes, but I can see how people easily fall in love with the prairie. We were surrounded by wildlife like bison, deer, and prairie dogs. I imagined South Dakota was going to be very flat, but to my surprise, there were rolling hills, and small mountains. Here, we set up our home base at Rapid City and spent two days exploring the South Dakota National Sites – and hit them all.
We dropped Sparky off at Safe Haven Pet Resort in Rapid City for the two days we were there. He spent two days playing with pups from all over the country, and we were happy that Safe Haven post pictures of his play on their Facebook. We found them to be professional and caring. If you find yourself going to Mount Rushmore with a dog, we highly recommend Safe Haven Pet Resort.
Where We Stayed
We stayed at the Rapid City KOA. This KOA for being in a city was nice. We have accepted the fact that KOAs will not ever feel like camping, and try to base our opinions of the KOA on how clean it is, how much space we get, and how friendly the staff is. On those standards, we were happy with our accommodations at the Rapid City KOA. When we set up camp, the wind was about 25-35 MPH, making it a real challenge. During our two-day stay, we hardly enjoyed time outside, taking our meals inside to recover from the wind. I know Chicago is the “Windy City”, but Rapid City might come in a close second for that title.
We decided to opt for their all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast for $3.00/person. It was everything you could imagine including delicious pancakes. We were given a show too – the cook made the pancakes into fun shapes for everyone’s enjoyment. He even made a heart for us to celebrate our honeymoon.
The KOA had advertised that on Fridays they host a special wine tasting, so of course, we had to go. It wasn’t anything we expected. Not a wine social hour to meet other people, instead they gave out two ounce cups (the kind you use for salad dressing), and had you try two South Dakota wines. South Dakota wine is much sweeter than what we are use to, very much like desert wine. When the nice woman who was pouring the wine asked us where we were from and we let her know we were from California her face changed and she said “Oh, this isn’t probably like the wine you are used to…”. Needless to say, after five minutes, we were out of there, slightly disappointed, and eager to open one of our own bottles in the trailer.
What We Did
After dropping off Sparky on Thursday, and setting up camp, we quickly moved on to begin out South Dakota touring. It started about an hour South of us, at Wind Cave National Park.
Wind Cave is considered a sacred ground for Native Americans, and wasn’t discovered by American settlers until 1881, when two brothers heard a loud whistling noise, which led the boys to a small hole in the ground – the cave’s only natural opening. We watched the Ranger point out the natural hole and saw first hand the wind coming from it. In early days of discovery, entrepreneurs would blast open passages and guide tourists for a fee, as well as sell the cave’s special features. The Wind Cave became a National Park in 1903, preserving it for future tourists to be in awe. The Wind Cave is suspected to be the result of the Rocky Mountains lifting up over 60 million years ago, causing the Black Hills to uplift as well. Over the course of millions of years, water moved slowly through the cracks, creating the maze of the cave’s channels. Wind Cave is home to the largest collection of Boxwork in the world. Boxwork looks like honeycombs, but are blades of mineral calcite. Today, Wind Cave has over 140 miles of tracked, explored passages, and still people are exploring more every day.
We did the “Scenic Tour” which was about 75 minutes, and led you down stairs into the cave, through parts of the cave, and back up to the surface on the elevator. The cave had beautiful frostwork (needle-like growths composed of aragonite), and popcorn (lumps of calcite). The Ranger was a summer intern, enthusiastic about her work and the cave itself; it was contagious to feel her excitement with every step.
After the tour, and the museum, we headed to Jewel Cave National Monument. It is another cave about 35 minutes away, still in the Black Hills. Jewel Cave is the third largest known cave in the world, with over 180 miles of passages, and still mapping more. Today, there are teams of explorers (mostly volunteer) who are underground for 16-18 hours a day. They even do multi-day trips, trekking 7 hours to an underground base camp. There are some scientists who believe the two caves, Jewel Cave & Wind Cave, connect, although no connection has been yet. It was named Jewel Cave, for the many calcite crystals that look like gems when illuminated.
Unfortunately we missed the last tour of the day. Instead, we enjoyed their extensive museum and visitor center. Steve and I enjoy a good conspiracy, and enjoyed reading their theories on how the two caves connect. When visiting Wind Cave, they had posted in their exhibit, that the caves are not related to each other at all. #WhenNationalParksDisagree
Mount Rushmore was our next stop. We arrived around 5:30, hoping to avoid some crowds, and sure enough, we did. When visiting Mount Rushmore, do know that your Annual National Park Pass is not valid there, and you will have to pay $11 to park (The parking is run by a concessionaire, which is a non-profit that benefits Mt. Rushmore). The parking ticket allows you to visit for a full year.
The idea of Mount Rushmore started in 1923, a local historian, Doane Robinson, suggested the Black Hill Needles be carved into figures of Native Americans and American Explorers. The idea morphed into a bigger project – the actual part of the Stone Mountain and the artist, Gutzon Borglum, wanted to do key Presidents. Think about America in the 1920s, boastful, and full of big dreams. I know I am going to ruffle some feathers here, but if I was alive and a voter in the 1920s, I don’t think I would have voted for the creation of Mount Rushmore. The idea that man can create something more beautiful than nature itself is a bit cocky and arrogant. Regardless of how you feel, Mount Rushmore is a marvel itself in how it was created. This project provided work for 400 locals from 1927-1941, who used dynamite as their main tool to create Mount Rushmore. The total cost was $989,992. The four presidents were chosen for their specific contributions to the country: George Washington – Birth of the Country; Thomas Jefferson – Expansion (through the Louisiana Purchase); Theodore Roosevelt – Development (Panama Canal, Trust Buster and Conservation); and Abraham Lincoln – Preservation, keeping the Union together during the Civil War.
Steve and I enjoyed the Presidential Trail, which gets you a little closer to the artwork. Mount Rushmore also has a large visitor center that includes a movie. Whether you agree with Mount Rushmore or not, the amount of work, science, courage, and patience that went into this project is remarkable. I would like to think, what if someone proposed something similar today – how would this country 1. Agree to fund it and 2. Agree on who the models should be. I think it would be impossible in today’s age, but in the roaring 20’s, it made sense.
On Friday we started the morning going to the South Dakota Air & Space Museum. It happened to be 10 minutes from our KOA and came highly recommended from the Mount Rushmore Park Ranger. The museum is adjacent to Ellsworth Air Force Base. Here we learned all about the “Candy Bombers” post WWII, which made Ellsworth Base famous. We also got to see the inside of a Minutemen Missile Mission Center. If you don’t know about the Minutemen Missiles, it’s well worth a read on Wiki.
Shortly after, we drove about an hour East to see the Minutemen Missile Historic Site. Since we had read all about them at the previous museum we were excited to see the actual missile. Developed in the 1950s, as part of the triad of air, land and sea-based nuclear weapons. If necessary, these missiles would be launched by crews stationed miles away, travel over the North Pole, and arrive at target less than 30 minutes. A key part of the US defense strategy during the Cold War was prevention, where US nuclear forces were maintained at a constant state of readiness. Today, there are no active Minuteman silos in South Dakota, but 450 Minuteman missiles are still ready to go in the upper Great Plains.
The Minutemen Missile Historic Site also recently opened their new Cold War Museum which was awesome, and well worth the stop. It is hard to imagine being a 20 year old young adult with that responsibility. To go from complete boredom to sheer panic in an instant – takes a special person. We both agreed, it is not a job we would want or could handle.
Badlands National Park North Entrance is a short 10-minute drive from the Minutemen Historic Site. Badlands was unlike anything we had ever seen – it felt like we were on a different planet. We made our first stop at the visitor center for lunch and a walk through their exhibits and then made our first hike. Badlands has 8 hikes. A lot of them are less than a half-mile on a boardwalk. They had a 10 mile one going through a prairie landscape. We opted to do one hike, The Notch. It is 1.5 miles (ours ended up being 2 miles), and gives you outstanding views of the White River Valley. You have to climb up a ladder and it runs along some cliffs. With the wind gusting at 20 MPH, it can be a little scary. I would not recommend this hike to anyone afraid of heights. In some parts, you were “scrambling”, which doesn’t appeal to everyone, but we enjoyed it. Badlands National Park has two units – the North and South. The South Unit is actually within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and requires permits to travel to. Besides the hike, we did the scenic drive around the Badlands Loop Road.
Badlands got its name from the Lakota tribe, calling it Mako Sica, meaning “bad lands”. Badlands National Park is home to a variety of wildlife, including Coyotes, Bobcats, Bison, Rattlesnakes, Prairie Dogs and Black-Foot Ferrets. Black-Footed Ferrets were thought to be extinct when the last specimen died in 1979, but a small colony was found in 1981. Disease ran through the colony and by 1985 only 18 survived. Fish & Wildlife Service biologists intervened and placed captured ones in breeding facilities. In 1994, 36 Black-Footed Ferrets were released back into Badlands. By 1999, more captured ones were released and today has a self-sustaining population. If you are driving through South Dakota, make your way to Badlands. The geology formation is fascinating.
We exited Badlands at the Pinnacles Entrance/Exit, and were dropped off just a few miles from Wall Drug! Now, for days we have been seeing signs “Wall Drug – Coffee only $0.05!” “Wall Drug – Get your Cowboy Gear!” and “Wall Drug – Free Ice Water”. I am not sure who their Marketing Manager is, but they do a great job advertising, going as far as 500 miles! We decided since we were so close, to check out what the fuss is about. I am not sure how to describe it. It is a mix of mall, park, arcade, and amusement park food. We spent 30 minutes gawking over trinkets, cowboy boots, and were almost convinced to buy Steve a cowboy hat. We also received complimentary donuts for being honeymooners. I can see how families could spend hours there, but we needed to be on our way to pick up Sparky.
The next morning we left at 9:30 to make our way to North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Theodore Roosevelt National Park consists of three units: the North Unit, the South Unit and the Elkhorn Ranch. The Missouri River runs through all three units. We only visited the South Unit close to the town of Medora. Just a short four hours away, we were there by 2:00 and were excited to start the driving tour. Theodore Roosevelt National Park was, you guessed it, named in honor of 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt. Theodore Roosevelt fell in love with North Dakota in 1883, when he engaged in a Bison hunting trip. He invested $14,000 in a cabin. Within a year, after a personal tragedy – losing his wife and his mother in a matter of hours, he left his newborn daughter in the care of his sister, and lost himself in isolation in his Maltese North Dakota cabin. It didn’t take long for us to realize why he loved this area so much. It was similar to Badlands National Park in South Dakota, but much more greener, and full of life. In fact, during our 36 scenic mile loop, we got extremely lucky and saw plenty of bison, wild horses, prairie dogs and even a pronghorn! We had noticed plenty of hiking trails – so if hiking is your thing – you are in for a full day here. We had Sparky with us, so that was not an option. Sparky’s favorite park of the scenic drive was driving past TWO prairie dog towns. He loved watching them and was trying to figure out a way to escape the car and get his chase on. Sparky did not enjoy watching horses and bison. We also took a small tour of Roosevelt’s cabin, also located next to the South Unit Visitor Center. We enjoyed our visit to Theodore Roosevelt National Park and hope to be back soon to visit the North Unit.
What Would We Do Next Time
For the first time on this trip, we actually feel we spent an appropriate amount of time in each location in South Dakota. I think on our next trip to South Dakota, we would do the nightly show at Mount Rushmore. They do a patriotic show to light up the monument; they bring veterans on the stage and honor them. Next time, if time permits, we would do a cave tour at Jewel Cave. In North Dakota, we would want to see the other two units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
We arrived late Saturday night in Fergus Falls, MN (after midnight). We left Theodore Roosevelt National Park around 5:00 with the intent to sleep at Walmart at Bismarck or Jamestown, ND. As we approached Bismarck around 8:00PM, we ate dinner and decided to push on. The normal adult shower, plus non-trailer bed were calling to us, and we wanted to just get there. We are enjoying family and some downtime here in Fergus Falls, visiting with Steve’s family. We will be here in Fergus Falls until Friday, visiting Steve’s Grandma, Aunt & Uncle, planning future legs of the trip, working on photos, and enjoying more downtime. We leave Friday morning to go camping with Steve’s cousins near the Twin Cities. Stay tuned!
Would like to give a shout out to our Bismarck readers – Nancy and the rest of the Brady family!!! Thanks for following us!
I want to end this post with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt:
“Life is a great adventure…accept it in such a spirit.”