7,149 Miles: South Dakota

The next stop on my trip was South Dakota. I had not been there since our family trip in 2007, where we had just driven through Badlands National Park. I was excited to see this stunning area of the country, along with visit some more National Park Sites.

Trip Planning
In an effort to do more in-depth activities at parks that I visit, I planned to spend a whole day at Badlands, to do some hiking. Minuteman Missile NHS is located very close to the Badlands, so that was an easy stop. A little further west is the Black Hills. I have been to Jewel Cave and Mt. Rushmore, but have not been to Wind Cave and Crazy Horse, so I opted for the new places. Another non-technical highpoint at Black Elk Peak got that stop added to the itinerary. My schedule was then settled. I used reservation.gov to look for reservations in the area. 

June 17th
I crossed into South Dakota, stopped in Mitchell for my first gas stop of the trip, and continued onwards. I was lucky that my dad let me drive his car for the trip, which gets better gas mileage and has a larger gas tank than my 1993 Ford Taurus does.
I have a habit of keeping a weird eating schedule while traveling, so I pulled off near Chamberlain to eat something. The rest stop overlooked the Missouri River, which divides South Dakota into two halves. They also recently added a beautiful statue overlooking the river (technically a large lake, since the river is dammed). I then continued to the Badlands and finished the podcast series I was listening to, Binge Mode Harry Potter (with all of my drive time, I was able to catch up on a lot of podcasts). I arrived at camp around 7:30, set-up camp, ate dinner, and went to bed.

Where I Stayed: Cedar Pass Campground, the only campground in Badlands National Park. A mix of tent sites and camper sites, it’s in a convenient location. You do have to pay for showers, though.

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Statute at the Chamberlain Rest Stop

June 18th
My first morning after camping, and my first full day in the Badlands. I made one of my only hot breakfasts of the trip (I quickly discovered that I wasn’t that hungry in the morning, and I wanted to get on the road quickly. So two granola bars and a squeezable apple sauce packet would usually suffice). Then I got on the road and hit the trails to see some views and wildlife.

Short Summary

  • Went to the Visitor Center
  • Ranger-Guided Hike at Door Trail
  • Hiked Window Trail, Notch Trail, and the Castle-Medicine Root Trail Loop
  • Went to Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center
  • Went to Delta-09 Missile Launch Site
  • Back to Badlands to drive the Badlands Park Loop

Highlights

  1. Saw some bighorn sheep, which is the first time I have seen them in the wild. Saw them at a very close distance on the return trip on the Castle Trail loop. I also saw some prairie dogs and bison in the park. It was a good time to have my big lens, a 75-300mm.
  2. Some great views. I’m glad I decided to pick this destination for my trip. It was interesting to see green sprouting up from the barren landscape.
  3. At the Missile Launch Site, there was a very knowledgeable veteran who had worked with the launch system back in the day. The midwest US was the perfect place for these sites, as there are vast spaces of sparsely populated land.
  4. My first meals on the road were good. Quick and easy to clean. For supper, I use the one-pot method, where everything goes in the same pot. Granted, I typically had pasta or beans for supper and added some meat, typically tuna.
  5. I was not going to do the Castle-Medicine Root loop, but some guy who was coming off the trail said it did not take as much time as the trail sign said it would. This is where I saw some bighorn sheep.

Anything go wrong?
Nothing went wrong. I did get lost a little and ended up in Wall because I took a wrong turn, but I can live with that.

Where I Stayed: Cedar Pass Campground.

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Down in the Valley
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Walk in Fields of Gold
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A little too close for comfort
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Minuteman Missile Replica
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Prairie Dog

 


June 19th
A short travel day, compared to the 17th. I was off to Wind Cave National Park, at the edge of the Blacks Hills. Only a two-hour drive from my campsite. I capped the night off with a rainy light show at Crazy Horse Memorial

Short Summary

  • Fairgrounds Tour at Wind Cave National Park
  • Hike the Rankin Ridge Trail
  • Set-up camp at Comanche Park Campground
  • Went to Crazy Horse Memorial for a bus tour to the bottom of the memorial and the laser light show.

Highlights

  1. Boxwork, a very unique cave formation, is very prevalent in Wind Cave. Really cool to see. 
  2. Good views from Rankin Ridge, the highest point in the park. It also an interesting experience trying to get back to the highway, with road closures that were not well communicated.
  3. More bison.
  4. The scale of Crazy Horse is really something. The museum is also very good.
  5. Our tour guide in the cave was very nice and knowledgeable.

Anything go wrong?
I wish I would have figured out my camera settings to get better photos in the cave. I generally do not like using the flash, as it bleaches out some color, but it might have been worth it in this case.

Also, a large storm really dampened the allure of the laser light show at Crazy Horse.

Where I Stayed: Comanche Park Campground. Located outside of Custer, SD, it is a basic campground owned by the US Forest Service. Running water, but pit toilets. It was pretty empty when I was there. It sufficed for a night, but I would go back if I was in the area.

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Dirt bath
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Some boxwork in Wind Cave
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Crazy Horse from the Base

June 20th
A very early morning. I wanted to hit the trail to Black Elk Peak early, before the rush of people. It turns out that I timed it just right. Black Elk Peak, formerly Harney Peak (it was renamed in 2016), is the highest point in South Dakota, at 7,244 feet. It currently is the highest highpoint I have reached to date. Apparently, you can see the back of Mt. Rushmore from the peak, but I did not know which way to look to see if this was true.

Short Summary

  • An early morning to get to Custer State Park
  • Headed out on the South Trail at 6:30 AM – I was one of the first ones on the trail.
  • I reach the summit around 8:20 AM.
  • I returned to my car around 10:30 AM. Next stop: Montana!

Highlights

  1. I read some articles that said to get out on the trail early. They were not wrong. Generally not an early morning person, but when I’m traveling, I like to get a good start to the morning.
  2. A great trail, great views from the top. I was the only person at the summit for a while, and most likely the first person to reach the summit that day.
  3. There were pieces of fabric on the top of Black Elk Peak – they looked similar to what I saw in Southeast Asia. It turns out they were prayer flags; Black Elk Peak is a very sacred site to the Lakota people.
  4. It was slightly satisfying to see all the people coming up as I was coming down.
  5. I was able to enjoy some trail mix my track athletes had given me at the end of the season with a great view.

Anything go wrong?
Nothing wrong, just a general complaint: the entrance of the south trail of black Elk Peak is located in Custer State Park, but quickly exits into the Black Elk Wilderness. So the park gets all of this revenue that I feel should go to other places, namely the US Forest Service.

My dad’s car did give me a scare when the temperature gauge wouldn’t work and the computer gave me a warning of ‘Engine Hot’. Apparently this was very normal, though.

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From the Summit
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Trail Mix Courtesy of CFTF
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The Lookout Tower – there used to be a post office at the summit, and it also served as a fire lookout tower.

South Dakota was a good time, but I was really excited for my next state: Montana, Big Sky Country.

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