National Parks & Other Prairie Sights: SD to MT

Campsite at KOA in South DakotaAt about 3 am I woke up because the tent was making very loud noises. In my dream state, and not knowing what time it was, for some reason I thought it was the campers next to us walking through our campsite and tripping over the tieline holding the fly down. After it went on for what turned out to be hours, I ultimately realized it was just the wind battering our tent. Not long after that, the rain began, and continued through morning. From inside the tent it sounded like a torrential downpour, and as we slept, Dave and I both wondered what was going to become of our day in South Dakota.

I finally got up a little after 8 am to scout out the situation. When I stepped out of the tent, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it actually wasn’t raining as hard as it sounded from inside the tent – it was really just slightly harder than a sprinkle. After stopping in the bathroom and putting in my contacts, I went into the store/office to ask the woman who runs the campground what she knew about the forecast. All she did was look it up online to find that the forecast was cloudy and scattered showers with a 40% chance of rain. That wasn’t helpful for the moment, but it did give me hope that just because it was raining in Belvidere didn’t mean it would definitely be raining in other places… say, the Badlands.

So I went back to the tent to report the situation to Dave. He didn’t quite believe me about the rain until he stepped out and was even more surprised. We got everything all packed up, and decided that since the tent was quite wet, it would be better to roll it into plastic garbage bags instead of trying to squeeze it back into the duffle bag it belongs in. That plan worked out quite well and we headed out of the campground.

The campground didn’t have hot water for tea, so we stopped at the one gas station in town to see if they had any. They didn’t, but as the gas station guy, a middle-aged woman, and a young guy told me to try the diner behind the gas station, they asked where I was going. I said, “In general, or today?” It’s as much fun as the question, “Where are you from?” I told them that we’re driving from Boston to San Diego, and the young guy said, in all seriousness, “San Diego’s not great.” I totally didn’t know how to react to that, so I just stared at him for a minute and said, “Right.” For those who have not visited Belvidere, South Dakota, I can safely say that 99.9% of anyone you could ask would say that San Diego is spectacular compared to the middle of South Dakota. I’ve been irritated about that all day.

I mentioned that we were going to the Badlands today, and the woman said that the best time to visit the Badlands is just after a rainfall, because it washes the dust away. I said, “Hopefully it will work out, then!”

The diner behind the gas station was actually a train. We walked into the building that acts as the entrance into the train, I got very cheap tea (62 cents! Take that, Starbucks!) from the teenaged girl behind the counter, and then we had to walk through 4 train cars to the exit. Very odd.

Here’s a side note: it’s at this point in our trip that our itinerary becomes rather elastic. Our aim for last night was “somewhere in the middle of South Dakota” – knowing we couldn’t make it all the way to the Badlands from Minneapolis, but wanting to get close enough to the Badlands that it would be short trip in the morning. So that’s how we ended up in Belvidere. There are a few other places after this where we actually have no idea where we’ll be sleeping that night. All part of the fun!

Finally we got on the road. As we drove, we tried to figure out what to do – we really didn’t want to camp another night in this kind of weather, and we weren’t looking forward to setting up and sleeping in our moist tent. We needed to call our friends Kristen & Dave in Montana anyway, to check in with them about spending the night there on Saturday. We pondered whether it was worth trying to make it there tonight as well. Dave called the house and who answered but our friend Heather! She is also driving cross-country, moving from Boston to go to grad school at Stanford. When we found out that she’ll be spending the night there and leaving in the morning, it gave us another reason to try to make it to Crow Agency tonight instead of waiting until tomorrow. Kristen seemed fine with it, and gave us directions to their home in Hardin. We told her we’d play it by ear and give her a call later.

Badlands National ParkIt was only about half an hour to the Badlands National Park. We drove in, bought our National Parks Pass at the gate, and headed toward the fascinating terrain.

For detailed information on what Badlands actually are, you might check out the Badlands National Park website. In a nutshell, this area got its name because the French who originally explored this territory referred to it as “bad land to cross”. Now, “badlands” with a lower-case “B” refers to this type of terrain – striped, constantly eroding, frequently spiky at the top, etc. It can also be found in other parts of the country/world. We visited some in Utah on our last road trip, but of course each instance of them is slightly different.

In this case, the South Dakota Badlands divides the upper prairie from the lower prairie. I hate to imagine what it was like for the settlers in their covered wagons to try getting over this kind of terrain.

Badlands National Park has a road that starts just off I-90, loops through the park, then returns further down the interstate. We drove the loop road, stopping every so often to take photos of scenic overlooks or to walk on some of the boardwalks and staircases built by the NPS to different interesting features of the Badlands. We had already decided not to do any hiking because we didn’t want to take too much time and because we just would have gotten all muddy.

The badlands were neat, and there are so many interesting colors that wash over the land, but it sorta starts to look the same after a while. I was getting to a point when I was ready to be done with the park, but there was a side road that branches off the loop road when it heads back to the interstate, taking visitors to a less-traveled part of the park. Dave really wanted to visit a particular spot off this side road (which turned out to be a gravel road), so we toodled off in that direction.

Bison in Badlands National ParkIt turned out to be the best part of the park. Whereas the rest of the park had been relatively crowded (for South Dakota) and filled with non-athletic (I’m being polite… some of these people made *me* look like a marathoner-in-training) tourists, this other part of the park was very lightly traveled. We came to a spot called Prairie Dog Town and found five bison grazing not too far off. We got out the binoculars to try to get a better look at them. Bison are so funny; it’s amazing that such large animals get around on such spindly legs.

Prairie dogs in Badlands National ParkWe were stopped by the side of the road to try to get a better photo of the bison when we noticed three tiny prarie dogs playing on a mound near the side of the road. Once we continued along the road, we saw that there were scores of prairie dogs hanging around. They were so much fun to watch and they make cute high-pitched noises. It was hard to take photos of them because they would run when the car stopped, and especially when Dave got out of the car to take the pictures. I’m really glad – other national parks make me sad, where the wildlife isn’t wild anymore.

Finally we headed out of the park and our next destination, about 15-20 minutes from where we exited the park, was the town of Wall. For one thing, it was the nearest town. For another, it is the home of Wall Drug, advertised for perhaps 400+ miles on I-90. I’ll get back to that in a moment.

For lunch, Dave and I fulfilled our quest to eat at Dairy Queen. Before we left Boston, we determined that we would make it a point to eat at both Dairy Queen and Sonic. It is somewhat surprising that we hadn’t yet eaten at DQ, because there was one at literally every stop in Minnesota, and we actually ate PB&J behind a Dairy Queen when we stopped to see the Jolly Green Giant. It simply hadn’t fit into our plans until this point, but we were very excited to finally take advantage of the nearest DQ. So we had burgers and fries, and of course a sundae. It was just as yummy as anticipated.

We started heading for Wall Drug, and were surprised and entertained to find ourselves just behind the convoy of Corvettes we had followed yesterday in Minnesota. We pulled into the Wall Drug parking lot behind them, so we got a chance to take a few pictures of all of them parked, and also to ask what the story was. It turns out they’re a Corvette club from Wisconsin, heading for an auto show in Deadwood, SD. Kinda made me want to take a detour, but the show isn’t until Sunday anyway. The fun part was that after this, we saw quite a few other classic cars, including a delicious Buick parked on the main street of Wall that the Corvette guys estimated was a 1939.

Wall DrugThen we had the Wall Drug experience. After driving through South Dakota, I’ve come up with a theory that the amount of advertising needed for a locale is inversely proportional to its actual historical significance. We saw no touristy signs directing travelers to visit the Badlands or Rushmore – just the signs at those exits indicating where to go. We saw probably no fewer than 100 signs for Wall Drug, which is another definitive example of a tourist trap. Apparently it started out many decades ago as just a drugstore, advertising free ice water in order to drum up business. Now it takes up an entire block of the town of Wall, and features every kind of kitschy item you’d want to buy, western wear, food, etc etc etc. It was really, really awful. We spent more time there than we even should have, only because I’d been paying attention to the signs that said “Five cent coffee!” and I really just wanted to be able to buy coffee for five cents in the 21st century. But amidst all the saddle bags and stuffed animals and collectible spoons, I couldn’t figure out where one would buy said five cent coffee, so we gave up and got the heck out of there.

It was maybe another hour from there to Rapid City, where we got off the interstate and headed up the mountains to see the guys at Mount Rushmore. About halfway up the mountain highway, we passed the sign informing us that we’d entered Black Hills National Forest. I really thought Black Hills was lovely, and I wish we could have spent time time hiking or camping there. The hills (probably mountains by New England standards) are solid granite and are covered with lots of evergreens. Once you get away from the towns, it seems like the mountains have a sort of untouched quality to them that you just don’t see back east.

Just before reaching Mount Rushmore National Monument, we had to go through the town of Keystone. It was SO awful. I thought Wall Drug was awful but at least it was only one block. The town of Keystone is like a town in a Western that wants to be Las Vegas, Disney, and an historical site all at once. Dave and I were so creeped out by the town that we hardly looked around as we went through it both up and down the mountain.

Finally we got up to where you can see the Presidents from the road, and it was just a few minutes later that we got to the actual park. We were appalled to find that our newly purchased National Parks Pass did us no good – visitors have to pay for parking, which is run by a concessionaire instead of the Parks Service.

Jenn & Dave at Mt. RushmoreWhen we first arrived at Mount Rushmore, we were a little worried that it was going to be a cheesy, meaningless stop. But it turned out to be kinda cool. It’s pretty impressive that a guy thought to turn a huge chunk of granite at the top of a mountain into a sculpture that pays homage to great American leaders. It’s also impressive that it’s quite well done.

There’s a Visitor’s Center when you first walk in, then a gift shop and restaurant, then a walkway lined with all the state flags, then a terrace which offers a great head-on view of the Presidents. Then there’s a 0.6 mile loop walkway that takes you to the foot of Mount Rushmore, where you can look up their noses. (Irreverent, yes, but true.) That part was cool, because there were signs explaining a bit about each president. Continuing around the loop, you arrive at the sculptor’s studio. When we got there, a Park Ranger was explaining some things about the process of carving the sculptures. There was also a 1:12 scale model of what the artist’s conception had originally been, and also about 20 process photos showing the transformation of the rock into four heads.

We were glad we went, and it was actually educational and not just flag-wavingly cheesy.

We were also glad to leave and finally get going. By this time it was nearly 5 pm and we had estimated that our drive to Dave & Kristen’s house in Montana would take 5 hours. That put us there a little later than we were aiming for, but it seemed worth it, even though the weather had actually become rather lovely.

So we drove into the setting sun, which was very painful for about an hour and a half. Dave was actually glad when the sun went down, but then we had a different problem with driving in the pitch black – keeping an eye out for deer crossing the road so as not to collide with one. I guess we can’t win either way. Dave was rather nerve-wracked about the deer (it’s actually better when they’re standing in the middle of the road – he was more worried about the ones standing on the side of the road, not knowing whether they’re about to dart in front of our vehicle), so we ended up switching about an hour from Hardin. But we made it there safely by around 10:30 and were very happy to see Dave, Kristen, and Heather, and enjoy a cup of tea with them before heading off to a warm, clean, dry, comfy bed.

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