Road Trip Day 4: Omaha to Black Hills, SD

Check out Day 4 photos here.

This morning we got up, showered, had a quick breakfast in Becky’s kitchen, packed up, and got out around 9:30 am. We gave the keys back to Ruby and Missy and said goodbye. As we left, Ruby came out to try to take Missy for a walk before it started raining. Unfortunately for the two of them, large drops started coming down just as we backed out of the driveway, and we saw them turn around and go back into the house.

It was pouring down rain as we backtracked a bit, taking I-680 back around Omaha, across the bridge back into Iowa, and up I-29. However, as I-680 split off in the direction we had come from, we continued north up I-29 to the Iowa-South Dakota border. We crossed the Missouri River (as we had to and from Omaha, but this time much further north) at Sioux City, and into the very southeastern tip of South Dakota.

The Wall Drug Ads Begin...It was not long before the famous South Dakota roadside billboards began to appear. Those who have been to South Dakota will know what I’m talking about. Those who have not yet had the pleasure of going to South Dakota need to know: it’s the tackiest state in the union. There are 1000+ cheesy quasi-historical sites to visit, and they are advertised for over 600 miles across the entire state, on every interstate and other major route.

The two most prolific advertisers are Wall Drug (in a town named Wall) and the Mitchell Corn Palace (in Mitchell). There are numerous other tourist spots that also advertise with repetitive billboards, but Wall Drug and Mitchell Corn Palace have signs that are ubiquitous.

SD CountrysideOther than the now-cluttered roadside, the landscape didn’t change much. Similar to Iowa, South Dakota has a fair amount of corn and soy fields. However, South Dakota’s landscape becomes a little more diverse, incorporating hay fields and cattle grazing lands.

We made our way up I-29 to Sioux Falls, where we had a quick stop at Wendy’s to grab some lunch (and, thankfully, ketchup packets to use with our hot dogs tonight), and got on the road. We were on I-90 a couple miles later, finally heading west again.

This was the first time on this cross-country trip – our fourth – that we found ourselves on the same route that we had taken before (on our 2nd trip in 2004). That time, we drove I-90 from Minnesota to Rapid City. This time, we picked it up just inside South Dakota as I mentioned.

It’s hard to appreciate what it’s like to drive across an entire state such as South Dakota unless you’ve done it. However, hopefully this explanation of I-90’s exit numbers can put things into perspective.

The exit numbers correspond with the mileage of the interstate, so they start with Mile/Exit 1 on the western side of the state and go all the way up to approximately 406 on the east in South Dakota.

We entered the state pretty close to the eastern border, at Exit 396, at approximately 1 pm.

Mitchell Corn PalaceWe then drove to Mitchell (Exit 332) and stopped at 1:45 pm to see the Corn Palace. Somehow we ended up staying more than the 10 minutes we planned for, and got back on the road (now with a full tank of gas, postcard stamps, and photos of this year’s Corn Palace exterior) at 2:30 pm.

At about 4:45 pm Central time, around Exit 192, we crossed over into Mountain Time and it suddenly became 3:45 pm.

Dave in the Badlands #2Badlands National Park is at Exit 131. We got off the interstate here at about 4:30 pm (Mountain Time) and took the scenic drive across the Badlands. We had been to this national park before on our second cross-country road trip, but we really enjoyed it, so we thought it would be worth a quick revisit. It turned out not to be very quick, but it was still worth the detour. We saw several bighorn sheep, and lots of prairie dogs (my favorite, and the reason I was keen on stopping). The weather was absolutely beautiful – very sunny and not too warm – which was nicer than the surreal overcast weather we had when we visited in 2004. The scenery was just as beautiful as we remembered it.

The Badlands Loop road returns visitors to I-90 at Exit 110 (21 miles from where we left the interstate), at Wall, SD – home of the famous Wall Drug! Free water – 5 cent coffee – dinosaurs in the back yard – etc! We skipped the kitsch (been there, done that), got gas, and hit the road around 6:30 pm.

We finally exited I-90 at Rapid City, at Exit 57. To recap: we drove 339 miles on I-90 in South Dakota, which wasn’t even the entire thing. And every 1/8 to 1/4 mile was a billboard for some cheesy tourist spot. You have to experience it to appreciate it.

Our destination for the evening was a campground near the Crazy Horse Memorial, which is near Mount Rushmore. (We saw Rushmore on our trip in 2004; it was nice but isn’t something one needs to see more than once every 20-30 years.) Once past the craziness of Rapid City, the highway winds through the Black Hills and is quite scenic. The traffic becomes lighter as a number of cars branch off toward Keystone and Mount Rushmore. It probably took less than an hour to get to our campground.

Black Hills Surrounding Heritage Valley CampgroundWe passed the entrance to the Crazy Horse Memorial, and then a mere mile or two further was our campground. I highly recommend it – it’s called Heritage Village, outside of Custer, SD. The staff there were super nice, it has all the necessary facilities (clean bathrooms, showers, laundry, a sink in which to wash dishes) without being too large or over the top (no wi-fi or swimming pool). It had a range of accommodations: cabins, RV spots, tepees, and tent sites. We found a nice spot behind the unoccupied tepees where there was only one other tent a few spots down. When we got there, a couple of deer were grazing in the woods a few hundred yards away. Though not shady, our campsite was flat and grassy, and had a spectacular view of the Crazy Horse Memorial itself.

Crazy Horse Monument Light ShowSince our purpose in visiting this part of Black Hills was to see the Crazy Horse Memorial, it was super cool that we had such a great view of it. Even better was that they have a laser show on the mountain that starts at 9:45 pm. Since we didn’t get to the campground until after 8 pm, which means we didn’t start eating dinner until after 9:30 pm, we didn’t make it over to watch the laser show from the official viewing area. However, we had great sightlines from our warm campfire as we ate our hot dogs and beans. It was hard to see exactly what the shapes were, but the colors were pretty cool.

After dinner, we had some marshmallows and then washed up. It was chilly – the low was supposed to be 48 degrees – so we hopped into our warm sleeping bags around 11:30 pm after putting out the campfire and called it a night.

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