Just after high school, my mom took a similar cross-country road trip to our current journey, and the state I’ve heard the most about is South Dakota. I was always surprised that this state was her favorite part of trip, but now I can definitely appreciate the wonderful weirdness that is South Dakota.
For our first night in South Dakota, we were staying in the Black Hills, home of Mount Rushmore. Someday, the Black Hills wIll also be home to a monument of Crazy Horse carved into another mountainside, but for now, all that exists is a nose and forehead. We could see the beginnings of the sculpture from the road to our campsite, so we pulled over for a quick picture. The nice man in the booth told us it was 27 dollars to drive in to the monument, so we were content to observe the semi-sculpture from afar before continuing on our way. Our campsite was very close to Mount Rushmore, and we could see this sculpture from the road as well. However, we were saving this stop for the next morning so we could get dinner cooked and our tent set up before dark. We did stop to see some mountain goats on the side of the road though. We arrived at our campsite with just enough light to make our dinner, and before turning in for the night I caught my first lightning bug.
We woke up the next morning and had oatmeal for breakfast, even though it was a good deal warmer in South Dakota than it had been in Glacier or Yellowstone. This was great for sleeping, but later in the day we would miss the coolness of the mountains and woods. We started the day at Mount Rushmore, where we took a couple pictures, but got on the road quickly so we could get to the Badlands, about an hour and a half east of the Black Hills. The Badlands are strange rock formations jutting up from the vast South Dakota prairie, formed by harsh wind and water in the last 500,000 years. The stripes in the rocks are different geological ages, and the colors show different kinds of rocks. Red and orange are iron oxides, yellow and purple are shale, and white is volcanic ash.
It was quite hot in the Badlands, at least 15 degrees hotter than any other location on this leg of the trip. Before the heat wore us out, we did some exploring in the rocks. Unlike most other National Parks, the Badlands do not require that you stay on marked trails. Although there are rattlesnakes to watch for, the freedom to really explore such a strange landscape is pretty cool. We started on a mile long trail that climbed up a canyon wall and allowed us to look out over a bunch of other rock formations in the area. We drove a little farther, and scrambled up the side of some rocks. As we climbed, we could clearly see the different layers of rock. At the top, we were surprised to find a wide prairie reaching to the horizon, instead of a steep incline like the one we had just climbed.
We also stopped at a fossil walk that displayed examples of the different ancient species that have been discovered in the Badlands. Because South Dakota was once covered by a huge sea, and then a tropical climate, the area is rich with interesting fossils. There were signs everywhere telling us that there were stiff penalties for removing fossils from the park. This would lead to questions in Kadoka, but more on that in a minute…
After just a couple hours in the heat, we were very ready to get back in the car for a driving tour of the Badlands. We decided that we needed to see Wall Drug, a drugstore that became famous during the Depression for offering free ice water to travelers. The store has kept up its heavy advertising– we had seen Billboards for Wall way back in Wyoming. We wound through the Badlands, noting places to stop for pictures on the way back and, once out of the park, debating whether or not the Wall Drug ad for five cent coffee was still true. Once in Wall, it was clear that the former drugstore had evolved into a giant tourist attraction. They still offered free water and five cent coffee, but had taken over the entire street with shops like a camping store that didn’t sell propane (Bill is still bitter about that), and decorated their courtyard with a mechanical T-Rex head and a model of Mount Rushmore.
After experiencing Wall, we drove back into the Badlands, and pulled on to a side road that lead though an area with fewer rocks, but supposedly more buffalo. Sadly the buffalo seemed to be hiding, but we saw a huge field full of prairie dogs, a wild turkey, a family of fearless sheep, and even some antelope. We stopped several times to take pictures of the rock formations, and then headed back to our campsite with plenty of daylight left to make a very leisurely dinner. The sky was beautiful against the rocks, and we could see rays of sunlight during the sunset. When it finally did get dark, we could see a spectacular lightning storm off in the distance. It seemed like there was an incredible amount of lightning, but we weren’t sure if it only seemed like a bigger storm than usual because we were far enough away to see all of it.
Sunset over the campsite:
The next day was our long drive across South Dakota and up to the Twin Cities. In preparation for this very long drive, I had investigated online and found an entire website dedicated to the towns along I90 in South Dakota. Most of the towns featured pheasant hunting, and we missed lawnmower races in one town by a day, but I did discover a museum of petrified wood in Kadoka. It even opened at 7, so we rolled in first thing in the morning to take a peek at fluorescent rocks, an extensive collection of South Dakota fossils, and, of course, petrified wood. Probably the most interesting part of the museum was the inclusion of both geological and biblical timelines of the Earth’s history.
An abundance of petrified wood:
Our next stop was Mitchell for the world famous corn palace. I had heard about the corn palace from my mom, but wasn’t sure what to expect. It turns out that there is a permanent structure–which is big enough for a small basketball arena–which is decorated each year with different designs of corn and other grain. This year’s theme was American Pride, and in addition to the expected bald eagle, apple pie, and baseball, the murals celebrated voting and the freedom riders.
Our last stops on the ride to the Twin Cities were unexpected–we got caught in an impressive thunderstorm, and had to pull over a few times. But we made it safely through the storm, and made it to Minneapolis in time to meet our next hosts, the Dears, for the first inning of the Twins game.