South Dakota 2007

Below is the journal for our self-guided trip to the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota, taken September 1-8, 2007 (Labor Day Week). The journal is divided up by day, and most sections include links to related pictures taken with either with Ken's Canon Powershot A70 digital camera or with a Kodak disposable film camera.

(The Canon has traveled literally tens of thousands of miles with us. Unfortunately, mid-way through this trip, it died. So, we fell back on the disposable. It turns out there was a manufacturing flaw in the CCD supplied to Canon by a third party. Even though the camera was out of warranty, Canon fixed it for free based on this service advisory.)

It turns out that Labor Day Week is pretty much off-season for the Black Hills and Badlands. So, we had almost no crowds. We also got lucky and had a very cool week -- most nights, temperatures dropped into the 50s (or high 40s) and even on the warmest days it wasn't much above the high 70s/low 80s. All in all, it worked out really well.

If you'd rather slog through the entire set of pictures we took while on our trip (there are around 130 of them), you can check out the Gallery page.

Day 1 - Saturday, September 1

We had packed up the car the night before (except for the coolers) and we were able to get on the road around 9:30am on Saturday. We decided to drive straight through to Sturgis, where we had a hotel reservation.

We took Minnesota Highway 169 toward Worthington, MN, and then caught I-90, which we followed the rest of the way to Sturgis. The drive took us about 11 hours, helped by the fact that the speed limit in South Dakota is 75 MPH. Along the way, we stopped and had lunch at a rest area near Madelia, MN [ 1 ]. We also took a break to stretch our legs near the beginning of the Badlands [ 1 ]. Dinner came at Wall, SD (have you dug Wall Drug?) but we didn't take the time to do anything except eat.

The Thule cartop we put onto the Accord is useful, but it results in a lot of drag at 75-80 MPH — enough to cut mileage to just over 20 MPG and cause the car to downshift to first gear on some hills to maintain speed (which is a little disturbing, actually). It also picks up a lot of bugs [ 1 ]. However, we wouldn't want to do without it.

Day 2 - Sunday, September 2

Sunday, we stayed in the area north and west of Sturgis and did some touristy things. First, we headed to the Western Heritage Center in Spearfish, SD. This was worth our time, and we got some personalized service since we were the only people there.

After leaving the museum, we intended to go to the D.C. Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery, but there was a mountain bike race finishing up right near it, so we decided to skip it and drive the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Loop instead. We got lunch part-way in at a one-table "picnic area" [ 1 ]. Then, we stopped near the town of Savoy and hiked to Spearfish Falls (the guide at the Heritage Center suggested this) [ 1 ].

After that, we headed to Lead, SD (pronounced "Leed"), with the intention of looking at the Homestake Mine. Before getting there, we got lost on some really steep, really narrow side streets, which was kind of an interesting detour [ 1 ]. Unfortunately, the mine was closed due to some broken equipment, so we were only able to look at it from behind a fence [ 1 ].

After that, we headed into Deadwood, SD. We parked in a free lot at the edge of town (near the trailhead for the Mickelson Bike Trail). From there, we walked to the Adams House museum [ 1 ] and took a guided tour. This house reminded us a lot of Glensheen Mansion near Duluth, MN. The neighborhood felt a lot like what San Francisco might have been before it turned into a big city — very hilly.

Once we were done with our tour, we wandered into Deadwood proper and spent a few minutes at the Adams Museum before it closed. Then, we wandered a little further and got some dinner at the Mineral Palace Casino. The steak was good, and we had an excellent Bogle Pinot Noir with dinner. (Actually, Julie had most of it.)

After dinner, we took a walk out to the edge of town (read: gave Julie some time to walk off the wine) while waiting for the "main event" of the night: a fake "arrest" of Jack McCall on Deadwood's main drag [ 1 ], followed by a play called "The Trial of Jack McCall". (Jack McCall killed Wild Bill Hickok.) The play was corny, but worth the few bucks we paid.

After that, we just went back to our hotel in Sturgis and went to bed early.

Day 3 - Monday, September 3

Monday, we checked out of our hotel. Before leaving the Sturgis area, we spent an hour and a half at the Sturgis Motorcyle Museum. It wasn't that big, but had a pretty good selection of motorcycles, from very early ones that looked like bikes on through modern Harleys and Hondas [ 1 ].

Then, we drove east of Sturgis to visit Old Fort Meade and the Fort Meade Museum. This was a fairly small museum focused on the military history of the fort (which is where General Custer was stationed). We spent about an hour at the museum before heading out of town.

We drove back through Sturgis to I-90 and started south toward Rapid City, SD. Along the way, we stopped at a rest area to have lunch [ 1 ]. Then, when we got to Rapid City, we got some groceries before getting on the road to Custer State Park.

Once we got to Custer, we followed a typically winding, narrow road to Blue Bell Campground [ 1 ]. Here, we cooked dinner: lemon chicken, which was unfortunately still frozen because we had put it into the fridge at the hotel in Sturgis.

After dinner, we went for a walk around the area. We saw quite a bit of wildlife, including rabbits, deer and a flock of turkeys in a tree. We also watched a resident of our campsite, a small red squirrel who nearly every time we saw him was collecting mushrooms. (Seriously.) Near Blue Bell, there is a lodge as well as a whole set of small cabins that people can rent. It's kind of a neat area.

After our walk, we made a fire and sat around it until it was really dark. Then, we went for a quick walk out to the edge of the campground to look at the stars. We had an incredible view of the dome of the sky, and the Milky Way was clearly visible. It was quite a way to end our first night in Custer.

Day 4 - Tuesday, September 4

Tuesday turned out to be a pretty long day. We were out of the campsite not much after 8:30am, and didn't get back until almost 10:30pm.

First, we drove to the Mt. Coolidge lookout tower [ 1 ]. Mt. Coolidge is one of the highest peaks in the area, and from the top you can see the Needles as well as Mt. Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. The road to Mt. Coolidge [ 1 ] is a one-lane winding gravel road with a steep drop-off on the side. We drove slowly. :)

After this, we got on the Needles Highway, one of those roads you just have to drive if you're in Custer. While driving on the highway, we pulled off to hike a little and climb on some rocks [ 1, 2 ]. And, of course, we stopped at the famous one-lane tunnel and took some pictures [ 1 ]. (Fortunately, it wasn't very busy and we didn't have to wait at all.)

When we got to the end of the Needles Highway, we headed for Hill City, SD. We at a picnic lunch there while waiting to get on the 1880s Train that runs between Hill City, SD and Keystone, SD. We got on the train at 1:00pm and rode it both directions, about an hour each way for the 10-mile journey [ 1, 2 ]. It was fun for the first half of the ride, but tiresome after that (hot and smelly).

At the end of the train ride, we were both vaguely "carsick" and we weren't sure what to do. So, we decided to go for a swim. We drove back into Custer to Sylvan Lake and swam in the cold mountain water for 15-20 minutes [ 1 ]. It made a huge difference and we left in a really good mood.

After our swim, we drove to Keystone and got dinner at a place called the Holy Smoke Resort. Then, we headed to Mt. Rushmore. We got there about an hour before dusk [ 1 ] and had time to walk around the trail and the visitor center before staying around for the lighting ceremony [ 1 ]. Boy, has this place changed in the 20 years since each of us has been there.

For our drive back to our campsite, Julie picked the "shortest" route, which just happened to be U.S. 16A, a.k.a. the Iron Mountain Road. It's very long, very twisty and has lots of one-lane bridges and drop-offs. And, of course, it was pitch black by the time we were driving it. We rarely exceeded 25 MPH and drove with our high-beams on the entire trip. Along the way, we felt pretty isolated. In fact, during the whole hour-long trip, we only met two cars and one bison. When we met the bison, all we saw were two glowing eyes and the suggestion of a large bulk behind them. Seriously scary. Ken was quite happy when the drive was over with.

Day 5 - Wednesday, September 5

Wednesday was our "take it easy" day. We started the day a little later than usual. After breakfast, we took Custer's "wildlife loop", a drive where you can usually see lots of wildlife. We weren't disappointed. We saw bison, donkeys and deer [ 1, 2 ]. Again, we were rewarded for being off-season, because it wasn't crowded at all.

After driving the loop, we stopped at Custer's vistor center, and then drove to Sylvan Lake, where we made a late picnic lunch.

When we were done with lunch, we hiked around Sylvan Lake, and then decided to take the 2.5-mile Sunday Gulch Trail [ 1, 2 ]. This trail came highly recommended by Ken's friend Louis. We found later that it descends about 800 vertical feet over the distance of a mile. It feels steeper than that. The first half is all climbing over rocks. Eventually, you get to the bottom and the trail turns around and immediately heads back up. It was long and tiring, but a lot of fun and well worth our time.

After finishing the trail, we really needed dinner. So, we headed back the campsite to cook some brats. After dinner, we broke down part of the campsite (the screen tent and outside stuff) since the forecast was for rain. Then, we lit a campfire and sat around it for a few hours just chatting. It was the perfect night for this, since it was quite cool.

Before going to bed, we went to look at the stars one more time.

Day 6 - Thursday, September 6

It started raining about an hour after we went to bed on Wedneday night, so the tent was pretty wet on Thurday morning. Ugh. We took it down, but didn't roll it. Instead, we just stuffed it loosely into the back seat of the car.

After breaking camp, we headed to Wind Cave National Park, which is south of Custer State Park. Along the way, we stopped and looked at some prairie dog towns, which were kind of interesting.

At Wind Cave, we were able to get into a 12:30pm tour [ 1 ], so we got a snack and decided to have lunch afterwards. Wind Cave is unlike most other caves, because it was formed by standing water. So, you see "boxwork" [ 1 ] rather than stalagmites and stalactites.

The tour was a lot of fun, and we got a surprise: a fuse was blown half-way through, and we had to finish the tour with flashlights. This was perfect, since that's the kind of tour we had wanted to take, but weren't able to. Our guide was very knowledgeable and had a lot to tell us about cave exploring (we chatted with her a bit after leaving the cave).

Since we had to use flashlights part of the way, the whole tour group was a half-hour behind schedule getting out of the cave. As a result, we were really hungry. We got in the car and headed for Hot Springs, SD, where we got lunch at a little Mexican restaurant. Then, we headed back north toward I-90.

While we were driving, a huge storm blew up to our west over the Black Hills [ 1 ]. The storm hit us about as we got into Rapid City, and we drove for the next two hours toward the Badlands in either storms or heavy driving rain (there was standing water on the highway in places).

When we got to the Badlands, the rain had fortunately stopped, but there was still a 10-15 MPH wind. We waited a little, but eventually decided that we had to put the tent up anyway. This was nervewracking, but we managed to do it without breaking anything. It was remarkable how stable the tent became when we popped in the sixth pole. (Apparently Cabela's really did design the tent to be stable in the wind.)

Wouldn't you know it, but the wind stopped about 10 minutes after we got the tent up. At least we were able to make supper (sloppy joes) in relative peace, even though it was pretty dark by the time we were done. Eventually, we turned off the lantern and ate in the dark, because the moths around the lantern were getting in the food.

After dinner, we took a walk around the campground. This was not actually that enjoyable, because the whole area was pretty dark and no one was out doing anything. Campfires aren't allowed, and most people just seemed to retire into their RVs as soon as it got dark.

We went to bed fairly early, too. We couldn't get over how quiet and still the campground was.

Day 7 - Friday, September 7

Friday morning, after breakfast, we headed immediately for the Minuteman National Historic Park. We couldn't get a tour, but we did spent 15-20 minutes talking with a park ranger who had been in the Air Force and had worked in the missile program. It was pretty interesting, and worth the time to stop and look [ 1, 2 ].

After leaving the missile site, we headed to Wall, SD. There, we went through the National Grasslands visitor center. Then, we couldn't pass up Wall Drug. Someone told us that this place has the mark of a true tourist trap: both underwhelming and overwhelming at the same time. Well put.

We left Wall and headed back into the Badlands via the western entrance to the scenic highway. We stopped for lunch at a picnic area [ 1 ] near the "big pig dig", a paleoarcheological dig that has been going on during the summer for most of a decade. We looked at the dig, but it was covered up and there wasn't much to see.

We continued around the scenic route and stopped at various pull-offs. At one of the pull-offs, we took a short "fossil hike", which was an interesting 15-minute diversion.

When we made it to the end of the scenic highway (near our campground), we stopped off to get water, and drove a little further to the trailhead for the Medicine Root Trail. This is a 4+ mike back-country trail. (In fact, we should have signed in to the back-country log at the trailhead, but we didn't realize that.)

We really liked this hike [ 1, 2 ]. In the early part of the trail, we saw a bighorn sheep [ 1 ] and some other large ungalate — possibly an elk or an antelope. Half-way through, we met one person (the only person we saw the entire time). He warned us about a rattlesnake near a bridge up ahead.

Now, a "bridge" in this sense is really a plank boardwalk about six inches above the ground, with 3 foot tall grass on either side. When we got to the bridge, Ken gingerly took a few steps out, immediately heard the rattle, and stepped back off the bridge. We hemmed and hawed, and eventually Julie tried going across the bridge herself. Apparently, she stepped more gingerly because the snake didn't rattle for her. Then, Ken stepped out on the bridge again. When the rattle started for the second time, he kept going as fast as he could and didn't stop until he was quite a ways away. Needless to say, we took the warnings about looking out for snakes a little more seriously after that. :)

Once we finished hiking the trail, we headed back to make an early dinner [ 1 ]. (We wanted to be done before dark.) We were done before dark, but dinner was an adventure anyway, because Julie forgot the key ingredient to our meal. Thai Curry Tuna isn't quite the same without curry! However, it turned out OK.

After dinner, we took another short walk and then turned in early, just sitting in the tent and reading until the battery on our fluorescent lantern died.

Before we went to bed though, we listed to the weather radio. Unfortunately, the forecast didn't bode well. The wind was forecast to increase overnight, with gusts up to 40 MPH by late morning. We went to bed a little nervous.

Day 8 - Saturday, September 8

On Saturday morning, we were up really early due to nervous energy related to the steady wind that had been blowing all night. When we got up, the wind gusts were still separated by a minute here and there of near-calm. We decided we had better break camp as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, before we could get the tent down, the wind changed. By the time everything but the tent was loaded, the "near-calm" breaks in the wind had become as strong as the strong wind had been previously. We estimate the wind was steadily blowing at over 10 MPH, gusting frequently to over 20 MPH.

So, we began another hair-raising effort to get the tent down. We managed to do it without breaking anything, but it was scary. It was so windy that we didn't even try to fold or roll the tent. We just threw it in the back of the car again, loosely bundled.

When the tent was down and the campsite was clean, we ate breakfast in the car (since it was too windy to sit at the table) before heading to the vistor center for a half an hour. Then, we got on the road and started the long drive back home. We thought about staying around longer, but a storm was blowing up and it didn't seem worth it.

As we headed down I-90, we managed to outrun the storm. We stopped for lunch at a rest area west of Mitchell, SD and then we pulled off into Mitchell to see the famous Corn Palace [ 1 ]. Then, we got an ice-cream cone and wandered around the old downtown area in Mitchell. We also spent some time in an antique store before getting back in the car.

On the way home, we decided to skip Highway 169 and stay on interstates the whole way. We figured it would be a little longer, but would require less concentration (since Highway 169 has cross-traffic). So, we stayed on I-90 all of the way to Albert Lea, MN, where I-90 intersects I-35. We got dinner at a Arby's (our only chain food of the entire trip!) before heading up I-35. We got back around 8:30pm, and at that point, the rain from South Dakota had finally caught us. Fortunately, we didn't have to set up our tent. :)