Ahhhh, South Dakota! You gave us a little of everything … the Bad, the Bold, and the Beautiful! Specifically, the Bad(lands) and Bad travel, the Bold adventures, and the Beautiful views and scenery!
Leaving Utah and heading for South Dakota served up some of
our most punishing travel yet. A freak Summer
Blizzard moved through the west, blanketing the area with punishing winds,
frigid temps and snow-snow-snow.
Important questions: Is the Lucky Charm winterized?
(no) Does the Lucky Charm have 4WD? (no) Do we have chains for the Lucky Charm
tires? (no) Do we have experience driving the Lucky Charm in snow or ice? (heck
no) Should we have been out there on the road? (definitely no)
Though we can laugh about it now, getting over Vail Pass
(10,662 feet elevation, a challenging climb even in the best of circumstances)
was truly terrifying. The freeway got closed as we approached, and we
huddled under an overpass after being forced to exit the freeway by Highway
Patrol. We eventually followed a snowplow at 10 MPH for a couple hours along
frontage roads to make it over the Pass. Tow trucks were running back and
forth, cars and trucks were abandoned in ditches, the roads were icy, and I was
crying (just a little) in the passenger seat!
But, all’s well that ends well, and Philip actually did an awesome job of
driving, earning many gold stars. Before that fun experience, we had our first stay at a
“Harvest Hosts” location, a club that lets you stay overnight for
free at a variety of privately-owned locations (mostly wineries, but also
farms, museums, and other interesting places). We stayed at the charming
Stoneyard Distillery outside Glenwood Springs.
While working our way through the tasting menu of Stoneyard
Distillery’s spirits, we spent pleasant time comparing “notes from the road”
with fellow RV’ers and new friends Dennis and Janet, who were making their way north from
Florida, and the charming proprietor, Max.
Stoneyard distills their delicious spirits from local
beet-sugar and adds flavors to make five different varieties. Our
favorite, the Lucky O Horchata Specialty Spirit, had hints of cinnamon, vanilla
and coconut, and we bought a couple of bottles to go – it’s delicious mixed
Max also invited us to try their “not for daily consumption”
(also not for sale to the public!) grain alcohol creations, stewing away in
large mason jars, including one that tasted just like a Bloody
Mary. Our slumber party at Stoneyard Distillery was a really fun adventure!
After a snowbound stop in Wheatland, Wyoming, we made our
way to the Black Hills of South Dakota.
First up, Wind Cave National Park, home of the densest cave,
with the greatest passage density per cubic mile, in the world!
Though we’ve visited other cool caves like Kartchner Caverns
and Carlsbad Caverns, Wind Cave is known for the unique honeycomb-like rock
formations known as “boxwork,” which are found on the walls and
ceiling of Wind Cave. 95% of the world’s boxwork is here, and the other
5% is in other locations in the nearby Black Hills.
can see the outline of people in the dark shapes at the bottom. The
boxwork is on the ceiling overhead. The white-yellow patch to the left of the
boxwork is where it was likely chipped off as a souvenir before the park became
Boxwork is so named because it resembled the square mail box
slots in old-timey post offices. Cave photography is the worrrrst, so
sorry this picture isn’t better. But it was gorgeous and delicate in
person, with the “sides of the boxes” being formed because (science
lesson ahead) the carbonic acid in water seeping downward dissolved the softer
rock surrounding the box sides faster than these lines, which were a different
kind of harder rock. Wow, that was a terrible explanation.
Wind Cave is also one of the longest (140 miles) and most
complex caves in the world, with only a portion of it explored so far and
something like 150 miles of passages being contained in just one square mile of
real estate. Just a few of the passages are displayed here.
Wind Cave is so named because it’s a “breathing”
cave, with the barometric pressure at the opening constantly changing.
When it was discovered by area ranchers, the guy’s hat was sucked into the tiny
hole shown below, never to be seen again. The ranger used a white paper
ribbon to demonstrate that today the wind was flowing out. This action
can change by the minute … sometimes it goes in, sometimes it goes out, kinda
like my waistline.
That tiny hole was the only entrance to the cave for a long
time, but now there is an actual door to the 300 steps down (but blessedly, an
elevator back out). Above the Cave, it’s flat prairies and windswept
grasses (and snow, for now) for as far as the eye can see.
It’s also home to a variety of wildlife, including antelope
We stayed at the Elk Canyon Campground inside Wind Cave
National Park, which clearly needs to be renamed to Bison Canyon Campground,
since we saw many bison and zero elk.
How’s this for a beautiful home-away-from-home?
In the nearby town of Hot Springs, The Mammoth Site is the
location of a fascinating active paleontological dig site. Back in the
70’s, a real estate developer started scraping the land for a subdivision, when
mammoth bones were suddenly unearthed. He immediately stopped work and
donated the land to science, scrapping any plans to make million$. My darling
husband, who works in land development, sat silent for a few minutes and then
said “that would be a very hard decision.” I did not demand that he elaborate, preferring to continue believing he’s a good person. 🙂
Back in the day, volunteers labored outdoors, and from the
looks of them, many beers were consumed along the way, all in the name of science of course.
Today, the site is covered inside a beautiful building and
61 mammoths have been found here.
All of the mammoths are male, because young males were
kicked out of the herd by the alpha male as soon as they hit puberty and start
lookin’ fly. They were then doomed to wander alone for eternity, or until
they picked up some babes and became harem leaders of their own. Here’s a
ribcage … now that would make some good BBQ.
Why were 61 mammoths found in such a small area?
Because a huge sinkhole was located here millions of years ago. The
mammoths came to the edge of the hole to get water and fell in, one after
another, over many years. Personally, I believe it’s because they were
all male and refused to stop and ask for directions. 58 of the 61 were the
biggest size shown here, the North American Columbia Mammoth.
Excavators and scientists continue to dig down layer upon
layer of mammoths piled on top of each other, and they even have summer
programs where young people get to help participate.
The Mammoth Site was a cool, unexpected find here in Hot
Moving on to Badlands National Park, we encountered some
“surface of the moon” landscapes that were out of this
Even though it’s a terrible name promotion-wise, the
Badlands name literally comes from the fact that these were VERY BAD LANDS for
the Native Americans and settlers came through this area … harsh extremes, no
shelter, no food sources, lack of farmability, and water that made you
sick. SOUNDS GREAT, right??!
The rocks aren’t all gray … just 99% of them. But
here the “Yellow Mounds” provide multi-chromatic beauty.
The recent wet spring has also nicely filled in the gray
with patches of green and wildflowers.
The durability of these rocks means the National Parks
Service will let you tromp all over them. There are few hiking trails,
but who needs trails, just go wherever you want!
The “Notch Trail” is fairly short, fairly easy,
and on this Memorial Day holiday weekend with bright sunny skies, overrun with
at the top … what is this, the Grand Canyon or something?
On the plus side, this trail has a fun 50-rung wooden ladder
right in the middle of it. See the little human climbing it in the middle of this photo?
Also in the Badlands, more wildlife! Bison,
anyone? This guy needs a bath! We started counting all the places
we’ve seen bison since we started RV’ing … quite a few, actually! Here are
links to our blog stories of some of those places, if you count yourself
amongst the bison lovers of the world ….
Also in attendance at Badlands NP, the hilarious prairie
dogs, popping in and out of their holes and chattering away, so plentiful that
they have their own town, presumably complete with a community recreation
center and HOA restrictions.
Some prairie dogs are dangerous!
Beware the Giant North American Yellow-Bellied Prairie Dog!
I snapped a shot of a Western Meadowlark bird from the RV
door, sitting on top of our picnic shelter. Before you go thinking I’m a
serious birder, or have an encyclopedic knowledge of wildlife, we had to track
down a park ranger to ask what kind of bird he was. But isn’t he a
beauty? Also VERY loud with a distinctive song, a self-appointed Badlands alarm
clock at 4:30 AM.
Enroute from Wind Cave to Badlands, you won’t
encounter much, but you certainly can’t help but spot the hundreds (thousands?)
of roadside signs advertising Wall Drug.
Wall Drug was a small pharmacy in the middle of
nowhere Wall, South Dakota, a tiny town of a few hundred people. Adding
to the misery, it was the start of the Great Depression. The owners needed a
way to bring in customers, and soon! What to do??! They started
offering free glasses of ice water.
Shockingly, this worked, since who doesn’t love free ice
water. Now, Wall Drug is a thriving oasis to over 2,000,000 visitors per
year (up to 20,000 per day), and covers multiple city blocks. And, still the free ice water.
It’s kitschy on steroids, touristy and fun, and where else can you
ride a giant jackalope? Just sayin’.
An exact replica of what Mount Rushmore would look like if
Bill Clinton were added.
The 76,000 square feet inside of Wall Drug contains a restaurant and multiple
“shops” (really just rooms) selling everything you can imagine, from
cowboy boots to candles to camping gear to gemstones to candy and everything
else in between. It’s set up like an indoor Main Street.
They even have a “Travelers’ Chapel” inside.
Perhaps this guy should visit the chapel to atone for his
sins, namely consorting with the loose women hanging around Wall Drug.
Our final South Dakota stop was in Mitchell to view the
“World’s Only Corn Palace.”
That is all adorned with ears of corn, y’all!
The building is covered in unique murals made out of roughly 325,000 ears of corn, in 12 different color varieties.
The corn cobs are sawed in half lengthwise and nailed to the building in themes and patterns created by that year’s artist.
3,000 bushels of rye, oat heads and sour dock are tied in bundles and added as embellishment, but the corn is the real star of the show.
It was built in 1892 to prove the fertility of Mitchell soil and draw immigrant farmers to settle down here. This year’s theme is Salute to Military, and they were unwilling to confirm next year’s theme, which they will start constructing in the next month.
It is used as a local event venue (acts like Blood Sweat and Tears, Clint Black, and others are on tap for this summer), and of course the Mitchell High School graduation is held here, just because they can.
The murals are ripped down and replaced with new ones every
year, costing $130,000 and 4+ months of effort, and they have a Corn Palace Festival in August to celebrate (what else?)
Lastly, we wouldn’t want to promote any South Dakota stereotypes, but this was proudly displayed outside an RV in the campground. Proceed with your own conclusions.
We leave South Dakota with a new appreciation for the state, and
excited about our next destination: Minnesota!