Road Trip: South Dakota on a whim
The holiday was around the corner (4th of July) and with all my in-laws away at a dance competition (my nieces are fabulous dancers!), I decided I would not spend it at home, most likely being a home bum, eating what I shouldn't and being a couch potato attached to my DVR. The search started: last minute hotel bookings are always the most exciting!
I knew (almost) nothing about South Dakota. Actually, before we decided to go there, I didn't even know where to go! I've been to Wisconsin, Illinois and most definitely up north, around the Duluth area. And I wanted something new. Within driving distance and with the time frame we had, our options were limited. Now having decided on SD, we were on high-gear-research-mode to know what to do, where to stay and how to make it all fit in a few days.
Travel Day: Wed July 3rd
We opted for Rapid City, which, to my surprise, is quite larger than I expected. The drive was long, but with the time difference (1h less), we got there in time to check-in at the hotel and still be able to head out for dinner - even though we were the last ones at the restaurant.
Day #1: Thu July 4th
The next day was rainy and it was already the 4th - and we wanted to be at Mt. Rushmore for the lights ceremony and the celebration of the Independence with all that ton of people. So we headed to Deadwood - which I thought was going to be quick and simple (nuh-uh!). A bus city tour revealed a lot of the history and kept us from some serious rain - very fitting. After we hopped off, we decided to explore more of what was covered in the tour, but on foot. The food, casinos, shops, Saloon #10 and the Adam's Museum. By then we needed to rush to make it to Mt. Rushmore.
I love unexpected things, so we took an unannounced scenic way from Deadwood to Mt. Rushmore and came around this gorgeous little nook. I could not resist and got into the cold water. Loved it.
Upon arriving at Mt. Rushmore, the traffic jam was crazy. Obviously, everyone, just like us, decided to head there to spend the dwindling hours of the 4th. We walked around the trails, took some pictures and had a snack. At nightfall, we found a little space in a very cramped auditorium. We got to watch the video about why those four presidents were chosen (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt - my favorite because of all the parks he helped preserve - and Abraham Lincoln - close runner-up because of how good and smart of a man he was), but I still missed the fireworks.
We headed back to the hotel super late, since it seemed there were even more people leaving the park then there were when we arrived.
Day #2: Fri July 5th
A friend had recommended that we go check out the Cosmos Mystery Area. We did, and while I thought it was cool, I also thought it was pricey for being so quick and small of an attraction. Kids would definitely enjoy it more. Heads up: you get super dizzy and out of balance. It's interesting, but overpriced. Right around that area, you can find most activities, so we decided to stay close by.
Our second stop was the Sitting Bull Crystal Cave. That was really cool! Deep, cold, as caves always are, and, since we got to tour with the (great?) grandson of the owner, we also heard first-hand some of the personal/family stories involving the cave. Totally worth it.
Bear Country USA was surrounded by very high expectations. I heard about it, read about it and it was on the top of my to-see list. Aside from the incredible number of vehicles, the ride was so much fun! It took us some good 3h to drive through just 1mi of land, but we got to see elks, deers, goats, foxes, wolves, and, obviously, the bears. Once we made our way through the park, we stopped for a delicious burger and saw the bear cubs and other baby animals. It was very special to me. <3
Our next adventure was at Fort Hays Old West Town & Dinner Show. It's corny, but we were tired and working up an appetite. We got there early and took some time to walk around the little pretend town, watched an experienced rope-maker at work and chit-chatted with some other visitors. When it was time for dinner, we headed inside, claimed our assigned spots and got served a simple plate and mug for your grub. The food was good (Chris loved the lemonade and I loved the beans, but there's no options for anything other than whether you want beef or chicken). As soon as you're done eating, the show starts. I can't recall the name of the band that played, but they were very good. The magician actually was quite good and covered a break. He really insisted that kids get his "magical coloring book". I'm not a parent, but disliked how much he insisted and teased the kids, especially considering how expensive the book was - something like $10 (!) Rain was coming down again and I had left the car open... so... yup. Car wet, butts wet, we headed to the hotel.
Day #3: Sat July 6th
Our last full day in the area and so much else to do. First stop: The Crazy Horse Memorial. I thought it was just O.K. Since they're still working on it, the closer you can get to it is by taking this extra-charge bus. Even so, the bus gets closer, but not really as close as I had seen some other people get (I wanted to actually be ON the rock, not close, not by it, so I was a little disappointed). But then there's the museum, the shop, the outdoor areas and other things to do. I think the fact that they run all of that with money they raise from visitors and donations, without the help of the government, is great. Proves that you don't need to wait for anyone to help you out. You can always work on it and help yourself. I'm a big DIY myself.
From there, we wanted to head to the Badlands National Park. On our way, I saw a sign pointing to the Needles Hwy and I just had to take it. It's a slow, beautiful, up and down drive through Custer State Park (I totally want to camp there!). We loved it! But we lost a TON of time. After we got out, The Badlands was our destination.
From afar I could see this massive valley of rocks. Subtle shades of pink and yellow. I thought it was alien-like. It amazed me. We wanted to have arrived earlier, so I was sad for the little time we had before sundown. We visited the Gift Shop and Visitor Center, which were closing soon, and decided to grab a bite at the Cedar Pass Lodge Restaurant. I asked for a recommendation and ordered the Sioux Indian Taco - delicious. They even gave us the recipe to take home! This was my favorite stop. Campers come and go, people bike, hike, and just spend time admiring the Badlands. I loved it.
We finished our meal and decided to try a hike ourselves. Have you ever done that there? It's crazy! I had shorts and my driving comfy shoes on - not necessarily dressed for hiking a rock mountain full of rolling debris and rough paths! I whined and whined. Chris carried everything because apparently I needed both hands and could not bear any weight while going up. I was scared but oh, my! Once I got all the way to the top of this mountain, all I could do was stare in awe. How beautiful. How peaceful. A picture won't translate that. A video won't. Me, telling you on this blog, even less. Chris and I made promises to come back someday and fully experience this place. It was amazing.
Nightfall and we had a 2h drive back to Rapid City. Wanting to arrive so bad, but scared of animals on the road, we were forced to take our time and drive super carefully. Our bodies went to bed while our souls had gone to sleep a long time prior.
Day #4: Travel Back Home Day
We had a lot of fun on these quick few days we spent there, but it was time to go home. There was just one more place that was on our to-see list: The Chapel in the Hills. We went there first thing in the morning. Visited, talked to the guy in charge of the gift shop and learned some more about this replica chapel. Very pretty. Then it hit me.
I wanted more. I wanted more of the Badlands. The paths we didn't drive down. The views we didn't spot. The animals that never showed up. We were heading home, coming closer and closer to the exit to the park, our permit still valid and our guts telling us "do it". We did it. But not before stopping super quickly at Wall Drug.
Seriously. If you are one teeny-bit as curious as I am, you would stop there too. The whole way you drive from MN to SD, all you see is sign after sign about all things in Wall Drug. Basically it's a place with restaurants, shops and kids activities. It's a money drain for tourists like we, but it was quite fun. Hectic and varied, you can do a little bit of everything there. I quenched my curiosity and we hit the road again.
We entered the park through a different area and stopped on tons of overlook spots. There were lots of people, from cars to campers to buses and motorcycles. We spotted deers the night before, but during the day we saw the prairie dogs, a mountain goat and tons of birds. We didn't have time to hike, so we just stopped here and there for pictures. We also had lunch at the same restaurant (Cedar Pass Lodge) and I repeated the order for that delicious Taco.
After a LOT of miles and rain, we arrived home tired, but happy and safe. It was an unforgettable trip.
P.S. Let me know if you would like that Indian Tacos recipe!
PS - Yes please to the Indian Tacos recipe!
Laine - easy to see why the SD Dept of Tourism likes your blog. Splendid! Makes me want to go to SD. I love that church, and your photos are awesome!
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Laine Torres is a professional photographer who provides branding photography and headshot photos in the Twin Cities Metro Area, MN. Laine works creatively to develop a unique concept for each of her clients that best matches their personality and business goals. Contact Laine now to book your session.
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