Counting Down – The Badlands and Black Hills

Custer State Park Bison 1

Delante’ and Family with Anna

We “Bearly” left the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary and Orr, Minnesota behind, and the countdown for returning to Clemson was on. As I write this blog, we are at almost at two weeks and counting! I was just starting to miss my new bear friends in Orr, when Anna and I met up with some old friends in Grand Forks North Dakota. Delante’ Sykes, his mom, Deidra, and grandmother, Grace. Delante’ was really surprised to see Anna, and didn’t recognize me – I have that special gift of being the forgotten one. Delante’ was one of Anna’s fourth grade students eight years ago when she taught in North Carolina. The last time I saw Delante’ was when we were tailgating at a Clemson football game several years ago. He has become a well-mannered fine young man who will be attending the University of North Dakota on a full ride track and field scholarship. Delante’ is already working on his pilot license, and he will pursue a flying career studying Aviation Science at UND.

Cascades at Souix Falls

Our visit to Grand Forks was only a one-night layover, and then we headed south to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, another short layover. We met two very nice couples who also owned LTV RVs like ours upon arriving at our campground. Sioux Falls is located in the southeastern area of South Dakota, and is named after the cascades on the Big Sioux River that runs through the city. The falls are located in a nice city park. Unfortunately, the condition of the waterway, its accompanying litter and the fact that all of this is located in an industrial area of the city was kind of a downer. There was also a small butterfly house and aquarium nearby in Sertoma Park. While it was a nice facility, it couldn’t compare to the Butterfly Rainforest we previously visited with our friends, Curt and Cathy, at the University of Florida. The employees there were very nice, and wouldn’t let us pay for the large glass birdbath that Anna knocked over in the gift shop. I’ll probably get into trouble for bringing that up!

Sunflower field near I-90 in SD

After a couple days in Sioux Falls it was time to head west to Interior, South Dakota and Badlands National Park.  Along our route we stopped at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota and Al’s Oasis (for lunch) in Aocoma, South Dakota – both recommended by the volunteer at the visitor center. The corn palace was interesting, but I can’t recommend Al’s for lunch – or anything else! Along I-90, especially in the area just west of the Missouri River we passed hundreds of sunflower fields. The sunflower farms were not only numerous, but huge. We have never seen sunflower fields so big. Many went on as far as the eye could see! While the fields were visible from the Interstate, there was no safe (or legal) place to park for a photography outing.

Interior Entrance to Badlands

Our campground at Interior served as our base for exploring Badlands National Park. Badlands derived its name from the Lakota Indians and French trappers who said the land was bad because of extreme temperatures, lack of water and rugged terrain. Even early settlers who came to claim their stake as a result of the homestead act were unable to work the land and eventually gave up their stakes for the land. The national park  covered a large geographical area and offered a variety of topographical features. The determining factor for finding beauty in this terrain is lighting and weather. Neither cooperated much during our stay. What appeared to be a beautiful evening for a sunset, and another opportunity for photographing a thunderstorm over the badlands were both occluded by a dense cloud base. The only wildlife we encountered were a few bighorn sheep and mule deer.

Minuteman Missile NHS

We also had the opportunity to visit the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site located immediately north of the badlands. The facility and the displays relating to the cold war mission of the United States Minuteman Missile program was impressive. The tour rekindled my pride in being a USAF veteran. We attempted to get a reservation to tour the nearby Delta 1 Launch Control Facility, but only six visitors can enter the site at a time, and the first tour opening available was over six weeks out. Maybe next time!

Sod House at Prairie Homestead

A tourist icon in South Dakota is Wall Drug which just happens to be conveniently located in wait… Wall, South Dakota – not far from the badlands. We drove to Wall one afternoon to see what all the hubbub is all about. Wall Drug was big, but that about sums it up! A store that is subdivided up into many chopped up little shops with a whole bunch of junk. The cafe was definitely sub-standard. Just outside of the north entrance to Badlands NP is a cute little sod house called the Prairie Homestead. Access ends at 5 p.m. each day, and the owners would not give us permission to pay our admission and return in the evening to photograph sunsets that would have occurred directly behind the sod house. I took an iPhone photo from the parking lot during the day and they were out their admission fee… ha!

Mt. Rushmore from Iron Mountain Road

We said goodbye to the badlands and headed west to Custer, and the Black Hills of South Dakota, our next base for exploring some of South Dakotas scenic roads and parkland. Custer State Park has many different areas to visit both inside and outside of the park. We started with the Needles Highway includes 14 miles of sharp turns, low tunnels and impressive granite spires. The west end of the highway contained all of the spires and granite features. The east end was a nice leisurely drive through the forest. After a nice picnic near one of the visitor’s centers we drove Iron Mountain Road, a 17 mile narrow curving road starting in Custer State Park and ending at Mt. Rushmore. It was pretty cool viewing Mt. Rushmore as we passed through each of the three narrow tunnels.

Ready to go – Hayride and Dinner

We always like to see venues with music and dancing when we travel, and Custer State Park was no exception. The Blue Bell Lodge in southern Custer State Park offered a Hayride and Chuck Wagon Cookout. It was great fun! We went through a scenic area of the park to a mountain meadow canyon for a steak dinner and show. There was music and dancing and a great deal of story-telling and humor. Our hayride host, Keith, was very talented, both musically and as a story teller. We were given our own straw cowboy hats and bandanas. Anna, of course, said she wanted an orange bandana, but all they had was blue. About 50-60 visitors attended the cookout and hayride and others who were on a buffalo safari, joined us at the cookout. We had a lot of fun, especially watching the excitement some of the younger children were having singing along on songs when they knew none of the lyrics. The next day was set aside for locating animals within the park boundary. We were a little disappointed in the animal population of Custer State Park until we dug deep into some of the backroads and discovered several families of Bison that comprised a herd of almost 100. The banner image on this post is a portion of that herd.

Boxwork in Wind Cave

 Wind Cave National Park is a little know national park just south of Custer and we wanted to make sure we had time to explore this natural wonder. Wind Cave was given its name because of the winds that move in and out of its natural opening caused by the difference in atmospheric pressure between the cave and the surface. We spent about two hours at the cave and traveled through tunnels until we were about 200 feet under the surface. This cave does not have stalagmites and stalactites like most caves, but it has a rare cave formation called boxwork. It was interesting comparing this visit to the Mammoth Cave National Park located in Kentucky that we visited several years ago. The park ranger provided us with a very good presentation about the history of the cave, and Lakota Indian legends of the cave’s origin during our tour.

Devils Tower National Monument

On our last day in the Custer area of South Dakota, our plan was to visit Jewel Cave National Monument. We made it to the cave in time to get tour tickets for the day, but unfortunately, there were no tours. The cave tours start some 300 feet below the surface, and the elevator that takes tour participants to the starting point in the cave broke (thankful we weren’t in it when it decided to quit). We were told it would be sometime late in the afternoon or possibly the next day before tours would resume. We decided to drive to Devils Tower, Wyoming to view Devils Tower. The drive and short visit to Devils Tower consumed the remainder of our day. Devils Tower is a geologic wonder that should be viewed at sunset, sunrise, or in the middle of the night for astronomical photography, not in the middle of the day – especially a hot, hazy, almost cloudless day. The informational session provided by two park rangers made the trip a bonus. It was both informative and interesting. The history (geological formation) of the tower, biological studies currently underway on the bats at the tower, and climbing (ascension, and descension) of the tower were explained and demonstrated. Actually, it was fascinating!

The trip to Devils Tower concluded our visit to the Custer area in South Dakota. The ten days since we left the bears in Minnesota has been a success. A reunion with old friends, a waterpark, butterfly house, two national parks, two national monuments, a beautiful state park, animals, geological formations, a fun chuck wagon cookout, a historic military site, several of South Dakota’s iconic tourist venues, and a few more of God’s beautiful animal creatures. We did manage to breathe between all of this an even look into some of our future stops. Now that we have traveled down many of the roads around the Custer area, it is time to hit the road north to Spearfish, South Dakota.

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