Welcome back everyone!
Any given road trip is always more exciting when you do it with your family. The only thing that sucks is prepping for them! Did we pack everything we needed? Did we forget anything? Are we going to run out of diapers? Will we need cash for that? Do I need an extra jacket in the middle of Summer? Did I bring enough clothes? But in the end, the goal is always the same… That is to never forget the pacifier! I’m joking! The goal is of course to always have fun!! For our Labor Day weekend, we decided to do something that both Abby and I have done in the past, but this time all together as a family. My first trip to South Dakota was when I was 12 years old and Abby’s first time was when she was 16 years old. We both figured it was about time for another South Dakota visit. After a crazy busy week of building Abby’s new machine and a swamped week for me at work, we were ready for a getaway. We left Friday September 1st at 4pm and since this was going to be a lengthy trip, we decided to stay halfway which was Sioux Falls, SD.
We arrived to Sioux Falls about 8:30pm from Pella and I’m pretty sure when I made the reservations at our hotel, I chose 2 queen size beds and it turned out to be 1 room with only a “full” sized bed for the 3 of us (too tired to argue). As I’m sure you can imagine, both Abby and I had a terrible night because there was definitely not enough room. But of course, Eyra slept great as always. The following morning was extremely foggy and it took me back to our eclipse trip in Nebraska. This fog was present for about 2 hours of our 4-hour drive that morning and after the fog dissipated, the drive was really easy. This is what I don’t get… South Dakota seemed extremely beautiful, but in my opinion it was ruined by the excessive amount of billboards. One in particular being the signs for Wall Drug (pretty big mall). From Sioux Falls to the town of Wall, both Abby and I counted 97 billboards. That’s not counting the ones from the other direction.
According to friends, people and a few websites, Badlands National Park has a reputation for being a less than inspiring park in comparison to all the others (excluding Death Valley which is apparently pretty meh too). This was of course to the contrary, it is a geologist’s candy store and the views were amazing. The good thing is, once we got there, we were one of the very first visitors to arrive to the park that day, so we had great opportunities to look around without the crowds. Why was it so empty? This could also be because of the reputation that we talked about above. Prior to Badlands, I got my picture taken in Sioux Falls by a law enforcement speed camera and in the National Park, I actually got pulled over for not coming to a complete stop (2 second wait according to cop) so I was already having a super shitty day with law enforcement. (the cop was not wrong) I should have stopped. The only downside to this National Park was its overall size (pretty small) and lack of trails. There are only 3 trails on the map and the first one we did was probably only 1/2 mile at most. But the pros are, I didn’t get a citation, the views were spectacular, weather was great and Eyra had a blast hiking the trail by herself (leaping off tall rocks left and right) and most importantly, we ran into exactly 0 rattlesnakes even though there were signs everywhere!
Both Abby and I had never been to Badlands National Park so as you can imagine it was a very exciting trip and to be honest, we didn’t know what to expect because c’mon, we don’t plan, we just go with the flow. Badlands National Park took our breath away, see for yourself!
We wanted to know more about the geology of the park so we headed to the visitor center which was 5 miles from the park’s entrance. There we learned what types of dinosaurs roamed around this area, and what the Badlands rock formations were as well as current natural habitat. This was the cool thing about it, we drove 300 and something miles seeing only farmland and wall drug signs and out of the blue, bam! National Park! It’s kind of a random place for one to be but then again, Badlands National Park did not disappoint. Just throwing that out there. This park is great, but a little piece of advice, please stop at ALL stop signs to avoid getting pulled over! Trust me, I know!
About 2 miles away, we encountered an unexpected site. It was the Minuteman Missile Silo National Historic Site (quite the mouthful, I know). Although this wasn’t on the itinerary, I’m glad we stopped! Best part? It’s totally free! Who doesn’t like those types of attractions! As we first walked up, we saw the park rangers doing a demonstration. This demonstration was showing kids how to build small rockets and then launching them with a bicycle pump. Eyra loved flying her rocket and she named it the Commie Destroyer! I am totally kidding, Abby and I made that name up! Eyra had a blast (Haha, get it? A blast! Rockets? yeah I cracked myself up too) and earned herself a junior ranger badge for getting her rocket 30 yards. As we went into the actual museum we noticed a couple of displays consisting of a 1-foot length telecommunications cable, this gives you an idea on how serious this program was (how much power was needed) this is not your average extension cord as these cords could withstand a nuclear blast.
We began walking through the very interactive museum and Eyra of course had to sit on the toilet (part of the exhibition) Abby and Eyra also sat on the floor and went back in time and watched President Eisenhower address the nation as well as see informational videos about how to properly duck and cover in case of a nuclear attack. What a scary time to be living in. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to actually see the Silo in the area but hope to see it next time we go. We left content and headed towards our next stop which was Custer, SD. We Stopped along the way to eat at a local Perkins. While eating, we decided to try out Jewel Cave since it was just 15 miles away from our campsite and an hour from Perkins.
As we headed towards Custer, it reminded us a lot of Iowa because there were deer everywhere (although most were alive). In Iowa if you can’t hunt them, you’ll end up hitting them with your car, that’s a certainty. The town of Custer was very neat as we passed through, even though it’s population was only 1900 the traffic was intense since the town of Custer is central to many destinations like Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Needles Highway, etc. It was super infested with tourists and we for sure contributed to that. We arrived to Jewel Cave at 3pm (an hour and half before closing time) only to find they were completely sold out of cave tour tickets. Well… That threw off our plans. Fortunately, we spoke to a very helpful ranger who suggested the discovery tour (better for kids) and told us good times to arrive the next day in order to get tickets. This helped us plan much better the following day. Since I mentioned that this threw off our plans, we headed to Crazy Horse instead. The drive was very easy and it wasn’t as crowded as we expected, especially for a holiday weekend. Once inside the monument grounds, we overheard someone say that this was a good day to visit the monument due to accumulating smoke from surrounding forest fires such as Oregon, Montana, Wyoming and Canada. To me, this is crazy. The Southern part of the country is flooding while the Northern part is burning. We can’t catch a break!
Crazy Horse was cooler than I remembered! There was much more to see than just the monument. Again Abby and I are huge suckers for Native American culture and we were able to see and learn more about their culture through the displays and exhibitions, as well as the history of an icon, the buffalo. When we were in Utah, on every corner we encountered German tourists, here in SD we encountered lots of French! Pretty neat I thought! Inside the museums, they had life-size replicas of Tipi’s as well as authentic Native American artists selling their jewelry and paintings. The amount of historical photos, articles, and letters about Native American affairs was astounding. I wish we could have read them all. Probably one of the coolest parts was seeing the 1/34th scale replica of the artist’s intention of the mountain. In fact, if you stand at a certain angle, you can see his model transpired over the actual mountain to give you a great idea of what it will eventually look like. As I’m sure you’re aware, the monument is privately funded and has been in construction for just under 60 years at this point. They expect his hair, finger and arm to be completed in 15 years.
We decided to take a bus tour to get a little closer to the monument and learn more history of it. Eyra of course was thrilled since she loves buses right now. Our driver started talking about the artist and how he got his start, when suddenly the bus came to a complete stop… We were all confused and the bus driver told us that we had to wait for a group of baby wild turkeys to cross our path! How rad is that? The bus driver then told us that the work originally started out with only the artist and his wife’s help! He soon hired a crew to help construct it but only after starting a few businesses to help fund it. The artist’s family consisted of 10 children, 7 of which went on to work on the monument (3 boys and 4 girls). We got such great views of the monument and our bus driver was so incredibly friendly. Well worth the extra $4. Crazy Horse will eventually be the largest rock sculpture ever created. He also mentioned the eye drawn on the horse or I should say, where the horse’s eye will be. It’s the size of a school bus! Wild! That gives you some perspective of the sheer size of this thing!
We concluded our Crazy Horse day after the bus tour and ushered a very sleepy Eyra into the car. We decided to try out a restaurant that was recommended by one of Abby’s coworkers. It was called the Purple Pie Place! Eyra was obsessed with the large concrete pig out front and screamed when we made her get down. As promised, the pie was amazing and the mac and cheese equally delicious. We took the pies to our campsite and enjoyed them while watching the sunset. This camp site was better than we expected especially for booking so late in the week. It was spacious, very green, our view of the campsite included 3 tipis’ and the tent sites were hardly booked. We had a very peaceful and quiet afternoon. The campground also had a pool (which we didn’t get to try out) and an awesome swing set where Eyra would have spent the rest of the vacation. To her, this was her national monument. Take a look for yourself.
Sadly, this had to come to an end and hello to her sleeping bag followed by bedtime. Abby and I were exhausted since we were on the road so early and we had accomplished so much in one day and don’t forget that we were running in only 3 hours of sleep due to a terrible night in Sioux Falls (small bed). The following day was pretty obvious to what we were planning to do. Abby and I were disappointed in the outcome of Jewel Cave being sold out the day before so we wanted to get a head start and be there 20 minutes before the first tour started (9:35am) and boom! We got tickets! And even better? Our National Parks pass covered the tour fee! Who would have thought that the pass would worked here? The line was ridiculously long so I dropped off Abby by the ticket kiosk while I parked the car. I made it just in time before we headed down the cave’s elevator. For both Abby and I, this wasn’t our first cave tour, we knew exactly what we needed for the tour and it paid off since the cave is consistently 49 degrees. This was the beginning of one of the most embarrassing moments of our lives. The park ranger explained that there is over 187 miles of mapped cave and explained how it was founded before going 25 floors below the surface. Eyra was already showing signs of poor listening skills but then again, she’s our kid and we thought her behavior would change as it usually does in public. So without over thinking it, we entered the elevator of doom. Once below the surface it all went downhill. What do I mean by this? Constant crying, yelling and stomping that it overpowered the voice of the ranger. Tantrums left and right and 0 listening skills. Both Abby and I were in a situation where we wanted the world to eat us. I mean what else can you do in that situation? Clearly talking to her wasn’t working. We were literally locked below the surface with all eyes on us. Without saying anything we knew exactly what everyone was thinking. Shut that kid up… What did we learn from this? We are holding off on caves for a few more years! Never underestimate the power of a nap. But other than that, the cave was awesome from what we could see since we only did the 20 min tour! We both sat in the car afterwards very embarrassed and as we pulled away from the caves parking lot, Eyra was fast asleep. A clear indication of her previous behavior. So tired!
More Cave pictures.
Many states are recognized by different things on their license plates (Abe Lincoln on Illinois, Wright Bros on NC, Delicate Arch on Utah). Well, we were on our way to SD most famous (and probably one of the entire US most famous monument). Mt. Rushmore! Once at Mt. Rushmore, we paid $10 for our parking pass which is awesomely good for 1 entire year! We also got sweet parking since the roof tent made us too tall for underground parking. This place was more awesome than both Abby and I remember, so what did we do? Duh, we are tourists! We snapped hundreds of pictures from all angles! But what better angle than from the presidential trail. To tell you the truth that’s the only thing I remember from the last time I was here. I don’t remember the amphitheater or the theatres or the museums, just the trail but this is what this trip was all about, making more memories! Since we got to the monument, Eyra was asleep so we loaded her in the pack so she could keep sleeping. She woke up about halfway through the presidential trail and was able to enjoy the views and see the sculptors house. 1 section of the trail was closed so we had to go on the nature trail to get back to the parking lot. We headed back through the flag display making sure to take pictures in front of each state where we were born (or adopted in my case) before releasing Eyra to run free in the museum! Burn off some energy!
Enjoy some of the pictures below.
We took our time soaking up all the info the museum had to offer before retreating to the amphitheater to escape the crowds and enjoy some peace and quiet in front of the great presidents. We headed back upstairs of course to hit up the gift shop before heading to the car. Another great suggestion was to go down Needles Highway, so of course we did! It was a windy scenic drive that offered plenty of beautiful views as well as this sweet tunnel! I kept hearing that Needles Highway was really beautiful but it was hard to enjoy the beauty on that day due to all the smoke. So we decided to head back to Custer. On our way down, we found our next campsite! Horse Thief Lake! Absolutely awesome looking campground with a sweet lake. Also on our way down we looked down the highway to Crazy Horse and we were stunned to find that the visibility was minimal and his face was barely distinguishable through the smoke. I guess we chose a good day to visit him!
We were getting very hungry so we headed to a local pizza shop (called Pizza Mill) in Custer for some grub! Abby got a calzone and was shocked to find it was enormous! The restaurant was sweet, but for some reason they didn’t have music playing so it was awkwardly quiet.
Since we were already in downtown Custer and had a few hours before we needed to head to bed, we decided to explore some of the shops. Abby wanted to stop at a local ice cream parlor to enjoy a sweet end to the day. As usual Eyra is a people magnet and we ended up talking to 3 different couples about our life and family. The City of Custer has uniquely painted bison on every corner. Eyra loved them and had to kiss each and every one before we could head back to the car (silly kid).
After arriving back at camp, Eyra was begging to go play on the swings. Abby took her over to the swings while I set up camp. After about an hour, we finally convinced Eyra to get off the swings and just chill at our campsite. That chilling turned into rock collecting and we now have a large bag of rocks in the back of the car! Since there was so much smoke, the sun looked very much like Tattooine (Star Wars reference) so I had to snap a few pictures before officially calling it a day.
Overall this quick trip was very fun! We found out that even though Crazy Horse is not complete, its museums have a lot more to show and it’s bigger than the museum at Mount Rushmore despite it being completed for years. In regards to Badlands National Park, remember to never judge a book by its cover. In our opinion this place deserves a second look as it is awesome. Minuteman Silo was an amazing stop especially since we knew nothing about it before we saw the sign! Jewel cave will have to wait a few more years so we can fully enjoy it and we’ll also have to add in Wind Cave as well! After seeing 97 signs of Wall Drug, it appeared that their marketing strategy worked and we stopped to take a peak, where Eyra enjoyed riding a Jackalope and a horse and witnessed a massive and scary T-Rex (she was scared but she was also a trooper). South Dakota was full of surprises and we truly can’t wait to come back! We will have to make our next trip much longer even though we think we did quite well for only being there 2 days!
Where will we go next? You’ll have to wait and find out!
To be continued…