Category Archives: Badlands Road Trip

Part 2 of Thursday, July 28…Crossing South Dakota

We ate, arguably our best meal of the trip, in Spearfish, SD, as we prepared to embark on our return journey.  The Green Bean, organic coffees and eatery, provided us with the best blueberry scone I have ever eaten and a variety of other scrumptious sandwiches (apple, bacon, cheddar panini; urban cowgirl chicken salad with grapes; pesto chicken panini) and beverages (frothy italian cream sodas and blueberry-pomegranate blended tea).  Everyone was very pleased, an uncommon dining experience.

Back on I-90, we drove two hours back to Wall Drug (never thought I’d have to see this place again) in order to purchase an inappropriate t-shirt for Eli.  I’ll let you experience it in person rather than detail it here…but suffice it to say, it goes well with the neon ball cap and hematite magnet piercings.  Since we were in the neighborhood, we all voted to go for one final jaunt through the Badlands.  All of us except Harcourt, the full-fledged teenager who had been unanimously voted “off the island” the previous day…her vote doesn’t count anymore.

On the short two-mile drive to the Badlands, we made a very brief stop at a national historic register site housing a minuteman missile silo.  With the push of a button, it was set to go from South Dakota to Moscow in under an hour and destroy whole cities during the Cold War.  A half mile further we passed a sod homestead prairie house.  Quite a bit of history in the middle of nowhere.

Once in the Badlands, we hiked, or rather climbed, the “notch” trail.  The kids scampered along ridges, slid (often unintentionally) down the crackled rocky peaks which crumbled underfoot, and paused momentarily to appreciate the view, when prompted.  Tyler commented, again, that looking out over the badlands/plains landscape he keeps expecting to see dinosaurs.  Which is only somewhat unreasonable, given the number of fossils excavated in the park.

A final trip to the porta-potty and we were on our way once again.  It was about 7pm, but we’d had a snack on the hike so we figured we’d drive awhile before dinner.  At 11:15pm, in Mitchell, we finally found a recognizable restaurant, McDonald’s – our first during the trip so far! – and gas station.  The town was infested with a plethora of vile mayflies flocking to the light, so we nodded in the direction of the Corn Palace but dared not venture further.  The middle of South Dakota is a bizarre void.  I think I passed about six cars in four hours (and it goes without saying that none passed me).  It was only slightly disconcerting that my check engine, VSC, and traction warning lights were lit.  No matter, we made it the 400 miles across the state in a single afternoon and saw an amazing sunset over the plains.


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Spearfish Canyon and Deadwood…still in South Dakota

This ridge is the view from our lodge window.  Spearfish Canyon, where we are currently residing…for two whole days!…is stunning.  The weather is perfect (70s) and the lodge has three hiking trails which lead to waterfalls and a canyon ridge.  A stream runs alongside the property and the boys quickly found themselves in it, daring each other to plunge into the cold clear current.

Following a hearty breakfast and some down time (imagine the pleasure of being able to sit in dappled sunlight beside a stream reading after being confined to a car for over 1500 miles) we filled our backpack and headed out on a short hike through the canyon to Roughlock Falls.  We couldn’t swim in the falls like we had hoped, but that didn’t stop Harcourt and Stites from dipping in the creek on the way back.  Eli, in an atypical burst of energy, ran back down the path and was a bit concerned that we took 45 minutes longer than he did to return to the lodge.  Sometimes natural consequences come naturally.

 After years of pleading, the Allen children’s parents finally took them to a gold mine where they could pan for gold.  But first we made them endure a (very entertaining) tour of a historic gold mine.  The Broken Boot Gold Mine was never terribly successful as a mine, producing only 1.5 ounces of gold a day back in its heyday, but we got to see a variety of minerals (graphite, copper, quartz, iron, pyrite, and…gold) in its tunnels.  And then the kids got to pan for gold.  Using gravel in which gold flakes had been “planted.”  We bought an extra pan to give authentic panning a shot in the creek behind the lodge.

Last destination of the day:  Deadwood.  Let me assure you, it is not as entertaining as the HBO series.  (Which I haven’t seen.)  It’s touted as a historic wild west town; the final resting place of Will Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane, as well as a gold prospector named Potato Johnny who purportedly found a gold nugget as big as a potato. (I’m assuming that event preceded his nickname.)  Now it is home to slot machines.  And t-shirt vendors.  And hourly dramatizations.  

We sat in the sawdust-floored festive museum/bar Saloon 10 and witnessed a re-enactment of Wild Bill’s demise.  Quick summary:  he never sat with his back to the door, but just this one time he did and…he got shot.  Unfortunately, the real-live pretend street gunfight we had been waiting for all afternoon got rained out.

The silver lining of too much historical kitsch:  we got to see a double rainbow on the way out of town.

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Mount Rushmore versus Crazy Horse

Escaping our basement room of Super 8 as quickly as possible, we found Black Hills Bagels thanks to my handy-dandy guide book.  (On account of which I have been mocked on many occasions in the past…but not this morning!) Then headed east into the Black Hills towards Mount Rushmore.

It IS exciting to see the four faces sculpted into the rock for the first time.  And then a little confusing as to why it needs so much hoopla.  We were fortunate enough to happen upon a ranger-led “multicultural” tour under the Presidents’ noses where we sprinkled a little education into our adventure.

And then we sprinkled it with some serious kitsch in Keystone.  Fried pickles, buffalo burgers, Indian tacos, and two dudes – one with a bullwhip (he was 7’2″!) and one with a gun – in the middle of the street peddling their wares.  Meaning, shooting the gun into the air and cracking the whip.  We got right out of town.

Iron Mountain Road, which is part of Norbeck’s National Scenic Byway is unbelievable for its twists and turns and tunnels and one-lane wooden overpasses. We learned this very early on when we rounded a hairpin turn to find the couple on the motorcycle, which had been just ahead of us, on the ground under their bike.  Fortunately, they were safe and back on their way after a few strong hands righted the motorcycle and helped push it out of the brush.

We didn’t make it much further before we intentionally pulled off the road.  The allure of the jutting rocks was just too much for the boys in the car.  They needed to conquer them.  We all did.  I was lucky enough to savor a few moments alone – watching a hawk soaring above the hills – and marvel at the stark contrast of my past hour.

In Custer State Park, we watched a line of buffalo and their calves march across a canyon field.  We passed alpine fields and beautiful hills of pine trees on our way to the Crazy Horse Memorial.  You could see him from a distance, but instead we paid $24 to see him just a little bit closer.  Once we were inside the gates, an introductory movie, artifacts, photographs, a gift shop, the sculptor’s home and studio, a marketplace of sorts, and the view of the mountain itself held us captive for about two hours longer than we thought it would.

largest sculpture in the world upon completionThe car was relatively quiet for the next hour.  Yes, electronics played a part, but so did the audio book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown.  The kids were actually listening now.  How can I be sure?  Every 15 minutes of so, Eli of the neon-orange cap would pipe up, “White people are jerks.”


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The Badlands

The license plate game is not a big hit.  In fact, on the three-hour, flat stretch of drive from Sioux Falls to Wall, SD, the kids absolutely refused to record the New York, Washington, and Mississippi plates we saw.  We’re in a power struggle.  Old fashioned road trip games versus the I-pad.  Who do you think is gonna win??

First official tourist stop of the trip:  Wall Drug.  I had built this up because I figured it would be the highlight of Eli’s trip.  He walked out of there with a neon orange baseball cap with an appliqué mule deer on the side.  I wasn’t disappointed.  (Tyler was a little alarmed.)  Good news:  we will be able to spot him when he runs away later because he is so fed up.

Stites thoroughly enjoyed the courtyard area with photo-ops galore (riding a bucking bronco, at the reigns of a Pony Express covered wagon, on a jackalope).  But it was hot.  Good thing Wall Drug is known for its free ice water.  We took them up on it and filled 5 water bottles and a jug as we prepared to embark down the road to the Badlands.

The Badlands National Park…the raison d’être for this trip.  At 103 degrees, I was a little concerned the car would overheat and we’d be stuck with a long walk back to the “civilization” of Wall.

As we drove through the National Grasslands on Sage Rim Road we looked behind us and saw a thunderstorm rolling in…and were delighted with the breeze that accompanied it.  We spied prairie dogs darting in and out of their holes and chirping to each other.  Stites tracked them for a bit, but he wasn’t armed with the rifles he had been toting at Wall Drug, so I figured they were mostly safe.

The next two hours brought bison, mountain goats, antelope, more prairie dogs, spontaneous climbs, and stunning panoramic views of the badlands.  It’s wild…on one side of the car there are flat grasslands and on the other are these multi-colored, striated, crumbling dirt/rock formations.  We couldn’t go more than a mile without hopping out of the car for another round of pictures.

Which is what led to the hinge of my door being ripped off.  I opened the driver-side door and the strong winds – which had moments earlier inspired us to yell to the kids who were balancing on a rocky precipice, “Come back.  NOW!” – caught the door and extended it beyond its intended capacity.  I was only alarmed for a moment when the door wouldn’t shut.  I just slammed it and prepared myself for entering the car Dukes of Hazard-style for the remainder of the trip.  It was fortunate that it closed, because that’s when the rain caught up to us.

We reluctantly left the Badlands and headed to Rapid City for dinner and a night at the only hotel we could find with a vacancy…which is a bit more of a challenge at 9:30 at night.  Super 8.  After squashing a bug and applying three coats of purple glitter nail polish to Harcourt’s right hand, I fell fast asleep.

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Road Trip to the Badlands: Day 1 in the car

“We’re leaving ‘very early’ on Sunday morning.”  Aunt Jan brought us Nords doughnuts to send us off.  She was surprised that there was no sign of life on Bassett Avenue at the “very early” hour of 8:00am.  We left at 9:45am.  With bellies full of sugary french fries and long johns.  After returning six “cowboy” movies (including Dances with Wolves and John Wayne’s version of True Grit) that I fantasize will magically make them interested in the trip we are about to take.

We made it as far as the rolling hills of New Albany, IN, before I wondered if this was all a big mistake.  Not because there was mutiny in the car, excuse me, minivan…that had already happened at home…but because, according to my well-laid out plans, we were facing a 12 hour day in the car, followed by another 8 hours Monday, three good days in the Badlands and the Black Hills, and then two more long days in the car on the way to Michigan.  Thank goodness for the allure of Lake Lelanau and Fishtown.  Eli says it is his second favorite place in the United States.

St. Louis, check. We saw the arch.  Kansas City, check.  We saw the exit to Liberty where the Whitsitts live.  We’re making great time.  Harcourt has finished one book and is mid-way through a second.  After a brief affair with Madlibs, which surprisingly featured the words “stupid” and “ugly” an inordinate number of times, Stites has used technology to turn his cousin Jackson into a smurf.  Eli has won a FIFA championship in his mind (and on his I-touch). I’ve got my top 40.  Next stop, Omaha, NE.

But wait…Iowa is flooded.  It’s overwhelming. It’s beautiful. It’s been this way for two months??  It dictates a detour because I-29 is flooded as well.  I’m a little concerned because it’s close to dinner time, and Tyler is watching 40 Year old Virgin on his I-Pad and cackling.  It’s annoying our children…mostly because they want to watch it too.  But the corn fields are stunning. I’m actually appreciative of the flood for diverting our route. And mindful of how many lives must have been devastated by it.

When we returned to the interstate at Council Bluff, IO, we happened on a restaurant called Smash Burgers.  It was tasty. And provided our first of what I hope are many beautiful sunsets. And the launching point for the final 3 hours of our day.  After one more detour, numerous one-lane sections of interstate lined with sandbags and pumps, and a serenade by the Dixie Chicks, we pulled into a Sioux Falls, SD, hotel at midnight.  We may not have left very early, but we arrived very late.


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