HEADING WEST: EXPLORING THE BADLANDS AND BLACK HILLS OF SOUTH DAKOTA
Eager to get out west, we left Wisconsin with rugged landscapes and mountains on our minds.
But there was no way we could pass through Minnesota without stopping to visit our dear friends, the O’dells. We met the O’dells almost four years ago while on a walk in a campground outside of Savannah, GA. We connected instantly, and since then we’ve met up numerous times at their house and in Colorado.
The O’dells live in rural Minnesota. Not only are they adventurous with their two-month-long RV trips that take them all over the United States each year, but they are adventurous with their pets too! I don’t know anyone else who keeps pet geese just for fun.
Thing 3 loved watching the turkeys, goats and geese roaming in their yard.
Our two days there were filled with deep conversation and hearty laughter. It was too soon that we were saying goodbye, but I know we’ll be back or maybe meet up somewhere while RVing in this great country of ours for more fun times.
Next we headed down to Minneapolis where we met up with our friends, the Weeds. We met this fun full time RVing family our first month on the road in Austin, Texas. Since then, we’ve met up in Washington DC, Indiana, and now Minneapolis. We are so thankful for these friendships that we’ve developed over the years on the road.
Before heading out we got to spend a few days with Brent’s parents at his brother’s house. The boys really enjoyed spending time with their grandma, uncle, aunt, and cousin.
A few days and many miles later, we put our jacks down in Interior, South Dakota.
The campground was peaceful and located just outside of Badlands National Park.
Located in southwestern South Dakota, Badlands National Park was first established as a national monument in 1939. In 1978 it was redesigned as a national park. The 244,000 acres of colorful buttes, spires, and pinnacles are surrounded by grassy prairie lands. It is home to one of the most complete fossil systems in North America.
The Badlands were named by the early Lakota people. They called it “mako sica” meaning “land bad” due to the extreme temperatures, exposure, and lack of water.
Regardless of the name, this harsh rugged terrain is teeming with life. Wild sunflowers bloom during the late summer and fall seasons.
Walking through the Badlands feels like waking up on another planet.
The layers of color are the result of the different layers of sediments deposited over many years.
Stay a few days if you can to catch the rock changing colors in the different light. There is an RV-friendly campground in the park and a few in the surrounding area.
Highway 240 is a popular scenic loop that goes through the park. There are some tight turns, but it’s RV friendly.
Near the Badlands is the infamous Wall Drug Store. Wall Drug was purchased as an act of faith by Ted Hustead in 1931. At the time, Wall was not a prosperous town, and only had 231 residents. Ted and his wife, Dorothy, said they would give the business five years to grow. Five years and two kids later, they were still barely scraping by when Dorothy got the idea to offer free ice water to travelers. Signs were made and posted and before long they had a steady stream of traffic and the rest is history.
Today, Wall Drug Store is a thriving tourist attraction that still offers free water and five-cent coffee. On a busy summer day Wall Drug Store can see up to 20,000 people!
It’s a fun stop for kids and adults alike!
Next stop was Rapid City, South Dakota. Rapid City was born out of the Black Hills Gold Rush in 1826.
I fell in love with Rapid City the first time we visited two years ago and even more in love with it this time. It’s a small friendly city with lots of cultural and historical western charm.
Tucked in along the streets filled with restaurants and shops, you’ll find the City of Presidents. The project, consisting of life-size bronze sculptures of our nation’s past presidents, began in 2000.
For a different kind of culture, visit Art Alley between 6th and 7th streets downtown.
The public art project began in 2005 and is a constantly changing and living display of free expression done by local and visiting artists.
Open to the public since 1936, Dinosaur Park is one of Rapid City’s oldest family attractions.
Located atop a hill, you can enjoy the life size replicas of dinosaurs and take in the surrounding views.
If you’re brave, try sliding down the brontosaurus’ tail!
A highlight and new-to-us stop was Custer State Park. It was suggested to us by a few Go RVing Instagram followers – and what an amazing suggestion. I have no idea how we missed it the first time we were here!
There are endless activities in Custer State Park including boating, swimming, fishing, wildlife viewing, hiking, horseback riding, rock climbing, buffalo jeep tours, hayrides, and even theater at the Black Hills Playhouse!
We camped in one of the beautiful campgrounds, Stockade Lake North, located in the park.
There were hiking trails from the campground to the lake.
Stockade Lake was a lovely place to picnic and spend an afternoon on the water.
Thing 3 took his first kayak ride. Unfortunately, he wasn’t crazy about the life jacket so it was a short ride.
He was happier playing on the beach with his dad at the edge of the water.
My favorite part of our stay in Custer State Park was the 18-mile wildlife loop known for its common sighting of buffalo, pronghorn, and prairie dogs. As suggested, we headed out at evening when wildlife sightings are most common and kept our fingers crossed for bison and a glimpse of the burros.
Our first sighting was a prairie dog “town” where we stopped to watch them poke their heads in and out of burrows and listened to their funny sounding high pitched barks. Unfortunately, they were too fast and far away for a good picture. Next, we saw a small herd of elk (above) roaming through the grasslands.
Much to our delight we came upon the burros!
The burros were just as happy to see people, as the people were to see them. Walking from car to car poking their noses in.
Not native to Custer State Park, the burros are decedents from the herd that once hauled visitors to the top of Harney Peak. Many years ago when the rides were discontinued, the burros were released into the park where they have thrived and obviously kept some of their fondness for humans.
Children and adults were delighted by the friendly little hoofed beggers.
We drove on, thrilled to have seen the burros, but still wanting to see the bison Custer State Park is famous for. A little disappointed after finishing the loop without seeing them, we turned on the road heading back to our campground.
Then we saw him! A lone bison was cruising along the side of the road just minutes away from our campground. He had a small wound on his shoulder and we assumed he had been in a tussle with another bison.
From our basecamp in Custer State Park, we visited the historic town of Custer. Custer was established in 1875 and by 1876 had over 10,000 residents. However, when gold was discovered near Deadwood in the northern Black Hills all but 14 residents left.
Today, Custer is a small, but thriving, mountain town of over 2000 residents.
Main Street is filled with tourists browsing the shops and restaurants and with so many great nearby attractions like Custer State Park, Crazy Horse Memorial, and Mount Rushmore, Custer is sure to continue thriving.
Speaking of Mount Rushmore, we couldn’t pass through the Black Hills without a stop at one of America’s most iconic sites, even if we had visited before!
Each year almost three million visitors visit Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Doane Robinson, known as the “Father of Mount Rushmore”, wanted to draw people to his state, and conceived the idea to create the huge carvings in the hills. Gutzon Borglum was commissioned to create the sculpture. It took 14 years for him and his team of 400 workers to finish the monument.
Just outside the memorial, we saw this rugged looking guy having dinner. Interestingly, Rocky Mountain Goats are not native to the Black Hills. They can be traced to six goats that were a gift to Custer State Park from Canada in 1924. Native or not they are one more reason to love the Black Hills!
This was our second visit to southwestern South Dakota. There is so much to do here that we keep coming back! Other must see places we visited our first time were:
Crazy Horse Memorial
Wind Cave National Park
Jewel Cave National Monument
Minutemen Missile National Historic Site
If you ever get the chance to hop in your RV and head to the Black Hills and surrounding area, do it! You won’t regret it! With the endless beauty and places to visit it’s one of our favorite areas in the country.
Have you been to the Black Hills region? What was your favorite attraction? Any places of interest I missed? We will hit them up next time we go back!