In 2015, we decided to visit the Black Hills of South Dakota. I'd been there as a kid and suggested it to Jesse as our first big road trip (out of Minnesota) with Riley. He seemed slightly reluctant at first, but warmed to the idea... and once we were there he declared that he wanted to come back the following year since he liked it so much. That first year we did a lot of the typical touristy things for that area (Corn Palace, Wall Drug, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, etc) and Jesse wanted to go back to things like camp and hike.
So the following year he went with his buddies and they found themselves exploring the land, driving off the beaten path, and camping - all things we didn't really do the year before. They loved it so much they went back the following year as well.
I hadn't planned on going back as a family so soon, but Riley didn't have any childcare the week before school started so Jesse suggested that we go to South Dakota again and I easily agreed.
Our first day was mostly filled with travel, but we made a point to work in some stops to break up the long drive to the Badlands, where we would be staying for the first couple nights.
Our first stop (after lunch) was Falls Park in Sioux Falls. I remember visiting this area years ago, but this time it seemed so much different (and larger) than I remember. This was the perfect spot to stop and stretch our legs in the middle of a long drive.
Last time we traveled to the Black Hills, we stayed in Chamberlain overnight. A friend suggested that we check out the view from the visitor center, but we neglected to do so. He was so adamant about it, that I felt we better stop this time and it turns out that the visitor center was well worth the stop. There is a short hiking trail that leads to a fantastic view of the Missouri river and beyond, a beautiful statue, and an information center that includes the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. It was a short stop for us, but far more entertaining that your typical rest stop.
We planned to arrive in the Badlands a little later in the day with the hope that we'd miss most of the 97 degree weather forecasted for that day. What we didn't expect was that it would be raining - although, it didn't really surprise us because it rains almost every time we go camping. As we drove into the park, the rain started to taper off a bit so we decided to drive around while it was still drizzling before settling into camp. We stopped at an overlook where we admired the view in front of us, and as we turned back to the truck, we saw a beautiful rainbow (which turned into a double rainbow. We drove down the road a bit and checked out the Fossil Exhibit Trail.
The great thing about the Badlands is that you don't have to stay on the trails - you can explore where ever you want (as long as you are mindful of things like rattle snakes and cliffs, of course). We started on the boardwalk around Fossil Trail and then went off to explore a little before the sun went down too far. Then we headed back to the visitor center which has exhibits and a bookstore (which was closed after 5 pm) and informative staff to help you with your questions.
We camped at the Cedar Pass Campground which is just around the corner from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and the Cedar Pass Lodge. It has flush toilets, and water (but no showers). The bathrooms were nicely lit up for my middle of the night bathroom run which was greatly appreciated by this scaredy cat. Also, a big shout out to the full moon for lighting my way.
This is the first trip I've taken where I've really used Yelp to help find places to eat. I'd used it before, but it was usually when we needed to eat right away and I wouldn't take the time to really research our options, but this time I started searching at least a half hour out to determine the best choice by reading the reviews and I think it paid off somewhat. I will say that I wasn't that impressed with many of the places we ate at the previous time we visited South Dakota and I didn't have high hopes this time either. I knew that we'd be eating food from our cooler, and thought we'd eat more camp food, but Jesse decided not to bring his camp stove. In retrospect, I really wish we had as some of those freeze dried camping meals are far better than the restaurant food we ate.
At any rate, our first food stop brought us to Ode to Food and Drink in Sioux Falls which came highly recommended on Yelp. When we pulled up to the building, Jesse thought we'd gotten lost as it wasn't obvious there was a restaurant there. Ode is housed inside a business building and isn't far from Falls Park. While Riley's grilled cheese was a little too crunchy, Jesse and I really enjoyed our meals. I'm not a Bloody Mary drinker, but they had an impressive 'make your own Bloody Mary' bar.
The Badlands National Park has a number of activities that you can partake in as part of the park system. We did a couple of them and I would recommend you do too if you visit this park. On this day, we went to the morning geology walk with park volunteer, Paul. It started promptly at 8:30 at Door Trail which was a short drive from our campsite. Paul shared that he lives in the Badlands for 6 months and in Minneapolis for the other 6 months. He noted that he's been going to the Badlands for the last 40 years and now is a volunteer for the park.
He led us down the boardwalk and shared all sorts of informative facts while also being down to earth and funny. Once we reached the end of the boardwalk, he encouraged us to follow the trail to the end which was marked by yellow poles. He also assured us that we were allowed to go anywhere in the park, but to use our heads and be safe.
This day was supposed to be another 90+ degree day so we hoped to get in another quick hike before it got too hot. Within the same parking area as Door trail, you can access Window trail and Notch trail. They recently re-opened Notch trail after repairing a ladder so we decided to do that next, but I wish we would have explored Window trail as it's a short one, and had another great view.
Notch trail is about 1.5 miles, and includes a ladder you need to climb up (and later, down), narrow walk ways along cliffs, and pretty much no shade. It says it's good for kids over 7 and that's probably fairly accurate. We were behind a couple with younger kids and they were okay, but held up the line as they had to navigate the trails a little more carefully. I think we all agreed that while the view was great, the ladder was the most fun on this trek.
After we were done hiking we knew that we needed to find some cooler spots to hang out. We were already burning up and it was only 72 degrees out. It's amazing what the sun, with no shade, can feel like when you are in a desert like environment. We had no intention of going to Wall Drug this trip, but thought we might find some relief from the sun. We drove down the Badlands Loop road and stopped at a few overlooks along the way. We'd heard great things about the Roberts Prairie Dogs, and it was nice, but we preferred the Ranch Store which we visited on our previous trip.
We eventually made our way into Wall, walked around, took some pictures, bought a couple t-shirts, and then left. Basically, we wasted an hour or so of our day here. If you've never been, by all means... make the stop, but once is enough.
On the way back to the Badlands, we circled around to stop at the Ranch Store which has prairie dogs that you can feed. There didn't seem to be nearly as many prairie dogs this time, but I'm guessing that they might have been hanging out in their holes where it was much cooler. It was at least 90 by this time and my skin felt like it was roasting under the sun. Since this is a place where you can buy unsalted peanuts and feed them to the prairie dogs, they were a smidge more portly than your typical prairie dog. We went into the Ranch Store which is a gift shop and bought a stuffed prairie dog and chatted with the guy behind the counter. We learned a bunch about their store and the other prairie dogs in the park and the impact of the re-introduction of the Black-Footed Ferret to the Badlands (the primary food for the ferrets are prairie dogs). He also noted that National Geographic came out to the Badlands and spent days trying to get footage of prairie dogs and finally just went to the Ranch Store since those prairie dogs are more comfortable with humans and cameras.
While, I wanted to explore more hiking trails of the Badlands, it was just too hot for us so we decided to drive off the beaten path. Jesse discovered some trails when he came out here with the guys and suggested we drive on a couple of them. We started with Indian Creek Trail where we followed a switch back down into a field where we initially saw some other trucks and ATVs, but after awhile it was just open fields with occasional groupings of cattle... and not behind fences - we were in their fields. Basically, we followed a winding road that snaked through a field and the weaving Indian Creek. I'm guessing we passed through the creek at least 10 times, and by the end of the trail we had to open and close two barb wire fences. Somewhere along this ride, we stopped and walked over cow poop to pee as a family under three lone trees. Family bonding moment. Weirdly, this trail was one of my favorite moments of this trip. How often do you drive on a trail that you aren't sure you should really be on in the first place? It felt wonderful to be in a space that was largely untouched.
But we weren't done with driving on rough road. Next we headed over to Sheep Mountain Table with the hope of seeing the sun lower over the beautiful barren and jagged horizon typical of the Badlands. Again we we weaved our way on the trail - this time heading up between rock formations and then through open prairie and finally settling in the grassy prairie at the top, but overlooking a vista of stone. The wind was fierce and the direction of the setting sun wasn't ideal for the grand pictures I may have wanted, but it was my little family alone in what felt like the middle of nowhere and it was such a great feeling. These are the types of adventures I need to fill my soul.
Our day wasn't over yet as we had to head back down the mountain, through the ghost town of Scenic, back through the Badlands to our campsite. We set up the tent and then walked over to the amphitheater for the evening program. We arrived just as the ranger said " now you know the difference between a meteor, a meteoroid, and a meteorite" - I still need to look that up, but the rest of the presentation was quite interesting. It was followed by a night sky viewing. The guy who led this talk had this amazing hand held laser pointer that reached to the stars and the planets. "Here's Mars, Saturn...”. It was pretty cool and would have been way better if the sky wasn't mostly clouded over. We left a little early as we were all beat and walked back to the campsite under a blood red moon which I'm told is because of the fires. Speaking of which, there was a constant haze while we were in the Badlands.
We spent a second night at the Cedar Pass Campground. One note about our camping set up - we have a roof top tent, which is awesome, but also means that you have to close up the tent each time you plan to drive somewhere. It's a nuisance, but we have a good system in place to make it not so annoying. It also means that you usually have everything with you where ever you go and sometimes that's nice.
We started off our day at the Cedar pass Lodge for breakfast. The building has a restaurant and a large store where you can get everything from snacks to trinkets to wine to higher end art items. Oddly, it already had Christmas trees up (and it wasn't the only place we saw this), but I suppose they see tourists and think they might buy some of this stuff for future Christmas gifts. As far as breakfast went, it was ok. My food didn't come out looking that impressive, but it tasted fine and gave us a good start for our day.
For lunch, I searched Yelp for places to eat in Wall, but nothing stood out and after reading the reviews, I thought we would just be disappointed in any choice we made. Instead, we opened up the cooler and made a few sandwiches which we ate at our truck.
Since we found ourselves on the top of Sheep Mountain Table around dinner time, we had a mishmash picnic of items from the cooler... salami, cheese, apples, cucumbers, cracker, tortilla, bars... Again, I was more pleased with this option than eating crappy food at a restaurant... and this is saying something as I love to eat out and have someone else make me food.
On this day we left the Badlands to head to the Black Hills. Before we left, Riley finished up her Junior Ranger packet and handed it into the visitor center to get her badge. It was completely adorable and made me want to visit all the national parks and become a junior ranger myself.
Once in the Black Hills, we'd hoped to spend some time in downtown Rapid City playing at the Main Street Square Water Fountains and then walk around a bit, but it was a much cooler day and the thought of getting wet had no appeal. We did drive into Rapid City for lunch and thought about walking around to see the president statues, but decided to move on to our next stop instead.
One of the activities we wanted to do last time we were here was to go explore a cave, but we never worked it into the schedule. This time we made sure to add it to the list, and after a bit of research, decided to explore Wind Cave at Wind Cave National Park. Wind Cave was designated the first cave and the seventh park to be a national park back in 1903. We booked the Natural Entrance tour which took a little over 1 hour to complete. Dallas, our ranger/tour guide did a great job of explaining the history of the cave.
Once our tour was complete, we hopped in the car and drove around Wind Cave National Park, stopping at road side overlooks and finally ending at Rankin Ridge Nature Trail. This hiking trail was only a 1 mile loop, but you hike upwards so it may feel like a little longer than that at first. We took the trail side up to the fire overlook (which is closed) and then the service road down. We were able to encounter beautiful views and the top and spotted a buffalo on the way down. From Wind Cave National Park, we drove up the western side of Needles Highway to our next camping site where Jesse went to bed early and Riley and I played the most back and forth game of Uno Wilderness ever.
This was our first night of camping in the Black Hills, but the last night of camping on this trip. Jesse looked at a number of sites, and selected Pactola Lake Campground. As expected, this was quite the change from our last couple nights where there were no trees. Here, we were surrounded by large Pondarosa Pines and were perched up a slight hill with a view of the lake. My fear of having to walk to the bathroom in the middle of the night was heightened here seeing I'd have to walk through a forest to get to a bathroom that didn't have any electricity. Unknowingly, Jesse came to the rescue when he got up in the middle of the night and decided to pee in the empty lot next to us. I ran out to join him and then snuck back into the tent without being mauled by some wild animal that lurks around populated campgrounds.
We decided to attempt breakfast at the Cedar Pass Lodge again. Still pretty much the same experience except that they were out of milk and yogurt so Riley ended up eating toast instead of her first and second choice.
On this day, we tried to test our luck by going to some restaurants that we visited 3 years ago. For lunch we stopped at Que Pasa which a friend had originally recommended. I remember that we liked it, but Jesse didn't think so. Fortunately, I captured our last visit in a blog post and was able to verify that we enjoyed our experience... and this time was no different. If anything, I would say our waiter this time was even better.
For dinner we ate at Bumpin' Buffalo in Hill City. Again, this had been recommended by a friend and we loved it last time. This time was completely different, at least for Jesse and I. Riley loved it, but I think that was mostly because our booth had a TV with remote and she got to watch Wheel of Fortune - although she also said she looooved her runny mac and cheese. My food was sufficient, but not great, the restaurant was super cold, Jesse dropped a knife on the floor only to have the waitress pick it up and set it on the table, and his order was totally messed up. On the positive side, they gave Jesse his meal for free.
Our hope was to spend some time around Pactola Lake this morning since we camped here. We had access to a beach and there was a hiking trail nearby, but it was chilly and started raining so we packed up camp and headed out fairly early.
After breakfast, we stopped at Sylvan Lake for a short hike. This was one of my favorite stops on our last trip so I was happy to come back. I remembered it as an easy hike so I threw my tennis shoes on, but I probably should have put my hiking shoes on as there are a number of rock formations that you will want to climb on and it's good to have shoes with a firm grip.
After our 1 mile loop of the lake, we embarked on our adventure through Custer Park. We started with driving Needles Highway and then did the wildlife loop. We took a slightly different route through the wildlife loop (dirt road) thinking it would be the path less traveled by tourists, but we came across a field of bison... and tourists and began to wonder if the rangers gave people the scoop on where to find animals.
This was our first night in a hotel. I wasn't necessarily ready to let go of camping, but I was looking forward to a shower and laundry. We stayed at the Golden Spike Best Western which is where we stayed 3 years ago. In that time, they've added on some rooms and unfortunately got rid of their restaurant. They still had a sizable continental breakfast, but I remember eating a tasty chicken salad - twice - the last time I was here so that was a bit disappointing.
This time Jesse did the searching for breakfast and said that Hill City Cafe had good reviews. When we arrived, they were pretty busy so I took that as a good sign. Our waitress was on top of things, but I wouldn't want to eat there again. My food was a little too greasy - even Riley's toast came out with a bright yellow coating on it. She also ordered fruit which they told her she could pick out from the breakfast buffet and they had a nice, fresh selection. Jesse loved his omelet so you could say this place ended up with mixed reviews from our family.
Last time we were here and traveled through Custer we stopped at State Game Lodge for lunch. Jesse and I both remember the buffet as the most delicious home style cooked meal we'd had in a long time. I figured it was partly because we were STARVING at the time, but we wanted to give it another try and hoped it wouldn't let us down. Luckily it was as wonderful the second time as the last time... and we were only slightly starving this time.
The Custer State Park loop can take a significant part of the day, so by the time we checked into our hotel, we were sort of done for the day. We walked to the grocery/liquor store next door to pick up some wine and then ate dinner out of our cooler.
Riley had indicated that she wanted to pan for gold while in the Black Hills, and while it seemed like a gimmicky thing to us, we couldn't pass up providing this experience for our daughter. We headed into Keystone to the Big Thunder Gold Mine, paid for our pan, got a lesson, and started panning away. We searched for minuscule pieces of gold until Riley was sufficiently bored/satisfied and then went on to our next activity. This place also has mine tours, but we passed since we already did a cave tour.
Since we were in Keystone, Jesse and Riley were determined to do the alpine slide at Rushmore Tramway Adventures. They weren't open quite yet so we walked around town and saw one too many pro gun shirts and over priced crap for sale. Keystone is a bit of a tourist trap and not really our thing so I was grateful when Riley and Jesse were able to do their alpine slide. I sat at the bottom because I can't do slides and enjoyed a moment to myself until I heard the familiar sounds of my kid screaming in delight coming down the hill.
After a regroup and a stop at the hotel, we decided to get in another hike. We'd been going on shorter hikes this far so I was determined to get in a slightly longer (read: more than a mile and a half) trek. I'd been trying to convince Jesse that we should do the Black Elk Peak Trail, but I gave up convincing him we could do it because I knew I wasn't up to it this trip. Leading up to our trip I wasn't feeling all that great and knew that I was in flare up territory for my chronic pain and migraine issues. While I'd enjoyed our hikes so far, they were harder than 1 mile walks should be. So in the end I crossed a 7 mile hike off the list and went for the 2.8 mile Osprey Trail. Osprey Trail is located along Pactola Lake and is the trail we would have taken the morning before had it not been raining. It has a couple loops so you can quit after one or do both as we did.
At this point of the trip I feel we were starting to peter out. I think we may have all been missing the camping life and were trying to avoid paying for all the touristy things they offer in this area (Mount Rushmore, Reptile Gardens, Bear Country, Old MacDonald Farm...). Since we were in Hill City, we did walk over to the railroad museum on our way to get a well deserved ice cream treat after our hike. On the way back we stopped at a couple of the local stores that sell outdoorsy clothes, but we went back to the hotel empty handed.
Once back at the hotel, we participated in an activity Riley had been waiting for all week - the pool! Well, Riley and I went to the pool while Jesse stayed back in the room to read. Our hotel room was right next to the pool room which was quite convenient. We started at the indoor pool, but it was freezing (even colder than I remember it last time), and quickly decided to check out the outside pool. It was only about 72 degrees out, but the pool outside was nice and warm and we had it all to ourselves.
Another night at the Golden Spike Best Western.
One of our favorite reasons for staying at this hotel was because of the continental breakfast. It's pretty large as far as free breakfasts go and satisfied all three of us.
In between loops of the Osprey Trail we raided our cooler for food to fuel up for lunch and then later stopped for Dairy Queen in Hill City for an afternoon treat.
The night before we had talked about going to a winery, but Jesse said he wasn't hungry so I reluctantly indulged in a dinner from the cooler. So when our last night in the Black Hills came around I knew we couldn't pass this up. Jesse was on board to visit the same winery we went to the last time we were here - Prairie Berry Winery. We remembered the food being great and that they were family friendly. We started with a wine tasting and were surprised that our favorites were wines that were a little different. I ended up getting a glass of Poker Face which tasted a bit like a Pina Colada and Jesse got the Pumpkin Bog which tastes like... pumpkin, a little. We fed Riley from the cooler before hand, but they do have kid's meals here, and then Jesse and I split the sauerkraut and sausage pizza which was AMAZING. I've haven't been that impressed with many of our meals in South Dakota, but both times we've been here our food has been fantastic.
This was our travel home day. We were going to take it slow and make some stops, such as the Ingalls Homestead in De Smet, SD, but once we got on the road we decided we just wanted to go home. If I had to do it again, I probably would have taken this day slow. In the end, we ended up with a cracked windshield (thanks semi that had rocks flying off it's bed), and gas spilled all over the outside of the truck and Jesse's shoes (thanks gas pump that didn't stop pumping when the tank was full).
Home! - But if we had split this into a 2 day trip home our plan would have been to camp this night.
One more time at the continental breakfast, a stop at Ruby Tuesday's in Mitchell, and a mishmash of limited food once we got home at 7 pm.
We usually aren’t people who vacation in the same spot multiple times, and I can’t say we’ll be back soon, but I also didn’t think we’d be back this year… If we return, I would continue to build off what we did this time - camping, getting off the beaten path, hiking, getting away from people and concrete, and enjoying nature. South Dakota continues to surprise me.