Below is a listing of things we did while visiting. Even if you can't make it to South Dakota, I hope that this information inspires you to consider a trip to your local National Parks as well!
Custer State Park - Buffalo Round-Up
Before I get in to detailing what we did do, I want to start this post by mentioning something that we DID NOT do (despite it sounding really interesting to watch): the Custer State Park buffalo round-up, which takes place the same weekend as the Crazy Horse Volksmarch. **Photo credit above to Google, not me!
Unbeknownst to me, every year at Custer the park managers bring in professional cowboys to round up the wild buffalo heard that resides in the park. Apparently, they do the round up to bring the entire herd into one location for corralling and counting.
I read some information online that explained the process, basically stating that this round-up allows the park to control the heard both in numbers and in health. The process makes sense for two reasons: (1) since Custer only has so much land mass, this yearly counting ensures that the herd does not over-populate itself and (2) capturing and counting every animal each year enables trained professionals to evaluate the health of each animal, offering treatment for sick/injured animals or vaccinations to those newly born into the group.
Since the herd is publicly held, being that they reside in the park and are gated in, any excess population is sold to other farmers in the area who keep buffalo and the profits of the sale go back into the park.
Wall Drug is one of those weird, gotta do it kind of places, so of course I had to start my trip day one by going there. Since it was a considerable drive from our hotel in Rapid City, it seemed to make sense that we'd drive there and let our little boy nap along the way, then when he woke up cruise through the shops.
That's pretty much exactly happened, with the entire visit being capped off with a feeding and a diaper change. Gotta love it when your kid's nap schedule fits into your travel itinerary.
Minuteman Missile Silo
My husband is a bit of an air & space nerd, so when we were done at Wall drug he mentioned this site was not too far away and he was curious to see it. Since we had no real agenda on the first day of our visit to South Dakota anyway, I was game for a visit. Off to stop two!
Overall this site is fairly small and there's not a TON to see, but what they do have is both interesting and bone chilling. Having never lived through the "duck and cover" era myself, just the sign in log was an eye opener. The fact that people were recalling having air raid nightmares as 6 year old children ... depressing.
However, visiting this museum (of sorts) definitely gives you a healthy dose of respect to the value of world peace. Especially when you see a map like this that notes the fallout ring of a 1 mega ton nuclear attack ... my home is just outside of the blue ring, slightly south west of the city of Eden Prairie.
By the way, my husband had no qualms pointing out that typical blasts these days are 15MT+. So in reality, we wouldn't even survive the "average nuke" to Minneapolis ... if it were to happen. That cheery thought gave me a stomach ache as I left the exhibit.
At least there was a gift shop. Nothing like good old American consumerism to wipe away the fears of another cold war or missile crisis, huh?
That gift shop actually brings me to my next topic...
The National Parks Passport Program
In the gift shop of the Minuteman Missile Silo, my husband and I noticed they were selling these little guys:
Now, I don't know if you are familiar with this program at all, but I certainly was not prior to this trip. You can watch the official video about the program here, but in a nut shell: the passport is around $10, includes little maps of various geographic areas in the US (IE Midwest, rockies, etc), and each geographic area has a small blurb talking about points of interest there. The novelty of the passport is that at most points of interest you can visit, there is a stamping station where you cancel your passport. Additionally, there are also special stickers that you can buy to put into the book (not all sites sell the stickers, so it’s an extra special find when you visit a site that sells one; you can see below the Badlands sold a sticker - it was $1.00).
Since this year is the centennial for the National Parks program and there are additional stamps available to commemorate the year, PLUS this is also the birth year of our son, we decided it would be a neat way to encourage our son to enjoy traveling as much as we do.
After picking up the above passport, our agenda for the weekend shifted focus a bit. Although we had already planned to visit the Badlands, now with passport in hand our goal was to also get a stamp there (of course, duh!).
The Badlands have always been a favorite of mine, simply because they are so unique. Even just driving through is an interesting and oddly relaxing experience. This year we even hiked the area ... sort of. We would have been more adventurous and REALLY explored the area had it not been for the fact that the volksmarch was the next day and we didn't want to wear ourselves (or our son) out too much. So basically, we parked at a couple of the designated view points and walked around on the marked trails provided. In the future though ... for sure, more exploring here.
Bonus points on this one, btw, because when we flew out on Monday we skimmed along the edge of the area. I was able to take the photo above from the plane.
Sturgis & Deadwood
The unique thing about South Dakota is how its daily life and culture has been influenced by the wild, wild west. In Deadwood you can see the historical side of that influence, while Sturgis continues the modern day wild west vibe via its yearly bike rally.
Of course, there are other cities in South Dakota that you can experience the wild west feeling at, too, but ... I'm a sucker for tourist traps. Sue me.
Since we were still in the Badlands, and Sturgis was closest of the two cities from there, we drove to Sturgis first (yes, it was a fair drive from the Badlands to Sturgis - but a napping baby and a scenic view made for an easy drive).
Now - neither my husband nor I are big into motorcycles. But, I have an uncle who over the years has religiously made the pilgrimage to Sturgis for the bike rally. Unfortunately, for various reasons, he ended up skipping that trip this year. So in his honor, albeit a bit late for the rally, we stopped in Sturgis briefly just to be lookey-loos. And, I do have to say, there's something to be said about visiting a city that's famous for some sort of event AFTER the event is well past having happened. Sturgis was pleasantly quiet, and we were one of maybe three cars visiting the Harley shop. Bonus points that all their bike rally gear was 50% off - merry Christmas, Uncle Mark. LOL!
After driving through Sturgis and trying to imagine this tiny town overwhelmed with a seedy crowd of bikers, we headed out towards Deadwood and did a similar driving tour that was equally brief. Then we turned around and started to head back towards Rapid City. **Photo credit above to Google, not me!
The Air & Space Musuem - Rapid City
Before we threw in the towel for the night, we decided to make one last stop in Rapid City itself. Lucky for us, we cruised right up to the Air & Space Museum at 4pm, which allowed just enough time to make a quick loop through the museum and plane displays outside prior to its closure at 4:30pm.
You might guess by our 30 minute visit that this museum is pretty small. If you made that assumption, you would be correct.
While the things inside are interesting to see, there's basically two or three large rooms of memorabilia to look at and that's about it. If you're an aviation nerd like my husband, you'll enjoy it. As for me ... well, I was most amused by my son's reaction when a jet simulator started making a noise like it was revving up an engine for take off (a little background on this one: my husband had sat outside with my son at the airport the day previous, while they were waiting for me to arrive for our departure for this trip, and my little boy was ... less than impressed ... by the loud noise of passing jets - his face in the museum was basically "oh no, not this again!").
As we were getting ready to leave, I pointed out the above plane to my husband, wondering out loud what the R on the tail was all about. With a deadpan face, he looked directly at me and said "it's a pirate plane, obviously".
Well, thanks for that one, husband. Good thing our first day of touring in South Dakota was complete, because obviously one of us needed a beer and a break from all the driving we'd been doing in the car. Heh!
On our second day in South Dakota, after completing the volksmarch, we were back at it with the passport. Since neither my husband nor myself had ever been to Jewel Cave, we decided to hit that up next. **Photo credit above to Google, not me!
Of course, with just minutes before we were to arrive the cave, our little boy fell asleep in the car. D'oh! Being that neither of us even knew what this site had to offer, my husband suggested that he stay in the car with the air on while our son napped, and that I go inside to determine what to do next.
As I made my way up to the visitor's center, I already had a feeling that this location was not going to be baby friendly. What lead me to think that? Well ... perhaps the sign with a box next to it that was posted well outside of the entrance. First off, the sign had information on it about how you cannot have any packs or bags on your person once inside the cave ... that did not fit inside the box. And the box, by the way, was about the size of a commercially produced loaf of bread. Great, I thought - we had been carrying our little boy around in a pack most of the weekend, so that was obviously not going to work here.
Once inside, my concern was confirmed. To quote the website verbatim: Children may NOT be carried on any portion of the Scenic Tour route.
Well, there went that visit. Oh well! For that day, I simply took a brief loop through the free informational museum and grabbed a passport stamp before departing. Going back to the car, I told my husband the situation at hand, and we both agreed that we'd save this stop for a future visit (when our son is old enough to appreciate it ... and walk through it on his own).
Wind Cave National Park
Since Jewel Cave was a bust and we had a baby sleeping on board, my husband and I both agreed a driving tour of Wind Cave might be a more viable option to pursue. I knew nothing about this park, so once we got to the entrance we just followed the signs to the visitor's center and hoped for the best.
Lucky for us, the rangers at the park were incredibly helpful. When I explained we had a sleeping infant in the car and wanted to (hopefully) take a scenic drive through the park that would allow him to continue napping, the Ranger handed me a free map and highlighted a few potential driving routes.
With the Park Ranger's advice in hand, my husband and I opted to drive north through the park (taking 385 leaving the visitor's center and heading to 87) and then followed the gravel road loop through the far side of the park (the road marked with a 5). This path eventually dumped us out on the south side of the park, with an easy transition back to Rapid City (5 fed into 101, which got us to 79 - a straight shot back to Rapid City). If you're wondering - this entire route was perfectly fine in a sedan rental car, no off roading required.
Though Wind Cave also had ... surprise, surprise ... a cave we could tour, skipping that for the above scenic drive was actually a lot of fun. There were quite a few nice spots along the drive to park and take in various overlooks, and we saw several buffalo roaming the park throughout (as you can see in the sub par photo I took and posted above).
The most entertaining part to me, though, was when we exited off 87 to 5. Wow was there a TON of prairie dogs there. Prairie dogs were everywhere!! We even parked on the side of the road for a little bit to just watch them scamper around - which resulted in one dog actually yelling at us through the car window (ok, squeaking). Hysterics. I loved it.
On our drive out of Wind Cave, our little boy was still sleeping. To this point he had already taken quite the extended nap (from Jewel to Wind and up 79), so we decided to hedge our luck that he'd wake up a happy baby and be game for one last stop. Cutting off 79, we headed towards Keystone to see Mount Rushmore ... with the goal of getting the final stamp for our little guy's passport, of course.
As you can tell by the above photo, our bet paid off. With a happy baby in hand, we got one last stamp for his passport and spent a few minutes enjoying the monument. Plus, we even had some time for a snack! Well, us adults who can eat solid food, anyway- lol. In the cafeteria, my husband had a pie made from locally harvested rubarb, berries and apples. And since supposedly Thomas Jefferson had his own recipe for ice cream, and they were all about pushing that at their ice cream booth, I was down for some praline pecan.
Once we had eaten our snacks and collected the last of the 5 available stamps in the South Dakota Black Hills area, our trip drew to a close. With a quiet evening back at our hotel and one last dinner out, the next morning we packed up and headed for home.
But of course, now we have this passport in hand so ... where to next?! Ha! Time will tell ...