Field Notes 001: South Dakota

Sep 8, 2020

After the year that 2020 has been, we needed a serious getaway that was close to home and would allow us to check some national parks off our list. That place: South Dakota!

We were going to AirBnB it, but we were making last minute plans right at the end of Sturgis, so lodging was limited. We ended up borrowing my parent’s camper and hit the road for our first ever family camping trip. Go big or go home, right?

South Dakota is just the next state over from Iowa, but our trip over to Rapid City ended up being around 12 hours total. Thankfully, our boys do awesome on car rides so the trip was a breeze!

We had a quick stop along the way at the world’s ONLY Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD – I’ve been there a few times in my life but not as an adult and I really don’t remember it being just a huge souvenir shop, but my kiddos loved it so it was a win!

Our next destination: Rapid City! We checked into our campsite and got all set up at the American Buffalo Resort – would definitely stay there again! So close to so many things to see. Our campsite was under a canopy of pines and it was a dream.

On day one we headed north. Our first stop was Harriet and Oak for coffee and breakfast burritos and part of me was wishing I was there to work because the coffee shop was a dream. From there we drove through Sturgis just to see what it was like and then stopped by Spearfish to visit the D.C. Booth National Fish Hatchery. Justin and Holden love fishing, so it was neat to see the hatchery and feed the trout!

After Spearfish, we drove out to Sundance, Wyoming to see the Vore Buffalo Jump – it was closed due to COVID but basically its a sinkhole that Native Americans would run buffalo into and then salvage whatever parts they wanted. It was used by multiple tribes over time and has the remnants of over 10,000 buffalo. Pretty crazy!

After Wyoming, we stopped in Deadwood! Justin watched the TV series and movie last year, so it was neat to see the town that was home to Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane, and we drove up to Mount Moriah Cemetery (Holden got a kick out of the name since it’s close to my name) to see the gravesites of Bill and Jane. Holdy and Justin hiked up the hill to see the grave of Seth Bullock. Henry and I sat in the cemetery and I Googled if it was haunted. It definitely is.

We ate lunch in town and grabbed some moonshine at Full Throttle to bring back home with us. We stopped in Lead quick on the way back and ran through a few antique stores, then it was back to Rapid City. One the way we drove past the Chapel in the Hills and the Dinosaur Park (fun for the boys and FREE!) before we grabbed pizza and headed back the campsite.

Day two was the real start to our adventure. Up until this point, we had not seen the real beauty South Dakota had for us. We were about to be blown away.

Our first stop: coffee and bagels from Grapes & Grinds in Keystone. LOVED this place – so friendly and delicious. B52 for the win! Then we drove south to Mount Rushmore. Again, I had been there a few times but had never let the complexity and the beauty sink in, and it was the first time for everyone else. We were beyond excited to see the faces.

Such a site to see. We walked the Presidential Trail and learned more about the process that went into carving the faces, then we got our National Parks + Monuments Passports stamped on our way out. We would definitely love to go back!

Then we headed to Custer State Park. For some reason, one of my bucket list items was to see a herd of buffalo in the wild, and I heard this was the place to do it. THEY. WERE. RIGHT.

We drove down Needles Highway through the skinny tunnels and discovered the mountain-like views that Custer State Park had to offer. We felt like we were in Colorado and we loved it.

We drove the Wildlife Loop through the backside of Custer State Park thinking that would be the best place to see buffalo, but we only saw a random few and some pronghorns, donkeys and prairie dogs. I started to get a little bummed.

Just when we came over the hill to head south towards Wind Cave National Park and leave Custer State Park, our jaws dropped. More buffalo than I had ever seen in my life, blocking the roadway and causing a big traffic jam. The whole family screamed in excitement.

A dream come true. Hundreds of them, just hanging out. I was amazed.

Instead of turning north and getting caught in the buffalo traffic jam, we were happy that we were headed south to Wind Cave. On the way there though, we got stopped by a smaller herd of buffalo hanging out in the road. They were close enough to touch, and at that point we all got a little nervous and rolled up the windows in our truck! I thought for sure we would get a horn in the side of the truck. We made it through unscathed.

Next up: Wind Cave National Park. The caves were closed, unfortunately, so it was a quick drive through. We didn’t get our passports stamped because the visitor’s center was closed too, but that is just an excuse to go back! Rolling prairie and lots of wildlife were fun to see though. After a super full day, we headed back to Rapid City and ate dinner at the Firehouse Brewery – our whole family loved it!

On day three, we adventured some more. Next stop was Wall Drug in Wall, SD and Badlands National Park.

If you’re not familiar with Wall Drug, let’s just say they have a killer advertising department. With billboards and signs across the entire state and beyond (our little town in eastern Iowa even used to have one – I think as a joke but nevertheless…). It’s a must-see and a can’t miss (literally), one of the world’s most well-known tourist attractions.

We grabbed our souvenirs and got the classic pictures – including the one on the giant Jackaloupe.

After Wall Drug, we were off to Badlands National Park. Again, I had been there and seen pictures but I was NOT ready for the beauty we were about to see.

Once again, we drove over the hill and the entire car yelled WHAAAAAAAAT?!

Maybe it was the vast difference from what we saw the day before, or maybe it was the beauty but we were BLOWN away by the Badlands. Miles of blue skies and cliffs and stone.

We couldn’t get over it. You can actually hike anywhere in Badlands National Park, I’d love to go back when the boys are older and hike and camp in the park. What a dream.

On our way out we stopped at the visitor’s center to stamp our passports and it became one of our favorite moments of the whole trip. The line to get in was long but there was a tent with a park ranger outside with no line. We stamped our passes and the park ranger asked Holden and Henry if they wanted to be sworn in as junior rangers – Holden’s literal dream.

The raised their right hands, repeated the pledge after Ranger Erin and got their badges. Holden had brought his junior ranger vest and hat from another adventure, so he got to add his badge and use the tiny Bandlands Park Ranger pencil (his favorite thing from the whole trip). It was an honor to witness something so special.

After the Badlands, we started to head back to Rapid City but were intrigued by the Minuteman Missile National Historical Site, it ended up being one of our favorite stops. During the Cold War, the US had tons of nuclear missles stationed throughout different parts of the country, and South Dakota housed 1,000 of them – hidden in plain sight. We stopped at Delta-09 and listened to a guy tell us all about it. So cool to learn about!

On our way back, we did a quick pass through the Dinosaur museum. Probably wouldn’t do that again but it was a fine way to waste an hour!

That wrapped up our trip – after that it was back to the campsite to pack up and eat dinner before we headed to bed.

What. A. Trip. South Dakota, you rocked. We will be back!

Have you discovered South Dakota yet? Share your favorite parts in the comments!

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  1. Oh my goodness, I can only imagine how excited Holdy was to become a Junior Park ranger. Such a great photo of him in his hat + vest. Badlands is definitely on my list, but might be a little higher now that I saw your pics!!

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