June 19, 2007

Road Trip to South Dakota

National Geographic Traveler is the only magazine I subscribe to, and when it comes in the mail I check the contents immediately. What destinations did they write about this time? The newest issue came with several good articles, including "Zigzagging the Black Hills".

I smiled when I read the article because it reminded me of our first big road trip with the boys (they were 6, 4 and almost 2 years old), although our itinerary varied a bit from Traveler's. It was a 9 hour drive from our house to Badlands National Park with 1 hour stops in Sioux Falls for a picnic lunch and in Mitchell to visit the Corn Palace. We arrived in the Badlands in time for a short hike before dinner.

We decided to hike the window trail near the northeast entrance. The boys loved the climbing, and we had to hold on to our youngest who thought he could do whatever his brothers did. After dinner we did some more exploring. The striped sandstone hills were amazing to see as the sun set. If you don't have young children with you, there are more difficult trails to hike. My brother wrote a post about his experience hiking the Badlands.

The next morning, we drove on to Wall Drug. Kitsch at its best, but the boys had a great time. The rest of the day we visited Reptile Gardens, Crystal Cave, Storybook Island and Dinosaur Park, all fun places to bring children.

I enjoyed Crystal Cave the most. We went on a nature walk through the woods and to a replica Indian Village. The boys kept stopping to smell the Ponderosa pine trees. The trees smell like vanilla, and we kept taking deep breaths as we walked along. The cave itself was interesting, and a fun tour for all of us. The picture above shows us feeling the rough, scratchy walls. They are made of the sufactants they use in Comet and Ajax scouring powders. Our guide told us that a long time ago, they used it in toothpaste, but stopped when they realized it took off the tooth enamel!

Another day we visited Mount Rushmore National Monument and hiked the Presidential Trail. It was a beautiful walk, but a lot of steps for young boys (and parents who had to hold them when they got tired). The visitor center had interesting displays about the monument. The boys liked the one where you can push down on a replica detonator and see a video of a blast on the mountain. You can also visit sculptor Gutzon Borglum's studio.

After Mount Rushmore, we went to Hill City where we visited the Black Hills Museum of Natural History and ate lunch at a deli. From Hill City, you can go to the Crazy Horse Memorial. Long lines and not so patient boys kept us from stopping. We drove on to the Needles Highway in Custer State Park. The road is a series of winding turns past rock formations called needles. A great place to stop for a picnic is Sylvan Lake. NG Traveler recommends a turnoff at the Cathedral Spires Trail for a 3 mile hike, and we also liked the pullout at Needles Eye. If you go, be sure to allow for stops at scenic overlooks. It took us over 2 hours to drive the short distance from Hwy 385 to the Wildlife Loop and we could have easily spent more time.

The Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park was a nice drive. Watch for the burros. I was leaning out the car window taking a picture of the burro at the car ahead of us when I caught site of one out of the corner of my eye. It startled me because its head was less than a foot from mine. The burro had sneaked up from behind, looking for food. Doug and the boys thought it was hilarious.

We saw the bison at the end of the loop. I was about to video a huge bull right outside my window, maybe 30 feet away in the grass, when it started to charge. I sucked in my breath and Doug said one of those words the boys took great delight in repeating. He tried to pull the car forward (we were in a line of cars), when the bison stopped right at the edge of the road and stared at us before walking away. It was a heart stopper, and the adrenaline was rushing through us. From my journal, "He had a huge head and he was right there. All the people in the cars on the other side of the road were startled, then they started laughing. 'Did it scare you?' someone called out. Once the shock wore off, we laughed, too."

After the park, we drove Iron Mountain Road back up to Keystone. It is a fun road with tunnels and pigtail turns. Coming from the south, we had great views of Mount Rushmore framed by the tunnels in front of us instead of behind us.

After dinner, we drove on to Sturgis where we visited Bear Butte State Park. The visitor center had closed, and no other cars were in the parking lot. We hiked halfway to the top of Bear Mountain, walking past trees decorated with prayer cloths. It was a beautiful walk, so quiet and peaceful as the sun began to set. Park signs had cautioned us that this was a sacred place for many Native Americans. The signs requested that visitors show respect to anyone who was there for religious purposes by not talking and not taking pictures. We didn't see anyone, but we were very quiet anyway. Even the boys were affected by the mood of this special place.

This day had way too much packed into it. In hindsight, I should have broken it up more so we could spend more time at the different places. Of course, young children can get bored easily, so it worked out to keep them moving. Older children and adults would probably do better to break these activities up into at least two days. I would have liked to visit Crazy Horse and spend more time at Mount Rushmore, Needles Highway and Sylvan Lake.

During our road trip, we also visited Deadwood and Mt. Moriah Cemetery. If you have any interest in the wild west, this is a must see. The Adams Museum was very interesting, with three floors of historical artifacts. The boys enjoyed it, but they were too young to really appreciate everything that was there. I could have stayed for much longer than we did.

From Deadwood, we drove through Spearfish Canyon on the scenic byway. Take your time, because it is a beautiful drive. NG Traveler recommends the turnoff to Roughlock Falls (FR 222) at Savoy, "where you can view the falls and relax in the picnic area above the cascade." We also liked the stop at Bridal Veil Waterfall.

Check out the July/August issue of National Geographic Traveler for more information. I also recommend the South Dakota Visitors Guide. It is one of the best state guides I have ever seen, with great tips and trip suggestions.

My pictures from our trip were taken on an old point and shoot. The scanned prints don't look that great, so I turned to photographs on Flickr that are shared under a Creative Commons license.
Thank you to Matt Binns for the picture of the Badlands, ppczgg for the picture of the bison, and Roger Meyer for the picture of Bear Butte.