South Dakota

July 16, 2023

Leaving the Tetons was difficult. We had 3 nights in one place and the place was magical. But we had more to see. We got up before sunrise, packed the kids in the RV (still asleep), and the Tetons gave us the best sendoff with the brightest orange sunset turning the mountains pink.

Before we get to South Dakota, let’s talk about Wyoming for a second. We came in from Idaho on the west and saw dots of towns and farms before we got to Jackson. And of course the national park was teeming with people enjoying the sites. Once we turned east though, it changed quickly. Wyoming is seriously empty. We got gas in Shoshoni (population: 471) on the way to Casper (and saw a cowboy with actual spurs on his boots!) and it’s a good thing we did. It’s funny - when you drive across Kansas it feels empty. But there’s an exit every once in awhile with a rundown gas station or a farm road with a tractor lumbering along or rows of crops. Wyoming teaches you that Kansas is actually quite busy. In Wyoming there’s a road and green grass hills and.. that’s it. No exits, no side roads, no cars. We went 15-20 miles at one point without even passing a car going the other way. For perspective, Maryland has a population per square mile of 648. Kansas has a whopping 36 people per square mile. And Wyoming, with the lowest population of any state in the union, has just FIVE. It’s wild.

We made it across this beautiful desert of civilization and turned into South Dakota skipping between thunderstorms. It was a long drive and we had success with two hot springs so far, so when there was a town called Hot Springs, SD of course we had to stop. We went to the original hot springs from 1890 called Evans Plunge. It was a bit different. First, it was indoors - they had built a building over long ago to avoid storms. It was also busier and was probably a bit of a shock after the silence and peace of the last couple of days. But they had several slides and the kids had a ball for a couple of hours. Then we grabbed groceries at the Dakotamart and a surprisingly good dinner at the Mt. Rushmore Brewing Company in the small town of Custer and made our way to camp for the night. We stayed at Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park and had a small back-in site right next to a little creek running through the forest. There was only one winding road in for us - the other roads have low tunnels cut into the rock that we couldn’t fit through - but those roads looked amazing. Tons of motorcycle traffic and fun cars proved the point and I made a note to come back to South Dakota just for the fun of the roads.

Our campsite was wet and a bit on an angle so it was the first chance to actually use the leveling blocks. It took a couple minutes but we got to within a degree of level both ways and felt much more at home. We went for a hike through the woods down to the lake on sparkling mica paths and found the dam that created the lake back in 1891.

We just kept smiling the whole night, despite the damp and the fat northern mosquitos. None of the bad things really matter when you’re having such a ball with your family. You just kind of slouch them off and focus on all the positives, of which there were many. We had lucked into yet another gem of a place - peaceful, quiet, and green with stunning black rock chimneys a hundred feet tall. Maureen kept saying over and over, “this trip just keeps getting better!” The next day proved her right.

We woke up with a decision to make: do we stay in Sylvan Lake another night and have a very long day or two of travel at the end or do we carry on? This trip was definitely a lot of driving, so to space out the final legs home we decided to pack up and do everything we could in SD in one day. Our camp host had suggested the Sunday Gulch trail behind the lake and we took his recommendation. The whole trail is lined with railings and goes straight down a flowing creek with waterfalls and boulders scattered everywhere. There’s big stairs at certain spots covered in water. We love the Billy Goat trail on the Potomac back here in Maryland and this put the Billy Goat to shame. Eric especially had a blast scrambling over every place he could reach and maybe some he probably shouldn’t just to get his mother’s heart racing.

After Sylvan Lake we went shopping along main street in Custer - an odd combination of Sturgis-style bike culture and skinned animals and antlers. Everyone’s favorite shop was Claw, Antler, Hide which has an online store so you can order groomed bison balls from anywhere.

From Custer we went just up the road to Crazy Horse, the unfinished largest mountain sculpture in the world. It was started in 1947 and I’m not sure it will be finished in our lifetimes. The kids and Maureen love Native American culture and had a blast exploring here. It wasn’t my favorite but I did learn a ton of history I really ought to know, and I’m still reading and exploring Wikipedia articles around the Ghost Dance wars and Little Bighorn.

Another 10 miles along is Mount Rushmore (“Do we have to see another face carved into a mountain?”). I don’t think Mount Rushmore needs more than an hour or so to take in, but it’s worth it. Those faces are more engrained in my psyche from childhood history classes - for better or worse - and had more of an impact. We tore our kids away from the gift shop by about 5 for the hour and change drive over to the Badlands.

Along I-90 every 100 yards or so there’s a sign for Wall Drug and somewhere I had seen a “Where the heck is Wall Drug?” bumper sticker. It happened to be at our exit so we had to stop. It’s underwhelming and ridiculous - basically a big shopping mall all under one overlarge canopy along main street of a town with 700 people. We checked the box and moved on.

At this point we thought we had had a full day. But the next campsite blew us away. If you look on a map you’ll see a boondock spot called The Wall. So here’s what you do: you go down a long empty state road until you get to a turn off over a cattle grate onto a small gravel road that takes you into national grasslands. Then you drive about a half mile towards all the other RVs you see and turn where the gravel parallels the cliff that is the beginning of the Badlands. It really is a wall nearly straight down in places and it’s wide open and you can park anywhere you want. Maureen didn’t like the first spot we found - you opened the camper door and the steep slope started about 3 feet beyond. About a mile further on we found a gentler slope with a small area and a view we could steal for ourselves. We pulled the brake hard and spent awhile marveling at this vista.

Again our trip just kept getting better: this was easily the best campsite of the trip. It’s just such an insane place to park. It’s wonderful and so damn American that you can drive your gigantic vehicle through public land right up to a cliff and shack up for the night. We had burgers, beer, wine, a cigar, listened to the coyotes howl eerily close, and saw the Milky Way unaided. It’s not a night I’ll soon forget.

I got up at 445 to see the sunrise but I was a bit early and unwilling to wait because I knew I had a drive in front of me. I crashed back down after a couple of pictures and we got back onto asphalt by about 830. We drove down into the Badlands themselves and spent a slow hour touring the canyons by road and hitting the visitor’s center for some education. That’s been a surprising thing for me on this trip: thanks to Maureen we’ve hit most of the visitor’s centers and they’ve all been surprisingly good.

On the way out, we hit a hike called The Notch. This was another recommendation from our previous camp host and he hit it out of the park with the Sunday Gulch, so we set out at about noon with 2 huge bottles of water. The girls made it to the first big ladder - a series of logs on wires going about 50 feet straight up a cliff. They went back to the RV and Eric and I carried on for another mile or so. The Badlands rock might look like the soft drip castles you make at the beach but it’s actually hard and strong. It was a great trail with lots of scrambling and cliffs. We made it back to the RV about an hour later with two empty water bottles (it was super hot and dry) and after a quick lunch we carried on east towards Iowa on the final leg home, skipping between midwest storms along the way.

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