South Dakota Adventures: Badlands, Wind Cave, Rushmore and so much more

Since I’m currently living in Omaha but may be moving in May PC and I feel like we need to make as many road trips to surrounding areas while we can. One of the places we felt like we needed to go before I move is Badlands National Park. And while we were in the area we figured we might as well do Wind Caves National Park since it’s not too far away. And then we decided we might as well throw in Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse since PC had never been to those before. Plus we had to do Custer State park in hopes of seeing some wildlife. And we threw in some other stops along the way. Thats do-able in two days right??

So we started on the road on Thursday evening after I picked PC up from Epply airport and we headed to Sioux City to see PC’s friend who’s on the Wichita Wingnuts play the Sioux City Explorers. We shared some cold beers and a hot dog. We really felt like we were in small town USA.

On the way out of town we stopped at Culver’s, my favorite fast food place because it reminds me of my grandparents and got a tasty sourdough melt and deep fried cheese curds and shared a concrete mixer for the drive to Sioux Falls.

We didn’t arrive in Sioux falls until around 10PM. We stayed at a Marriott in town that was actually very nice but we weren’t there for long because we woke up the next morning at 4:30AM since we had a very full day ahead of us.

First stop – coffee and bagels from a combined Caribou Coffee and Einstein Bagels. Got my first pumpkin-y drink of the season! PC went with something more manly.

Next we stopped at the Corn Palace in Mitchell. I had very high expectations because this place is pretty famous. Every year they do new murals made of corn with a different theme on the side of the palace. I expected intricate murals made kernel by kernel to create a beautiful elaborate masterpiece.

To my disappointment the palace just had a giant Willy Nelson mural that was made more out of dead grass than corn cobs. And the corn murals only covered less than two sides of the building! We were there to early to go inside but apparently they have basketball games and concerts in there sometimes. The only redeeming them about the Corn Palace was the statue of the giant cheerful corn cob. Plus it was nice to be able to get out and stretch our legs a little bit. Corn Palace grade: D-

Then we were back on the road. There was a pretty crazy lightening storm but it cleared up eventually and we got to see the sunrise. Next stop was Wall Drug, which is famous for its billboards all along I-90 through the entire state of South Dakota.

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We aren’t the type for touristy junk but we stopped in to check it out and get a second breakfast. The doughnuts were good and the coffee was cheap. Plus it was nice to stretch our legs again because we had been on the road for several hours at this point.

Next, it was onto Mount Rushmore, which was still a few miles away. As you get closer and closer to Mt. Rushmore there is a ton of touristy activities on the side of the road. Most of them look like a dump and we didn’t stop at any but I wish we would have stopped at Bear Country USA to see some bears! By the time we got there skies were still gray and sprinkly. There isn’t a ton to do at Mt. Rushmore aside from a little mile long trail around the base of the hill and a small museum about the making of the sculpture.

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This was my second time at Mt. Rushmore and PC’s first. We agree we don’t feel like we need to go back but its good to see at least once.

Crazy horse is just 30 minutes away so we headed there next. Crazy horse absolutely dwarfs Mt. Rushmore in size but not much progress has been made since I was last there three years ago. There are quite a few things to look at in the museum there.

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There is a bus ride that leaves from the museum and costs on a few dollars which takes you closer to the sculpture but we didn’t have time to do that since we were on a very tight schedule.

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Then on to Needles Highway which is a tortuous two lane (sometimes one lane) road through Custer State Park.

We saw a family of mountain goats along the way 🙂

Then we got on the Wildlife loop. Custer State Park has the largest buffalo herd in America and we were really hoping to see some wildlife. Luckily our dream came true!

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We actually came across a group of 30-40 buffalo meandering across the road. We saw some pronghorn deer (antelope) as well.

We had to high-tail it after we saw the buffalo to make it to Wind Caves National Park in time to get tickets for one of the cave tours. I wasn’t so convinced we needed to do one of the tours but PC insisted and I’m glad he did. We got lucky and happened to get there around 3PM, just in time to get tickets for the Garden of Eden tour. This particular tour is 1hr 15min but there are ones that are even 4hrs long. The remaining tickets for the remaining tours were sold out pretty soon after we go there, around 2:30, and visitors who were not able to get tickets were not pleased! So moral of the story is get there early to get tickets because the tour is amazing and they do sell out.

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The tour started with an introduction by a cheerful park ranger and then we took an elevator several stories down into the cave. This is the manmade entrance, the original entrance is very tiny; I’m not sure how people got in originally.

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The natural entrance to the cave.

Anyhow, our tour group was composed of people from ages 3yo to 80-ish yo so this adventure is good for all ages as there is a paved trail, as well as some stairs, all along the route. Our tour guide was absolutely fantastic! She was so cheerful and knowledgeable about the science behind the cave and the history of the place.

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Some thing unique about wind cave is that it has a ton of a rock pattern called “box work” which comes about when sheets of calcite crystals form around softer limestone and then the limestone gets worn away, leaving behind a spider web-like pattern. There may be no other cave in the world that has so much box work.

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Box work formations

Back in the day, a young boy explored the cave with just a candle and ball of string and discovered up to seven miles. I would be way to scared to do that! The cave actually has over a hundred miles of passages. The ranger ended the tour with a with speech that made me understand why I love national parks so much. In a world that can seem pretty depressing at times, national parks are an example of something good that people did. Generations ago, people had the foresight to set aside some of the most beautiful places in the country and preserve them for future generations and people continue to preserve and care for these amazing places. ❤

After our cave tour we decided to do something above ground. We chose to do the Rankin Ridge Trail because it has 360 degree views of the park. We didn’t see another soul on the trail.

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The hike was only about a mile long and we didn’t seen another soul on the trail. There is an old fire tower at the top of the hill but unfortunately it is gated off so you can’t climb to the top. The view were pretty spectacular regardless.

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View from the top of Rankin Ridge Trail

Once we got to the bottom of the trail we hopped in the car and drove back to Rapid City for dinner. We ran into a few more friends along the way.

Wind Cave National Park rating: A++

We went to Firehouse Brewing for dinner. Its a very popular brewery in town that is in an old firehouse (hence the name).  We had a bit of a wait so we walked around the downtown area. There was a statue on very street corner, literally! Most of them were of presidents but there were some others as well. Dinner was good – good burgers and beer.  Then we had a several hour drive out to Badlands to get to our hotel, The Badlands Inn, which was a bit of a struggle at the late hour after our very full day.

We got a few hours of sleep at the Badlands Inn and then woke up around 5AM because sunrise is a MUST at badlands park. Something to keep in mind is that you should actually be out there around 30-40min before sunrise to catch “the golden hour”. We started out at Big Badlands Overlook to catch the rays of the rise sun. Also, of note, be sure to bring an extra jacket and gloves, I was struggling with just my sweatshirt on.

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Big Badlands Overlook

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After taking the lovely sunrise from Big Badlands Overlook we drove a few miles deeper into the park to explore the Door, Wind and Notch Trails, which all leave from the same parking lot.

 

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Notch Trail – Not good for those who are afraid of heights!

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By this time we were very hungry so we went to the Cedar Pass lodge for breakfast. We got some bacon, hash browns, eggs and some type of deep fried.

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Then it was off to the visitor’s center which was right next door. We actually got a few souvenir’s which is unlike us but we just love these vintage national park posters.

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Then we started back along the Badlands Loop and a did a few more short hikes.

We also stopped saw some bighorn sheep! We stopped at one last look out and then we were back on I-90 East, heading home.

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Badlands National Park rating: A

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It would have been great to have another day to do this trip but we had to work with the time we had and it turned out to be a fantastic adventure.

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