After the buggy ride over the land of our host Traci, and buying some goodies from her (home made jam, ground beef and a delicious rhubarb juice) we said our goodbyes and hit the road to the next state on our journey: South Dakota. We will only check out the south west of the state which has many highlights and then head southbound through Nebraska.
Deadwood: From gold rush to gambling
As we round highway 14 from Spearfish through the Spearfish canyon, we almost run a few mountain goats over. Bright white animals, for some curious reason licking away at the road… later we read the interesting fact that these animals go for the salt from sweat and urine… YUMMM. Our destination of the afternoon is the town of Deadwood. Once a gold rush town with all the trimmings (saloons, cowboy story of Wild Bill & Calamity Jane, mining and even a reported ghost), it turned into a gambling town over the years.
Great effort has gone into restoring the town which makes a stroll through it a real pleasure. The visitor center has a great exhibit, including a miniature of the town back in 1876. In the historical main street all the buildings are restored to its former splendor, and every hour there is a reenactment of an historical event – we saw a shootout between cowboys on the street! We spent much longer than planned, but it was well worth it. Driving out, we made a beeline towards the southeast, where a drycamping spot was waiting for us at the rim of the Badlands.
Minutemen and Badlands…
Wow, we woke up to a massive downpour and some serious wind gusts! The reviews of the boondock spot already warned us, but while we lay in bed we felt the wind pull at our RV and the cover of the bikes on the back of the RV was flapping away like mad. Now we were of course very happy we were not in a tent (some others nearby were!), but also realized it was a good thing the road in was downhill as a return… muddy but doable.
As we drove out, we visited several sites of the next National Historical Monument of the US: Minuteman Missiles. Its visitor center was once again a great place to learn more about a new era in US history; the Cold War. The missile launch pads and its control centers have mostly been dismantled, but some were kept to display and explain the workings to today’s visitors. The Junior Ranger work was very easy – so the boys quickly held a new patch as a ‘Junior Missileer’, and we spend some time watching a movie about how the US residents were prepped for a potential nuclear attack. In hindsight a very funny approach; as if ‘Duck and Cover’ would save you from a nuclear head 66x the strength of the Hiroshima bomb…
Right across the Interstate 90, the Badlands National Park starts. We already had a taste of it last night, but today we explore the park further. Some really cool walks are there, one where we even had to climb a high wooden ladder to get up on the next part of the trail, and with some very beautiful vistas. The visitor center had a very entertaining mix of a museum part explaining all the different ages and the fossils found in the area, while there was also an actual lab where paleontologists were cleaning fossils on the spot, encouraging visitors to ask questions.
Not only could the boys earn a badge, if they would walk some trails through a GPS exercise, they could also earn an extra patch with “I walked the Badlands National Park” on it… Say no more, we were on it! The landscape changes very drastically and often, seemingly falling away from the grassland pastures into cragged, maze-like ridges. This is a very funny experience when you are climbing a steep ridge up, only to find yourself at a flat grassland at the top for miles away! We finally saw a Bighorn Sheep (very impressive from up close) and visited a few more prairie dog towns along the way.
Driving out of the National Park we took a detour around to have a good view from afar, and decided on a dry-camp spot which is a starting point for buggy’s and UTV’s. In the evening, it is empty and quiet with a herd of cows walking the area, but we can only imagine what we will wake up to on a Saturday morning!
Mt Rushmore & Rodeo
6:30 the first OTV came out… not a great start of our Saturday morning, but hey we are not complaining at a free night out! At least we were all up and at ‘em on time, ready to carve out another South Dakota day. Today we have Mount Rushmore on the program, for which we have heard mixed reviews. The deal at Mount Rushmore is that you can visit it for free, but then everything else costs money (even the pencil to fill in the Junior Ranger booklet!).
Biggest cost? Parking at their very fancy multi-story parking lot. What do we do? We park down the road and offload the bikes of course! A quick climb up saves us 10 dollars, and of course we bum a pencil from somebody to get the Junior Ranger work done. We understand the sentiment about it being very commercial, but in the visitor center you do get a good grasp of the effort it must have taken to make this thing and the inner workings of drilling and blowing up the wall with dynamite (90% of the carving is done through blasting rock off the face of the mount). Badge in hand, we ride back downhill to the RV and make our way to another off road forest site.
As the rodeo season is almost over, and Luc has had his heart set on seeing one, we decided to make an effort and find a low-key introduction to rodeo, before we go for the Calgary Stampede next year! We had our chance at the Palmer Gulch rodeo, a local rodeo that offered many of the rodeo highlights including bull riding. For the men, it was their first rodeo experience and had all the trimmings: Beer, burgers, popcorn, South Dakota hospitality, prayer and the anthem to kick things off and a high level of adrenaline.
For the kids, there was some extra entertainment in the shape of the kids boot race (hand in one shoe, they get strewn across the rodeo floor on the other side of the arena, run like mad, put it on and run back) which both Luc and Bo entered into. But the highlight for any kid was for the really small kids: Mutton Bustin’. You got that right, if you are lighter than 50lbs (read 5 years or younger) you had the opportunity to ride a SHEEP! It took a lot of convincing to get Bo to go, and he stayed on for a whopping 0.5 seconds, but I have never seen him, nor Luc SO PROUD after riding the sheep 😊.
Jewel Cave & Kayak test ride
First stop the next day is of course the candy store where they can spend their wooden coins the boys earned in the rodeo. While Sven emptied our tanks we played a round of miniature golf before heading out to the Jewel Cave National Monument, an impressive underground maze of more than 177 miles, and still being further discovered as we speak. The visitor center was again a great introduction including a movie about the caves, and how they formed. Going in the caves was not an option today as the elevator is under maintenance, but the boys worked very hard on their Junior Ranger booklets and were rewarded with a badge AND a patch! We are running out of space on their headboard nets in the RV 😉.
After a short hike and lunch, we make our way to Bismarck Lake campground, a basic campsite run by the US forest service. We will stay here for 2 nights, to relax and recharge the battery before another long ride down into Nebraska. As the campsite is besides a lake, it is the perfect spot to test out our latest addition to the RV equipment: Our family inflatable kayak! Officially being for 3 adults, it is a perfect fit for our family, and a very nice way to enjoy the landscape from the water. We run into a family of tortoises sunbathing on a branch and get to practice our kayaking skills before we take it out on wilder waters. Conclusion: Very cool addition to our travel and trip options. And post our Amazon kayak experience 16 years ago, the parents have become much better kayakers than before!
We take a break for a day, chilling around the RV, getting a haircut (Kim by Sven), fishing in the lake, taking a swim, cleaning the toilet, etc etc etc…
Wind Cave, Agate Fossil Beds and state no 7: Nebraska!
After a day of relaxing, we have a bit of a drive ahead of us, taking in a few more highlights along the way. We start with Wind Cave National Park, which like Jewel Cave is a massive caving system that you can go into and discover. Today we actually go in with a tour (they sell out fast so we had to go there early), the Fairground tour and go deep down under. As we had to wait for 1,5 hours before the tour started, we took the Junior Ranger booklet again and did the work to learn about the cave and its surroundings. The exploration takes about 1,5 hours in itself, walking 450 steps of stairs and experiencing wat the cave was like for those early explorers that just went in with a candle and a ball of yarn (dark as you can imagine). The boys loved it, especially the little elements called popcorn!
In the meantime, Sven took the bike to hand and came down to the Wind Cave through the Custer State Park on what is called the Centennial Trail. It is a mixed hiker/biker/horseback trail so we knew he would be challenged, but when he was not back after almost 4hrs we started to get concerned. Right as we start lunch he is dropped of by some kind Americans, telling us his epic story of how he tried to find the trail several times, but had to detour because of bisons on the trail! Moreover, many parts were rocky and wet, so he truly did some exploring of his own… Happy that he made it back in one piece, we drove off to the south, while Sven catches his breath and lets his muscles relax.
Before we get to our Harvest Host destination, we cross the border of South Dakota and enter into Nebraska, state no7! The roads get instantly worse, but the scenery is fantastic. Stretches of road without one bend in them for 35 kilometers, surrounded by yellow grass dotted by pitch black cows. We stop over at the Agate Fossil National Monument for a good break and some more education on paleontology and the Native American culture… and another badge of course! We end the day at out Harvest Host stop: Papa Moon winery & cider. Not a bad place to end the day, and we feel we deserved a snack / tasting dinner out on the porch with the boys.
Scotts Bluff and Fort Laramie – Bye Nebraska!
As we say goodbye to our host, we spend a full day on the explorer trails in the area. Scotts Bluff was a crossroads for some of the most important trails from East to West, including the Oregon, California and Mormon Pioneer trails. It also had a short stint as stopover for the Pony Express – a mail service – but that went out of service soon after the telegraph was invented and installed. For those traveling across the country by oxwagon, Scotts Bluff was a natural landmark that would stand out from the Great Plains, reassuring those that traveled that they were on the right trail. We climbed the summit after our visitor center (and badge), and can imagine what it must have been like to see this place after miles and miles of grass.
Another stop was Fort Laramie, 40 miles down the trail into Wyoming again. With Native American tribes roaming the bison rich plains, not all travelers felt safe and thus a military post was set up to give them some peace of mind (a post that was never attacked, but very much visited by the Native Americans to trade supplies and information of the road ahead). Many buildings of the fort have been restored and fully furbished, which makes for a great roam around the premises while trying to answer the questions in the Junior Ranger booklet! Bo did great, Luc was not in the mood, so the pledge was only taken by Bo who proudly now has 1 more badge (a gold one no less!) than Luc…
We drive on to a small town that provides free camping – even with an electrical hookup, in the middle of their town park. So we are surrounded by sportsfields, playgrounds and the train tracks… We have seen trains with more than 120 wagons here, so we will find out in the night why this place is free?? End conclusion: 1 train passed us at 2am… and felt like it was running THROUGH us! Ouch… but still worth it ;-).
Next week: We make our way to Colorado, through the Rocky Mountains and a personal highlight; Luc’s birthday!