With COVID-19 came the cancellation of almost all of our planned adventures in 2020. California? Cancelled. Canada? Cancelled. Walt Disney World? Cancelled. That last one hurt the most. Partly because it was to be my first ever WDW experience, but also because it was planned almost a year in advance for February (right about now). The moment we grudgingly and mournfully pulled the plug on that trip it finally sunk in that we would be in this pandemic for the long haul.
As I have said before, if everything is closed and you must remain distant from friends and family, get out into nature! So, in September, we treated ourselves to a four-day weekend in the Black Hills and Badlands National Park in South Dakota. River was 7 months old and still too much of a monster to unleash on family and friends, so we knew this trip would have to be, at least in part, dog friendly. We found a dog friendly hotel in Rapid City and arranged for her to have two days and one night in doggy daycare. This would allow us to explore the Black Hills and Badlands without time constraints.
Logan and I had both visited some of these locations before with our families about 25 years ago. We had a bit of a ‘Twilight Zone’ moment when we realized that we were only a little younger than our parents were the last time we visited as children. Let me tell you – that was weird. Both sets of parents would have been about late 30’s to mid 40’s with kids in tow… Major heebie jeebies ensued…
Existential crisis aside, here are some highlights from our spectacular trip:
We took our time making the 9-hour drive to Rapid City, South Dakota stopping at any and every roadside attraction we found. It was incredibly liberating to have neither schedule nor obligations. If we saw a jet plane on the side of the road and wanted to stop to take a picture, we did. We were provisioned with our traditional road trip snacks, including:
- Sour Patch Kids;
- Dr. Pepper;
- Cherry Twizzlers (for Logan);
- Flaming Hot Cheetos (not regular, must be Flaming Hot!); and,
- New for this trip – a giant bucket of cheese balls!
Yep, the sustenance of champions for sure.
Corn Palace – Mitchell
The World’s ONLY Corn Palace to be exact. We saw so many billboards on I-90 we just had to check it out. Primarily used as an event pavilion, the Corn Palace’s artwork is redesigned every year with murals made entirely of corn. Due to COVID-19, we did not go inside, but we found a few hilarious gems in the gift shop!
Dignity of Earth & Sky – Chamberlain
Standing majestically on a hill above the Missouri River and the city of Chamberlain, this gleaming 50-foot sculpture honors the Indigenous people of South Dakota. It is impressively large, even from the highway, and worth the stop. There is a small visitor center with restrooms and vending machines, but the beauty of the sculpture and the views over the valley are breathtaking.
President’s Walk – Rapid City
Right in the heart of downtown you can find life-sized bronze statues of every single American President. We didn’t see them all, but Logan had no shame when posing with a few favorites. Maps and interactive walking guides are available if you want to check out each one, but it was pretty cool to turn a corner and go, “hey look, Grover Cleveland!”
Dinosaur Park – Rapid City
High on a hill above Rapid City, Dinosaur Park has been around since 1936! The park has 360-degree views of the surrounding hills where dinosaur fossils and footprints have been found. This was a fun excursion as it was right in town, free, dog-friendly, and filled with cute photo ops. Recently, my Mother showed me photos of her family posing in front of the same dinosaurs in 1955! So cool!
Black Hills National Forest
The Black Hills were so much more beautiful than I remembered as a teenager. There are too many attractions to mention. All I can say is that we will be back soon for further exploration.
So, I have seen a lot of travel bloggers and influencers talk crap about how underwhelming Mount Rushmore is, and 16-year-old Britt kind of agreed. But honestly, as an adult, this was one of the highlights of our trip! Maybe it was the pandemic, maybe it was the wretched state of our highly divided and dysfunctional partisan government, or our total disappointment in and embarrassment of our (then) sitting President; but to us, Mount Rushmore seemed a monument to a simple (if flawed) ideal of what America could be. Were any of these four men perfect? Absolutely not. Is it carved into a mountain sacred to the Indigenous people with zero regard to their beliefs and culture? Unfortunately, yes. But was the intention to capture the American spirit of our country’s birth, growth, expansion, and preservation? We think so.
Perhaps Rushmore evolves and means something different dependent upon your life experience at the time of visiting. Next time, perhaps it will represent something different. But on this trip, we marveled at the men who looked at a mountain and said, “I’m gonna carve some giant faces in that!” How very ambitious and ‘American.’
- Tip: You cannot take dogs into the monument unless they are service dogs. Luckily, River was having a blast at doggy day camp.
Crazy Horse Memorial
Both teenaged and adult Britt were awestruck by the history, culture, and importance of this monument. Unfortunately, and to be very transparent, not much has changed in the last 25 years. The monument and visitors center are very much the same, although I am cognizant of the financial and political constraints that are involved in the construction of this project. Perhaps I was hoping for a little more progress, perhaps I had unrealistic expectations. This monument is an absolutely epic endeavor and I hope to see it evolve further before I die.
At the visitor’s center, we watched Starr Chief Eagle perform a magnificent and intricate traditional Lakota hoop dance and participated in a candid and open discussion regarding Indigenous stereotypes and misconceptions. It was a refreshing and straightforward exchange. She answered both thoughtful and (frankly) embarrassing questions and focused on her desire to educate and share her people’s history and culture. We learned that the term “Sioux” is not the preferred name of this nation of people. Loosely, Sioux is an English translation of a French translation of a Chippewa translation meaning “little snakes.” Rather, the “People of Seven Council Fires” (Očéti Šakówiŋ) is preferred and more accurate. I have had a great deal of Native American education in my life, but this was news to me, and I appreciated it.
Crazy Horse Memorial is absolutely worth the stop. The art and history ensconced within the visitor’s center and the absolute grandeur of the monument itself are worth the minimal price of admission (approximately $15 per person).
But there’s a real problem…
You can’t visit South Dakota and not see it. So, let’s talk about it.
From the moment we arrived in Rapid City, we were panhandled at least four times and saw rampant homelessness, all Indigenous people. The poverty gap is blatant, unmistakable, and drawn conspicuously along racial lines. It was, to say the least, disheartening.
So much of the United States, both past and present, is home to horrific atrocities and betrayal. You cannot visit these locations without acknowledging and discussing the crimes inflicted upon the region’s Indigenous people. And make no mistake, the abuse is ongoing. This conversation was present in Albuquerque where I grew up. It is currently present at the University of Minnesota where both Logan and I work, but we are by no means authorities on the subject. This history exists, we acknowledge it, and we want to learn more.
I am baffled and embarrassed by the continued systemic subjugation inflicted upon the first people of this land. As we travel, we strive to be sensitive, aware, and respectful. When visiting monuments like Rushmore and Crazy Horse we think it is possible to both reflect upon the positive and negative history and also awe at the inspiring feat of human ingenuity and engineering that stands before you.
Wind Cave National Park
We spent less than an hour in the actual park. The caves and visitor center were closed due to the pandemic; however, within 2 minutes of crossing the gates, we had a very up close and personal encounter with a bison! The huge beast was hanging out right by an informational sign. We gave him a wide berth and parked far away so we could watch. Logan got out of the car to take a few photos, and again let me stress that we were very far away. But immediately, the behemoth started slowly walking directly toward Logan and our car.
For a brief moment, I thought we may end up like those idiots you see on the evening news. You know who I’m talking about – the jerks with no respect for wildlife who get gored trying to take a selfie with a wild animal.
Logan got back in the car and the bison continued calmly walking within about 3 feet of us. While my heart was beating a mile a minute, at no time did the bison seem angry, threatened, or upset. It moseyed on by as if we weren’t even there. Perhaps it was so accustomed to humans that it came our way in hopes of a snack! Either way, it was a highlight of the trip for sure.
Custer and Keystone
Keystone’s main drag is incredibly picturesque, so we took a short, self-guided, historic walking tour and treated ourselves to ice cream on the boardwalk. There were so many darling shops and saloons lining the streets. I wanted to mosey in past the swinging doors, sidle up to a weathered bar, and grab a room-temperature sarsaparilla. But, again, we erred on the side of caution and avoided any busy areas. Even though state regulations allowed for indoor dining, Logan and I didn’t really want to risk it. (Considering how bad South Dakota eventually became, I feel we chose wisely.)
Scattered around the tiny town of Custer, there are many painted bison statues, each one is unique and painted to reflect the wildlife, culture, or history of the region. We saw about four, but in the future, it would be fun to seek out each one (around 16 in total). About this time, the traffic from the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival (see below) started pouring into town. Famished, we drove past the Mt. Rushmore Brewing Company and I begged Logan to stop the car. The “Pounding Fathers Restaurant?!” Absolutely! Unfortunately, the fine dining portion of the restaurant was closed, but we ate late lunch/early dinner on the deck of the brewery taproom – and it was amazing. We shared the Buffalo Poutine and Corn Fritters appetizers and split an Elk Burger, which was resplendent. It felt so nice to enjoy a leisurely meal outside. It almost didn’t feel like a global pandemic and I would absolutely return.
Badlands National Park
Recently, Logan purchased the National Parks Passport which is essentially a scrapbook to log your trips to national parks, forests, monuments, and more using date stamps, park specific stickers, and personal notations. Badlands National Park was our first journal entry. We are now on a mission to visit as many parks as we can in the coming years. To read more about the National Parks Passport, click HERE.
We woke up at 3:45am to arrive at the Big Badlands Scenic Overlook in time for sunrise, which was well worth it. We were practically the first people there, but shortly afterward several professional photographers showed up, so we knew we had come to the right place. The yips and howls of nearby coyotes could be heard as we waited for the perfect sunrise photo op. The cloudy morning obstructed our perfect “Instagram worthy” photos, it was frigid and windy, but it was an experience that will be etched into my memory forever.
We drove the Badlands Loop Road and stopped at almost every single overlook and hiked a few of the trails. Our highlight hike was the Notch Trail. This 1.5-mile (round trip) trail is rated as “moderate to strenuous” but that is mainly due to the required climbing (up and down) of a tall, log ladder. It is a little scary, but the views were worth it. We were there right after sunrise, so the trail was virtually deserted, but on our way back, we passed many groups on their way out. The ladder only accommodates one person at a time, so you could potentially wait in line for a great deal of time if you don’t go early.
Essentially, the Badlands are comprised of otherworldly, almost alien planet-like vistas for as far as the eye can see. A few times, Logan and I joked that we must have been lost on the planet of Tatooine. I’m typically a fan of greenery and bodies of water but I highly recommend visiting this park simply to see the vast expanses of landscape that is either aggressively reaching toward the sky, or gouged rough and deep into the earth.
- Tip 1: There are no food options in the park during COVID-19 and I suspect very few options during normal times. We literally saw one closed food truck. Apparently, there is a restaurant in the Cedar Pass Lodge, but it was not open when we visited. Snacks and drinks are available in the Cedar Pass Lodge gift shop, but otherwise, bring food with you. I mistakenly assumed we could find a burger somewhere, so by the early afternoon after eating nothing but cheeseballs and Sour Patch Kids, I was getting pretty hangry.
- Tip 2: National Parks are not really dog friendly. I didn’t know this until recently and it made me very glad we made other arrangements for River. In most National Parks you can bring your dog to scenic overlooks and on paved (or boardwalk) trails. Dogs are not allowed on hiking trails. And it makes sense. The idea is to keep the park pristine by disturbing the animals and environment as little as possible. As perfect as she is, River still pees and poops and would try to murder prairie dogs. To get the full park experience, find daycare for your fur baby.
Things We Missed
Wall Drug – I know, I know. You’ve probably been wondering this whole time, “what about Wall Drug?!” Well, we had to make a tough decision. In case you don’t know, Wall Drug is basically one city block filled with shops and concession stands. Themed tchotchkes, Native American art (both real and fake), food, art, tacky souvenirs, jackalopes, cowboy clothing, dinosaurs, and chickens playing tic tac toe all make Wall Drug their home. It must surely be the most prized tourist attraction in all of South Dakota as you will start to see advertising for it literally hundreds of miles away. I last visited Wall Drug when I was 16, but Logan has never been there. Since our time was running out and we wanted Logan to have the real Wall Drug experience (out of COVID-19), we added it to our list for next time.
Custer State Park – This was a serious bummer for me, but in all honesty, we didn’t have enough time anyway. We unknowingly planned our trip on the same weekend as the park’s largest annual event, the Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival. By all accounts this is an amazing event… but again, not during COVID-19, so we will make time for this epic park during the next trip.
Deadwood – Again, due to the driving distance from Rapid City, we had to make a call based on our limited time and indoor activity options but we plan to make a future visit as well.
We’d like to give a shout out to the awesome folks at Safe Haven Pet Resort in Rapid City. We selected them based on positive reviews and they did not disappoint. The resort posts hundreds of photos a day on social media of the dogs playing. Any guilt we felt about dropping River off was quickly assuaged when we saw example after example of her insane joy. We picked her up healthy, happy, and exhausted. The drive home was a breeze and we got to enjoy the sights with less stress. (Note: When faced with River’s never-ending exuberance, we often feel like that poor bulldog…)
The southwestern part of South Dakota holds waaayyy too many awesome sights for a long weekend so we hope to return soon. We highly recommend checking out the area, but give yourself at least three full days in addition to your travel time if you want to really get a feel for the place! Until next time!