South Dakota (June 2016)

Well, I’ve not done a very good job of retro-blogging past trips.  The least I can do is keep up with the current ones.  We just got back from a great trip west to the Black Hills area of South Dakota.  Not only was it our first time to the area (well, except for Kuk) but it was our first extensive road trip out west.  The trip was inspired by a Badlands photograph that Nicole saw in our National Parks calendar.

We spent a night in Sioux Falls, SD; 5 in Custer, SD; one in Wall, SD (Badlands) and another in Sioux Falls on the way home.  I didn’t track the mileage but it was a lot!

us map.2

First day was a slog to Sioux Falls (comfort breaks only).  A truly boring drive across the Heartland, but we made it to South Dakota.

south dakota map.2

Day 2 simply had us traversing the plains of South Dakota.  We took time visit Sioux Falls and to stop in Mitchell for the Corn Palace, Chamberlain for the Lewis and Clark info center and Wall for the touristy Wall Drug.  Our only Rapid City stop was to stock up on food for the week at Walmart.  We then rolled into Custer; our home for 5 nights.

black hills map

This is a better view of the Black Hills and Badlands in the western part of the state.  You can also see Devil’s Tower (Wyoming) in the upper left.  Our cabin is the star to the east of Custer.  Mount Rushmore is near Keystone.  The Badlands are a couple hours to the east so we moved “camp” for that.

Nothing to mention on day 1, so we’ll put on our tourist hats for

Day 2:  Driving west across South Dakota


Before setting off, we decided to take in Falls Park in Sioux Falls.  It was quite pleasant and certainly worth a stop.  Glad we got there early before it got too hot.  The first few days of our trip were in the 90’s.

DSCN3340I was able to sneak into a few pictures this trip.

DSCN3342A slightly different perspective

DSCN3348Nice view from the tower (no charge to go to the top!)

DSCN3351Next stop was the “World’s Only” Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD.   It’s your typical touristy road-side attraction and worth the price of admission (free).   From the 1880’s to the 1930’s, at least 34 “prairie palaces” sprang up in 24 Midwest towns.   Entrepreneurs pummeled the newspapers with exaggerated claims of life in the prairie.  Only one remains.  It actually a multi-purpose gym with corn art inside and out.


Here’s a closer view of one of the murals.  Those are full ears of dried corn (rather than individual corn kernels).

corn combo

A few shots above to keep with the corny theme


Next stop was a rest area near Chamberlain (and the Missouri River).  Nice views like the one above and a nice mini-museum on Lewis and Clark who stayed a few nights at this location (unfortunately for them, before the rest area was established).

DSCN3365We had some time, so we also stopped at Wall Drug.  There are signs all throughout the state leading one here.  It’s over the top and way too crowded for us but many must like it (2 million annual visitors according to the linked wiki article).

DSCN3366After 2 days on the road, we made it to “our” cabin in the hills outside of Custer.  It proved to be a good base though a touch small for our family (we’ve had a lot of bonding time lately, that’s for sure).   The kitchen was well equipped so we were able to eat in every night which our family actually prefers after a long day of activity.

Day 3:  Custer SP (Wildlife Loop, Prairie View Trail, Needles Highway, Sylvan Lake/Sunday Gulch Trail, Iron Mountain Road) and Mount Rushmore!

Wow, what a day.  We really packed it in, particularly for us.  Lots of car time though as we took in all 3 scenic drives in the park while also doing 2 hikes before heading off to Mount Rushmore.

custer spOur cabin was near the “tunnel information” graphic just outside the state park.  We started the day doing the blue Wildlife loop with a short walk along one of the stops.  We then proceeded along the “brown” Needles highway to get to the Sylvan Lake area for another hike.  We then back tracked down 89 and re-entered the park and cut across to do the “gold” Iron Mountain Road south-to-north to get to Mount Rushmore.

DSCN3367What do you know, heading towards the Wildlife Loop, we see our first 2 buffalo/bison along the roadside.

DSCN3370a few prairie dogs too

DSCN3373Next stop was the Prairie View trail, a short (2.2 mile) loop that took just over an hour.  Our hope was to see some more bison (at a distance) but that wasn’t the case.  It was a nice stroll but not too exciting.  The poison ivy warnings were a little disconcerting particularly since there were quite a few overgrown bits.

DSCN3374and we were off — it was a warm day but fortunately this was still fairly early

DSCN3375a nice flower along the way

DSCN3381back in the car and another bison sighting–slightly bigger herd this time

DSCN3382the famous wild burros

DSCN3383coming to check us out

DSCN3384close the window! (we forgot to bring carrots)

DSCN3388a much bigger herd, albeit at some distance

DSCN3391pronghorn antelope (still on the Wildlife Loop)

DSCN3394our last bison on the loop; fairly close to the road this time

DSCN3397this is the famous needle’s eye at the top of the Needles Highway — though fine, it was my least favorite of the 3 drives (one-way tunnels and congestion)

DSCN3400the very pretty Sylvan Lake

DSCN3402another couples shot, albeit a little backlit (it was turning into a scorcher)

sunday gulch graphI decided to bypass the “Lover’s Leap” hike along the Wilderness Loop and head straight for the stretch goal of the “Sunday Gulch”.  Rated as difficult, it lived up to billing, particularly on this very hot afternoon.  As you can see from the chart above, we set off down into the gulch and climbed our way back out.  We went “backwards” (counter-clockwise) which avoided climbing up the steepest bit — good call.  It still wiped us out.  4.1 miles in 2:43 (30 minutes of that was rest due in large part to the heat).  About a 700′ climb (it seemed more).  Did I mention it was hot?

DSCN3404down, down we go

DSCN3405Down some more — I thought this might be a cooler walk since they mentioned some areas can have snow/ice into June due to the lack of sunlight.  We didn’t find any of those!

DSCN3408one of the views on the climb back out

DSCN3412Next was the Iron Mountain Road.  It’s important to do this one south to north because as you approach Mount Rushmore, the monument starts to come into view through the tunnels and other viewpoints.  It’s there in the distance in the photo above though it didn’t come out that well.

DSCN3413still on our way — it was neat to see it from afar

DSCN3414another viewpoint

DSCN3417 (2)and we made it!

DSCN3418I have to say, this was pretty impressive.  This was completed in 14 years (1927-1941).  A lot more dynamite was used than I expected (for the close in work).  They had a nice exhibit explaining how the scale model translated to the real deal using the “pointing” system.

DSCN3419a cleaner close up

DSCN3420and a final one with the kids

Phew, what a day!  The plan was to hang around until the evening lighting ceremony but we were just too pooped.  We settled for ice cream and a 30 minute drive back to our cabin.

Day 4:  Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway & Devil’s Tower

We had another long day planned, albeit with a lot of car time again.  The weather forecast around Custer SP was a little dodgy but things looked better to the northwest so we decided to take in the scenic drive to Spearfish and then carry on to Devil’s Tower National Monument.

spearfishSpearfish is close to 2 hours from Custer but it was a nice drive.  We set off early as usual taking 385 through Hill City and then up to Lead where we jogged down to pick up the southern end of the byway.   There are a number of waterfalls along the way as well as a couple of short hikes that we took in.

DSCN3425We got a free sneak peak at the Crazy Horse Monument.  We (literally) paid it a proper visit later in the week.  In hindsight, this would have been sufficient!  (oh well — considered a donation to the cause)

DSCN3426and another — still a long ways to go

DSCN3430First stop along the scenic byway was the Roughlock Falls hike.  It was a very pleasant 1-mile stroll (each way) along the (Little Sioux?) river.

DSCN3434and one at the falls

DSCN3435and another sans family

We tried to also see the Spearfish Canyon Falls across the street from the trailhead but the trail was under renovation so we weren’t able to see much.

The next stop came from a guidebook but wasn’t in the official brochure.  So glad we found it.  Further up the canyon, off Cleopatra’s Place, was a hike to the Devil’s Bathtub.  It involved numerous crossings of the stream until we reached our destination and it ended up being one of our favorite walks.  It was probably a mile or so out and another back as well though I didn’t capture it.

DSCN3440hard to see, but there is a small green snake slithering under the bush in the middle of the photo — more excitement!

DSCN3442And the actual bathtub (presumably up top — we cut it short at this point).  This really was a great walk/hike.  I was too busy having fun to take photos!

DSCN3444The most popular pullout was for its version of Bridal Veil Falls.

DSCN3445We continued on to Spearfish and saw this gal along the way.

We made a stop at the DC Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery and enjoyed a nice walk around (no worthwhile photos though).  Since we were only an hour away from Devil’s Tower, we of course had to go see it.

DSCN3448The tower stands an impressive 867′ from its base.  It was the very first National Monument (1905).

DSCN3449characterized as an “igneous intrusion”; the tower is made up of many 6-, 7- and 8-sided protrusions

DSCN3453We of course had to walk the 1.3 miles around the base and were afforded some nice views along the way.  (Alex was having a hard time working in extra training for cross country so he took the opportunity to run around it 1.5 times).

DSCN3455Here’s a closer look at some of the protrusions.  While living in England, we had the opportunity to visit the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.  This is same type of geological formation albeit on a much taller scale!

DSCN0772bonus pic from Giant’s Causeway — Alex has grown a little!

DSCN3457one more looking up, up , up

DSCN3460some cute prairie dogs on the way down the hill

DSCN3461and a final view from a distance — very impressive!

DSCN3463more bison on the way back to the cabin, though these were livestock I believe

DSCN3465a cute little one having a scratch

Day 5:  Wind Cave National Park

Again, the weather forecast was a little dodgy (though fine in the end) so we decided to put off the big hike and take in Wind Cave NP, one of two “national” caves in the area.  We also took in two small hikes within the park boundaries.

DSCN3466Only guided tours at Wind Cave.  Ranger Earl starts us off at the natural entrance where the cave’s pressure differential caused wind to blow in and out.  Fortunately, there was an easier entrance for us!

DSCN3471Wind Cave is known for its “boxwork” and was the first cave to be named a national park.  Here’s my crappy photo of it (my cave photos never turn out).  Much better examples here.  At any rate, it was pretty unique, even for us cave snobs.

Since the weather turned out okay, we decided to take in a few short hikes.  The first was a rather unimpressive 2.7 mile in/out roundtrip on the Cold Brook Canyon trail.  The hope was to see some bison but we had to settle for prairie dogs.

The second hike was much nicer.  The Rankin Ridge Trail was a short 1.0 mile loop that had great views.

DSCN3479this guy was going off — that tail was wagging for every “bark” he made

DSCN3480another one — the walk went through a “dog town” and there were plenty around

DSCN3481nice flowers (for Kuk)

DSCN3482combined with thistle flowers this time

DSCN3483a sample of the rather nondescript (some might say boring) trail–universally our least favorite unfortunately

DSCN3489random bison while driving between trailheads

DSCN3495the much better view along the Rankin Ridge trail

DSCN3497a deer to join us

DSCN3502more Rankin Ridge

DSCN3504and walking back down

DSCN3506a really lonely bison in the field by himself

DSCN3511We finally hit the bison motherlode on the way back from Wind Cave.  We were going to circle around the Wilderness Loop again to try our luck but we didn’t even have to go around before seeing the stereotypical herd blocking traffic.

DSCN3512there were quite a few close ones as you can imagine

DSCN3514some babies too

DSCN3515maybe 40 or so?

DSCN3518we patiently waited for them to cross

DSCN3523as did others

DSCN3524looking right at me

DSCN3529and a final little one

Day 6 — Harney Peak! and Crazy Horse round 2

Big day.  This is one I’d been looking forward to since I started planning this trip.  Harney Peak is tallest elevation east of the Rockies and would make a nice capstone for my recovery.  [Guadalupe Peak in Texas is taller but I guess it is considered the Rockies for this purpose.]  (For those that don’t know, I had a heart attack at the end of February).  It’s a nice challenge though not too hard in the grand scheme of things.

harney peakI’ll pull out the geeky stats for this “real” hike.  We started from the Sylvan Lake day-use lot and hiked up trail 9.  On the way back, we used a combination of trails 3 & 4 with a side jaunt to the Cathedral Spires before returning.

harney peak graph8.3 miles in total over 5:06 (about an hour of non-moving time for rests and lunch).  About a 1100′ elevation change.  Cathedral Spires is around the 5.5-6 mile mark above.

DSCN3532Here we go.  As usual, we are one of the first ones to the trailhead (7am or so).  The morning started off cool and cloudy.  The Frey clan was well prepared.

harney peakour destination from early in the hike (we didn’t have the big arrow in the sky though)

DSCN3539lots of dead trees due to the mountain pine beetle (nasty bugger); makes for some blight but also enables views in the distance

DSCN3543bonus marmot along the way to the summit (Alex was in the lead and spotted this one)

DSCN3544a look back at the Cathedral Spires from (near) Harney Peak

DSCN3549and there you have it

DSCN3550great views from the top

DSCN3552and another


7258′ according to the GPS

DSCN3557my wonderful kids who shared this experience with me

DSCN3559rare solo shot

DSCN3561my Father’s Day portrait a few days early

DSCN3562and finally the whole family

DSCN3573sun’s out as we walk back toward the spires

Great hike and very rewarding, especially considering my recent health scare.  So glad we did it.

Since we got such an early start, we had some time in the afternoon for another activity as long as it was low energy!   We decided to pay the piper and actually go inside the Crazy Horse Memorial.

From the wiki link:

The Crazy Horse Memorial is a mountain monument under construction on privately held land in the Black Hills, in Custer County, South Dakota. It depicts Crazy Horse, an Oglala Lakota warrior, riding a horse and pointing into the distance. The memorial was commissioned by Henry Standing Bear, a Lakota elder, to be sculpted by Korczak Ziolkowski. It is operated by the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation, a private non-profit organization.

The monument has been in progress since 1948 and is far from completion.   If completed, it may become the world’s largest sculpture, as well as the first non-religious statue to hold this record since 1967.

DSCN3578not much different than my roadside shots, but I guess it’s a little closer

DSCN3582Here’s an overlay of what it will someday (hopefully) look like.  As you can see, they have a long way to go.  They’ve been going at this for 68 years and the original artist and his wife have passed away.  They had 10 offspring and the majority of them are involved in the non-profit foundation.  Perhaps it was the original wish of Standing Bear and/or Korczak’s own political views, but the project is vehemently against government funding.  I can appreciate that especially given the broken treaty history with the Native Americans but at this rate this memorial isn’t going to get finished in my kids’ lifetime.  That’s not really doing it justice.

DSCN3583One with the 1/34 scale model in the foreground.

DSCN3585and a final parting view

Day 7:  Jewel Cave & Badlands NP

Our final day from our Custer base.  We checked out of our cabin early in the morning (again! we were somewhat operating on Eastern time the entire week) so we could get in line for the limited tickets to the cave.   The Visitor’s Center opened at 8:30 and we got there at 8 but there was already a long line.  It took an hour but we got our tickets.

DSCN3589Sorry, another crappy cave photo.  The formations were more varied at Jewel which was nice.  Our ranger guide, however, was horrible.  Kuk thought she was new and nervous.  I thought she shouldn’t work with people.  Unfortunately, that colored things for me.

In the end, we enjoyed both caves and the variety they provided.

DSCN3634On to the Badlands NP!  Nicole was super excited as she had picked this out.

badlands map

The entire NP is pretty large but the main bit is the stretch along 240 from roughly Interior to Wall.  We drove the ~2 hrs from the Black Hills and decided to start from the “main” entrance in the east.  Due to the super hot temps, we just did a few short walks (viewing points really) and the scenic drive to Wall where our next cabin awaited.

DSCN3598very first pullout — you can get a good idea of what it looks like

DSCN3600here’s another — we all liked the ones with some green grass for contrast

DSCN3604I believe this was on one of the short walks (Door or Window)

IMG_9922we did happen to see this cute little guy (photo credit:  Nicole)

More great views below:






DSCN3628towards our last stop we did see a herd of big horn sheep

Day 8:  Badlands Hike and Minutemen Missile Sites

We started the day by packing up and heading out early to queue for the free Minutemen Missile tour tickets.  The ticket office opened at 8 but I got there at 7 (second in line).  They had 6 tours that day (some days are fewer) and only 6 people go on each tour so I didn’t want to miss out.  I selected an afternoon tour so we could get our one Badlands hike done in the morning before it got crazy hot.

badlands hikeThe hike as a nice and easy 4-miler that traversed the Medicine Root trail and a portion of the Castle Trail.  We also diverted at the halfway point to see the Saddle Pass trail from the prairie side (no climbing required from that direction).  It took slightly under 2 hours.

DSCN3637Being desert rookies, we were a bit unnerved by the warning sign.  We kept a good lookout as we were walking through the prairie grass but I bet we would have missed them anyway.  We were also hoping for a rattle warning!  Fortunately we didn’t find any (though I honestly wanted to see one from a safe distance).  Nicole sure didn’t.

DSCN3635fatter bunny at the start of this trail — must not be any snakes around, right?

DSCN3639a good example of the prairie portion of the trail–think you could spot a snake off to the side?

DSCN3642we liked the mixture of the rock/dirt formations and the various grasses

DSCN3646more thistle flowers

DSCN3647I love lagging behind and snapping a quick shot of my favorite 3

DSCN3652nice view!

DSCN3654cactus flower

DSCN3659the view from the top of the Saddle Pass trail

DSCN3661Nicole taking in a photo — she had a good eye for them

DSCN3664heading back

DSCN3665cactus terrarium

DSCN3667the dried mud was like walking on potato chips (sorry too lazy to edit out my shadow)

Minuteman Missile Sites

There are 3 Minuteman Missile sites located along I-90 near the Badlands: the Visitors Center (exit 131), Delta-01 launch control (exit 127) and the Delta-09 missile silo (exit 116).  They are National Historic Sites and run by the National Park System.

DSCN3630as mentioned, we got there early for tickets so we got to see the flag go up



DSCN3673Prior to our tour at Delta-01, we decided to check out the missile silo at Delta-09.   This is either an artsy shot of me looking down the silo at the existing trainer missile or a really poor photographer.  Take your pick.

delta-01Next up was our tour at the Launch Control.  Credit NPS for this photo.

DSCN3681Our guide was a former Missileer who worked on the site in the early 70s and has been giving tours for the last 6 years.  It really added to the experience.

DSCN3675a little ICBM humor painted on the door

DSCN3680and a hefty door it is — this is below ground leading into the control room

DSCN3676control room for 2 people on 24-hr shifts

DSCN3677And here’s a close up — the big red button isn’t what you think.  The two padlocks on the upper right were actually combination locks in the day.  That was to get to the code books.  The launch key is to the left of the phone.  Just like in the movies, there is a second one 12 feet away for the other guy to activate.  There were 5 sites in total.  All would have been given the code and at least 2 sites had to agree to launch (though there were still override possibilities).  Fortunately, none of this was ever used.  It’s hard to argue it wasn’t an effective deterrent.

This was a really interesting tour; I’m not doing it justice here.  Oddly enough it made me think of my dad and his involvement with fallout shelters, etc. as a Physics professor at Davidson.

DSCN3597There was a nice (new) museum at the Visitor’s Center.  Check out this near miss (and great save) on the Soviet side.  It makes you wonder how many times we came close to WW III.

Well there you have it.  From there we drove back to Sioux Falls for another overnight an then on home.  It was a really nice, relaxing trip.  We all had a good time.

Family favorites:

  • Harney Peak
  • Devil’s Bathtub creek walk
  • Badlands views
  • Devil’s Tower
  • Mount Rushmore
  • Minuteman Missile Launch Control Facility Tour
  • animals:  bison, pronghorn, deer, bighorn sheep, marmot, bunnies and prairie dogs

Not sure I would want to drive that much further, but it was nice to have our own car with our own stuff.  Least expensive full vacation in quite some time too!


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