2016 Hyams Vac Dakotas
Posted Tuesday, July 26, 2016 03:14 PM

In pursuit of national parks, our 2016 vacation was to the Dakotas. In particular North Dakota with Theodore Roosevelt NP and South Dakota with Wind Cave NP and the Badlands NP.

My wife Marilyn and I decided it would be best to fly into Rapid City SD and then drive to ND. After that go back to Rapid City SD to tour the many attractions that are in the area.

In many ways this was a tale of two rivers namely the little Missouri River whose headwaters are north of Devils Tower Wyoming and the Belle Fourche River whose headwaters are south of Devils Tower.

A list of attractions we visited:

In ND:

Theodore Roosevelt NP both Units;

In SD:

  Badlands NP;

  Wind Cave NP;

  Jewel Cave NM;

  Custer SP;

  Mt Rushmore NHM;

  Crazy Horse NHM;

  Minuteman Missile NHS;

  Geographical Center of US;

In WY:

  Devils Tower NM:

Detail below:

We landed in Rapid City around noon on July 4th.  After a meal we set out on I90 to find US85, a major US Highway that connects El Paso with Canada.  We traveled thru Belle Fourche the approximate  Geographical Center of the US and crossed the Belle Fourche River.  We thought we'd get drinks and ice on the 99 mile trip to ND.  The first town about 50 miles up the road was Redig population 10.  Slim picking for a drink.  Twenty miles later was Buffalo (pop. 330) where we stopped at the only place for gas and refreshments.  Twenty miles later was Ludlow(pop.10).  The point is that Western SD is sparsely populated so keep the gas tank full and the drinks iced before you leave a city.  In SD we saw fields of green which were grasses and 12" newly planted corn.  In ND we saw fields of green which were grasses and fields of yellow which were canola.  We never saw as much hay as we saw in both states.  They even bale it on highway r/w.

Now the parks:

In North Dakota we toured the South unit of the Theodore Roosevelt NP and the North unit of Theodore Roosevelt NP both examples of badlands, a geological feature found around the world.  We did not tour the Elkhorn Ranch Unit since we would have had to negotiate a non-paved road 35 miles one way.

We stayed in a booming and nice town Dickinson which has benefited from oil exploration. 

TRNP North Unit:   Did 14 mile Scenic Drive along with very few people.  Enjoyed overlooks at River Bend and Oxbow which were, of course, views of the muddy Little Missouri River - reminded me of the Red River before navigability. Should not be surprising since almost everything we saw this trip was caused by erosion. Best trail was Little Mo Nature Trail which is only one we took since others were too long(not senior friendly).  Disappointed that we saw no eagles but did see bison and prairie dogs.

TRNP South Unit:  Did part of 36 mile Scenic Loop one day and all of it the next. Some of the loop features the Little Missouri River.  Best trail was Wind Canyon Trail showcasing the river.   Others were Painted Canyon Nature Trail at Painted Canyon VC, Boicourt Trail and Ridgeline Nature Trail.  Saw lots of bison and prairie dogs at Beef Corral Bottom. Unexpectedly saw wild horses.  Viewed Maltese Cross Cabin which has been relocated several times.

Badlands NP, Minuteman: At Exit 131 on I90 we went left to see the Minuteman Missle NHS VC.  We did not visit a silo, just saw what the VC had to offer which was impressive to me since I grew up during Cold War threats.  We then crossed Exit 131 to start the 240 Loop at Badlands NP.  Strange, different and interesting.  All used to describe these badlands.   Best trail was the Notch Trail.  Other trails we did were the Door, Window and Saddle Pass(never again). Saw lone bison. Stopped at Wall Drug Store on the way back.

Wind Cave NP:  The park has surface trails to go with the subterranean offering.  We chose the Fairgrounds Tour for our cave tour which was the most popular.  Above ground we saw bison and pronghorn.  The best trail was Rankin Ridge Trail that we took from off Hwy 87 as we exited the park. The only other trail we took was a prairie trail around the picnic area after we visited the natural opening.

It should be noted that bison have been reintroduced to many of the parks where herds have grown to as much as 1400 head.  So expect to see bison in most every park even Wind Cave and Jewel Cave surface areas.

Jewel Cave NM:  We made the mistake of going to Chief Crazy Horse MEM first and spending too much time there but it was hard to leave.  By the time we got to Jewel Cave we had to settle for the Discovery Tour instead of the most popular Scenic Tour.  While waiting we did the Roof Trail. But our favorite trail was in the Historic Area where we picnicked then went down to Hell Canyon to the Natural Opening.  At 49 degrees it was nice. Next time it will be caves first.

Mount Rushmore N MEM: We went there in the afternoon which worked out well when we found  out that there was a Lighting of the Monument at 9:30p.  While waiting we did the Presidential Trail and film.  The ceremony was to be a Ranger talk, film and Veteran recognition before lighting.  High winds cancelled the film. 

Crazy Horse MEM:  What we found here was somewhat unexpected.  We didn't know the Mt Rushmore sculpting would fit in Chief Crazy Horse's sculpted head.  We didn't know that it was a work in progress which may still be going on in 2099(my number) if the private donations allow...no money from the government.  We didn't know how extensive the complex was. We thought it was pricey...$11 each person.  No trails here.  Overall we were impressed and were late to Jewel Cave.

Custer State Park: What a park!  Best place to see bison is on Wilderness Road.   Best place to see begging burros.  Very nice scenery.  Try Needles Hwy.  Sylvan Lake area is scenic and the Lake Shore Trail was the best.  Trails to Harney Peak start there.  We also did the Grace Coolidge Trail and visited the Summer White House used by President Coolidge and wife Grace.  We also did Stockade Lake Trail (1.5mi) loop which was very good since one could get a good view of the Needles.

Try Iron Mt Road(16A) where traveling north from Custer SP one can experience 'pigtails' construction and tunnel framing of Mt Rushmore.  Only part of the road is in Custer SP.

Devils Tower NM:  First NM in US.  Best trail was the Tower Trail where we watched mountain climbers in action.  We did part of the Valley View Trail along the Belle Fourche River which is credited with helping expose the Devils Tower by erosion.  Really enjoyed our time there.


If you have a need to see a waterfall, try Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway where you can see Bridal Vail Falls along Hwy 14A and Roughlock Falls which can require a mile hike along a creek if you skip the gravel road.

We agreed that the Black Hills reminded us of Gatlinburg TN all the way down to the taffy pulls in the windows.  I was very much at home in the area.  People were friendly and helpful.   Couldn't believe how much there was to see near Rapid City.