Our #Vanlife adventure continued with a 165 mile (265 km) drive from Badlands National Park in South Dakota to Devils Tower in Wyoming. This drive kept us on Interstate 90, where the views were nothing to write home (or blog) about. It was a short drive, one we spent doing crossword puzzles, debating on whether or not to stop at Mount Rushmore, and making a quick stop at the famous Wall Drug.
From the moment we crossed the border into South Dakota, we started to see signs for Wall Drug. For the nearly 300 miles (482 km) between the Minnesota border to Wall, South Dakota, there were advertisements galore.
Although I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, there was no way that we were going to miss a stop at Wall Drug. Thankfully, Wall is one of the closest cities to Badlands National Park, so it took no time at all. The main drag of Wall was a cute collection of shops and restaurants in an Old West style.
Wall Drug is a HUGE drug store with a front and back area, each segmented into various shops, almost like a mall in miniature. The front area has gift shops, statues for photo opportunities, dancing robots, candy shops, a restaurant, doughnut stall, clothing store, tourist information kiosk, and a chapel. Oh, and an actual drug store. After walking up and down Wall’s main street, we noticed that all of the restaurants were in the same price range (over-priced), so we ended up eating at the Wall Drug cafeteria, which served large portions and allowed for some good people watching.
The back section of Wall Drug is known as The Backyard and is a little more family friendly. There are statues to pose with, including the ever elusive jackalope (half jack rabbit and half antelope), a plastic stage coach, and a T-Rex. There are more gift shops, an arcade, and a little bit of space for kids to run around. It is also hosts Wall Drug’s “famous” free, cold water fountain. Overall, Wall Drug is not worth traveling to [Editor’s note: I disagree], but it was kind of a fun stop since we were passing through anyway.
Devil’s Tower, Wyoming
The remaining 2.5 hour drive was easy going. We had considered stopping at Mount Rushmore along the way, but it was a bit foggy. I had seen too many pictures of people posing in front of a cloud of mist where the faces of the presidents should be, so, we opted to skip the majestic mountain monument and instead went straight to the northeast corner of Wyoming to Devil’s Tower National Monument.
Once we were off the freeway, the road wound through hills that occasionally gave glimpses of the tower. It was so interesting to see the beautifully rolling landscape with Devil’s Tower just thrusting out of the earth as if from nowhere.
We chose to spend some extra cash to camp directly below Devil’s Tower at the Devil’s Tower/ Black Hills KOA. It cost about $30 per night to park in the grass, but we had a picnic table, fire pit, tree cover, and wifi. The site also included access to clean bathrooms, hot showers, laundry machines, a pool, playground, and an on-site restaurant. We are livin’ large!
I have been obsessed with Devil’s Tower since I was a kid. My sister and I watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind WAY more often than I would like to admit. Since then, I have been wanting to visit this strange mountain and find out what is really on top of it. Can’t wait!
We were so excited to visit Badlands National Park after having such a wonderful experience at Palisades State Park. South Dakota was proving to be an insanely beautiful state. We drove 288 miles (463 km) along I-90 and started our new audio book, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut and read by James Franco. I was very skeptical about a reading by the beautiful Mr. Franco, but his voice actually fit perfectly with the feeling of the story, and the misadventures of Billy Pilgrim kept us entertained all the way to the Badlands.
Badlands National Park Overview
Badlands National Park is located in the southwest corner of South Dakota, off of the I-90 freeway. The three sections of the park include over 240,000 acres (97,000 h) of national park land. The North Unit, which is the one we explored, is the most popular and includes a convenient looped road along the major stops within the park.
When to Visit
The best time to visit Badlands National Park is in the spring or fall. There is very little shade and the sun can be quite intense against the light colored rock formations. The spring will provide the best temperatures at 35 – 80°F (2 – 27°C), but also has increased chances of rain. The fall temperatures are a few degrees colder, but you’re less likely to get rained on. Regardless, I strongly suggest sun protection no matter when you decide to visit the Badlands.
How to Prepare
The town of Wall has several hotels and RV campgrounds (plus the famous Wall Drug), but it is bit of a drive to the park. The absolute best place to stay is within the park itself at Cedar Pass Lodge. The lodge includes cabins, RV parking, and camping sites, all of which overlook the national park.
The price to enter Badlands National Park is $20 per car, $10 per motorcycle, or $10 per hiker (as of 10/2018). Each pass is valid for seven consecutive days. As we plan on visiting at least four national parks within the next 12 months, we opted to purchase the America The Beautiful Pass for $80. This allows everyone in our car to visit all of the USA national parks for free for the next 365 days.
I am a big fan of nuclear history and strongly suggest including the Minuteman Missile National Historic Sites in your trip. To get the best experience, reserve your Delta-01 tour as soon as possible. The tour lasts 30 minutes and costs $6. When we went in the off-season, tickets had already sold out three weeks prior. Without a reservation, we were limited to the visitor center and the Delta-09 site, where you can take pictures of the exterior of a decommissioned Minuteman silo. But if you want to tour the inside of the bunker (and who wouldn’t?!), reserve ASAP.
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center
Location: North of I-90 Exit 131
Time: 30 minutes
During the Cold War (1947-1991), the United States produced over 1,000 ready-to-launch nuclear-tipped missiles and stationed them in hidden silos throughout the Great Plains. This was done to close the missile gap between the USA and the Soviet Union, allowing the United States to apply the military strategy of mutual assured destruction.
The LGM-30 Minuteman is an intercontinental ballistic missile developed in the mid-1950s. Like the Revolutionary War’s Minutemen, whom the missile was named after, the LGM-30 Minuteman missiles were armed and ready to strike at a moment’s notice.
Walking through the visitor center gave us a great idea of what it was like to live during this time when the whole world was facing death on a hair trigger. More importantly, in my humble opinion, it outlined the history and the philosophical dilemmas surrounding such an instant killing arsenal. As a physics hobbyist with an interest in nuclear energy, I found the whole thing fascinating.
Location: North of I-90 Exit 127
Time: 30 minutes
Price: $6 for adults and $4 for youth under 16 (as of 10/12/2018)
Tours begin and end at the gate outside of the Delta-01 compound gate. Tickets must be reserved in advance as only six people are taken in at a time; I strongly suggest booking at least three weeks before visiting. We were unable to take the tour since all of the spots had been booked out beforehand. The tour takes visitors down into an old Minuteman control bunker, including the upper support building and the actual launch control site 31 feet below the surface.
Get more information about visiting the Delta-01 Site HERE.
Location: South of I-90 Exit 116
Time: 10 minutes
Honestly, I was a little disappointed with the Delta-09 compound. There is a self-guided cellphone tour available, but all of the stops are above ground, and there isn’t much to see. The main attraction is a window with a limited view into a launch silo (pictured above). It was a great way to get a glimpse into a silo without access to the Delta-01 tour, but it left us wanting more.
Pinnacles Overlook is the first major pull-out we came to as we entered Badlands National Park. It ended up being one of my favorite stops. There were several different overlook areas with varying levels of accessibility. I think the view at Pinnacles Overlook gave the most expansive view of the rock formations the park is known for.
Just outside of the Pinnacles Overlook parking lot is where we spotted our first wild bison. Bison are America’s national mammal and are often called “buffalo” within the USA and Canada. Although they played a major roll in the lives of the Native Americans of the Great Plains, the American Bison nearly went extinct in the 19th century. Now the bison population is doing very well, though most only live domestically or within national parks and reserves.
Homestead Overlook isn’t particularly impressive without knowing a bit of the history of the area. The overlook offers a view of the main settlement area for homesteaders of the 19th century, Lakota peoples before that, Arikara people before that, and even the nomadic mammoth hunters before that. This place is so arid and windy, home to little more than scrub grass and hardy shrubs, so it’s strange to think anyone would call this “home”.
Ben Reifel Visitor Center
“Jen, you just skipped so much of the park!” Yes, I know. Driving from Homestead to the visitor center was absolutely stunning. We stopped at a couple of pullouts along the way but, I’ll be honest, they weren’t really worth the heat. Panorama Point was similar to the rest of the sites and the Fossil Exhibit Trail might be cool for kids, but was a huge disappointment for me (there are no actual fossils there). Save your energy for the amazing hikes that await just past the visitor center.
Ben Reifel Visitor Center is the main visitor center for the Badlands National Park and is open year round. The southern visitor center, called White River Visitor Center, is a great starting point for the Stronghold Unit of the park, but is only open seasonally. The visitor centers are a great place to learn about the historical and geographical aspects of the park. It is also a great place to hit the bathroom and cool down in the AC!
Hands-down, our favorite adventure in Badlands National Park was our brief hike of Door Trail. It begins with a short boardwalk into the canyon. Once inside, the boardwalk ends and a more technical hike begins.
The hike is no longer handicap accessible after the boardwalk ends; the ground becomes very uneven and rocky. The trail is not paved or even very obvious, marked out by numbered yellow poles you had to spot and find your own way to. It wasn’t always easy to spot the next marker (I’m still not sure where number 7 is) and reminded us a lot of the Harrier House Hash Run we did in Thailand. Although it didn’t seem particularly easy to get lost, it was obvious that we could, in fact, get lost. The surrounding landscape had very little in the way of distinguishing features, and I can imagine how easily I could get turned around if I made a wrong turn.
Thankfully, we didn’t make any wrong turns and successfully reached the end of the trail, which gave us an amazing 360 degree view of the Badlands. It was hot, windy, barren, and beautifully ugly. It was like being on another world.
We spent three days at Badlands National Park and enjoyed every moment. Like every national park I have been to so far, it truly exceeded my expectations. In those three days, we were able to see everything the park had to offer, plus the surrounding neighborhood, and get some work done. One day should be more than enough to visit all of the best parts of the park. Next up, we’re traveling just a few hours away to the eastern border of Wyoming and our next camp site below the awe-inspiring Devils Tower!
South Dakota’s Palisades State Park is about half an hour’s drive from the city of Sioux Falls and is located a little ways off Interstate 90, which connects Seattle to Boston. We’ve been driving along I-90 since we left Chicago and will be following it all the way to Billings, Montana, where we will veer off south towards Yellowstone National Park. We needed a place to camp along the way, so we decided to stay at Palisades State Park. It ended up being the perfect spot to relax and unwind for a few days, with plenty to see and do in the park itself, and the neighboring city of Sioux Falls to explore.
Palisades State Park
The park is a bit on the small side at just over 150 acres (61 ha). It includes a campground, which accommodates both tent campers and RVs, four hiking trails, river access, and day-use picnic spots. Despite its size, it packs a big punch with quartzite cliffs to explore, a river to paddle on, and historical markers about the area.
The park fee is $6 per vehicle and campsites start at $17. The highlights of the park can be viewed in a single day, but if you have the time, I strongly suggest staying a night or two. We spent three days at the Palisades State Park Campground without getting bored. In addition to the park, there are hiking trails in easy driving distance, a golf course, historic small towns, and Sioux Falls near by.
We saw several groups of campers with kayaks and canoes, which I was super jealous of. The water moved at a steady speed past the beautiful landscape. The river itself was lined with steep cliff edges and narrow canyons that eventually folded back into the rolling hills and farmland, creating some interesting transition zones that you could only really explore from the water. The deep gouges in the middle of the farmland made the whole area feel as though it was created by accident.
Three miles north of Palisades State Park is Devil’s Gulch. It is a slot canyon with free hiking trails and water access. There’s a famous story about the outlaw Jesse James escaping capture at Devil’s Gulch. While on the run from the law, he (supposedly) convinced his horse to jump the 20 foot (6 m) gap across the gorge. There’s a bridge that spans the now famous gap, and while it makes for a great story, I’m not sure I can believe a horse made that jump. I like to think it did.
We walked along most of the hiking trail at Devil’s Gulch. It was a fairly easy hike, except for the acorns that littered the ground, which slid out from under our feet and made us slip. To our left was the ravine with its steep edges and deep water. To our right, there was rolling farmland with hardly a hint of danger. The walk was wonderful and provided another great example of the dramatic landscape of the area.
Fernson Brewing Company
Only 20 minutes drive from Palisades State Park is Fernson Brewing Company. This was an excellent little break from our outdoor adventures. It is a great place to have a few drinks, experience the local beer culture, enjoy the air conditioning, and get a little free WiFi.
My favorite beer was the Lion’s Paw Lager. The brewery says that, like the story of the lion with a thorn in it’s paw, the brewers “took a recipe that could have been aggressive and made it smooth”.
We strongly recommend spending the weekend near Palisades State Park. There is so much to see and do that we barely scratched the surface. This was our first impression of South Dakota; if Palisades State Park even hints at the beauty that this state holds, I may have to move here.
On #Vanlife Day 32, we left our lovely camping spot at 99 Bottles Winery and Vineyard to continue our road trip west. We drove 185 miles (298 km) to Palisades State Park near Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I couldn’t find a ton of information about the park online, but it was a convenient stop on our way to the Badlands and a few bloggers I follow mentioned it as South Dakota’s Best Kept Secret. After having a chance to explore a little bit, I completely agree! Read on to learn more about this hidden hideaway!
Sioux Falls, South Dakota
South Dakota is an American Midwest state bordered by North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana. Although it is larger in area than half of the other United States, it is the 5th smallest in population at just under 900,000 people. North and South Dakota are named after the Lakota and Dakota Native American tribes; both groups call this area home. Currently, the Native American population of South Dakota makes up nearly 10% of the state’s population.
We have a few stops planned for South Dakota, the first of which is just outside of South Dakota’s most populous city, Sioux Falls. The Big Sioux River runs through the city, and, appropriately enough, there is a series of waterfalls in the middle of town. The Lakota people call Sioux Falls “Stone Shatter City”, and it is easy to see why, given the dramatic cracked and stony landscape.
Palisades State Park Campground
We’ll be spending the next couple of days camping out in the van at the Palisades State Park Campground. A tent site near the river is costing us $17 per night. We have two large parking spaces, a fire pit with an attached grill, and a picnic table, but no electricity or WiFi. So far, we are very happy with our site. The bathrooms are very clean and the showers are hot. There are quite a few other campers, but everyone has been very quiet and polite so far. It has actually been quite nice to not be the only ones for once. Maybe we’ll even make some friends!
Until then, it is time to plan our adventures for the next couple of days. Already, I am very impressed with the scenery of the Sioux Falls area and can’t wait to explore it. Stay tuned for a tour of Palisades State Park!