There are some terrific drives in the Black Hills. We saw many on motorcycles which Scott thinks would be the perfect way to see the area. We, though, did it all in our Ford F350. We had some tight fits, but thousands of people enjoy these drives in all kinds of vehicles each year.
Iron Mountain Road runs between Mt. Rushmore National Memorial and Custer State Park. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable drive with winding roads with glimpses of Mount Rushmore which is framed by the tunnels. This drive has the famous pigtail bridges and wonderful Black Hills scenery. I really enjoyed stopping at a pull off and getting my first real glimpse of Mount Rushmore if only at a distance.
The state park’s Wildlife Loop road is another fun drive. It takes you through open grasslands and hills where much of the park wildlife live. There were cute prairie dogs popping in and out their holes as traffic continues by. We saw pronghorn antelope out in the field and a herd of burros (descended from the burros of years gone by which were used to transport visitors to the top of Black Elk Peak). When the rides were discontinued years ago the burros were released into park. The burros have become expert beggars. We watched as two of them went to a small car and stuck their heads in wanting food. The colts were cute but when people didn’t feed them they wandered down the road and back into the meadow area. Of course, the main wildlife attraction at Custer is the buffalo herds. We were amazed at the size of the animals. We saw several groups including some with calves coming down for water. A very pleasant drive.
Custer State Park has a long history and many buildings. We drove past the current State Game lodge, a beautiful building opened in 1922. We saw buildings that the CCC built in the 1930’s. My favorite stop was the home of Badger Clark, South Dakota’s first poet Laureate. He cut the trees, hauled the rocks and built the home himself and it is just as he left it in 1957 when he died. His poetry and books are the story of a man living an independent life. An interpreter is on site giving tours daily June through Labor Day.
Another fun drive was Needles Highway with its narrow tunnels. Most are single lane so must be approached with caution. We went through one called “keyhole” that was so narrow that Scott pulled the side mirrors in. We enjoyed seeing formations that look like needles made of granite. There are many picturesque vistas to be enjoyed.
These drives are so scenic that I know they can be driven again and again as they showcase the beauty of the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Heartland RV Park is located in Hermosa, SD – a few miles south of Rapid City and about 15 minutes from one of the entrances to Custer State Park. This is a large, well-laid-out park. Sites and roads are good gravel and site spacing is close but not quite on top of one another. Most of the sites are just long enough for the camping unit but plenty of parking is across the road from the campsites. The campground has decent WiFi, cable TV, a pool, and laundry rooms. There’s a camp store and a new activity building is just being completed. Also it looks as if the campground itself is being expanded. The staff is constantly out and about, keeping things in good shape.
The location itself is interesting because it is at the edge of the Black Hills which are mostly hidden from view because of the terrain. The immediate vicinity of the campground is treeless, rolling hills but within a couple of minutes of the campground the beauty of the area is plainly visible just to the west and within minutes of leaving the campground and heading west you are driving through it all. Rapid City is an easy 20 miles away.
For us, the campground struck a balance between being close to the state park, but with full hookups and an easy drive versus being right in the middle of it all but either being in the state park with electric only or driving through twisting, sometimes steep grades to a commercial campground in the Black Hills. Also, this park has the distinction of accepting Passport America and Escapees half price rates with no stay limit or blackout dates. You definitely want one of these two memberships if you are going to stay here.
Aside from being just slightly outside the beauty of the Black Hills the only other negative is the constant noise from highway 79, the primary north/south route in the area. Our site was in the row farthest from the highway so the noise wasn’t quite as bad as it was in the rows along the highway. The traffic is 24/7 so it is something you have to make peace with during a stay at this campground.
We found this to be a good spot for us as a place to stay while exploring the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota.
We’ve enjoyed tours of both National Park caves in the Black Hills. We took the Historic Lantern tour of Jewel Cave. The park ranger was in Historic costume with a fitted coat and riding pants. That was the standard uniform of the 1930’s. We met at the log cabin rebuilt to the specifications of the cabin lived in by the first Park Ranger and his wife. Half the people were given kerosene lanterns to carry just like they did in the early days. We were warned that the tour was considered strenuous, we would climb up and down about 600 steep wooden steps (some ladder-like) and be required to bend and stoop in some areas.
Our guide was very knowledgeable about the history of the cave as well as providing plenty of information about the crystals on the walls and the various bats that inhabit the cave. It was interesting to see how the early cave explorers saw the caves and fascinating to think they could see so little of the path ahead as they went through the cave. I was very tired when we finished but glad I took the tour.
Our second cave was Wind Cave and we took the Fairgrounds Cave Tour. We enjoyed this hour and half tour. The cave continually equalizes the atmospheric pressure of the cave and outside air causing it to “breathe” in or out. Our tour was part of the upper and middle levels of the the cave. It is considered the most strenuous walking tour of the park with 450 stair steps along the 2/3 mile hike, but there are rails to hold on to. One flight has 89 steps going up. Our tour guide was a young lady in her first year with the Parks service. She was very knowledgeable about the cave, its history, and the formations. The major attraction of this cave is the Boxwork formations found in the middle level of the cave. We also saw popcorn and frostwork formations. This is an excellent tour and I recommend it for anyone who doesn’t mind a strenuous hike.
We were looking for a campground with full hookups near Badlands National Park and Wall Drug and Arrow Campground in Wall, SD was one of our two choices. This is an older campground that is showing its age. We ended up in an area with a crew of construction workers. The hard working people left early in the morning and returned in the evening. Some of the campsites are set up with sites “back to back” so our neighbor’s 20 year old travel trailer on the driver’s side was pretty close. I’m sure we could have stayed in a different site had I asked. (Note to self: speak up!) The bathhouse was clean, but worn. After we were starting to set up I realized that there had been a sewer backup on the site on the other side of our camper at some point that needed to be cleaned up. However, someone cleaned it up shortly after that. Wall Drug is close by and if you don’t mind walking across some railroad tracks, it is easy walking distance. Speaking of the railroad tracks, we heard, I think just one train a day and none at night. One of the entrances to Badlands National Park is just a few miles south of town. Campground WiFi wasn’t very good but my Verizon 4G was fine. I had no problem getting my Dish Network satellites. On a future trip I think I’d try the other park or maybe forgo staying at or around Wall and just drive out from the Rapid City area.
After a short move we arrived in Wall, S.D. We decided to have lunch at the famous Wall Drug that is advertised on hundreds of billboards along the highways across South Dakota. Even on the state highways between Pierre and Wall I saw about 40 signs for Wall Drug. The store is huge, taking up a city block. Even on a weekday afternoon it was full of people. We had their famous hot roast beef sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy, and of course, their much advertised free ice water. For dessert we had apple pie and a cup of the 5 cent coffee. Again it was excellent! I had seen how large the sandwich was so we split the meal and were satisfied. There is a wide variety of shops with every kind of tourist item you can think of. It is very family oriented place with a play area and free water park for kids along with an animated dinosaur that opens its mouth and roars every 12 minutes.
The Badlands National Park is a very different experience. We have an America the Beautiful Pass for those of us over 62 so we avoided paying the $20 entry fee. We arrived midmorning and it was already getting warm. There is a wide variety of wildlife here. We saw some Bighorn sheep, several prairie dog towns, an antelope, and a few birds. Although the loop road was busy we had no difficulty finding parking at the overlooks. We stopped at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, had our picnic lunch in a covered shelter, watched the movie, refilled our water bottle, made a few purchases, and headed on out.
On our way home from the Badlands National Park we stopped at the Minuteman Missile National historic Site. There is a variety of hands on displays showing the significance of these sites in the Cold War and the arms race. The memorabilia is a reminder of those who served and the effect of the Cold War on the civilian population. There are actually three sites in the area, but we only stopped at the visitor center.
As you can tell, we enjoyed our time in Wall and especially, Badlands National Park.