The Black Hills & Bandlands National Park

Days 11-13

Day 11, July 13

Day 11 started in Douglas, WY at 8:00AM, and ended at the Cedar Pass Campground in Badlands National Park at 10:30PM.

Today we covered a lot of road and paid our tourist dues.

From the grasslands of eastern Wyoming sprung lush forests. Though the trees were not as big as others we had slept under farther west, the deep spruce greens against the rock-speckled grasses beckoned us into a wholly new landscape, one that we had only encountered by way of North by Northwest. But before we faced the stone stars of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, we met some prairie dogs. 

The little creatures seemed to be constantly on the move; whether scurrying on all fours or mounting small mounds of dirt to get a better lay of the land, they all seemed to be eating and looking for more food. The tighter we squinted and the wider we looked, the more prairie dogs we could see--everywhere, every one dusty and industrious.

Little did we know they sat atop something unexpected.

Wind Cave

We had no expectations of Wind Cave; when we first entered the area we weren't even sure whether or not it was a National Park. It just happened to be on route to Mt. Rushmore, and we wanted to stretch our legs. In the early afternoon, the Visitor’s Center was full of people coming from or going to Mount Rushmore. We were not keen to take a guided tour; we had hoped to just explore by ourselves. But we had not seen the map of the cave before we asked the ranger about other options. She seemed both amused and annoyed at our question; the world’s sixth-longest cave of over 140 discovered miles, unfolds beneath only a few square miles of prairie. We followed her rules and took the tour.

The tour group gathered in a waiting area, ultimately congregating to about 40 people. We enjoyed the freedom to set our own pace at the other National Parks so this would be a new experience for us. Ranger Jack was our guide through the cave and handled the large group in the small spaces very well.

Our route was made up of a half mile trail and 300 stairs all but 11 of which headed downwards. We quickly discovered why they don't allow people to explore on their own. Not only could we get lost, but the quarters are so close that it would be very easy for people cause unintentional destruction. (Tripods were not allowed in this subterranean space.)

Our tour group took an hour and a half to get from one end to the other, weaving our way through the dark cavern. Along the way, Ranger Jack explained all of the cave's unique features: it is known for the unique boxwork calcite formations on the ceilings, and the spindly frostwork found in the more cavernous areas. Ranger Jack also gave us a history of the park and its discovery, chronicled by Alvin McDonald, who detailed his exploration of the cave and other geological interests in his diary between 1891 and 1893. 

At the end of the tour the group gathered by the elevators and made our way back to the surface, 10 at a time. We hopped back in the car and sped towards Mount Rushmore.

We were prepared for a quick drive to Mount Rushmore, compared to some others we made, and Kevin put "Mount Rushmore" into his GPS. The GPS, however, did not read "Mount Rushmore" and "Mount Rushmore National Monument" as the same place. As we followed the directions from the GPS we saw a sign along the road for "Mount Rushmore National Monument" pointing in the direction opposite to our current course. We quickly realized we were not headed towards our next planned stop, so we got off at the next exit for "Rockerville", to figure out where we had gone wrong.

What remains of Rockerville

When we turned into Rockerville, we felt like we had stepped into a different decade. Wood-board storefronts sagged and sloped with the weight of neglect, and gaunt doorways and jagged windows tempted our curiosity, free-of-charge. At first we weren't sure whether or not this was some kind of tourist attraction, an ode to an outpost town in a wilder west. But there was no one around, a ghost block just a few miles from one of America's most visited national treasures. 

Across the street was a bar with a few people, so we decided to see if they knew anything about the town. They had a short blurb written about it on their menu, and told us that we could go look around.

We took our time exploring the buildings, each with their own surprises inside. The company store and general store buildings had little left in them besides a few remnants of what the building once was. The bank and the saloon were overflowing with what seemed to be random junk piled to the ceiling.

It's hard to explain why but we really enjoyed exploring this abandoned town. What was originally a wrong turn on the way to a major tourist destination turned into an hour-long detour. Instead of facing a monolithic monument to freedom and democracy, we found ourselves looking through all the things that weren't important enough for people to take with them, abandoned perhaps in pursuit of other lives, liberties and happinesses. 

With the sun getting closer and closer to the horizon, we decided to put "Mount Rushmore National Monument" into our GPS and get there before the park closed.

The rush to Mount Rushmore

For a granite sculpture that covers two square miles and is over 5,700 feet above sea level, Mount Rushmore is rather secluded from view. It wasn't until we were about a half a mile from the park entrance that we could see the four presidential faces. From this (free) vantage point, they looked small, and though we knew we would not be taking the same intimate, cliff-hanging tour as Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint did some 65 years ago, we paid the $12 parking fee to get a bit closer.

We had about an hour to spend under the stoney gazes of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, (Teddy) Roosevelt and Lincoln. We hopped up on the wall of the grand patio overlooking the monument and took our pictures along with many of the park's other visitors. On a guard's recommendation, we followed a path down to sculptor Gutzon Borglum's studio, in which plaster models and worker's tools document over 17 years of the labors of some 400 people. On a fellow Wind Cave tourgoer's recommendation, we walked the half-mile-long Presidential Trail, which offers several innovative views of the customized rockface.

As the descending sun lit fast-fading halos over the colossal heads, we, too, left the park. Before reaching our final destination for the night, we stopped for gelato and car fudge in Keystone, hometown of Mount Rushmore. On each table in Grapes and Grinds was a set of conversation starters, which we explored with great interest as we made our way to Badlands National Park.

The Badlands

We arrived at our campground at around 10 PM, picking up our campsite assignment like we had done a few times before. As we drove through the sleepy campground we counted up with each passing campsite to C 51. When we got to our campsite a car from California was parked at our site and a tent set up. We double-checked our ticket to make sure we were in the right spot. After reassuring ourselves we found the ticket with Hayley's last name on it on the campsite marker, then we were sure we were in the right place. We weren't sure whether or not they were already asleep, so we decided to leave them alone and unpack our car. From the street we hear a jovial "Hello neighbor!" They went on to try to explain to us how it was fine that they were there, even though we had made the reservation. "Oh after 9:30 the campground becomes sort of first come first serve." This was not true. They then went on to give us a tour of our campsite showing us a place we could pitch our tent, since they had put their tent in the area in the campsite designated for a tent. The area they showed us was moderately flat area with cracked dirt, through which only the most rugged of plants popping up very sporadically. We knew what they were trying to do (camp for free because we had paid for the spot), and so did they. Now 11PM, we were tired after our day of driving and exploring, so we did what we could to end the conversation cordially. 

 After letting them fall asleep, we took a few shots of the stars, and turned in for the night.

Day 11 wrap-up

We started in Wyoming, and ended up at the Cedar Pass Campground in Badlands National Park in South Dakota. We saw 15 different US license plates, and traveled on two major roads 25S & 18E.

The major landmarks we stopped at were the many roadside turnouts, Wind Cave National Park, Rockerville, SD, Mount Rushmore, and Cedar Pass Campground in Badlands National Park.

We saw prairie dogs, buffalo, pronghorn antelope, and deer.

Hayley's Song of the Day: "Take Me To Church" by Hozier. Heard between Douglas, WY and Wind Cave National Park.

Kevin's Song of the Day: "Jackie and Wilson" by Hozier. Heard between Douglas, WY and Wind Cave National Park.

Day 12, July 14

Day 12 started at the Cedar Pass Campground at 8:50AM, and ended at the Cedar Pass Campground at 9:30PM.

Putting the night before behind, us we woke up relatively early. We planned to get in a full day of hiking, so it was off to find a ranger for some trail advice. 

Most hikes in Badlands National Park are short, in comparison to the other parks we've visited. Most are under two miles round trip. We decided to start the day with a short half mile loop.

At this point in the day it was about 10 AM and the sun was already high. There are very few tall trees in Badlands, so it's hard to find a place to escape from the sun. With few clouds in the sky we were already sweaty and thirsty halfway through this short hike. The scenery was dry and odd and unlike anything we had ever seen before. Life sprouted up erratically along the trail.

At the end of our first hike it felt like it had gotten even hotter, and it didn't help that we were greeted by a well-baked car. Some combination of our late night and the warm car had us drowsy by the time we reached the trailhead for our next hike. We sat and discussed our options. With our upcoming hike closer to 2 miles, we decided to delay it until the sun was a bit lower and the bus full of teenagers unloading before us at the trailhead had moved on. Plus with the sun a little lower we'd get some more dramatic lighting with some depth rather than the flat light we had now. It was now a question of what to do until we set out on our hike. We discussed traveling back to the Black Hills to do a bit more exploring in the shade, but with a little over an hour driving each way we decided against it, realizing that we'd be spending more time in the car than we would exploring. 

We chose to have a somewhat slow day. We went back to our campsite, set up our hammock using the overhanging shade that covered the picnic table. At various points throughout the day we each nodded off while lounging in the hammock. We made PB&J sandwiches for lunch and planned the rest of our trip, because at this point we didn't have much of a plan for the rest of our route. We had only made it to Indiana in our planning, and we didn't even know whether or not we were going to make it to Portland, ME. So we made a plan with some possible routes and ending locations. And yes, we did use that atlas--it's not just for show. Sometimes it's all you have to rely on when the cell phone service is spotty.

We even took the time to watch the clouds disappear as they moved across the sky.

Moonwalking at the magic hour

We watched the afternoon slide west, and made some couscous for dinner under the deepening light. Around 6pm, we drove to the spot that had been--hours before--a smoldering mirage of tourists. The parking lot was now deserted and the Notch Trail was ours to wander, alone.

We explored the sedimentary rockscape in the silence. The trail followed a dry riverbed, through the canyon that it had carved years ago. The sun's low rays cut across the craggy forms, crowning the tips of some cliffs while pressing the shadows of others against them. The air was cooler inside this sandcastle ruin. Except for a graceful jack rabbit, everything was very still. We wound our way through the canyon following the white trail blazes hidden within the folded rock. The trail faded into the sky-bleached canyon floor, and we walked gingerly, trying our best not to send the loose rocks and dirt tumbling into the canyon's pockets.

We came eventually came to a ladder that took us up the canyon wall to a ridge. We followed it around to a view of the White River Valley. Along with a few other hikers, we overlooked the Badlands, bumpy and glowing golden pink for miles.

Our twilight adventure through this otherworldly space continued as we retraced our steps back along the riverbed.

Our campground was only a mile or two back the way we had come, but there was still some light and there was something decidedly fantastical about following the road around the rock formations, still sharp in the cool light. The instrumentals of Explosions in the Sky and Maxence Cyrin's rendition of "Where is My Mind" dilated and decrescendoed as striated spires and pinnacles curved over our car.

Before turning in for the night we took a few pictures of the thin wispy clouds as they floated overhead.

Day 12 wrap-up

We stayed in South Dakota, exploring Badlands National Park. We saw 11 different US license plates, and traveled north and south along 240.

The major landmarks we stopped at were a few roadside turnouts, the Cedar Pass Campground in Badlands National Park, and the Notch Trail.

We a jack rabbit hopping through the tall grasses.

Hayley's Song of the Day: "Your Hand In Mine" by Explosions in the Sky. Heard as the sun set over the Badlands.

Kevin's Song of the Day: "Where Is My Mind" by Maxence Cyrin. Heard as the sun set over the Badlands.

Day 12.5

Another dark and stormy

We were awakened at around 2AM in the middle of a ferocious storm. Much brighter, louder and closer than our first storm in Yellowstone, this one probably deserved another night in the car. But we were already in the tent, and the tent was holding up well against the lashing wind and rain. In the intermittent daylight erupting in bolts outside the tent, though, our nerves were a little shaky. It felt as though we were in the eye of a storm whose magnitude we could only guess by the sensations it activated. Logic might have said to get in the car, but one night in the car had been enough to risk a lightning strike. So we stayed put.

A little while later, when our tent had stopped shaking and the light played more slowly across our vinyl walls, Kevin could resist his photographer’s instincts no longer. He promised to be smart, and went to set up his tripod. Hayley joined him a few minutes later, and we stood outside for an hour in the quiet of the storm’s wake. We watched the sky cracked as light danced across it to the syncopated boom of a thunder miles away. The tremendous storm had tumbled through Cedar Pass, entering our bodies as tremors and light, yet somehow its power was even more stunning from this distance.

Day 13, July 15

Day 13 started at the Cedar Pass Campground at 9:00AM, and ended in La Crosse, WI at 8:54PM.

The morning brought relief to the campground; the storm was over and we had all survived. We knew that today would be a long day of driving, so we took our time in the morning to make sure we had a good breakfast and were prepared for the day ahead.

Before leaving Cedar Pass we shared some stories and recommendations with a family of six dragging a U-Haul of camping gear up to Glacier. 

Before leaving the park we made sure to get our picture with the park sign; it had been too dark when we first arrived. While waiting in line for our turn, we noticed a deer grazing out in the field with the mountains in the distance. We were hoping to see more, but this and the jack rabbit were really our only signs of wildlife. Finally it was our turn and we got our sign picture.

We hopped back in the car and pulled out onto the main road. As we turned we noticed a slight traffic jam. "Bighorns!" Two male bighorn sheep were crossing the road, unphased by the cars pushing them along.

After getting their fill of grasses along the side of the road, they made their way back to the less-populated areas of the park, and the audience that had gathered went their separate ways. 

This was the day that we covered the most ground. Over the next 8 hours, we crossed most of South Dakota, all of Minnesota, and landed in La Crosse, Wisconsin. To get to our Airbnb on French Island, we had to cross the Mississippi River. This was the first time either of us had seen this wide and majestic river in person. 

After so many hours on the highway, we fell asleep early and easily. 

Day 13 wrap-up

We passed through three states, starting in South Dakota, zipping through Minnesota, and landing in Wisconsin. We saw 34 different US license plates, including one government vehicle, along with 3 Canadian plates from Ontario, Saskatchewan and Quebec, all while traveling two major roads 90E & 240N.

The major landmarks we stopped at were a few roadside turnouts, the Badlands National Park sign, Sioux Falls, SD, Stewartville, MN, and La Crosse WI.

We saw two bighorn sheep, an animal we were hoping to see all trip long.

Hayley's Song of the Day: "Fields of Gold" by Sting. Heard as the sun set along the cornfields bordering a Minnesotan highway.

Kevin's Song of the Day: "Fast Car" by Tracy Chapman. Heard somewhere in South Dakota while driving along 90E.

On to the Midwest

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