Our whirlwind seven-day adventure to South Dakota was one of the busiest weeks we’ve had this year. While we weren’t busy exploring Badlands and Wind Cave National Parks we took some time to explore the “other” things to do in Western South Dakota. Here is a quick round-up of our time in order of interest and importance as determined by me, (your mileage may vary):
Mobile Gas Station/RV Campground/Military Museum
Yep, this is at the top of our list. You see, the reason we left Badlands when we did is because a serious South Dakota heatwave was settling in. When the temperature hits 95+ degrees inside your RV it is time to find somewhere to plug into power and revel in the modern convenience known as air conditioning. Usually we end up paying handsomely for this luxury. Enter a very random 24 hour self-service gas station (as in no convenience store, just pay-at-the-pump gas) located in Wasta, SD that also has an 8 site RV “campground” with power, potable water, and a dump station. All of this for a grand total of $15 for two nights. Yes, we spent two nights behind a gas station. This, my friends, is RV road trip gold. And the fact that there was an extraordinarily well preserved A-4 Skyhawk parked out front was the icing on the cake. This place was delightfully strange and we loved every air conditioned minute we spent here.
Minuteman National Historic Site
Located just north of Badlands NP and buried deep underground and sometimes hidden-in-plain-sight, South Dakota has been home to a nuclear arsenal capable of destruction roughly 700 times that of the entire ordinance expenditure of all sides during WWII (including both Atomic weapons). Many of these weapons have been disposed of following the cold war but there is still a very active missile silo and bomber program headquartered at Ellsworth Air Force Base. We took a day to explore the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.
The Minuteman National Historic Site is located just off I-90 and is brand-spanking-new. They don’t even have their final museum instillation yet. The short film and what is currently available do a good job of giving a historical perspective of the cold war and the nuclear buildup that followed WWII. When the site is complete it will have a replica missile silo and other more authentic displays then the ones currently available. The real heart of The Minuteman National Historic Site is the distributed sites located across the plains and a bit of a drive from the “museum” location. A decommissioned missile silo and control center (different locations separate by roughly 15 miles) give visitors a better, more intimate view of exactly what Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) technology is all about. We took the time to visit the silo and had the opportunity to chat with a retired USAF technician who worked in the silo fields for well over a decade. Unfortunately the ticketed tours of the command center were booked solid the day we were there. This is easily worth the 1-3 hour commitment it takes to visit the site(s). All of the activities associated with the Minuteman site are currently free of charge.
South Dakota Air and Space Museum
As referenced above there is still a very active ICBM and heavy bomber program at Ellsworth Air Force base. Located just outside the main gate to the Air Force base is a fantastic museum with 52 well preserved aircraft including a B-1, B-25, B-26, B-29, FB-111, and the venerable B-52 all housed in a lovely walkable display outside the museum buildings. Inside the facility are historical artifacts and a replica of a missile launch capsule for the Minuteman missile program. We spent roughly three hours touring the free museum although we could have easily spent several more. A one-hour guided tour of Ellsworth AFB is available for under $10 but we were running short on time so we skipped the tour. Located just off I-90 we highly recommend this as a great place to spend a few hours if you are in the area.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
This one you know. 60+ feet tall faces carved into stone. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and the other guy (Teddy Roosevelt). The park is “free” but you have to pay to park. So in other words, it isn’t free. We very much enjoyed half-day at Mount Rushmore despite the amusement park feel we got from time-to-time. After walking just about everything there was to walk, taking too many pictures, attending two ranger talks, watching the film about the creation of the carving, buying postcards, and pursuing the museum we took our leave of the park after about three-and-a-half hours with plans to setup camp, have dinner, and return in time for the 9pm “lighting” program. We enjoyed the 60 minute program and it culminated with a nice tribute to current and former service members.
Crazy Horse Monument
Jessie needed a bit of a rest and opted to skip Crazy Horse. I ventured out planning to spend about three hours and wanted desperately to come away from Crazy Horse Monument with a better understanding of the monument and local Native American culture. I got one of my two wishes. I learned a lot about the 60+ year history of the carving and the man who set out to make it a reality. It is truly an interesting story. However, I did not learn nearly enough about the history I went so interested in exploring. In fact, if you were a professional museum curator I’d imagine you’d come away absolutely frustrated by the lack of organization and storytelling that takes place at Crazy Horse. What Crazy Horse has in abundance is stuff to buy. Food, souvenirs, authentic Native American “stuff”, etc is everywhere. The carving itself is impressive and still only roughly 20-25% complete after over 60 years of work. When/if complete it will be the largest rock carving in the world by a large measure dwarfing nearby Mount Rushmore. Crazy Horse is funded exclusively by private money, ticket sales, etc so it stands to reason that is will naturally be different than the likes of Mount Rushmore, but still, I left Crazy Horse a bit sad that there wasn’t more Native American and a little less American. At over $10 per person for the basic entrance fee (more if you want to ride the bus closer to the carving), Jessie was wise to skip this one.
Not all tourist traps are created equal. Wall Drug belongs toward the top of this list nationally. It is 60 minutes of my life I’ll never get back. The sad thing about Wall Drug is that it is nearly impossible to bypass if you spend any time on I-90 in that part of the country. The billboards stretch for hundreds of miles in both directions and promise an oasis of goodness and fun. There are bumper stickers on cars all over the west. You simply can’t avoid it. That said it is a giant maze of souvenirs, junk, activities, and food (almost all really, really bad for you…our ¼ lbs of fudge was no exceptions). I partook in an exceptionally average doughnut despite a glowing recommendation from one of our guidebooks. This place seems to be designed such that you are supposed to get lost and have to eat and buy your way out. Skip it if your curiosity doesn’t get the best of you. Otherwise plan to leave with a belly ache, an air-brushed t-shirt that will regret the minute you pay for it, and a personalized knockoff Swiss Army knife that falls apart the first time you try to carve up the perfect marshmallow roasting stick. And no, aside from the “food”, we bought none of this.