ROAD TRIPS

South Dakota: Where Presidents Compete with Tumbleweeds and Brontoburgers

Mount Rushmore is the main attraction in southwestern South Dakota, but there's considerably more fun to be had in the area's weirder, wilder parts

Mount Rushmore

(Erik Torkells)

Mount Rushmore

(Erik Torkells)

Day 1: Rapid City to Badlands

Pre-trip research showed that the region has something for everyone, from wholesome families to thrillseeking bikers. Shawnda and I fall somewhere in between. Friends since high school, we now live on separate coasts and meet up once a year for a generally silly road trip.

After arriving at the Rapid City airport, we drive 50 miles east to Wall Drug. It became well-known for the barrage of signs you pass on the approach, and now the glorified gift shop is famous because it's famous. I prefer my kitsch organic, not preprocessed; we make the best of it, posing atop a giant jackalope, laughing at the coin-operated diorama of dancing rabbits (one's arm has fallen off, another's arm is dangling by a mere thread), and watching kids get all atwitter as the animatronic T. Rex growls.

Continuing east through Buffalo Gap National Grassland, we stop to admire a never-ending meadow of yellow flowers. What keeps us loitering there, though, is the deep silence.

Badlands is Shawnda's kind of national park. You can hike, but you can also just pull over at a viewpoint, walk 50 yards, and snap a photo. The Badlands is my kind of national park, too, if for different reasons. It's gorgeous, but not in a standard way, with weird, desolate spires rising out of the prairie floor. The rock in the spires is composed of multicolored layers, and the colors change with the light.

We check in at Cedar Pass Lodge, a collection of 22 cute, basic cabins on the park border. While Shawnda takes a nap, a thunderstorm blows in. The atmosphere turns primal. A curtain of black clouds draws across the sky, and lightning streaks on the horizon. I walk behind our cabin, dodging the tumbleweeds whizzing by. Even more tumbleweeds, driven by the wind, are forced up and over the back side of one of the spires. It looks like lava erupting from a volcano.

The other research I did was to get restaurant recommendations from M.J. Adams, owner/chef of The Corn Exchange in Rapid City (which I'd read about in Gourmet). Near Badlands, she suggested Circle 10, off I-90, not far from a 15-foot prairie dog statue. We have salads with dried cherries, blue cheese, and walnuts, then BLTs on homemade English muffin bread. The people who own Circle 10 are very sweet, but Shawnda still wants to steal their pet mutt.

At 10 p.m., we go on the Night Prowl. A Badlands ranger leads a group of about 30 on a 400-yard walk into the park, past some of the rocks. The goal is to look at the stars. We lie on the ground, while the ranger sermonizes about light pollution. We don't learn a whole lot, but just being outside at night, away from civilization, is a highlight of our road trip.

Lodging

  • Cedar Pass Lodge20681 Hwy. 240, Interior, 605/433-5460, cedarpasslodge.com, cabins from $65

Food

  • Circle 10I-90, exit 131, Philip, 605/433-5451, BLT $6.50

Activities

  • Badlands National Park605/433-5361, nps.gov/badl, $15 per car per week

Day 2: Badlands to Custer

The drive out of Badlands, along Route 44, is one of the most sublime Shawnda and I have taken. We generally rent convertibles, and we worried that it'd be too hot to go topless in July. But the weather stays bearable, and the sky is breathtaking: white at the horizon, turning bluer and bluer as you look up, until it peaks somewhere between cornflower and royal.

We hightail it, as we're booked for the 1 p.m. Candlelight Tour at Wind Cave National Park. I've sworn off caves, having found them indistinguishable. But the Candlelight Tour goes to parts of Wind Cave not accessible on other tours, and you carry "candle buckets"--metal pails rigged so you hold them on their sides, with candles inside--just like 19th-century settlers did. Besides, the cave interior is 53 degrees year-round, and the day is really heating up.

The 10 of us--11 if you count our guide, Michael--ride an elevator down 190 feet, then trudge single file through a lighted area. After about 15 minutes, Michael lights our candles and we head off into the dark. Candle buckets let you direct the light laterally, but not up or down, so you don't know how low the ceiling is or how bumpy the ground. I spend the two-hour tour in a perpetual stoop.

There's a lot of interesting geology--grid-like formations called boxwork, nubby "popcorn," which looks like it sounds, and delicate crystals known as frostwork. We stop in a nook named Pearly Gates, and sit on ledges. Michael, who is highly earnest and from Malta, which makes for an entertaining combination, slowly scans the room. "Do you want to experience something . . . different?" he says, and Shawnda begins to giggle uncontrollably. He tells us to blow out our candles. In total darkness, your eyes try to adjust, but they can't--so you give in, and it stops mattering if your eyes are open or shut.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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