Road Trip: South Dakota's Badlands and Black Hills
Get ready to visit historical monuments like Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial, see the Old West come to life in historic Deadwood, and experience plenty of brag-worthy encounters with nature-where else can you say you were caught in a traffic jam because a herd of wild buffalo decided to cross in front of your car? Leave your trusty GPS behind (there's no reception in the mountains, anyway!), break out the old road map, grab your friends and family—or take on the adventure solo like I did—and whatever you do, don't forget your camera.
WALL & BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK
From Rapid City Regional Airport, it's about an hour drive to Wall, a funky little town that's home to Wall Drug, an area institution since 1931 where you'll find everything from souvenir shops to a giant animated T-Rex, and plenty of space for the kids to unwind after a long day on the road. Stop by the Western Art Gallery Restaurant for their famous homemade donuts, bison burgers, and five-cent coffee. The best part: admission is free, as is the ice water—a marketing tool that has brought in visitors since the 1930s. As you leave Wall, stay on Highway 240 and head south into Badlands National Park along the Badlands Loop Scenic Byway, driving west to east through some of the most amazing prairie landscapes and impressive canyons in the country. Keep an eye out for bison, pronghorn, deer, eagles, prairie dogs, and hawks as you drive and be prepared to pull over every time there's a sign that says, "Scenic overlook." Trust me. The park is never too crowded and you can spend hours just admiring the views around you in relative peace and quiet. Stick around for the evening program, usually around 9 p.m., where kids can meet Smokey the Bear, stargaze, and learn about how the park was formed. Park entrance fees are valid for seven days: $15 per vehicle, $10 for motorcycles, $7 for hikers and bicyclists, or $30 for an annual pass. Stay at Frontier Cabins, located just off I-90 on the way into Badlands National Park (rates from $108-$149 per cabin from May-August; lower in shoulder season months).
BEAR BUTTE STATE PARK & DEADWOOD
Cruise down I-90, turn off at Highway 79, and drive through Sturgis on the way to Bear Butte State Park. While a popular hiking spot for travelers, the site is still considered to be sacred to Native Americans—as the ranger in the Visitor Center explained it to me, hiking up Bear Butte is kind of like going to church, so remember to be respectful.
It's only about a 30-minute drive heading the opposite way on Highway 79 from here to Deadwood, but you might as well be driving 200 years back in time to the Old West. Visit during the summer to see the Days of '76 PRCA Rodeo—you can still go to the Days of '76 Museum year-round to see exhibits about Deadwood's first settlers (admission is $5.50 for adults, $2.50 for children ages 7-13, while children ages six and under get in free). Stroll around town-a dead ringer for any western town you've ever seen in the movies-and take the Alkali Ike Tour around historic Deadwood and up to Mt. Moriah Cemetery to see the gravestones of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane-real, legendary characters who once called Deadwood home ($10 for adults, $5 for ages 6-16, $9 for seniors). Catch a free reenactment of an Old West shootout in front of the Franklin Hotel (several times a day, just follow the crowd!) and witness the shooting of Wild Bill Hickok inside Saloon #10 daily at 1 p.m., 3 p.m., 5 p.m., and 7 p.m. Their website proudly states, "Bring the kids!" Stay at the Springhill Suites by Marriott, located on Main Street about a 15-minute walk from the historic downtown area (rooms from $79 a night).
MOUNT RUSHMORE & CUSTER STATE PARK
Take a scenic ride down highway 385, then highway 16, and follow the signs to Mount Rushmore, one of America's most iconic attractions featuring the larger-than-life faces of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln carved into the side of the mountain. Take a walk on the boardwalk trails that lead up to the base of the mountain for a better view, and stop by Carver's Café for lunch and the chance to try out Thomas Jefferson's original ice cream recipe! (Admission to the park is free, but you must pay $11 to park your vehicle).
Drive along Iron Mountain Road, or Alt. 16, a winding two-lane road that will take you through one-lane tunnels (honk first!) and past beautiful mountain vistas. As you get closer to the park, get your cameras ready-buffalo roam in and around Custer State Park and will often decide to randomly cross in front of your car. Resist the temptation and only take photos from inside your vehicle—these animals are majestic but strong and big enough to cause some major damage. Pay $4 per person to enter Custer State Park and stay in the middle of all the action at the State Game Lodge, the former Summer White House for President Calvin Coolidge in 1927 (room rates from $115 a night in June for a lodge room). While you're there, sign up for a Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour to get up close to the park's resident buffalo, prairie dogs, and other wildlife on a bumpy, off-road adventure through the native wilderness. End the day with a chuck wagon cookout in the wild, where cowboys sing as you feast on your choice of sirloin steak or hamburger, beans, cornbread, potato salad, coleslaw, watermelon, and fresh lemonade ($85 per adult and $65 for children under 12 for the combination Jeep Tour and Chuck Wagon Cookout; $45 per adult and $38 for children under 12 for just the Jeep Tour; $49 per adult and $40 for children under 12 for just the Chuck Wagon Cookout).
CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL, HILL CITY & RAPID CITY
Drive along Needles Highway (Highway 87), another mountain road with several one-lane tunnels and beautiful views of Sylvan Lake along the way. When you get to the end of Highway 87, turn left and head south on Highway 385/16 for about 20 minutes to Crazy Horse Memorial. Started in 1948 as a way to pay homage to the legendary Lakota leader and our nations' Native American heritage, Crazy Horse Memorial is funded by admissions and donations rather than the U.S. Government—the upside being, it will never close if there is another National Parks shutdown, the downside being the stone carving is still a work in progress. Tour the Indian Museum of North America and the Native American Educational and Cultural Center while you're there, and stop by the restaurant for the best Tatanka Stew in the area—people kept telling me to try it at Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park the day before! ($10 for adults, $27 per carload, $5 for motorcycles, and free for children under age six, Native Americans, active military members, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in uniform, and all residents of Custer County, South Dakota).
Visit the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City on your way back towards Rapid City on Highway 385/16—it's 20 minutes up the road and kids will love seeing enormous dinosaur skeletons and a room full of shiny gemstones (admission is $7.50 for adults ages 16 and up, $6 for seniors, veterans, and U.S. military members, $4 for children ages 6-15, and free for children ages five and under). From here, it's a half-hour drive on Highway 16 into Rapid City, home to the Museum of the American Bison, a vibrant downtown with concerts and outdoor festivals year-round, and have your picture taken with life-size bronze statues of your favorite former Presidents that line the streets of the historic district. Stay at the Adoba EcoHotel Rapid City, a newly renovated hotel that is stylish and eco-friendly (room rates from $99 a night).
Seems like there's a lot of talk about the U.S.—Mexico border these days, usually from folks who don't live anywhere near it and who perhaps have never even been there. That's a shame, not just for all the rich cultural and political implications of understanding the region, but also because it is home to one of the most beautiful jewels in our National Park Service: Big Bend National Park. Here, in West Texas, the Rio Grande winds through stunning limestone cliffs, the warm breezes quickly dry you after a paddle downriver, and the vistas are as limitless as the dreams of the people who've traversed this borderland for centuries. In hopes that you'll embrace this unique landscape, Budget Travel shows you how to get here, find reliable lodging and good eats, and get the most out of one of the least-visited—and most majestic—of our parks. DOWNLOAD OUR FREE ULTIMATE ROAD TRIPS APP HERE! MARATHON Texans, getting to the beauty of Big Bend ain’t easy. But that’s one of the charming things that have kept the park a “hidden gem.” The nearest airport is in Midland, more than 160 miles to the northeast. Best known as the city where future vice president and president George H.W. Bush made his name in the oil industry, and where one of his sons, future president George W. Bush, did the same, Midland has been booming in recent years thanks to the hotter-than-ever business of drilling and refining oil. But even Midland’s residents admit that it’s not exactly a tourist magnet, and most of the Big Bend-bound will pile into their rental cars and head southwest on Interstate 20. Spend a comfortable night in Marathon at the Gage Hotel (102 NW 1st St., Highway 90 West, Marathon, Texas, 432/386-4205), which includes a historic original hotel plus a variety of rooms, suites, and houses on the property at a variety of price points, including 16 rooms in the original hotel, 20 adobe brick rooms in the Los Portales property surrounding a courtyard with a fountain, and a number of historic homes. A steak or seafood dinner at the on-site 12 Gage restaurant (102 NW 1st St. Highway 90 West, Marathon, Texas, 432/386-4205) is utterly called for, followed by a drink at the White Buffalo Bar, even if you belly up to the bar just to see the massive head of the distinctive eponymous animal mounted on the wall. Next morning, spend some time getting to know this authentic western town. Don’t leave town without chowing down—you won’t find restaurants on your drive through the park. Shirley’s Burnt Biscuit (109 NE 1st., Marathon, Texas, 432/386-9020, legendary fluffy biscuits with sausage gravy and fried pies including apple, cherry, pecan, nad peach) is a highly recommended spot for breakfast or lunch—their huge biscuits and satisfying sausage gravy are the fuel you’ll need for a day in the park, and, if you have room, their array of fried pies (don’t judge, just enjoy) won’t disappoint either. Because Big Bend National Park has ample spots for picnicking but few places to actually buy food, make sure your car is stocked with snacks or lunch and plenty of water (a gallon per person per day is recommended). Then hit U.S. 385 South toward Big Bend. You’ll soak up about 69 miles of expansive West Texas scenery on your way to Panther Junction. Stop at the Persimmon Gap Visitor Center for maps, brochures, and to ask park rangers for advice about the day’s weather and park conditions. At Panther Junction, take some time out to explore the Panther Trail, a self-guided nature tour that is a nice introduction to the desert landscape you’ll be exploring (a trail map is available at the visitor center), before driving the 19 miles to the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, which will take you through the heart of the park. The trip from Panther Junction to the western side of the park and its stunning Santa Elena Canyon can be done in one day, but if you intend to stop at many of the overlooks (and we suggest that you do!) or take the hiking trails that allow you to explore dry waterfalls, canyon floors, historic ranches, and other one-of-a-kind sights here, you should consider either camping in the park or returning after a night in a hotel to spend at least one more day taking in this amazing place. BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK The Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is one of those unforgettable stretches of road that unfolds before you in a series of vistas and experiences. Like better-known drives in better-known parks, such as Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains, and Glacier, this is a carefully plotted out route that is literally part of the land, allowing you both convenience and authenticity at the same time. Stop off at the Sam Nall Ranch, the evocative remains of one of the many homestead ranches that once dotted this landscape. Here, you’ll see an original windmill that still pumps out water and is a magnet for some of the park’s thirsty wildlife, including javelinas, painted buntings, green-tailed towhees, and mockingbirds. The Blue Creek Ranch Overlook offers another look at one of the ranches that were active here before it became a park. You'll look down at the Homer Wilson Ranch and, if you like, follow a short trail down to the ranch buildings and to additional hiking opportunities on the Blue Creek Canyon and Dodson trails. Don't miss the Sotol Vista Overlook—one of those awesome spots that our National Park Service does so well. Here, high above the floor of the desert you'll be able to scan the western side of the park and whet your apetite for the majestic Santa Elena Canyon, which you'll see in the distance. (Don't worry, you'll get to the see the canyon up close later in the day and it's worth the wait.) Burro Mesa Pour-Off requires you to pull off on a mile-and-a-half side road to get to the clifffs of the Burro Mesa, where you can take a short half-mile hike into a canyon and savor the desert foliage and a waterfall that does not, in fact, "pour off" at all—it's dry. From the Mule Ears Overlook you'll take in the distant twin peaks and won't have to ask how they got their funny name. If you're up for more hiking and can afford to add some time to your stay, find the two-mile trail from teh overlook's parking area that takes you to a desert spring. Another overlook along the highway lets you view Tuff Canyon (named for the volcanic ash taht formed the rocks—which isn't actually "tough" but rather soft.) Castolon Historic District will seem like a bustling little city compared with the trails and overlooks you’ve been enjoying. It’s a preserved district that was a cavalry camp at the turn of the last century. Spend some time at the visitor center, but the most fascinating place in the district is La Harmonia Store. On the surface it’s an ordinary convenience store, but the shop’s history is extraordinary, dating back more than a century to the days when the border between the United States and Mexico was far more porous than it is today and government resources were stretched thin. The store played an important rold in the coming and going of Americans and Mexicans back and forth across the border, touching on not only commerce but also law enforcement and even international relations. If you're not quite ready to move on to the far western side of Big Bend just yet, you can spend a night at the nearby Cottonwood Campground for $14 per night (no hook-ups, just 24 campsites with pit toilets, grills, and clean running water.) TERLINGUA Big Bend saves the best for last. The Santa Elena Overlook provides a stunning look down Santa Elena Canyon, cut into the limestone over the eons by the Rio Grande. Marvel at the 1,500-foot- high canyon walls and the fact that the left wall of the canyon is in Mexico, the right in the United States. If you’ve got time, or if you come back after a good night’s sleep, follow the trail along the river that takes you down to the canyon floor. Better still, contact Big Bend River Tours (FM 170 West, Terlingua, Texas, 432/371-3033, offers floats, hikes, and other tours of Big Bend National Park) and sign up for a float down the gentle, shallow waters of the Rio Grande with the canyon walls on either side. Tuckered? Of course you are. Drive into Terlingua dusty and damp and check into the El Dorado Hotel (Highway 170, Terlingua, Texas, 800/371-3588), a reliable option near the park in this former ghost town. Yes, you read that right—the mining community of more than 2,000 cleared out after WWII and in the ’70s folks began coming back. These days, the hotel and its High Sierra Bar & Grill (Highway 170, Terlingua, Texas, 432/371-3282) are a great outpost for visitors to the western side of Big Bend.
On Wednesday June 20, blogger Will McGough will set out on a one–of–a–kind road trip, dropping in on four of the winners of Budget Travel’s seventh annual Coolest Small Towns contest. “There’s a common misconception that small towns don’t offer big opportunities,” says McGough, the editor of the blog Wake and Wander. Of course, we couldn’t agree more—BT has long celebrated the charm—and affordability—of America’s coolest towns, and this year more than ever our contest has generated excitement from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters. McGough’s “Coolest Road Trip” will make stops at four of this year’s 10 winners, including Beaufort, N.C., and Hammondsport, N.Y., which tied for first place back in January, when online voting was so heated that our server temporarily crashed; McGough will also visit Cape May, N.J., and Damascus, Va. The trip will conclude on June 30, with a parade in Hammondsport. A feature story about all 10 of our Coolest Small Towns will appear in the September/October issue of Budget Travel, on newsstands August 28. McGough will make his trip in a car customized for the occasion, bearing logos for Budget Travel’s Coolest Small Towns contest and his own blog, and images of the winning towns. “The teamwork going on among these four towns is exciting,” says McGough. “They’re not saying ‘Look at me!’ they’re saying ‘Look at us!’” As he motors from town to town, McGough will post blogs from the road, sharing his own lists of “coolests”—places to stay, outdoor activities, and keepsakes—along the way. “The average guy can’t always take a week off from work and fly to some far–off destination,” says McGough. “But he can drive to Beaufort, Cape May, Damascus, or Hammondsport for the weekend. And you know what? He’ll have just as much fun.” —Robert Firpo–Cappiello MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL: 5 Classic American Drives 8 Ways to Save Big on Summer Travel The Pacific Coast Highway—Without the Traffic
Do High Gas Prices Mean the End of Road Trips?
It was announced this week that the national average for a gallon of gas is $3.57, with analysts projecting $4.25 gallons this summer. Whither the road trip? Californians are already seeing average prices over $4 a gallon, not a good sign for those considering a Route 1 adventure. My mid–size rental car drank up more than $80 worth of gas during a weekend road trip between New York and Boston, and that was only four hours each way. I can't even imagine what it would cost to go cross–country. And it's not just road trips that can be affected—cruise lines like Norwegian reserve the right to add a surcharge to fares (even those already paid in full) if oil costs more than $65 per barrel at the time of sailing. It's currently $105 a barrel. Does sticker shock at the pump have you already thinking about alternatives to summer road trips? Or is the journey worth a few extra bucks? You can always find ways to save. See our tips here. MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL One-Tank Escapes for 7 Cities Beautiful Lakeside Drives How to Do America's Most Scenic Drive—Without the Traffic
How do You Prevent Theft on the Road?
While surveying the year's best travel–friendly gear for our holiday gift guide (watch for it here and in the December/January issue!), we came across the BookBook, a compact, combination–wallet–and–iPhone cover styled to look like a weathered leather book. In addition to incorporating clever features such as strategic cutouts for easier charging and headphone access and a bookmark–style ribbon tab that, when tugged, exposes just the iPhone's camera lens, it also might provide just enough camouflage to fool a pickpocket into passing you by. (They've also made versions for the iPad and MacBooks.) That got us thinking about how far we've come since the days when a good old–fashioned money belt was the pinnacle of on–the–road theft protection. A slew of high–tech (and not so high–tech) gizmos have hit the scene in recent years, including Garmin's GTU 10, a card deck-sized GPS tracker you can use to locate lost luggage or a stolen purse, and the new Bluetooth Smart Key Fob from Tumi that sounds an alarm when your mobile phone strays beyond a 30–foot radius. Then there's the Vacation Vault, a portable combination–lock box perfect for protecting your valuables at the beach—or perhaps as an alternative to those not–so–reliable hotel room safes. Of course, not every smart safety idea calls for pulling out the credit card. One of our favorite new tips just appeared in the story "8 Items You Never Pack…But Should:" using a screw–lid travel mug as an under–the–radar hiding place for small valuables—it's certainly not the first place a petty criminal would look for a score. What are your favorite gadgets, habits, and strategies for keeping your stuff safe when you travel? Post your tips in the comments section! MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL: Theft From Luggage at Airports and How to Avoid It Luggage Theft: A couple may have stolen nearly 1,000 bags Avoid Identity Theft in Three Surprising Ways