South Dakota: A State of Many Scenes

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This week’s blog post is coming to you from Rapid City, South Dakota!

As Andy gets his haircut around the corner on this rainy day, here I sit in a Starbucks to take advantage of some rarely-found wifi so that I can finally send out an update. We’ve been camping for the past five days – two nights in the Badlands and going-on-three at Custer State Park in the scenic Black Hills.

Let’s start with the Badlands.

Wow. We had no idea how amazing they were going to be. The scenery in this national park that covers an age-old geological wonder is awe-inspiring to say the least. This beautiful, desolate, and majestic setting seems to come out of nowhere after the drive through endless prairies and farmland in rural South Dakota. Our first stop in the Badlands came right after our entrance into the park. Our jaws dropped as we stepped up to the overlook drop, seeing spires of rock, dry and crumbling gorges, and rocky edges throughout that sand- and brick-colored phenomenon.

Longhorn sheep rest atop a mound and gaze at the view.

We stood there atop that breathtaking landscape and thought of all the people who had once traveled through that perilous terrain during the days of early exploration. How did Native Americans survive in this territory? How did early western settlers make it through? We stood there and contemplated the derivation of the name, The Badlands, and we could really see what it meant.

We spent our time in the Badlands hiking, camping, and driving around with a never-ending series of astonished exclamations over views that blew us away over and over again.

Here were our two favorite hikes in the Badlands:

61-rung ladder leading up to the cliff-side section of Notch Trail. It’s easy to get up, but a little more intimidating going down!

Notch Trail – A hike that takes you through a canyon, both below and up within. The hike began with our heads straight up as we gawked at the rigid rocks and spires all around us. The colors in the Badlands are amazing. The rocks are composed of a sandy yellow and are strung with never-ending stripes across the spires of a light brick-red. About a third of the way into the hike, you come to a 61-run ladder that takes you up into the spires. The ladder wasn’t as scary as we had thought it might be. It was easy really, and so worth it. The trail at the top takes you at first across the cliff-side. You can look straight out to see the spires that you had just been staring upward toward. It’s amazing what a difference the height can make in the view and your perception of the rocks. Both perspectives were beautiful, but being right up in the middle of it all really made you feel immersed in the scene. We followed the trail along through canyons and spires and ended up at an incredible overlook that took our breath away. Standing high up within the rock, we could see for miles and miles as stretches of rock, patches of trees, and endless prairies went on and on into the horizon.

Door Trail – A walk through the desert of the Badlands. On this hike, the spires are off in the near-distance, surrounding you on three sides and giving you a chance to see them in their whole as a grand and threatening fortress. The hike isn’t along a trail so much as a walk from marker to marker, as you get to choose your way over the gorges across the sheer rock that makes up the ground. The hike ends with an amazing view of that rock fortress, and the walk around the landscape is vast and open as you walk across land bridges over the eroded, crumbling rock below.

Sunset rainbow during our first night after a short storm


Custer State Park in the Black Hills has been just as remarkable.

Our campsite is a cozy outpost in the woods – a huge change of scenery from the desolate, endless rock of the Badlands. Our tent looks out at a little bridge over a rippling stream. It’s so nice falling asleep and waking up to the sound of that gentle, babbling water! The best thing about our campsite? BISON! We’ve seen five or six bison, just on our drives to and from our campsite over the past couple of days. They hang around in the shady patches near the road, sleeping and eating. That’s all they seem to do. And charge at people apparently. I can’t tell you how many signs we’ve seen that reiterate “Bison Are Dangerous! Do Not Approach the Bison!” Don’t worry; we haven’t approached any bison. But we have taken some photos out of the car window. And okay, sure, we did get out of the car when we saw a whole heard of bison crossing the road and being driven by some Custer Park cowboys who couldn’t help but show off for the crowds, cracking those whips and sitting tall on their towering horses.

Mom and baby walk along with the heard

In addition to bison, we’ve seen brandish long-horned sheep, elegant pronghorns (the fastest animals on the continent), care-free, clambering mountain goats, delicate deer, chattering prairie dogs, and friendly burros that come right up to your car asking for carrots and pets. The wildlife in the Black Hills is just astounding and it is such an experience to see the animals in their natural habitat, impressing their skill and intelligence upon you at all times.

Our favorite part of Custer State Park so far?

The seven mile hike that took us up to the highest point in South Dakota and back. Black Elk Point. What an amazing journey. The hike itself was beautiful, with varying landscapes and multiple astonishing overlooks along the way to the top. We met a brother and sister who hiked with us and had apparently grown up in South Dakota, right by the state park. Guess where their parents were from? West Virginia. What a small world it is after all. After journeying through forests, grasslands, creeks, rocks, and many, many stairs as you approach the top, you come to a huge rock formation that makes up the high-reaching cap of the tallest spire in the Black Hills – the tallest peak in the state – Black Elk Point. The height and the view are dizzying. The 360-degree panorama overlooks the Black Hills’ Cathedral Spires, the prairies where the buffalo roam, and endless forests of pine trees that are dwarfed to the size of grass from that tremendous sky-high perspective. We stood in the tower and wondered about the lives of the Conservation Corpse members who forged the trail and built the lookout structure. What a tremendous feat they accomplished, and then what??? They just went back to their normal lives?!? We laughed at the absurdity of their stupendous accomplishments and took in as much of that airy, all encompassing, endless, and divine beauty that was the experience.

One tiny section of the view from the top of Black Elk Point

The hike down was easier (downhill), though exhausting and long. But so incredibly worth it. We relaxed the rest of the day, looking out for animals to photograph and eating some amazing meals at the Blue Bell Lodge. After building a small campfire back by the tent, we were done for and in bed (or, in sleeping pads) before 9:00 p.m.

Today, we’ve been taking it easy. We cooked some eggs and bacon over the campfire this morning and took the long route into town, getting some pictures of bison, pronghorns, and cute little prairie dogs. We also got to pet some burros. Those “Don’t Approach the Animals” signs don’t say anything about what to do if an animal approaches you (side eyes and smile).

And now we’re off!

This evening, we’re headed out to Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse. The sun has poked back out, so it should be a great drive through what we’ve heard are rock tunnels framing the Mount Rushmore faces as you approach. Tomorrow: One more hike and then on to Casper, Wyoming in route to Yellowstone by Monday.  We’ve had limited wifi during our recent travels, so bear with us as we are getting blog posts out as often as we reasonably can! If you’d like to see more updates more frequently, follow our new West Virginia Seeker Facebook Page, where we’ll post pics and updates daily!

Till then! Adventure is out there!

Miles Driven: 2,000 . Tents Pitched: 3 . Mishaps: 0 . Haircuts: 1

Badlands National Park
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2 Replies to “South Dakota: A State of Many Scenes”

  • Thanks for the super shots from South Dakota and for setting up a Facebook page for more frequent updates 🙂

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