Buffalo, Burros, and Badlands: South Dakota

When Clay and I first started mapping our route back when we had the truck camper, the plan was to winter in the Southwest, then work our way up through Utah and Colorado into South Dakota, then over to Wyoming and Montana for the summer. Then we bought the Escape in Georgia and all those plans went out the window. Zero regrets, we’ve seen some amazing places that weren’t on our radar, but getting to South Dakota was exciting because it felt like we had finally gotten back on track with seeing one of our bucket list states.

Speaking of bucket lists, South Dakota has been on mine for awhile. This was largely driven by the infectious nature of my mom’s adoration of Mount Rushmore. Don’t worry Mom, we’ll get you here! I just checked it out ahead of you to make sure the juice is worth the squeeze 🙂

Once we got into the Rapid City area, the original goal was to find a place to camp, knock out some work for a few days, and then head out to explore. Said goal was promptly abandoned the second we saw the first sign for Mt. Rushmore.

Camper and all, we made a beeline for the monument. It turned out to be a wise choice, as it was too hot to leave Lucy in the truck and she wasn’t allowed anywhere on the grounds. With the camper, we can pop the fan on to keep the temperature ambient and she’ll stay nice and comfy in there.

We may or may not refer to the camper as Lucy’s kennel at times.

Pictured above was our first glance ever of Mt. Rushmore. I’ve read a bit online that some people find it disappointing in person, expecting something grander. It was not like that for us at all. I was in total awe, watching us get closer and closer to something I had wanted to see forever and was now finally seeing.

As expected for a lovely day in August, the avenue of flags and the viewing platform (where Clay and I took the picture of us above) was absolutely mobbed. However, a little bit beyond the viewing platform, there is a trail that takes you much closer to the memorial if you’re willing to hoof it up and down 422 stairs. As it turns out, the warning of stairs scares off 99% of visitors, and the trail was practically empty. This still baffles me. To come all the way to see Mt. Rushmore and be scared off by some stairs? Oh well. We really did enjoy the unexpected solitude.

So we braved the stairs (which weren’t bad at all) and looked up the Presidents’ noses.

The trail leads to the Sculptor’s Studio, where they have a small-scale model of what the completed Mt. Rushmore would have looked like. One inch on the model equals one foot on the mountain. I had no idea this existed and it was so, so cool to see.

We then headed back to the kennel – I mean camper – to get Lucy for photos.

The ‘no pets beyond this point’ sign is more prominently displayed than Mt. Rushmore itself here
Our best attempt at a family photo. I think George barely made it in to this one.


Nearly every RV parked at Mt. Rushmore had a dog in it. Glad we aren’t the only ones who lugged the giant dog kennel on wheels with us 🙂

With our list of things to see in the Rapid City area growing, we decided to grab an RV Park for a couple of nights to stay in close vicinity. They had the cleanest showers I had ever seen and I absolutely helped myself to all that unlimited hot water.

We were just a little bit smaller than our neighbors.

And this meant we got to return to Mt. Rushmore for the evening lighting ceremony, so that was pretty awesome. Too bad my phone is no good at night photography.

Next on the list was the Crazy Horse Memorial. To get there, we drove through Custer State Park, which I had decided to skip because it was 20 bucks for a 7-day pass and for whatever reason, that invoked the cheapskate in me. But just doing the (free) non-stop drivethrough to get to Crazy Horse, we saw buffalo galore and I just about lost my mind over it.

So we may have made a brief stop.

You see, in North Dakota, the closest buffalo we saw were approximately a billion miles away from us and were just tiny dots on the horizon. The closest we physically came to a buffalo was very late at night, where we went outside to look at the stars and came face to face (I think – it was pitch black) with something very large, snorty, and stompy. So seeing buffalo this close that weren’t snorting and stomping at me in the dark pretty much made my week.

So reluctantly, we left Custer State Park and headed to Crazy Horse, which was both fascinating and puzzling to me. The work on thus started in the 1940s and it is still an active carving site. When it’s done, it will be the biggest carving in the world. It really it massive – the face of Crazy Horse is 87 feet long, whereas the faces of Mt. Rushmore are 60 feet.

However, it is 2017, and all that’s completed is the face. The original artist has long since departed this earth and his children limp on, still trying to carve this thing. I feel like they may need some more dynamite or power tools up there or something, because my my calculations, Crazy Horse won’t be finished until the year 4037.

I wish them the best of luck and hope that when I’m 90 and reminiscing about my years traveling, I’ll be yapping on about how back in my day, the Crazy Horse Memorial only had a face.

I could have easily stayed in the Rapid City area for much longer, but our RV park stay was up and we headed back to boondocking out in the Badlands.

Parking on the side of a cliff overlooking the Badlands was my favorite boondocking spot to date. And that’s saying a lot, given we had a little bit of a rough break here. But before I get into that, let’s marvel at the stunning views that were our front yard for the week.

The view out the bedroom window.

While tourists clamored into the national park to spot Bighorn Sheep, they decided to hang with us every day instead. Our poor neighbor apparently chose a popular sheep path to park his rig right in the middle of.

Gorgeous, right? Amazing that you can camp here for free, right? Well, my recommendation is to not camp here in August. Tough break #1 was unbearable heat. I saved a screenshot of the weather forecast for when we were there, and daytime temperatures reached the high 90s to the low 100s. And as you can see from the beautiful pictures above, there was no reprieve from the sun.

And if you’ve been following us for awhile, you’ll know that our fridge is (was… it’s been replaced since!) very temperamental with the heat. These were the hottest temperatures we’d faced, and our fridge promptly threw in the towel as a result. Everything in our freezer thawed out, and our fridge reached a not-so-foodsafe 60 degrees Fahrenheit. We had to throw all our food away, and we ended up eating at the local Subway on the daily until we left the area. It took all I had to keep Clay from ripping that fridge out and throwing it off the cliff we were camped on.

Tough break #2? While heading into town in 100 degree heat to go to stupid Subway, I spotted mouse $hit on the truck seat while climbing in.

You know, that nice, new, not-even-close-to-paid-off truck we bought just a few months ago?


Our dog, however, is a rockstar. All we had to do was point to the truck, tell her ‘find it,’ and she would search the truck from top to bottom, following the mouse trails and signaling whenever she found where the mouse was hunkered down. Clay would then go crazy trying to get at said mouse.

Fortunately, we were camped a few miles away from the #1 roadside attraction in America: Wall Drug. It started as a small pharmacy that lured in traffic from the highway by offering free ice water on hot days. It has now grown into a giant store that sells every kitschy thing you could imagine – but the free ice water is still plentiful.

So we took a picture of Lucy with the giant jackalope and stocked up on peppermint oil to drive the mouse away. Fortunately, he evacuated.

That being said, the heat and the mouse were enough for us to say goodbye to the Badlands. The name Badlands, by the way, comes from the Native American phrase ‘mako sica,’ which means ‘land bad.’ And after spending a week here in the heat of summer, I totally get it.

So when looking for our next place to land, I could not get Custer State Park out of my mind. So I convinced Clay to head back to the Rapid City area, get back on hookups, and knock out the Labor Day holiday with our AC blasting. So we headed right back to the same RV Park we were at before and decided to dedicate a day to Custer State Park.

If I had to narrow down my favorite single day on this whole trip, our day in Custer State Park might be it. Probably because it started with this.

Buffalo crossing right in front of our vehicle? Let me just check that off the list of things I must do before I die.

But it didn’t stop there.

I fed him Clay’s Altoids.

After declaring this the best day ever, we did the Needles Highway drive, which was stunning and beautiful and just wow. Here’s a YouTube clip of a little piece of the drive, but it doesn’t do the scenery justice at all.

And pictures too.

At the end of the drive was Sylvan Lake, which we hiked around with Lucy for a bit (since Custer State Park is dog friendly!).

And before heading back to our rig, we ended this buffalo-filled day by, you know, eating some buffalo. And it was delicious. Does that make me sound barbaric? It shouldn’t because the sandwich was really good. Obtained from The Custer Wolf in, you guessed it, downtown Custer. Highly recommended.

My takeaway from visiting the Rapid City, South Dakota area? Best place ever for a week or two-week long family vacation. There are so many great outdoorsy things to do. Cannot wait to go back with some family in tow.

Oh, and don’t be a cheapskate like me. The $20 to get into Custer State Park is so worth it.

3 thoughts on “Buffalo, Burros, and Badlands: South Dakota

  1. Caitlin, I am just reading this blog now for the first time…What an amazing experience!!! The pictures are beautiful and Lucy is just adorable!! Can’t wait to hear about your next adventure!!

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