Wind Cave-Badlands-Minuteman Missile

Trip Start Jun 20, 2012
Trip End Jul 31, 2013

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Saturday, August 11, 2012

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After the week in Wyoming, we began our journey to South Dakota through the Bighorn National Forest.  The drive was quite dramatic with the sky looking as if it were about to explode its fury, which contributed to amazing colors enhancing the already spectacular views.  During our time at Yellowstone and Tetons National Parks, Michael was hoping to see a moose.  Unfortunately, no such luck.  However, as we reached the high prairie of our sheer climb into the Bighorn Forest, there they were!  Geula spotted 2 cows just off the highway munching on the greens.  We parked the car and watched for a while - there was no one else in sight.  They were fun to watch, much smaller than their male counterparts, but equally great.  Amazing to think that we can spot these large and shy animals just sitting right off a major road.  It was still early and stormy, so perhaps they were just enjoying some quiet scenery as we were. 

Once we reached South Dakota, our first stop was to see Mt. Rushmore.  After seeing these images in school books and on many postcards, the boys and Geula were interested to see it firsthand.  Across the board, it was less impressive than they had imagined it would be.  Nonetheless, it was one of those "things to see".   After reading about this site, we learned more about its complex history with the Native American tribes (particularly the Sioux) since this monument is carved into the Black Hills, which were not only "owned" by the Sioux, but were considered their spiritual epicenter.  To forever have the carvings of "white men" who defeated them prominent in this land that they hold sacred evokes strong emotions.  Not unlike other countries, our Nation has a past with different peoples within our borders that has shameful past.  Seeing this first hand versus learning this in books makes a profoundly different impact. 

We spent the afternoon in Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis.  For anyone who's never heard about this event, well, it's worth googling. This is a yearly event, which brings serious hard-core bikers to this little town in SD from all over the US and the World - we're talking about 400,000-600,000 hardcore bikers to a town with a year-round population that is less than 7,000 (the entire State of South Dakota is only 750,000 - the fifth-least dense state in the US with 11 inhabitants per square mile).  We met Aussies, Kiwis and people from many other countries - all in leather of every conceivable kind.  The masses come not just for the week, but earlier and take over Sturgis and other nearby towns.  This year, they celebrated their 72nd anniversary.  We still are not sure exactly what they do, but judging by what we saw, it looked like there was a lot of drinking and partying.  The streets were filled with bikes and colorful characters.  The lodging was so full that tents packed lawns of residents.  We stayed for only a few hours because it started to rain one of the very rare downpours of our summer, however, it was plenty of time for the kids since they seemed to be a bit scared and overwhelmed by the whole scene. 

The next couple of days we spent visiting the Wind Cave National Park.  We camped at the park in a wonderful campsite.  The park is comprised of beautiful rolling meadows with one of the longest measured caves in the world underfoot.  At over 130 measured miles, experts have determined that only about 5% of the cave has been explored - wow!  The cave also is teeming with rare boxwork formations (over 95% of the known boxwork in the word is found here) and is considered the world's most complex cave - who knew?  We participated in a ranger-led tour, which was a fantastic experience with an animated and informed guide.  As part of the tour, we not only saw the cave in light, but also in darkness. The park ranger wanted to give us the experience of what its like to be a cave explorer, crawling through the narrow paths in complete darkness. So, he turned off the lights when we were deep into the recesses of the cave.  We are talking about absolute..."I cannot see my fingers directly in front of my eyes" blackness. It was OK for only a couple of minutes, but it does then begin to get a bit uncomfortable. After the 1.5 hour tour, it was nice, albeit a bit painful to the eyes, to see the sun. 

We visited areas in the Black Hills around Wind Cave National Park, which are worth a look for those traveling to this area.  Custer State Park, named after General Custer, is a fabulous park.  The park contains the famous Needles Highway.  It was great to drive through and marvel at the rock spires.  Also, Sylvan Lake is a nice spot in this park, with beautiful views, rock climbing around the lake, prevalent (but officially prohibited) intense rock jumping into the lake and a nice beach.  We enjoyed the namesake of the town of Hot Springs.  Some of the hot springs feed the stream running into the town from the stream bed, so we splashed around there for a bit. These springs are also known for their special mineral content. After camping for days, it felt great to swim in the hot springs.

Rounding out our South Dakota visit, we traveled to the Badlands National Park.  It was named "Badlands" by both Native Americans and French trappers who saw this area as impenetrable and unproductive land and mountains.  Given the views, the area could be renamed "Spectacular Lands."  Millions of years ago, this land was all under water.  Imagine South Dakota under water!  Scientists found huge concentrations of fossilized plants and animals that have been long extinct.  This land now looks like something from another planet, perhaps moon meets Dr. Seuss.  Despite the harsh mountains, the views and colors are spectacular.  We stayed at the Badlands KOA (only our second for-profit commercial campground) campsite, which was fantastic.  Nice campsites, hot showers, clean bathrooms and great hosts.  High ratings for this place.  Our first day in the park, we did several great hikes - Doors & Windows, Saddle Pass, and Notch trail.  Hiking up was not too challenging, however, coming down was tough. The rocks were very slippery and loose.  The boys and Michael loved "freestyle" climbing on the formations off trail as there are only few restrictions in this park.  What added to the drama were the warnings about rattlesnakes. They particularly like hiding in the rocks, so we had to really watch where we placed our hands when grabbing for support.  Happily, we did not have any face-to-face encounters with these critters.  Although the landscape appears somewhat muted midday, in the early morning and evening, the colors and scenery really pops.  The views are breathtaking.   Before the trip, Michael told the rest of us that this was one of his favorite places in the US.  We now know why.

We also discovered that South Dakota played a very interesting place in Cold War history.  Near Badlands National Park is Minuteman Missile Historic Site.  This National Parks Service Site contains a decommissioned, but preserved, underground nuclear missile launch site and, miles away, an actual underground minuteman missile ready for launch (sans warhead).  Of the some 1,000 silo launcher sites constructed in the 1960's, these are the only inactive sites (that we know of) that have not been destroyed per treaty with the Soviet Union.  Of the original 1,000 sites, some 400 remain.  The location of these underground sites scattered throughout the Western Plains is/was strategic in a few respects.  Being sparsely populated, an attack on these sites, would not impact urban centers, the underlying bedrock is geologically stable and the distance from the coast makes submarine launched missile attacks difficult.  Our visit to the underground control center was fascinating.  Given the elevator size, the tour is limited to 6 people.  We were lucky to have a former missile expert (one of the two Air force officers per site with the launch keys and codes), a retired Major.  The Major explained how everything works (in a condensed manner), including the nuclear attack-resistant bunker, the bob-blast doors and the sequence of instruction and attack.  Michael peppered him with questions about the experience - how did it feel?  What did your family think?   What did you know...   the experience was fascinating and scary.  Coming from the former USSR, Geula had an interesting perspective.  Having lived in the 60's/70's in the USSR, kids were never taught in school about the possibility of nuclear war.  Admitting to its own people a real threat from enemies was unheard of.  Of course for most Americans growing up at the same time in the US, preparation for a nuclear war was important. There was fear in the US about  a Soviet attack.  Visiting the museum it was clear that the Cold War had a different reality to Americans compared to that of the Soviets.  After the control center tour, we took an unescorted trip some 10 miles away to see the remaining missile controlled by the preserved launch center.  

All of our expectations (save Rushmore) about this vast South Dakota were exceeded. With the rich and tumultuous history with Native Americans, Minuteman Missile site, Badlands, Wind Cave, Crazy Horse carving and many more places, South Dakota definitely is a place for us to return.

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Rainer on

It's funny, before getting to Mt. Rushmore, we heard really mixed feedback. People either loved it or were underwhelmed like you guys. We happened to love it, mainly because we first visited it at night, when they put on a pretty good "ranger presentation".

Meanwhile, reading your posts really takes me back to our trip. Our itineraries almost mirrored what you're doing. If that's the case, your in for a wild ride, so enjoy! ;-)

Keep on truckin'


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