South Dakota: Our Last Stop of the Summer Before Heading Back to Chicago by Amanda & Justin

We had heard from a great many people that Custer State Park is one of the most beautiful in the country, and it is absolutely true! We camped for four nights at the northern end of the park, which is the highest elevation in the park. Custer almost feels like a National Park because it is very large, taking over two hours to drive through it. The park has interesting topography too, with the northern section being very mountainous, perfect for rock climbers! The southern section is an open prairie, perfect for prairie dogs!

You cannot go to South Dakota without a visit to Mount Rushmore. After the Statue of Liberty, it’s probably the most iconic symbol of Americana that we have. Who can forget Cary Grant climbing around the Presidential faces, trying to save Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest? The walk up to the monument is meant to fill you with national pride as you walk along a paved path with flags representing all fifty states on each side. The path leads you to a large viewing platform where you can admire the artistic beauty of the monument and begin to understand the enormity, and sometimes insanity, of creating such an impressive American icon. The museum helped explain the struggles of building it and the precision required of the artists. The workers had to blast away huge parts of rock to create a “rock canvas” on which the artists and engineers suspended themselves in order to chisel the stone to create the faces. It’s a modern day marvel. Totally unnecessary, as the mountain was already gorgeous, but inspiring none-the-less.

As huge fans of the HBO show Deadwood, we had to check out the most notorious western town in all of the U.S. Infamous for gambling, debauchery and colorful characters like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, the town is holding fast to its old time reputation. Everywhere you look there are slot machines, expensive drinks and homages to the Wild West. Just a short drive up the hill, you can see the graves of Wild Bill, Jane and other important figures of the time, many of which are depicted in the HBO series. If you like to drink and gamble, this is the town for you. However, when you’re touring it with two young kids, you only need about an hour to see it all.

Just south of Custer is Wind Cave National Park. We took the beautiful scenic drive through Custer, seeing many bison, prairie dogs and elk. Wind Cave is a system of caves that run in all directions within a square mile. Think of it like a bowl of spaghetti with passages going in every direction. The system has three levels and about thirty different ways to go at every turn. Wind Cave was the first cave system within the National Park System and was protected because of its outstanding display of boxworks, an unusual formation composed of thin calcite fins resembling honeycombs. Years of water removing the limestone and leaving behind these brittle boxworks truly shows nature at its best! The cave system was named Wind because of its constant stream of wind that travels through the cave at the same pressure year round. Not only are the caves “cool”, above them are golden prairies where the animal watching is spectacular.

One of the most unique things we saw at Custer State Park was their annual Bison Round-up. Each year in late September, they round-up the entire bison herd, about 1,800 strong, in order to inspect and quell the herd. This has become a very popular event and people from all over the state, and country, come to see it. We were told to get to the herding grounds by 7:30am in order to get a good viewing spot. We woke up at 6am to find our entire campsite blanketed in about seven inches of snow!! Having only summer clothes with us, we bundled up into the warmest layers we had and drove over an hour to the southern tip of the park. We carried our chairs and blankets through the mud and bison poop to claim a spot and waited. In the wind, in the cold, we waited for the bison. We had some pancakes. We made some local friends. We waited some more. And finally, coming from the opposite direction as planned, we saw and heard the huge bison herd charge into the valley below us. It was over in about three minutes. Then we all pilled back into our cars for the hour drive back to our snow covered campsite. Upon our return, we “shoveled” off our bikes, picnic table and Airstream eager to get cozy inside our warm camper. But we quickly discovered that the heater was not working!! Justin tried numerous times to fix it, but without luck. The time we needed the heater most on this trip, and it wasn’t working!! A decision was quickly made; we would leave a day early and head back east to warmer weather. Our summer trip out west would come to an end, and we would spend the month of October back in the Midwest visiting with our friends and family.

It was a very memorable way to end our summer of fun, with a snow storm! But everything about the summer had been so memorable. We learned so much about our country and about ourselves. We had a dramatic start but once we got on the road, things overall went very smoothly. We came back to Illinois feeling very proud of accomplishing the first leg of the trip without any major injuries, fights or mishaps. It was a very successful summer!