Category Archives: South Dakota

South Dakota and Minnesota: Corn Palace and…Corn

Before I forget, there are a lot of deer in the US.  Everywhere.  Tons of deer.  Also, at frequent intervals on I-90 there are railroad crossing type gates that allow the authorities to close the highway.  Presumably for bad weather, but I do not recall ever seeing this in the Northeast and found it interesting.  And I have been meaning to write that for camping, if I had more space it would be nice to bring a citronella candle and a pop-up shelter.  And I need to fill space because there is not much to say about the Corn Palace or Minnesota as seen from the highway.

September 12, 2013 (Thursday) – We exited the Badlands by completing the Highway 240 Badlands Loop Road, which is not actually a loop unless you complete it on I-90.  There is a helicopter tour place by the park’s northeast entrance.  Today was our longest drive of the trip at 700+ miles as we crossed most of South Dakota, all of Minnesota and some of Wisconsin to end up in Madison.

We passed 1880 Town which has old buildings and I think is often used for film sets.  My notes are spotty again but I think I want to say some of the drive is pretty with hills and trees near the Missouri River.  We noticed a lot of horses hanging out by billboards, seemingly even where shade was not provided.  Less appealing to me were the multitude of Jesus signs and anti-abortion billboards.  This is not the forum for religious debate and I am no theological scholar, but the believer in me wants to think that Jesus would rather you spend your money helping those in need instead of paying rent to Clear Channel.

Passing a sign for the town of Winner, I envisioned Charlie Sheen there holed up with hookers and blow.  Which sounds more fun than the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota.  Nonetheless, it is a famous roadside attraction and parts of it were neat.

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The original corn palace was built in 1892 to showcase the rich soil of South Dakota and encourage people to settle in the area, after Lewis & Clark had proclaimed that one could not make a living farming here.  I thought it would be a palace constructed entirely of corn, but it is actually a steel and brick building adorned with murals and decorations of corn.

Admission is free and there are educational exhibits and the most corn-decorated gymnasium I have seen.

All those pictures are made of corn
All those pictures are made of corn

Local high schools and Dakota Wesleyan University play games here.  Some proms are held here.  This calls for jokes but it is a PG-13 blog.  They sell corn palace wine and flavored popcorn balls.  Really, this place is a shrine to corn and its primary objective seems to be promoting corn and ethanol.

Farmer Jen?
Farmer Jen?

Shortly after crossing into Minnesota we stopped in Luverne for lunch at the Tasty Drive In.

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I enjoyed my thin patty, greasy diner-style double cheeseburger and the fries we split.  Dessert options include endless types and combos of soft-serve with mix-ins.  I do not recall my pick.

DISCLAIMER: I have little doubt that Minnesota is a fine state and have heard good things about Minneapolis (not in the winter), the Boundary Waters, etc.  There is a vibrant distressed investing community and I have friends who live in Minnesota.  So I mean no disrespect and am only commenting on what I could see from the highway.  I guess residents of New Jersey can empathize with Minnesota.

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Visible from the highway, there is nothing but corn and windmills.  I did stop at a gas station and see Tweaker energy drink on offer.  And the highlight of our cross-state expedition had to be the town names.  These include Blue Earth, Harmony and Welcome, in addition to Austin and Houston.  The scenery becomes pretty and hilly right before crossing the Mighty Mississippi into Wisconsin.

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South Dakota: The Tourist’s Quadruple Hitter

First impression: woah, Rapid City is like a legit, proper city! I had this fleeting feeling of guilt towards the residents of Rapid City. Do they feel bad that we all forget about them? Has anyone outside of South Dakota ever, like ever ever ever stopped to think about Rapid City, South Dakota? And there’s a whole bustling city there! Not a New York, or Chicago, or even Boston’s worth of people, but 70,000 people nonetheless. I don’t know, sometimes I have these moments where my anxiety and panic about overpopulation really take over and I freak out that these places I’ve never heard about, much less think seriously about, have so many people I guess I get a little emotional. So, I’m publicly apologizing to the people of Rapid City, for never ever thinking of you. I hope you enjoy your little city. Also, I apologize to the town of Interior, South Dakota, population 67, because I also (literally) never heard of you. I guess I can’t be totally to blame as there aren’t all that many people in the state altogether. Case in point: travel 440 miles across South Dakota and the area code never changes. How’s Ludacris gonna tally his hoes in this state?

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Anyway, I guess people do think of South Dakota for a few reasons – Mount Rushmore chief among them. Lots of people like to ask us now, “is Mount Rushmore worth the visit?” Well, it’s most certainly worth stopping by on your drive through South Dakota. Is it worth a plane ticket and hotel and car rental from pretty much anywhere else in the world? Probably not. Though I do think that a nice little quick vacation would be the South Dakota tourist quadruple header (Mount Rushmore, Badlands, Corn Palace, and Wall Drug – more on the rest of these below) in conjunction with Devil’s Tower (Wyoming, but not too far). To be sure, I thoroughly enjoyed the fifteen minutes we spent at Mount Rushmore (exaggeration, but hardly). You could probably extend your time at this site if you tried. The town right next to the monument, Keystone, is full of touristy, kitschy shops and restaurants. They do also do a lighting ceremony at 8pm (I believe daily) and I’m told the fireworks on July 4th are pretty spectacular there. Also you could get an ice cream cone, as apparently Jefferson is responsible for the first ice cream recipe in America. Note that it’s $11 to get into the parking lot and it’s not covered by the national parks pass (lame-o) and your parking attendant is not guaranteed to have teeth.

Off and onward with our touristing of South Dakota we headed next to the road-trip destination of Wall Drug. You could miss it if you tried really hard, but there are about 10 million signs for Wall Drug all along I-90. It’s essentially a mall, but the shops are all owned and run by the same company. It’s a pretty brilliant idea/marketing job (is Hustead a Kellogg grad??), as it apparently draws in $10m a year. Not bad for a drug store in the middle of South Dakota. Alan tried the 5-cent coffee. It was really only a nickel, and he said it wasn’t half bad. That was really the highlight. That and being able to say we went to Wall Drug. So, I guess a win.

Alas, we get to the really awesome tourist destination – the Badlands. They are pretty badass. The landscapes are a mix of awe-inspiring, beautiful, and trippy. The animal sightings were also superb. We saw tons of prairie dogs, many more pronghorn deer, and a coyote, and this was all at once! In addition, we saw a badass badlands bunny who reminded me of a chocolate bunny because someone had taken a bite out of his ear as I have many an Easter basket gift. We were warned of rattlesnakes but encountered none of these today.

The history in this place is pretty neat too. There are short walks throughout the park where you can read about the history of the formations and look at fossils of crazy animals that used to exist and live in these lands many years ago. We did a short hike here, called the Notch hike. It was a very easy hike, though true to the US park service’s form, they warn you big time that it will take 1.5-2 hours (took 50 minutes with lots of stopping and hanging out for pictures), and a big warning that it’s not for those with a fear of heights. I of course fear said obstacle so naturally we forged ahead. Going up was no problem. Going down I panicked slightly at first, but it’s really not even remotely comparable in scary heights to some other hikes I’ve done (think especially Devil’s Backbone on Mount Baldy in California… oh my god I can’t put into words how much I hate that stretch of the hike!!). Definitely worth the trip though, it was really neat to get in there and explore the rocks on a closer level and get a 360 view of the landscapes. We would have tried some of the longer hikes had we had more time there (only had an afternoon essentially), though I believe they are more walks than hikes (i.e., no elevation gain). We spent the better part of an afternoon at this park, which was perfect. We felt we saw everything we wanted to (we stopped at almost every viewpoint and did the one hike that is closest to actual hiking). You could definitely take your time a bit more and spent a full day or two around there, but I wouldn’t alot any more time to this park.

For lodging we forewent the national park camp right by the entrance and opted instead to camp at the KOA nearby. Meh. While the KOA at Devil’s Tower was pretty nice, I think I’ll make a moderate effort to avoid KOAs in the future. It was not super impressive, largely because much of it was shut down as part of their post-labor day reduction, notwithstanding the fact that they neglect to tell you that they close most of the bathrooms so you have to walk forever to get to them. Oh well. One pretty awesome perk of the location however: our evening spent camping in the Badlands was peppered with the sounds of coyotes howling at night. I kept thinking of the poor prairie dogs they were getting ready to eat.

This was our last night camping for a while as we prepared to head into cities and family time in the Northeast. We tallied it up and noticed we spent 14 of our first 27 nights camping. Woot woot to the budget!

Of note on the drive east from the Badlands, there was a little town off I-90 that was set up like a little 1880s village. Nothing but fields and plains as far as the eye can see, then this little pop up of old time village. Neato. Didn’t stop but I imagine it’d be a nice diversion.

Last but certainly not expected to be least, was the corn palace. I’ve been irrationally excited to see this thing for nearly 9 years, ever since my college friend and Milwaukee native, Emily, told me about it freshman year. A palace made entirely of corn? Yes please. But talk about a build up that disappoints. To be clear, Emily didn’t really hype it up that much, I think I built this up this experience in my head to be akin to the way one might feel when they first look at a newborn child. I don’t know why, but I did. It’s a palace made of corn, people! Is no one else’s imagination picturing something as cool as mine was? Well. To start, it’s a brick and steel building, decorated in corn only for a few mural-like spaces. Bummer. Also, it’s kind of a shrine to the corn industry inside. Major bummer. There were some pictures inside of the historical corn palaces, including the first one, made in 1892, which was much more impressive. Also, it’s free. So who can really complain? Also they have flavored cornballs. Didn’t try them, but man did they smell good.

South Dakota: Mount Rushmore and The Badlands

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Mount Rushmore was good to check off the bucket list but may not merit extensive travel on its own.  The Badlands National Park was spectacular, and a visit to these two combined with Devil’s Tower in northeast Wyoming would make a lovely long weekend.

September 11, 2013 (Wednesday, cont’d) – After visiting Devil’s Tower we drove a couple hours to Mount Rushmore via Rapid City, which was surprisingly urban.  On the way we passed Spearfish which has a water park and several commercial establishments, as well as Sturgis which is famous for its annual motorcycle rally.  Neither Reptile Gardens nor Bear Country USA drew us in, and we breezed through the very touristy and kitschy town (think fudge and general schlock stores) of Keystone just a couple miles from Mount Rushmore.  Western South Dakota is more developed than I expected.

Parking at Mount Rushmore costs $11 (and the annual pass is not accepted) unless you find a spot on the street and walk a bit up the hill.  There is no charge to enter the monument.  Information and food concessions are available.  There is a walkway with stone (?) columns representing each state and displaying its flag and the year it was admitted to the union.  By coincidence, we visited three national parks/monuments on September 11.  Some ribbons on the New York column here were the only visible difference we noticed.

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Each night there is a lighting ceremony at 8 pm and they recommend you arrive an hour early.  There are some orientation films and walks available but we missed these.

Here are a few stats and things we learned: each face is 60 feet tall; each eye is 11 feet wide; Washington’s nose is 21 feet long while the others are 20 feet long (what’s up with that?); the sculptor was Gutzon Borglum, and there is also a small bust of Gutzon carved by his son Lincoln; Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, blah blah blah, but critically he is credited with the first ice cream recipe in America.

The explanation offered in the park’s official newspaper for why these Presidents: Birth (Washington, first President); Expansion (Jefferson, Louisiana Purchase); Development (T. Roosevelt, Panama Canal + Trust Buster + National Parks); Preservation (Lincoln, saved the union during Civil War).

After leftover pasta in the parking garage (you see, there are advantages to keeping your job), we returned to I-90 where the landscape began to look more like the plains.  Innumerable billboards starting from afar battered us into visiting Wall Drug.  This is a famous attraction that is essentially an old shopping mall where all the stores operate under a single entity.  It has been there since 1931 and is worth a look if you are in the area.  Among countless other necessaries, one can purchase a five cent cup of coffee or a bottle of Red Ass Rhubarb Wine.  I was surprised by how many young foreigners work at Wall Drug.

Just down the road we entered Badlands National Park.  Almost immediately we saw some bighorn sheep by the road and proceeded to stop at several overlooks.  There is a paved driving loop which is the obvious activity for any visitor.  The overlooks have explanatory displays and various hikes are possible.  The scenery is otherworldly.

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We entered the park from the north where you are atop the plateau and look out and down at formations and canyons.  The loop descends so that on the south side you look out and up at formations and mountains.

The cracked earth and multitude of rattlesnake warning signs reveal the harshness of this terrain.  The park service addresses the name’s origin as follows:

The Lakota people were the first to call this place “mako sica” or “land bad.” Extreme temperatures, lack of water, and the exposed rugged terrain led to this name. In the early 1900’s, French-Canadian fur trappers called it “les mauvais terres pour traverse,” or “bad lands to travel through.”

Today, the term badlands has a more geologic definition. Badlands form when soft sedimentary rock is extensively eroded in a dry climate. The park’s typical scenery of sharp spires, gullies, and ridges is a premier example of badlands topography.

Many fossils have been discovered here and there are educational displays about the animals that previously ruled the area.  We fortunately avoided sabre-toothed big cats and encountered prairie dogs, pronghorn antelope, a coyote (all three prior animals visible in a single photo below!), and a rabbit with part of his ear missing that Jenni dubbed the Badlands Badass Bunny.

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Badlands Badass Bunny

At Burns Basin Overlook there was a big green patch partway across the canyon, and I just know that if Trump were president then future generations would find fairways and waterfalls here.

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The air was clear and we could easily see Eagle Nest Butte 30 miles away from Panorama Point Overlook.  Though it was nearly 90º in the afternoon, the weather was delightful by the time we hiked the Notch Trail.  This requires ascending a wooden ladder where Jenni subdued her fear of heights.

While the park allots 1.5-2 hours, the out and back hike took us only 50 minutes, including time to frolic at the end over views of White River Valley.

Another view of the ladder
Another view of the ladder if you look closely
Fear shmear
Fear shmear

At the south end of the park is the town of Interior, population 67.  There are a handful of camping and budget accommodations here, and we camped at a KOA nearby.  It was passable but we were disappointed to learn that post-Labor Day the pool is closed and so are the toilets near our site.  The coyotes howling at night were a nice touch.  I have been surprised in general at how much changes after Labor Day in terms of availability of facilities and tours etc., at least in terms of the northwest and north part of the country.  I guess that is the trade off for fewer crowds and often better weather.  Next time at Badlands I would probably try to stay at Cedar Pass Lodge which is just inside the park and I believe has camping, cabins, etc.

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Today was a great day filled with new experiences.  I certainly enjoyed our time in the mountains of Montana and Wyoming, but I have done so much of that in my life.  This was a welcome change!

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