Prior to 2015, my impression of South Dakota was informed largely by bits and pieces I’d gleaned from the Travel Channel and a well-meaning Nebraskan friend. Corn, windmills, and biker rallies figured pretty prominently into the picture, as did tractors on highways and grasslands on steroids. Let me amend that: only grasslands on steroids. To hear my Nebraskan friend tell it, South Dakota comprised nothing more than 75,000 square miles of telephone poles and the very occasional crow.
“You’ve read Little House on the Prairie, right?” she said. I nodded, and she tossed her hands up in a you see what I mean? gesture. I thought she might at least concede Mount Rushmore as a worthy stop, but I quickly learned my lesson: South Dakota/Nebraska rivalry is a glorious, deep-seeded thing. Planning three days in South Dakota could only be perceived as a personal affront. “Have fun watching grass grow,” she huffed.
Here’s what I didn’t dare tell her: we could’ve spent three weeks in South Dakota and only scratched the surface of all that this beautiful state has to offer.
From Rocky Mountain National Park, we headed north, spending a day in Badlands National Park before bearing west towards Wind Cave National Park and Mount Rushmore National Monument. Already, we were enamored of the otherworldly terrain and wildlife of the Badlands, but before our three days were through, we’d come to love so much more about this underrated state. We were fortunate to stay at the Mount Rushmore KOA at Palmer Gulch, just ten minutes away from Mount Rushmore. We love in-park camping and had planned a week’s worth between Grand Teton and Yellowstone in the coming week, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I love a good KOA almost as much as the kids do. It’s the perfect camp/resort hybrid, and at $20/night for a tent-only site plus a $10 resort fee, this KOA measured head and shoulders above any commercial campground we’ve ever stayed at. But more on that later.
Palmer Gulch turned out to be a convenient home base for exploring Wind Cave National Park, a short 40-minute drive away. Wind Cave doesn’t receive nearly the attention that Carlsbad Caverns or Mammoth Caves does, and that’s a shame–it’s a fascinating place to visit. On first glance, it’s easy to dismiss Wind Cave as yet another example of the ubiquitous South Dakota grasslands my friend had warned us about, but this prairie harbors a secret world. Beneath the bison herds and prairie dogs peeking out from park burrows lies a 140-mile labyrinth of passageways that makes Wind Cave the sixth longest cave in the world. More significantly, Wind Cave houses 95% of the world’s known boxwork formations–thin calcite projections that form honeycomb patterns. 95%! True, I’d never heard of boxwork formations before visiting Wind Cave, but still. I know a significant thing when I hear it. 😀
Visitors may only enter the cave through a guided ranger tour, so we stopped at the Visitor Center to purchase tour tickets and Junior Ranger booklets. We opted for the 1.5 hour Fairgrounds Tour, which would allow us to explore both the upper and middle levels of the cave. NPS labels this tour as its most strenuous walking tour, but don’t let that deter you–participants navigate 450 stairs over two thirds of a mile in dimly lit conditions, but aside from the darkness, this tour is entirely doable for kids and adults of all ages. At $12 per adult and $6 per kid, the tour was reasonably priced, and we were excited to see what Wind Cave held in store for us.
A short elevator ride transported us from the Visitor Center into a dark and complicated maze of cave passageways. Outside, it was a blistering 100 degrees; here, beneath the surface, it was a cool 50–chilly enough to warrant a jacket. Moving from room to room, our ranger pointed out elaborate boxwork formations and illuminated iridescent frost formations with a flashlight. She warned us not to dawdle, and it soon became clear why: passageways forked into multiple passageways, which in turn divided into multiple passageways yet again–a mitotic explosion of cave confusion to the uninitiated like us. We ducked low boxwork ceilings in rooms barely large enough to accommodate a single body, only to turn the corner to enter gaping caverns where our voices echoed for what seemed like miles. It was an amazing study in contrasts. Our ranger ended the tour by extinguishing her flashlight to let us experience absolute darkness–the kind of darkness that made it impossible to see our outstretched hands not six inches from our faces. It was an incredible experience.
We ended our time in-park with a cursory nod to Wind Cave’s above-ground offerings, hiking 1-mile Prairie Vista Trail. Rolling plains, wallowing bison, and skittish prairie dogs set the stage for a hot but easy stroll through a sampling of the park’s bucolic setting. I would’ve loved to spend the rest of the day exploring Wind Cave’s hiking trails, but there was a KOA with resort amenities calling to the kids like Siren song. They’re good sports, always indulging my hiking and backpacking whims without complaint, so how could I begrudge them an afternoon of kid-approved fun? We drove back to our campsite and unleashed their boundless energy on Palmer Gulch.
Talk about amenities–this KOA was seriously decked out! Water slides, swimming pools, climbing walls, and a giant jumping pillow would’ve been ridiculous enough. But throw in a foam pools, life-sized chess, hayrides, horse rides, and bicycle rides, and you begin to understand why the kids couldn’t tear themselves away. They played hard all afternoon, finally collapsing at camp five hours later for dinner. We cooked our own meals, but this KOA even offers a pizza parlor, nightly barbecue buffet, and an ice cream shop for those who’d prefer to let someone else do the heavy lifting. For $20 a night, I can’t recommend Mount Rushmore KOA highly enough!
After dinner, we drove to Mount Rushmore National Memorial. If we had any question about the kind of crowds this great American icon draws, we had only to survey the enormous size of the parking lot–far and away the largest of any NPS site we’ve ever visited–to know the answer. This is not the kind of monument that’s hidden behind some grand facade, either; it doesn’t require hours of hiking to get to. In fact, from the moment you step onto the grounds (and for many miles before), you can see Mount Rushmore. But the experience of visiting Mount Rushmore? So much more than that. Walking through the parade of flags, watching the presidents’ faces sharpen in focus with each passing step–it’s an intentional process that transforms and elevates the experience into something unforgettable.
Although we didn’t have enough time to hike any of the trails that would have brought us to the base of the carvings, we enjoyed browsing museum exhibits that cataloged the arduous task of bringing Mount Rushmore into fruition. Given a second chance, I’d definitely allot an entire day here, but if 2015 turns out to be my only experience at Mount Rushmore, I’m extremely grateful to have experienced the park’s evening program. Like everything else about South Dakota, the evening lighting ceremony was so much more than I expected. The sun set over the amphitheater, crowning the monument with a brilliant halo and then darkness. Floodlights illuminated the stage, drawing our attention away from the darkening monument. Through film, the ranger explained the significance of the presidents honored by Mount Rushmore. She asked us to consider the symbolic light of freedom and its importance not just to Americans, but to all those fighting oppression worldwide as Mount Rushmore came aglow. By the time the audience joined her in the Pledge of Allegiance and “The Star Spangled Banner,” I was choking back tears. The ranger called those who’ve served to the stage, asking each serviceman and servicewoman to introduce themselves and their branch of service. I was beside myself. The crowd’s deafening cheers, the rousing ovation for the men and women who defend our freedom–it was a swell of patriotism and pride I’ll never forget.
Since 2015, we’ve compiled a growing list of places we’d like to explore in South Dakota, among them Custer State Park, Crazy Horse Memorial, and Jewel Cave National Monument. My friend will roll her eyes when I tell her our plans, no doubt. Is South Dakota all grasslands on steroids? Absolutely–and not at all. Amid all that grass, there is so much more than meets the eye, and I, for one, am thankful that my friend is a very good sport because goodness knows, I am a very bad listener.