Our most recent family adventure took us to the Dakotas, our 49th and 50th states! We flew into Rapid City, South Dakota and spent 10 days exploring before flying home from Fargo, North Dakota.
As always, we packed a lot of educational attractions into our days: state and national parks, museums, tours, historic sites, and more. We ate the local specialties and learned as much as we could about the Dakotas. We had a fantastic time and I'm really excited to tell you all about it!
Because I blog about educational travel, I was given admission tickets, media rates, discounts, and other benefits for some of the places we visited during our trip. A few places we went are free for everyone, while we paid full price for the rest. This has no bearing on my reviews. Everything I'm sharing is something that I recommend unless I say otherwise. If you see any gaps in my narrative, it is because I didn't love that particular attraction, restaurant, or hotel enough to recommend it, regardless of how much I paid or didn't pay.
Wall, South Dakota and Badlands National Park
On Tuesday, July 25 we flew from Sacramento to Rapid City, with a layover in Denver. I hate layovers for a number of reasons and will do almost anything to avoid them, but this time it was unavoidable. We live 45 miles from three major international airports (San Francisco, Oakland, and Sacramento) and 75 miles from San Jose, but none of those have flights into the tiny Rapid City airport. Fortunately, our travel day went smoothly, the layover in Denver was fine, and we were in Rapid City by 5:00 pm.
The baggage claim has a roulette wheel on it. I bet my luggage would be on red, but no one paid me anything when I was correct. Disappointing.
I can hear you saying, "You checked your luggage? Are you crazy? After what happened on Christmas I thought you'd never check luggage again." I didn't want to, but we didn't have a choice. The plane was too small for roll-aboards, so we had to gate-check. Which meant we had to wait for our luggage at the roulette table / carousel. Fortunately, it came quickly. We got our rental car and headed east.
This is what the 60-mile drive looked like the majority of the time. Blue skies, hints of low clouds, mowed fields with round hay bales (aka ton bales) left in place, and the most serious rumble strips I've ever seen.
But there's one thing missing from that picture that is a huge part of the eastbound drive on I-90: signs for Wall Drug. You'll see at least one per mile, and more as you get closer to the town of Wall. There are no other billboards or advertisements, which makes the frequency of Wall Drug signs even more apparent. Each sign is different, which is fun. I managed to catch the 80 MPH sign in this photo of a Wall Drug sign. The maximum speed in California is 70 MPH, so it was weird to see even though I knew to expect it.
In no time at all, we were in the small town of Wall, population 701. Plus at least one adorable frog.
Did we go to Wall Drug? Of course! But first we checked into the Sunshine Inn. While it has very few amenities, the Sunshine Inn is clean, well-maintained, inexpensive, and in a great location. It made a good home base for our time in Wall.
We walked to dinner at Badlands Saloon and Grill. Trevor had the Dirty Bird, which is essentially a bacon and cheese sandwich with fried chicken in place of the bread. Steve and I shared the Whiskey Steak Tips. All of the food was excellent.
Then, Wall Drug. Picture the biggest drug store you've ever seen. Whatever you're picturing, multiply that by 10. It is enormous. And their history is absolutely fascinating.
Wall Drug is more like a mall with interconnected stores than it is a drug store. There's a cafe, an ice cream parlor and soda fountain, a bookstore, and stores selling rocks, souvenirs, jewelry, boots, and western wear.
You can buy artwork, taxidermy, camping gear, and yes, even the stuff you'd actually expect to find in a drugstore.
Ironically, the drug store was the only part of Wall Drug that was closed when we visited at 8:30 pm.
Did I mention there's a chapel at Wall Drug? Cause there is.
Everything I've showed you so far is below that black line on this map.
The area above the black line is Wall Drug's Backyard.
There is a lot to see at Wall Drug. Definitely go. It's really something.
While you're in Wall, be sure to visit the National Grasslands Visitor Center. It's literally across the street from the Sunshine Inn. That's the first place we went in the morning on Wednesday, July 26.
The Visitor Center is being renovated, but there is plenty to see in the temporary trailer.
We learned all about the black-footed ferret (once thought to be extinct, but rediscovered) and the efforts to save this critically endangered species. Fun fact: the black-footed ferret was highlighted on the USPS' recent Endangered Species stamp set. The First Day of Issue ceremony took place right there in the temporary visitor center at National Grasslands.
Our next destination was Minuteman Missile National Historic Park. It tells the story of the approximately 1000 nuclear missiles placed in the Great Plains during the Cold War. They were intended as a "nuclear deterrent to maintain peace and prevent war." Hundreds remain.
To be perfectly honest, I didn't expect to enjoy this. Steve is far more interested in military history than Trevor and I are, but all three of us found the Visitor Center and the stories it tells fascinating. Definitely go.
This exhibit about US nuclear weapons accidents was disturbing, to say the least. Travis Air Force Base (a few miles from where we live) was the site of an accident in 1950 and what lead to the base being named for Brigadier General Robert F. Travis.
You can go to an actual decommissioned missile site and command center a few miles away to look around. Due to the time (almost noon) and the temperature (100°F), we did not. Instead, we attended a virtual tour given by a ranger in an air-conditioned theater. It was really interesting.
Next on our itinerary was Badlands National Park. As we drove toward it, we saw the literal wall of rock between the city and the national park. I'd assumed the town was named after some Mr. Wall. Nope!
In addition to a wall, we saw pronghorns and prairie dogs grazing and periscoping respectively during our drive. It was so cool! We didn't realize how many of each we'd eventually see during the trip - even after 10 days, it was still exciting spotting them.
And speaking of exciting - it was awesome to check another national park off our list. The Badlands are breathtaking.
All the black dots you see in this photo are cliff swallows.
Most of them build their nests on the cliffs as their name implies, but a few rebels don't. Technically, they are still cliff swallows, not picnic-shelter swallows.
I also didn't expect the heat. The plan was to drive the 30-mile Badlands Loop Road, stopping at most of the overlooks and completing a few short hikes. But at 105°F, anything more than a brief stroll was out of the question. We had water with us, but not enough for those temperatures. Fortunately, you can see a lot from the overlooks and the shortest trails.
The magic of erosion.
Prairie rattlesnakes are a thing. We didn't see (or hear) any, probably because it was so darn hot. We did see (and hear) about a million flies.
Somehow, Trevor was perfectly comfortable in jeans when it was 105°F. Steve and I were melting in shorts.
It was totally worth it.