Onward To South Dakota, Herds of Buffalo, Underground Caverns, Wall Drug Store, the Badlands, and Mt. Rushmore

Week of August 15, 1999
Whew, what a week! As much as we hated to leave this area of Colorado, it was time to move on with our journey. So, we loaded up the camper and headed out. Once we got out of the Estes Park area, the highway was a winding road, with high cliffs along the Big Thompson River. We reached southeast Wyoming, which resembled Kansas, except a little hillier. There are sandstone buttes across the landscape. On the horizon, we could see a duststorm. The Oregon Trail winds through the state, and you can still see the tracks made by the wagon wheels at historical markers. We passed hundreds of motorcyclists as we drove through Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, and South Dakota. There had been a motorcycle rally, which is an annual event in Sturgis, South Dakota. In Nebraska, we saw a mama antelope with her baby out in the grasslands. The feeling that you get while driving through this section of Nebraska and South Dakota is one of remoteness as in the pioneer days. As we went on one stretch of state Highway 71, we drove thirty miles without seeing another vehicle, building, or house..just open plains. After reaching the state line of South Dakota, we passed through Ardmore, now a relative ghost town. Several vacant old buildings commemorate a more prosperous time. President Coolidge visited the town in its heyday. In several sections of the curvy two-lane state Highway 71 outside of Ardmore, the highway suddenly turns into gravel road. A little jarring if you're pulling a 13,000 pound fifth wheel. Once we came closer to Hot Springs, we drove past Hells Canyon and a Wild Horse Sanctuary where over 400 mustangs are able to run wild. The movie "Dances With Wolves" was filmed in the area.

Hot Springs, S.D.

Once we reached the Southern Black Hills area, we stayed at the KOA Kampground in Hot Springs, and caught the nightly ice cream social. The next day, we went to explore Hot Springs. The town has numerous old historic buildings, and was known by two other names prior to being renamed Hot Springs for its mineral springs. It has the world's largest natural indoor spring fed pool, which remains warm throughout the year.

Pioneer Historical Museum in Hot Springs

We visited the Pioneer Historical Museum located in the old Sandstone School on a hill in the center of town, and visited with Mrs. Graf, spokeswoman for the museum (who went to school there). Built in 1893, the museum contains over 25 rooms filled to capacity with historic local artifacts and photographs. As we entered each room, we were amazed at the extent of the pioneer collection. One room contained over ten antique stoves. Another contained quilts, beds, and furnishings over 150 years old. A piano in a corner dated to the early 1800s. Most of the artifacts were in excellent shape. There are many old books available for sale. We purchased one book, The Analogy of Religion, which was published in 1847, still in very good shape. The museum is open from June through September from 9 to 5, Monday through Saturday. The building was used as a school until 1961 when it became a museum. During the visit, we spoke with Paul Hickok, President of the Fall River County Historical Society, who has collected many items for the museum. Be sure to set aside a few hours to visit this treasure if in the area. There is no charge to visit the museum. Also, visit the VA Battle Mountain Museum nearby, which contains military memorabilia. Located southeast of town is also the Site of Wounded Knee, (where 250 Indians were killed by the Army in 1890) and Badlands National Park. We will be visiting the park soon.

Mammoth Site in Hot Springs

We then went to the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, a site where as many as 100 Ice Age mammoths were trapped over 26,000 years ago in a 300 to 700 year period of time in a spring-fed sinkhole. Discovered in 1974 during the building of a housing project within town, this site is the only site in America where mammoth bones are left as found for scientific study and display to the public. Within an enclosed building, excavation is constantly revealing new bones, and is the largest such site in the world. The site is open year-round, more information is available here.

Wind Cave National Park

Next we headed to Wind Cave National Park located near Hot Springs. At present, 84 miles of the cave have been explored; it is estimated that this is only 5 percent of the overall caverns. The name for the cave is derived from the small entrance discovered in 1881, where wind blows in and out (depending on the pressure) at up to 70 mph at times. Prior to it becoming the first national park cave in the country in 1903, the homesteader of the land above the cave, Alvin McDonald, gave tours of the cave passageways via candlelight. Today, five cave tours are available, with times of one to four hours. If you like dark places and have an explorer spirit, you can take an introductory course and help to map out the undiscovered parts of the cave. Carry your jacket, the constant temperature in the cave is 53 degrees(the average temp of the air above the cave), and you are dripped on at times. The cave contains the largest collection of intricate boxwork (thin, honeycomb-shaped) formations in the world. Another cave in the area, Jewel Cave National Monument, contains jewel-like crystal f ormations within the cave's 113-miles. There are many acres of prairie in Wind Cave National Park. We saw one buffalo (or "tatanka" as the Lakota Indians(Sioux) referred to them), mule deer, quite a few antelope, and hundreds of prairie dogs. Coyotes, the state mammal, are common in the area.

Custer State Park

Next, we entered Custer State Park adjacent to Wind Cave National Park. This is one of the largest state parks in the country, home to about 1,500 buffalo. They also have begging burros that will come up to your car window begging for handouts. They were taking the day off when we were there. We spotted six buffalo bulls in different sections of the park, all near where people were. These are HUGE magnificent creatures. At birth these animals weigh 65 pounds, and grow to an average 2,000 pounds. During breeding season each year, battles among the bulls are common as rights are established. We actually got within a few feet of one bull as he ate grass. You could see by his horns that he had been in some type of skirmish. As we were leaving Custer State Park, we stopped at an overlook. As we walked close to the edge we frightened a mule deer doe and her young fawn. It was getting dark as we left the park, when another young fawn ran out in front of our truck. It fell to its knees trying to turn around, and finally scrambled back to the edge of the road to safety. We drove back to Hot Springs and stopped at a restaurant in the old Braun Hotel, the oldest hotel in town (built in 1903). The restaurant was built around a large rock which is now in the center of the dining room. We ordered elk and buffalo steak. Both were very tasty but the buffalo was juicier and the best.

Wall Drug Store

On Thursday, we drove out to the town of Wall, made famous by Wall Drug Store, the largest and most famous drugstore in the world. It covers an entire city block downtown. There we had buffalo burgers for lunch along with free ice water which is what made it famous since 1936 as a pitch for people to stop by while driving down the highway on the way to see Mount Rushmore or Badlands National Park.

Get a soda, Get a root beer,
Turn next corner, Just as near, To Highway 16 and 14,
Free ice water, Wall Drug
Original billboard pitch created by Mrs. Hustead in 1936

In the words of the founder, Ted Hustead, "No matter where you live, you can succeed, because wherever you are, you can reach out to other people with something that they need!" Mr. Hustead, who was 96, passed away in January of 1999.

One store of many many more at Wall Drug Store.

Today, Wall Drug Store is a legendary tourist attraction and family business, with gift shops, restaurant, fudge shop, donut shop, ice cream parlor, bookstore, western wear store, a mall area, animated displays (such as a giant T. Rex dinosaur for the kids in the backyard area), and of course free ice water at up to 20,000 glasses a day. I met with one of the owners, Ted Hustead, grandson of Mr. Hustead about the business. I already had a good background on Wall Drug Store from doing a business report on them while in college. He was most generous with providing tips on seeing wildlife at the Badlands, as well as giving a pitch for their buffalo burgers. Billboards are still a main attraction for Wall Drug Store. You can find ads for Wall Drug Store at all corners of the world, including the London subways. Wall is at the northwest entrance to Badlands National Park where we went next.

Along the exit to Wall As we left the area, we had to see the huge dinosaur with the red eyes at Exit 110 enticing people to come take a look.

Badlands National Park

The Badlands with contrasting peaks

Some of the most spectacular scenery in the Great Plains can be found in the Badlands National Park. The area is starkly beautiful, peaceful, and desolate, with some of the most outstanding geological formations to be found anywhere. It was called "badlands" because of the difficulty of travel through the area, the rugged terrain, and the lack of water.

View into the vast Badlands

We took Sage Creek Road, a very bumpy dirt and gravel road. We had been told by Mr. Hustead that this was the best place to see buffalo. Sure enough, we came upon a large herd grazing on the prairie. We also watched a town of prairie dogs for awhile. Back on the main road, we stopped to look at the fossil beds. Here you can see reproductions of fossils of many extinct animals found in the area.

Mt. Rushmore

On Friday, we drove to see Mount Rushmore near Keystone, South Dakota. As we got close to the entrance we had to stop as a family of mountain goats crossed right in front of our truck. There were two males, a female, and a baby goat. They did not seem to be concerned by our presence or the traffic. They stopped to graze in the grassy islands directly in front of the main parking garage at Rushmore. There is a large amphitheatre at the base of the monument where they have a summer program on the monument and the four presidents. Afterwards, they light up the carvings for an hour. Rushmore is noted as being the largest work of art in the world. The Mount Rushmore project encompassed a period of 14 years in the making, overseen by master sculptor and artist, Gutzon Borglum. He had previously worked on the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial in Georgia, until the project experienced several setbacks. During a period of setbacks with Rushmore caused by the Depression, Mr. Borglum served as a one man show to keep the project moving forward to completion; he is given a special tribute at the monument for his work and dedication to this "Shrine of Democracy".

Coming Next: Deadwood and On To Montana Big Sky Country

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