Moving to Hawaii • Badlands National Park, Minutemen Missile National Historic Site, Mt. Rushmore, and Custer State Park • September 6, 2017
Curtis: We woke early in the morning having slept fairly well despite the full moon. We packed up, returned to I-90 and continued our trek west. The first stop for the day was, of course, Badlands National Park. Since we had Charlotte with us we were limited in our ability to hike, but the loop through the park makes for a perfect break from the interstate. We got off the interstate at the Eastern entrance and immediately stopped to look at something else: the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. I wasn’t sure if we would be able to see anything with Charlotte, but I had to at least stop in and get a park stamp, right? A half hour later, after a whirlwind reading of the exhibits and talking to the ranger, I had a plan in hand…for after the Badlands.
We headed South on SD 240 straight into the park. Badlands NP sometimes gets a bad rap. We’ve seen several sites list it as one of the ‘worst’, if not ‘the worst’ National Park. We think this is simply untrue, and while we have not been to every National Park, after spending so long on the East coast, it is simply beautiful.
If it weren’t for the pinnacles in the distance, you probably wouldn’t even think the area anything special as you enter the park; simply a continuation of the endless prairie and hills. And then you see the Wall: a 200 foot labyrinth of ridges and gullies. And then more prairie stretching out from the Wall. I’m not a geology guy by any means, but here that’s honestly all I could think about. Here was geology and hydrology in motion: one watershed (the Cheyenne River) eroding into another (the White River) and still eroding at a measurable rate (1″/yr).
We parked at the first overlook and simply marveled at the drastic change. The only thing we’ve seen comparable to this has been the Painted Hills in Petrified Forest National Park. We made a brief attempt at a self time photo, but then a helpful guy wearing a big fancy camera offered to take our picture. In comparison to yesterday’s ‘Corn Palace Picture‘ it became clear: if you’re going to have someone take your picture, ask the guy who has the nicer camera. And if you’re too shy to ask, simply put up a pathetic attempt at taking your own picture right in front of him.
We stopped at the next trailhead as well and Jessica let me go on a short hike by myself that she had done with her family. I didn’t go far, but I did enjoy walking among the formations and going down the gullies. I found out from a ranger later that much like in Petrified Forest, aside from the 6 or so established trails, the park does not maintain any trails. But this does not disallow anyone from back country hiking. Rather, serious hikers are simply allowed to make their own trails. Something to consider for the next time we come through here.
We continued on our scenic drive as it went through a pass and down the wall. I let Jessica get out and do a short hike of her own and we stopped at the visitor center for park stamps and so I could learn about the geology and hiking. Then we continued back up the wall and further West, stopping frequently for overlooks, bighorn, and pronghorn before turning North back to the interstate. Back at the interstate, we backtracked East a couple of miles to an exit that lead to a dirt road which in turn lead to the Minuteman Missile Silo.
During the Cold War, the United States developed the idea of the ‘Nuclear Triad’: having nuclear capabilities on Sea, Land, and Air will provide for M.A.D. and thus prevent war. The land portion of the triad took the form of underground missile launch facilities strategically placed in low population areas in the Great Plains and Intermountain West. One of the phases of the Missiles was the Titan project: today preserved in the Titan II Missile Museum south of Tucson. The Minutemen were another type of missile produced almost concurrently with the Titans with all of their launch facilities located in the Great Plains.
Unlike the Titans which had control centers adjacent to each silo, the Minutemen were designed that one launch center could remotely launch a flight of 10 missiles from 10 separate silos. 5 flights made a squadron, 3 squadrons made a wing, and there were 6 Minuteman Wings for a total of 900 Minuteman II Missiles potentially in operation. In 1991, the US and USSR decided maybe we didn’t need that many and signed the START treaty to reduce the number of missiles. Inclusive of the treaty was the permission to retain one missile, silo, and launch facility for posterity.
Unlike the Titan Museum, the Silo is only viewable from the surface (The separate control room is viewable by appointment). We got out, let Charlotte smell around while we listened to a ‘Dial by Number’ phone tour.
Satisfied with our history, we got back on I-90 West towards Rapid City. We stopped for some Culvers before heading south into the Black Hills on US-16 and then Alt US-16. We decided to stop at Mount Rushmore, if only so I could see it. I left Jessica with Charlotte outside the main gate and made my way to the main viewing platform/amphitheater. I grabbed the park stamps, snapped some pictures and then started onto the loop trail to the base of the monument.
Once on the trail, the crowds diminished substantially and I was able to enjoy the quiet. The monument is definitely massive and substantial, and it features my favorite president (T.J!!), but I still think I would place the Monument to the Forefathers above it on my favorite monuments list.
I rejoined Jessica and Charlotte at the gate where Charlotte was making friends, hamming it up, and causing a distracted man to run his stroller (with his child inside) into a wall. We got back on Alt US-16 and continued South towards Custer State Park. This section of road climbs up Iron Mountain and features several tunnels that frame Mount Rushmore, and several ‘pigtail’ bridges. Definitely a slow driving road.
We stopped at the peak of Iron Mountain for a letterbox and to enjoy the views to the West of the Black Elk Wilderness before continuing down the other side into Custer State Park. We still had some daylight left and we hadn’t done any real hikes for the day so we decided to do a hike Jessica had done previously with her family.
Jessica: We crossed the road and made our way to the trailhead…or where my photographic memory thought the trailhead was. It turned out to be a little further away than I remembered, but we found it and started on the trail. It starts off steep, but once you reach the ridge it’s pretty easy from there on out. However, after a few switchbacks, we came to a fork in the trail. I didn’t remember there being one last time…after consulting AllTrails, we decided to go left, which turned out to be the right choice. We made it up to the ridge and enjoyed a peaceful walk through the woods, enjoying the few views through the trees. We loved how quiet the trail was, even though we had been around so many people at Mount Rushmore and driving through the Black Hills. We only saw 2 other people throughout the entire 4 mile hike!
Most of the trail was just how I remembered it — however, the end of the trail has actually changed since the last time I was here. Last time, I remember doing the loop and after crossing over a stream multiple times, the trail ended behind a shop down the road from the visitor’s center so we walked along the road back to our car. This time, that trail was blocked off by a log, and the trail actually continued through the woods, gaining more elevation until it met back with the other trail where the fork was — so that’s why I didn’t remember it! I also thought that the trail was only 3 miles last time, and now it’s about 4.
Once we finished, the sun was setting and it was time to go find a campsite. We left Custer State Park to camp in Black Hills National Forest. As we were leaving, we were able to spot 2 separate bison along the side of the road — Curtis’ first time seeing them in the wild! We found a spot and set up camp at dusk and went to bed, hoping to get a good night of rest before our big hike the next morning!