When Andy and I booked our flights to Denver we realized that since it was Labor Day weekend it didn’t make sense to leave before Tuesday so we would be there for a full week. In order to break up the time, Andy suggested a road trip through part of the great plains, up into Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming.
While this wasn’t our best executed road trip, we gave ourselves a C- in planning, but were able to make a few adjustments, see a bunch of things and most importantly have a great time.
When looking at our route to Crazy Horse Monument, Andy looked to see if there was anything interesting along our way. It was then that he stumbled upon Carhenge, an exact replica of Stonehenge but built with cars. I was super excited as I absolutely love random attractions when we are on road trips.
We arrived there just before lunch, spending about 20 minutes walking around and taking pictures. It was interesting to me that the cars used to create Carhenge are from the 50’s and 60’s as they are roughly the same size as the stones at Stonehenge.
Admission is free but donations are greatly appreciated so we made a small donation before we left.
Crazy Horse Memorial
Crazy Horse Memorial was started in 1948 and has always been a privately funded project. Since it is privately funded, the progress of the work is pretty slow since it can only be completed as they receive funding.
The idea of making a Native American monument in the Black Hills came from Chief Standing Bear who wanted to memorialize their native heroes. He stated, in response to Mount Rushmore, “my fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, also”. The hero he is referring to is Crazy Horse who died under a flag of truce, stabbed in the back by an American soldier.
To commission the work, Standing Bear approached Korczak Ziolkowski, one of the apprentices who worked on Mount Rushmore. Korczak accepted and began work. During his years working on the memorial Korczak married and had 10 children, all of whom worked on the memorial in some way or another. Korczak and his wife have since passed, but 6 of their children continue on their legacy by working on the memorial. In continuing their parents dream, they also plan to house the Indian University of North America and a medical training center for American Indians on the same grounds as the memorial.
Admission to Crazy Horse is $11 per person or $28 per carload, whichever is lower. While this is more expensive than other parks, the work is solely funded by visitors so it needs to be slightly higher.
When we arrived I was a little disappointed that it just looked like a face with a hole in the mountain – I expected more. Once we watched the video in the visitor center, I got a better scale of the 563’ high and 641’ long monument. Put into perspective, all of Mount Rushmore can fit into Crazy Horse’s head.
If you’re in the area and visiting both Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse, I recommend seeing Mount Rushmore first. We went the reverse order which made Mount Rushmore seem less impressive.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
The idea of immortalizing 4 of our presidents as a monument in the Black Hills of South Dakota was an extreme idea back in the 1920’s but sculptor Gutzon Borglum received government funding. Prior to the work, Gutzon Borglum stated “… let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and rain shall wear them away”.
Mount Rushmore was built 1927 – 1941 with the help of over 400 workers. Due to the financial crisis at the time, the monument stopped with the heads and shoulders of the presidents, not their full bodies as was originally planned.
For $10 you get a parking pass which provides admission to Mount Rushmore for the entire calendar year. We spent about 30 minutes walking around, taking pictures, visiting the museum and watching the video about the construction. While it would have been neat to see the evening light show, it wasn’t for another 2 hours so we decided to head out.
The animal lover in me was excited that when we left there were some mountain goats grazing near the exit. Naturally, we stopped to take a few pictures of them.
Night in Rapid City
We spent the night in Rapid City which was a major city near all of the attractions of the area. After some digging we decided to stay at the Rapid City Microtel, a highly rated, low priced hotel right near the highway.
Getting in around dinner and leaving early the following morning, we didn’t get to see or do much in Rapid City but there were a lot of things to do in the area. If you are traveling with a family, consider spending a day in the Rapid City area.
Badlands National Park
When we planned our trip to the great plains, the Badlands was not part of our route. We changed this up once we saw that it really wasn’t too far from Rapid City, close to Wall Drug, and Andy’s mom expressed interest in going.
The Badlands are composed of loose rocks formed into mounds with different stripes of color. To understand how they got to their current state, you need to go 75 million years back in time when the area was a shallow sea. As the continental plates pushed and shoved, forming the Rocky Mountains, the land under the sea rose, causing the water to drain away. The area transformed from a sea to a subtropical forest and finally to a savannah. The colorful stripes on the mounds indicate when that layer was formed based on the mineral content during the time. Purple coloration from oxidized manganese, orange/tan coloration from iron oxide, white coloration from volcanic ash and finally grey from volcanic ash, silt and clay.
It has been suggested that the loose rocks in the ancient soils hold one of the greatest collections of fossil mammals on earth. The soil with the highest concentration of fossils is the Pierre shale, the former bottom of the shallow sea.
While these mounds have been there for millions of years, they are still fragile and should not be climbed. We stopped at the fossil exhibit trail, a part of the park had an extremely high concentration of fossils which was outfitted with wooden walking trails. We were appalled when we saw an entire family including not only children, but also their parents climbing the mounds. Their blatant disregard of the signage that said stay on the path and do not climb the mounds was truly sickening.
Entry fee to the Badlands is $15 per vehicle which is valid for the entire week. While we only spent a few hours at the Badlands, it would be possible to spend a full day or several days should you be interested in hiking any of the many trails in the area.
If you are heading to the Badlands from the west or heading west after the badlands, it is almost a requirement to stop at Wall Drug.
Being in advertising, I absolutely love the story of Wall Drug. The owners of Wall Drug opened their store in Wall, South Dakota where there were very few residents, most of whom were poor. The owners were losing money and were going to have to close their store. As a final attempt to keep their business alive, the owner’s wife noticed that there was a lot of traffic on the road going past Wall and decided to put up signs along the road for free ice water. By the time that she returned, there were already travelers stopping by to get their free ice water. It was this advertising campaign that saved their business. I love the nod to their heritage as there are still tons of advertisements on the road leading to Wall Drug.
Wall Drug is more than a shopping center; there are places to take pictures, shows, dining and much more. Before we explored Wall Drug, we got a quick bite to eat. While we paid tourist prices, the meal was better than I had expected.
After lunch, we set a time and place to meet Andy’s mom and split off to explore the area. We spent most of our time taking fun pictures in the outdoor area. Before we left, we picked up a Christmas ornament, the only type of souvenir that we ever buy.
One of the interesting things about Wall Drug is that they bring in foreigners to work in the shop. I’m assuming that the town has a shortage of people who will work at the store, so similar to Disney, they bring in workers from all over the world. I quite enjoyed seeing people from all over the world, but felt a little bad that in all of America, they were living in a small town in South Dakota.
We made a quick stop in Deadwood, an entire city named as a historical landmark. The most exciting thing that we did when we were there was watching a reenactment of a shootout on Main Street. While we caught the 4pm show, there were other shootouts at 2pm and 6pm daily, excluding Sunday. These are free to attend and draw quite a crowd.
I wish that we were able to spend the night in Deadwood as it looked like a fun town. There are a lot of bars and casinos, everything within walking distance. Unfortunately it would have been an hour longer of a drive to Devils Tower than staying in Hulett, Wyoming as we did.
Night in Hulett
As we drove into Hulett, we joked that this wasn’t even a 2 horse town but rather a 1 horse town. In this town of 400, you could walk the entirety of Main Street, from end to end in about 5 minutes.
We spent the night in a cabin at the Hulett Motel and woke up early to get to Devils Tower before the sun got too intense.
Devils Tower National Monument
Admission to Devils Tower is $10 per vehicle and is valid for a full week.
Devils Tower and the surrounding area is an extremely sacred site for Native Americans. The native folklore is that there were 8 kids playing, 7 girls and 1 boy. Suddenly the boy transformed into a bear which scared the girls who ran away but the bear followed them. A tree stump called to the girls to get on it so they did and it rose into the air. The bear tried to get the girls but they were out of reach. The bear scored the bark with its claws and the sisters became the stars of the Pleiades.
Every year, over 5,000 climbers ascend Devils Towers with over 220 routes up the tower. We opted for the less strenuous option of walking around the tower trail. We arrived as early as possible to avoid the heat of the day as there was a heat wave when we were there. Even stopping to take pictures, we completed the trail in 45 minutes. If it was less hot, we would have considered taking one of the longer trails around the tower.
On our way out, we stopped at the prairie dog town. Prairie dogs have always cracked me up when they stand on their hind legs and look around. After a little time there, it was time to head back to Denver to see the rest of Andy’s family before we headed off our on trip.
One of our biggest problems when we travel is trying to cram too much into too little time, but we did alright on this trip. While our stops were relatively short, we were able to do everything that we wanted to do and then some. We were able to fit a lot in by spending several hours a day driving. If you don’t prefer to spend much time driving during a road trip, I would extend this trip from our 3 day, 2 night timeline to meet your needs.
I really liked that before we left for our international trip, that we spent some time seeing parts of America that I had not seen before. The best part of the trip was being able to spend some quality time with Andy’s mom before we left on our trip.