The author's shadow on the Badlands.

Roadtrip Day 7: Sioux Falls, Minuteman, Badlands, Wall

Thursday, September 21, 2023
Sioux Falls, South Dakota in the morning light
South Dakota roadways
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
Badlands National Park
Wall Drug Store
Heading into Rapid City

I woke up surprisingly early, ready for the day to come (would that all mornings could be like this!), so of course the forecast was rain ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. I left my Airbnb early, seeing no sign of my fascinating hosts, and unsure if I should try to lock the door on my way out. Airbnb has a lot of issues that are currently being legislated in many locales due to abuse, reducing housing supply, and bypassing hotel regulations…But the original idea—of strangers sharing their lived-in homes with others—is still an excellent one, since it can give a fascinating perspective on how others live their lives.

Photo of sculpture in downtown Sioux Falls.
A view of some sculpture in downtown Sioux Falls.

The previous night some of the bartenders I’d met suggested I check out community diner M. B. Haskett for breakfast in the heart of downtown. Parking was easy, and despite the beginnings of drizzle, it was nice to briefly stroll around central Sioux Falls during the light of day. In addition to quite a few independent shops and restaurants, there were also abundant sculptures from a variety of local artists all throughout the downtown corridor as part of a public art initiative. Quite a pleasant and vibrant downtown!

Photo of breakfast at MB Haskett.
Healthy and locally sourced ingredients!

Brunch was fantastic—freshly made, dense, European-style whole grain bread, perfectly poached eggs, expertly-cooked, locally-sourced ham…I hope you, dear readers, don’t mind my occasionally waxing verbose about food like a hipster doofus. I’m excited to try good restaurants around the country. Actually, I’m excited to try any restaurants around the country, and it turns out that most of them are quite good everywhere you go.

Photo of my parking ticket.
A Sioux Falls souvenir.

Sioux Falls definitely felt like home to me, and so I walked much slower than normal back to my car, enjoying the feeling that all was right with the world. …Until I saw something on my windshield. I had taken my time with breakfast and I guess the local parking authority starts writing tickets immediately at 9am—very prompt! My mood was ruined for a few minutes, until I realized how funny it all was, especially since a $10 ticket was less than I’d pay for parking anyway in most places on the coasts. Sioux Falls had given me a great final souvenir!

Photo of a massive wind turbine segment being transported.
Windmill bases are gigantic.

On the way out of the city (at 10am on a Thursday) there was suddenly stop-and-go traffic for what turned out to be an interesting reason—a section of a windmill base was being transported onto the highway. It’s easy to forget the scale of modern windmills since they’re always somewhere on the horizon out in the middle of nowhere, but they are enormous. The truck was moving at a turtle’s pace up the entrance ramp, and, just like a turtle crossing a road, I was rooting for it as it gradually got to the top and up to speed on the highway.

Crawling along in a line of cars for 5 minutes after a delicious breakfast was a fairly reflective time, as I was feeling pretty good although I knew that in other circumstances I’d be quite angry and frustrated at such traffic. It was a perfect example and reminder that the only thing we really can control in life is our state of mind, so why not live joyfully and contentedly?

Photo of the open road in South Dakota.
Straight & gently rolling for as far as you could see.

Much of the day was spent on the highway and much of South Dakota was fairly flat, but I was never remotely bored. The gently rolling scenery and distantly roiling weather were constantly engrossing. There was also very little traffic and fairly high speed limits, so I turned up the volume on some Russian electronic music podcasts, and got into the driving flow.

Photo of the skies in South Dakota.
Gorgeous central South Dakota.

I’d previously looked up the “geographical center contiguous united states” which places the centerpoint at Lebanon, Kansas (Wikipedia doesn’t mention it yet, but I hypothesize that’s why the creator and writers of Supernatural placed the Men of Letters bunker there). Interesting aside: Lebanon was originally determined to be the center of the Lower 48 states in 1918 through the method of…balancing a cardboard cutout of the 48 states on a point—which would be a fun science experiment to replicate at home for anyone with kids!

Selfie at the geographic center longitude of the US.
Technically halfway across the country.

Anyway, I wasn’t planning on detouring to Kansas on this trip, but I figured the next best thing would be to pull over when I reached the same longitude as Lebanon (98°35’W). The closest exit off of I-90 was exit 310 for SD-281, just about 290 miles (km) due North from Lebanon. When I pulled to the side of the road and got out for a quick stretch of the legs and a commemorative selfie in the cool mist, I looked around to try to sear the memory in my brain…But there was nothing to bother remembering. Flatness. Roads. Clouds. Farms. So less than a minute later I was back on the highway.

…Only to pull over just 9 miles (14.5 km) later at the “White Lake Rest Area” to pee. If you ever decide to do a similar trip with similar geographical goals, the rest area is a better spot to utilize than a random exit, especially given that the Lebanon, KS centerpoint has a fudge-factor of about 20 miles due to the measurement method, coastline changes, and other factors. As a bonus, the rest stop offers picnic tables, clean restrooms, and full 5G cell service.

Since I’d been having trouble with my website and hadn’t posted anything for a few days, I used this stop to send a live-update on Instagram about reaching this technical halfway point after 1,647 miles (2650 km) of driving. It felt pretty incredible to have made it so far already, just 7 days into my trip, and part of me wondered if I’d make it all the way back home within a month, as opposed to the 5 weeks I’d originally estimated it’d take. Little did I know then how long the trip would actually take….

Selfie at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.
Minuteman Missile NHS.

I arrived at my next stop just after 1pm, exactly 3 hours after leaving Sioux Falls—Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. Really I was itching to get to Badlands National Park, but Minuteman is basically across the street (literally just a few miles/5 minutes away from Badlands), so I figured I may as well check it out first since I was in the neighborhood.

Technically, Minuteman Missile NHS is really 3 separate locations: the Visitor Center and Museum, the Delta-01 Launch Control Facility, and the Delta-09 Launch Facility, all along a 15 mile stretch of I-90. Tours are possible of the latter two locations, which are where the actual cool historical stuff can be seen, but since this was a last-minute stop I contented myself with just reading my way through the Museum.

The Museum ain’t bad, but has a definite pro-Cold War slant which kind of turned me off (which I say even as someone who is quite bullish on a strong US military as a global deterrent). It’s also one of those topics that’s probably also better presented in various books and videos on the Cold War. It has some neat exhibits plus a shop with the usual mix of touristy souvenirs and books, but otherwise I’d recommend taking the time to join a tour of the two Delta launch facilities if you ever visit this National Site.

One very interesting phenomenon I experienced for the first time here in Western South Dakota is the Suddenness of certain natural features. Growing up and having spent most of my time in the Northeast US, I’ve often thought of State and National Parks as just random sections of forests or mountains that aren’t in and of themselves special, they just happened to be protected by various institutions over time. Therefore, you might not realize you’re in a park unless you see a sign indicating you’ve actually crossed some arbitrary line. This was true of Cuyahoga and Indiana Dunes, and to an extent even of Effigy Mounds and Pipestone.

It’s a different story out West.

Photo of the Badlands.
Suddenly, the prairie recedes and you find yourself in the Badlands.

I crossed I-90 heading the few miles South to the Badlands entrance gate, stopping for some gas at the Badlands Trading Post, and shortly thereafter you’re suddenly there, with the gorgeous badlands landforms right in front of you. I can imagine being the first Native American explorers and tribes, all those tens of thousands of years ago, following fauna across the plains and almost literally stumbling upon such an amazing place.

In some ways it’s weirdly mundane—you’re still in the Great Plains, the horizon is still quite flat, there aren’t many trees about, and it’s fairly quiet, but you’re in the midst of this landscape that we’re used to only seeing on alien planets in latenight sci-fi television shows.

Before I even got to the visitor center I pulled over at the first parking lot I encountered since I immediately wanted to see it all. But I’d put myself under a perpetual time crunch on this trip, so contented myself with hikejogging the first trailhead I came across—The Door. It’s short and easy, although it’d also be quite easy to get quite lost very quickly without the trail markers, since the landscape itself is a natural maze. You can technically scramble off trail here “at your own risk” per the NPS, but I had no desire to do so in this environment. I’m a very visual person, so when I explore, I like to pause and examine and visualize how I’ll be getting from one place to another. Here, however, it’s be too much of an intellectual exercise to figure that out. So I contented myself with the a-maze-ing views from the trail (ba dum tsh).

The views were indeed trippy. Scale ceases to follow the usual rules, so when I first saw some people on the trail ahead of me it threw me for a loop, as I thought the trail and horizon were much further away. And then the panoramic scenes looked like rendered scenes with horizontal lines of static from the consistent and flat geological layering.

At the Ben Reifel Visitor Center I asked the rangers for a good trail that’d be 3 to 5 miles and less-often traveled, so they suggested the Medicine Root-Castle loop, from the Saddle Pass parking lot—4.5 miles (7.3 km) total. The Saddle Pass trail is listed as “strenuous and steep”, but it’s really short, so for anyone in decent shape it’d be a nice warmup. Once up top, the trails are somewhat well-marked, but I did have to search around and refer to my GPS watch a few times to make sure I was still on the trail. Otherwise it was a nice and flat jog with a wide variety of plantlife and views of the badlands formations from various angles. Otherwise, honestly, a bit boring.

In retrospect, I should have done the shorter but more interesting Notch Trail, or wandered off the trail somewhere (if I’d prepared a bit more with a topographical map). Or even just sat and stared at the views from one of the many pullover lots on the Badlands Loop road (Rt-240).

So that’s exactly what I did a bit further down the road at the Yellow Mounds Overlook. The formations were interesting enough, but splashing them with various sulfurous colors was quite beautiful (see also the cover photo for this post). But what first caught my attention from the road was a lonesome bison slowly limping up one of the hills. It was the first bison I’ve seen since I visited a game farm in the Catskills when I was a kid. Although I have eaten plenty of bison burgers since then. I felt bad for it for a minute, until I remembered that nature is raw and we all collect scars and ultimately die. Then I just enjoyed being there, in such a place, with such a creature for a while.

Photo of racing cars, bison, and a kissing couple.
A bit of a surreal scene.

There was more of the Badlands to explore—the Sage Creek Rim Road continues where the Badlands Loop ends—but the shadows were getting long and I still had a drive to my planned stay that night. I exited at the Pinnacles entrance, where there were a lot more bison, as well as a line of sponsored sports cars driven by boisterous Europeans, and a couple making out a bit closer to the bison than is recommended. It was weird, man. I hung out there watching the bison and the setting sun over the prairie until the sports car dudes were all gone, then continued on.

Next stop was Wall, SD, the “Gateway to the West”. Originally I hadn’t planned to stop here, although it is on I-90 and a convenient stopping point, but I found myself convinced by advertising—for literally half of South Dakota (well over a hundred miles) I’d been seeing dozens of large billboards advertising the phenomenal Wall Drug Store. I was powerless to resist such influence.

Photo of Wall Drug Store.
A small portion of the blocks-long Wall Drug Store.

While natural reality can often be even more amazing than our anticipations, human creations are almost inevitably underwhelming compared to expectations. Such was the case here. Not that the historic Wall Drug Store wasn’t nice, and full of lots to see and lots to buy, but compared to a place like Badlands it just felt like an extra pleasant rest stop. It is worth checking out, just don’t let the billboards inflate your hopes to olympic proportions. I bought a few souvenirs, a t-shirt, and some post cards, then was itching to move on.

Reaching Badlands on day 7 was one of the last points I’d specifically planned for, but from here on the messiness of reality and uncertainties of such a roadtrip began to take over. Originally I’d intended to camp out either near Badlands or in the Black Hills to take advantage of dark skies for stargazing, but the weather forecast included “severe thunderstorms and possible tornadoes”, plunging temperatures, and at the very least lots of wind, none of which is really conducive to comfy & safe tent camping.

Just before leaving Wall I sat in my car and tried to quickly figure out what to do next. I did a multi-dimensional search of campsites, Airbnbs, motels, and hotels using several apps and trusty ol’ Google, comparing prices, distances, safety, cleanliness, and convenience. Ultimately I decided upon a nice looking historic hotel in downtown Rapid City, SD, which offered walkable dinner and coffee options and put me closer to the Black Hills than I first planned, saving me some time and stress the next day.

Photo of sunset over Rt I-90 heading West.
Driving into the sunset and adventures in the West.

My last hour or so of driving was a pleasing way to close the day—literally driving into the sunset, flying down I-90 toward the Black Hills and further adventure with a spectacular sunset as a backdrop. There definitely is something to the idea of chasing a sunset into the West, and it brought Tolkien’s elves and Annie Lennox to mind as I drove.

At first glance upon hitting the outskirts of Rapid City I was struck by the abundance of sprawling RV dealerships right off the highway—clearly big business in these parts. This made me sneer with annoyed superiority as a tent-preferring person, but the day’s changeable weather and ominous forecasts made me rethink my judgments. It is quite convenient not to have to set up a tent, to have more privacy, and most importantly to have protection from the elements. No wonder so many campsites I’d looked into catered more to RVs than tenters. But despite coming to a new understanding, I was still frustrated by the proliferation of RVs, since it means that there are fewer spaces to set up a tent in most campsites, and RV campsites are far louder, smellier, and brighter than traditional campsites.

Past the RV dealerships, Rapid City seemed to shift into generic strip mall suburbia, until I saw a JCPenney—a store chain I had no idea still existed! That’s when I knew that Rapid City must be something different from other small cities I’d been to. Either that or I was traveling back to simpler times (flashes of memories where I played hide-and-seek in the middle of circular clothing racks as a kid while my mom shopped the clearance section…).

I got to the Rushmore Hotel in downtown Rapid City around 7:30pm, showered, and ate some local pizza and beer at a “pour-your-own” taproom (not a fan of this trend, especially when tipping is still a thing). By the time I finished dinner I was truly exhausted through and through and ready to call it a night. It was just as well though, since despite it being a Thursday night, it seems Rapid City closes quite early, with most of the bars and restaurants having last call at 8:30 or 9:30 p.m. I’m curious if this is due to the military influence on the city with Ellsworth Air Force Base being just outside the city.

I barely remember the short walk back to the hotel and passing out, not due to the couple beers I had, but with sheer tiredness.

Day 7 Distance: 371 mi (597 km)
Total Trip Distance: 1,923 mi (3,095 km)

Next Up: A Rapid City morning, Mt Rushmore, the Black Hills, Wind Cave National Park, and Hulett, Wyoming.