Today was the first day it really felt like we were on a road trip. Now that we were away from friends, away from family, and far away from the East Coast in new, very western, territory, it finally felt like our adventure had started. We were on a road trip!
Rebecca started the day with an early-morning run back by the falls downtown, and once she was back and we were cleaned up and ready to go, we started west. The sights were very new, at least to me, and everything was intoxicating — I probably was not the safest driver as I had my head on swivel all day at all the new sights.
We made a pit stop after about two hours, and learned what would become one of the most important lessons we learned on the trip: Talk to the locals!
The place we stopped was a South Dakota welcome center, and when I went over to chat with one of the nice older ladies working there, she immediately pulled out a huge map of the state, and began pointing out and circling attractions and must-do activities, almost none of which had been on our original plan. We took many of her recommendations, and are so glad we did.
That said, the two things we took her advice on that day had wildly different results. The first recommendations she gave us was to stop at the 1880s town right off of the highway a few hundred miles west of the welcome center, so we stopped there early afternoon — whaaaaaat a mistake.
This was hands-down the creepiest place either of us had ever been.
The main building was basically a shrine to the movie “Dances with Wolves,” and out back was an 1880s town assembled from dilapidated old buildings they’d shipped in from around the state. There were no live workers in any of the buildings, just desiccated mannequins in period dress, populating buildings on the edge of ruin. I’m sure the creepy music playing over the loudspeaker didn’t help our impressions, but either way, we did not linger long.
HOWEVER, the second recommendation the helpful welcome-center lady made was pure gold. She had pointed out a scenic bypass route through the Badlands, and it has been the best advice anyone has yet given us on the trip. It took us past a Minuteman Missile museum, which we enjoyed visiting, and it also sent us past a “prairie dog town,” where we got to feed peanuts to some seriously chubby prairie dogs.
Immediately after leaving the prairie dog town, we entered Badlands National Park, and the scenery immediately went from so-so to stunning. For a couple of East Coast kids, it was unreal.
(As a side note, we made another good decision here that really paid off, and bought the America the Beautiful annual national parks pass, which paid for itself within a week.)
We took our time as we drove, stopping at almost every overlook to take way too many pictures. We had been planning to get in a few more miles that day, but given the beauty of what we saw, we decided to stay the night and explore further.
We reserved what would be our first campsite of the trip, at Cedar Pass Campground, and the scenery was stunning.
All our new gear worked perfectly, and we spent a very comfortable night in the shadows of the Badlands.