If you had told me going into this trip that South Dakota would have been one of my favorite spots in the 12 states visited, I wouldn’t have believed it myself. It had never ranked high on my “states to visit” list, and truth be told, if I weren’t currently at state number 49 (South Dakota came in at number 46), I might never have visited. But man oh man oh man, one afternoon in Custer State Park and I was hooked—I felt like I was on my own self-guided safari.
As one friend commented on Facebook: “it’s the Serengeti of America!” Truer words have never been spoken. Who needs Africa with this sort of wildlife in your own backyard?
(Though I highly doubt the wildlife in the Serengeti approach tourists to be pet.)
We arrived via the southern border from Nebraska and overnighted in Hot Springs, a quirky little town outside the vast majority of state parks with ample RV parks and South Dakota cabin rentals. It was the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, but you wouldn’t have known it in South Dakota—much like in Nebraska, we would drive for miles and miles (even in the parks) and not pass another car. I have a lingering suspicion this has to do with the Missouri River flooding and the wonky weather the Midwest has been experiencing all spring. I’m sure many vacationers in the area abandoned their plans entirely last minute; I don’t blame them—we have been through some crazy storms. (Good thing tornadoes aren’t frequent visitors in this part of the country—can you imagine our little trailer being swept up in a twister?!)
Which was all the better for us (the lack of people that is, not the flooding)—we had the parks to ourselves! Who cared if it was a little overcast and sprinkling periodically. We were safari-ing and drive-by shooting (with a camera, not a gun) from the protection of a truck, after all.
My favorite of the critters, hands down, were the prairie dogs. Those of you who live in the Rockies or Midwest probably dismiss the prairie dogs like us Southerners do coons or deer. But I’d never seen these little sentinels until my visit to Colorado in March, and they were everywhere in Custer.
Everywhere we drove, there would be field after field of dirt mounds. If you looked closely enough, atop each mound would sit a prairie dog—or 10. They make these funny little chirping noises when intruders, like us, walk into their domain and start dropping down into their holes as if someone was playing Whack-a-Gopher over the top of their homes.
Buffalo and prairie dogs aside, pronghorns run rampant and wild burros are scattered here and there.
What I loved the most about the whole experience is that the vastness of the park—the herds of animals grazing in untouched pastures completely oblivious to the camera-toting tourists snaking their way through the park’s slow, bumpy roads—made commonplace animals like deer, of which we’d see half a dozen in my backyard routinely growing up, seem exotic.
Ditto to the donkeys (excuse me, the wild burros).
The great thing about South Dakota is that many of its major tourist attractions—Wind Cave National Park, Hot Springs, Custer, the Black Hills and Rushmore—are clustered together in a pocket in the southwestern corner of the state. You can very easily base yourself in the area for three or four days and do it all, as we did. We had also allotted two nights in the Badlands, but due to the flooding and the upside-down weather that has followed us everywhere we’ve gone, many of the roads we had planned to take were closed. Instead, we wound up camping out in Rapid City for two nights amid the downpours, where Ella chased geese at her will and SVV and I caught up on our movies ($5 to see a flick=unreal in the world we come from!). I was super bummed not to get to see the Badlands or visit Wall Drug or ride the jackalope. Such is life and the unpredictability of travel, I suppose. All the more reason to go back some day, am I right?
Looking for other South Dakota travel tips? Start here:
- 11 Reasons We Fell in Love with Sioux Falls
- Beyond the Badlands: How to Experience Rapid City
- A Weekend Guide to Sioux Falls
- A First Glance at Mount Rushmore
Week 2 Overview: May 22-28
Distance Driven: 1068.2 miles
Total Trip Distance: 2078.2 miles
States Visited: Utah, Colorado, South Dakota
Gas Used: 95.3 gallons, $359.71
Cheapest Gas: $3.70/gallon; Hot Springs, South Dakota
Most Expensive Gas: $3.80/gallon; Fruita, Colorado
Best Gas Mileage: 14 miles/gallon
Worst Gas Mileage: 9.8 miles/gallon
Lodging/Campground Fees: $144
Number of Doctors Visits: 1
Roots Beers Consumed: too many to count