Pseudo-Sprint Across the Plains

Our original game plan for our Big Big Trip Summer-2016 was to enjoy a leisurely pace from Anna’s folks’ house in Colorado to my Dad’s house in Michigan. We planned a route that would enable us to visit several National Parks across Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, en-route to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP) where we had State Park reservations with family in early August. Our itinerary included Rocky Mountain National Park, Dinosaur National Monument, Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Devils Tower National Monument, the Badlands National Park, Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, and Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota—pretty ambitious to say the least! However, as June came to a close and July started to unfold, we decided to cancel the majority of our plans and beat-feet towards Michigan to maximize time with my family over the summer. We would get into Michigan and spend a short week with my Dad before heading to the UP. We already had multiple State Park reservations in the UP based on our earlier gameplan (Michigan State Park sites in the summer are at a premium). With that new goal, we whittled down our plans to Rocky Mountain, Dinosaur, Devils Tower, and the parks/monuments around Rapid City, South Dakota. We planned to use the Air Force Base campground in Rapid City for a weekend base to visit the nearby parks while enjoying the sewer and electric, the campground’s laundry facilities, and the base commissary for groceries.


We left Dinosaur National Monument on Monday, July 11. At Vernal, Utah we pointed our rig north, taking Route 191 through the Uinta Mountains with Casper, Wyoming as our goal for the day and Devils Tower National Monument the goal for the next. Route 191 up to Interstate 80 in Wyoming was a beautiful drive that wound through the Ashley National Forest and the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, at one point crossing the Green River on the Flaming Gorge Dam. In Wyoming, the views open up into a high plains plateau. After a long, 370-mile day, we reached the Bar Nunn KOA just north of Casper, Wyoming. This was significantly longer day than we had originally planned for normal travel days, but our plan required eating some mileage.


Although expensive and sometimes dated, KOAs are a great stop on LONG TRAVEL DAYS because of their pools; playgrounds; and full hook-up, pull-through sites that cater to travellers and families. After a long travel day, Owen appreciates the opportunity to go swimming and act like a crazy person and we appreciate the opportunity for him to burn some pent-up energy! We overnighted at KOAs four times on our sprint across the prairie.


Stopping in Casper, Wyoming put us in easy striking distance to Devils Tower National Monument and we arrived in the early afternoon following a leisurely-seeming 189-mile drive.



Owen enjoying the hike around Devils Tower National Monument


The next few days were spent at Devils Tower National Monument’s Belle Fourche campground. We unwound from the previous two days by watching the prairie dogs, hiking around the park, enjoying the beautiful weather, and helping Owen earn his fifth Junior Ranger Badge. Devils Tower National Monument is a small but busy park. Belle Fourche campground was specious, beautiful, and deserted (i.e., awesome). The NPS doesn’t take campground reservations for Belle Fourche and we had no problem finding a prime, Tower-view spot mid-week in July.


Owen earning his Junior Ranger Badge at Devils Tower





Our next planned stop was Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City, South Dakota where we intended to avail ourselves of their full hook-ups and catch-up on laundry, groceries, and civilization. We also planned to use Rapid City as a base camp for exploring the many national parks in the SW South Dakota area. However, mid-way through our stay at Devils Tower, we decided to shorten our Ellsworth stop by a day and use that time to visit Jewel and Wind Caves.



Our campsite at Belle Fourche Campground inside Devils Tower National Monument


We departed Devils Tower and drove southeasterly towards Wind Cave National Park, stopping at Jewel Cave National Monument en-route. We spent a couple of hours at Jewel Cave having lunch and taking a cave tour. Owen completed Junior Range Badge number six. Jewel Cave is a small national monument and was a perfect afternoon touch-and-go. We arrived at the Wind Cave National Park’s Elk Mountain Campground late that afternoon.


Owen earning his Junior Ranger Badge at Jewel Cave National Monument



Our campsite at Elk Mountain Campground in Wind Cave National Park

Elk Mountain Campground was fantastic. Secluded, empty, quiet, cheap, and convenient to both the national park and Custer State Park. We planned on taking a guided cave tour the next morning after packing up our site, but after talking to the campground hosts they said not to sweat the listed checkout time due to the limited RV parking at the visitor center…score! They told us to enjoy the tour and pull out when we were finished (as long as it wasn’t too late). We followed their advice and had a fantastic time. We had an awesome Ranger give us a wonderful cave tour, and Owen earned his seventh Junior Ranger badge. Afterwards, we returned to the Airstream, had lunch, and were on the road by early afternoon. This is where things started to go slightly off-the-rails…



Owen exploring Wind Cave National Park



Wind Cave Visitor Center Shenanigans



Wind Cave Junior Ranger


After studying the map, we decided we could swing through Custer State Park AND stop at Mount Rushmore on the way to Rapid City (after touring Wind Cave that morning). While this sounds crazy in hindsight, we were excited by the idea of significantly freeing up our time in Rapid City. In execution, this was definitely too much for one day!


We wound our way through Custer State Park on a long but fairly interesting drive of the wildlife loop. We exited the Wildlife Loop of the state park feeling a little frazzled from the bison-induced traffic jams and decided to take the shortest route to Mount Rushmore—signs and maps pointed to South Dakota Route 16A.


According to Wikipedia:

US 16A is famous for its scenic, one-lane tunnels aligned to frame the faces on Mount Rushmore, its pigtail bridges, and its sections of divided highway but with single (and narrow) lanes on each roadway.”

We hadn’t read Wikipedia prior to our 16A journey. While beautiful, this route did little to calm our nerves and we arrived at Mount Rushmore pretty close to wits’ end.


One of the many tunnels on Rt 16A.

This was a repeat visit to Mount Rushmore for Anna and I, but it was Owen’s first time—he wasn’t impressed. Not sure if it was the heat, the crowds, the stress from driving 16A, or the impression that every trailer park in Oklahoma emptied out in order to visit Mount Rushmore that day, but Mount Rushmore pretty much sucked the life out of us. The three of us were feeling fried and tempers were short. Realizing how close we were to a crash and burn, we stopped for ice cream at the Mount Rushmore concessionaire and chilled for half an hour. This helped, but we couldn’t wait to get parked in Rapid City and relax. All that being said, Owen did power through and earn his eighth Junior Ranger Badge, (third in two days!) In hindsight, this whole plan was pretty freakin’ stupid and we pushed WAY TOO HARD.


Not impressed by Mount Rushmore



Working on the Junior Ranger book…



Taking his Junior Ranger Oath

We spent a nice leisurely weekend in Rapid City recovering, catching up on chores, and resting; however, we did not internalize our lesson on pushing too hard.


Overall, we spent just over a week in South Dakota and we’re not sure how we should be feeling about the state.  Almost by accident, we explored South Dakota from West to East.  On the one hand, the state–from the Black Hills and the Badlands in the west to grasslands, farmlands, and prairies in the east–is strikingly beautiful and wherever we ventured the people of South Dakota (and its neighbors) were friendly and genuine.  However, on the other hand we hold a small comedy of errors including our Mount Rushmore burnout, the Badlands Doggy Vomitfest, and ultimately getting screwed by Laura Ingalls Wilder on our last day in the state.


Badlands Doggy Vomitfest. After our relaxing weekend in Rapid City, we hit the road planning to spend the night boondocking in the grasslands outside the Badlands National Park. We intended to drive through the park and also stop at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site before parking in the National Grasslands north of Badlands NP. You can probably easily tell that our agenda seemed aggressive…you would be correct! Remember, we hadn’t internalized that slow down thing yet… Anyhow, our plan went to shit adrift almost immediately when we were lured into some type of marketing stupor by Wall Drug and decided it would be “fun” to stop.


Goofing off at Wall Drug

In a nutshell, while we dug Wall Drug, Dash did not. We decided to pickup some Wall Drug donuts on the way out. Owen left his half-eaten donut sitting on the backseat in easy reach for our fat-intolerant Schnoodle. Maybe we would be ok, it was ONLY half a donut…our fallacy became readily apparent after our stop at the Badlands Visitor Center when Dash puked all over our bed.


The sudden need to do laundry, combined with 90+ degree temperatures and 90+ percent humidity forced us to abandon our boondocking plans in favor of a KOA with full-hookups and washing machines. All that being said we did manage abbreviated visits to both the Badlands and Minuteman Missile and Owen did earn his 9th and 10th Junior Ranger Badges. Our internal monologue went something like this: No need to slow down, we CAN DO IT ALL and recover from dog vomit bed linens! Translation: We are dumb…

Wall Drug South Dakota

Digging Wall Drug


At some point earlier in the week I mentioned that we were in Little House on the Prairie country. Anna’s ears perked up. She scoured the internet and visitor center brochure racks for information on the Ingalls Family. A fairly simple plan developed: After a relatively short day of driving, we would stop at a State Park outside De Smet, South Dakota, then would do a quick morning visit to the Ingalls’ Homestead before hitting the road the next day. The seemed simple because 1) it wouldn’t take us too far off our route, 2) it shouldn’t take more than an hour or two to do the Homestead, and 3) it coincided with an overnight stop. We CAN DO IT ALL! Translation: We were still dumb…


We pointed the rig north off I-90 and after several hours of beautiful wheat fields and small towns, we spent the night at the wonderful and empty Lake Thompson State Park just outside De Smet. The next morning Anna and Owen were enjoying the wonders of the Ingalls’ Homestead while I prepared our humble rolling abode for a noon departure.  A series of texts explained that more than the allotted two hours was required to fully explore the mystery of the Ingalls’ homestead and directed a slightly later rendezvous.  Being the dutiful husband, I obeyed.  At the appointed hour, I rescued my family from the long-dead grip (along with sweaty—it was 94-degrees and something like 94% humidity) of the Ingalls Clan and we got those doggies rolling…  However, a mere mile down the road the EEZTire Tire Pressure Monitoring System – 4 Sensors (TPMS) started squawking and we quickly pulled over on the washboard dirt road.  Both drivers’ side tires on the Airstream were flat.


Our campsite at Thompson Lake State Park in South Dakota


I had an immediate dream-sequence flashback to our garage on June 13th.  There I stood, pondering if I should bring my 3-ton jack along on our journey.  I reasoned that with a tandem axle trailer and the probability of two flat tires on one side being VERY SLIM, I could get by without the added weight of my old Craftsman floor jack.  Besides, I had just upgraded my 15” tires to 16” Load Range E Super Tires (Michelin LTX M/S2 LT225/75R16/10 115R BW Tire 05681)–we had nothing to fear…except Laura Ingalls Wilder!


Through the kindness of a few strangers (very many thanks to the Ingalls’ Homestead Lady and Jason and his family from Minnesota…you guys went above and beyond and we are eternally grateful) a few phone calls were made and repair was arranged.  We pulled the wheels (Jason from Minnesota had a jack—of course, he was from Minnesota) and went to town and got them repaired.  The entire episode cost us 2-hours and $42 to get the stems replaced.  Side note:  EVERY SINGLE CAR that passed us stopped to see if we needed help…EVERY. SINGLE. CAR.


So, while we hadn’t planned on liking it and spending a week there, South Dakota confounded and confused us. The people were friendly. The country was beautiful. Our trials and tribulations were a pain in the ass. But South Dakota, you earned a special place in our hearts…except for you Laura Ingalls…we I really don’t like you!

Airstream Michelin Tires TPMS

Feeling deflated…


[Tire Post-Mortem] The best I can tell, the rough washboard road, combined with the weight of our tire pressure monitors, resulted in the stems separating from the tire—not sure if anyone else has ever had this issue?  Good news is the EEZTire Tire Pressure Monitoring System – 4 Sensors (TPMS) earned its cost because without the alarm, I would have trashed the tires and the wheels, and possibly a little aluminum skin too.  So, EezTire gadget, I’m placing you in the South Dakota category because while I’m not sure if you caused the stem failure, you certainly helped prevent a bigger casualty…


We left South Dakota and spent a night on the road at a KOA in Minnesota before settling down in Madison, Wisconsin for a couple of days of downtime and stores onload. Anna and I had spent a night in Madison in 2009 on our cross-country move from Washington to Rhode Island and wanted to see more. This time around we explored the downtown area (in our case explore means visiting a brewery and children’s museum) and we liked what we saw. Cheese curds rule!


While in De Smet, I was only able to get two of the four tire stems replaced with metal stems. The two starboard side stems were still the stock rubber ones. No problem, we fired up the Googler and found a Discount Tire and a Panera located adjacent AND on our route out of town. We skipped breakfast, packed up the trailer and hit the road.


We normally always double triple quadruple check the Airstream water pump on travel days, but for some reason we didn’t on our way out of Madison. We had heard urban legends of facets getting turned on during travel and empty water tanks and flooded out Airstreams being discovered several hundred miles down the road. Luckily, we discovered only a modest amount of flooding in ours after our 10-mile journey to Discount Tire. Anna and I both felt sick to our stomach…cheap and easy lesson learned.

Madison Wisconsin Cheese Curds Beer

Madison, WI highlight…Cheese Curds and Beer at the Great Dane Brewery!

We left Madison with a damp trailer and made our around Chicago towards my Dad’s place. To top off our damp trailer morning, we spent a shitty night in what had to be the world’s worst campground. No need to dwell on it here, but you can see our review of Yogi Bear’s Jellystone in Portage, Indiana here. We got the hell out of there early the next morning and visited Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore on our way north. The Lakeshore was a fun and easy visit. Owen swam in Lake Michigan for the first time, got a great farm tour from a super-friendly ranger, and earned his 11th Junior Ranger Badge. Soon thereafter we were headed north up I-94 and I-196 and arrived at Dad’s in the late afternoon on the 24th of July.

Owen and a Ranger coaxing a chicken out from the chicken coop at the farmstead at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

Owen and a Ranger coaxing a chicken out from the chicken coop at the farmstead at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

We spent the next five days parked at my Dad’s in Michigan before we hit the road again for our circumnavigation of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We would spend 3-1/2 weeks exploring northern Michigan before returning to my Dad’s for 2-1/2 weeks of family time. We would finally hit the road for New England in mid-September.

This entry was posted in 2016, Badlands National Park, Devils Tower National Monument, Great Plains, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Jewel Cave National Monument, Midwest, Minuteman Missile, Mount Rushmore National Monument, South Dakota, Wind Cave National Park, Wisconsin, Wyoming and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.