An August 2006 trip
to East Berlin by creekland
Quote: The Western US is so different from the East - and a great place to explore. This is the beginning of our 2nd trip exploring around the US (Iowa to South Dakota in Part 1). For obvious reasons, the rest will be divided into different journals...
Badlands Inn is where we opted to spend 2 nights while at Badlands National Park. We had two rooms there - and found adequate accommodations with air conditioning, a great view, wonderful proximity to the park, and a very friendly staff. We had reservations a few months in advance - and suspect they may have been needed as there are only 18 rooms here (all non-smoking).
Other than Cedar Pass Lodge (which is run by the same company and was already booked by the time we made reservations), Badlands Inn is the closest you can stay to the National Park. It is located just south of the Interior Entrance (located off the Rt 240 loop road - take Rt 377 towards Interior). The view of the Badlands is simply gorgeous - a wonderful way to wake up - and end your day.
As a note to folks, by staying here you are staying well away from "civilization" (meaning restaurants, shops, etc). This is a plus for us, but might turn others off. If you like civilization, look at staying in Wall. You'll pay more (that's where we stayed 2 years ago), but you are "in" it's all there.
There is no pool at this Inn, no restaurant, and no gift shop. It's a place to stay with comfy bedding, nice air conditioning, and a wonderful view. It does have satellite TV, telephones and coffee pots in the rooms - for those who need them. Choose for yourself if this is what suits you. We'd stay there again.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on October 6, 2006
20615 South Dakota Highway 377 outside Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park, South Dakota 57750
We stayed on a Saturday night in August - and there were still places left to choose from - though not many. They have 69 sites - some with hook ups - and some are available by reservation though half are first come first served. There were plenty of tenters and campers/RVs of all sizes when we were there. There were many families - all pleasant - and none loud - esp overnight. The cost for a tent site was a mere $11 - and there were flush toilets and free showers.
They have 10 miles of trails here (we didn't get to hike any due to time constraints) and there's a stocked lake that is VERY popular with fishermen. They also have a beach/swimming section of this lake which our boys thoroughly enjoyed. We "old folks" sat on the beach and enjoyed watching the youngsters play with other kids there. During the day a concession stand is open, but we were there in the evening.
The sites aren't terribly private - at least - not the ones left when we got there, but that's the worst of the "problems."
Both sunset and sunrise were gorgeous, the price was right, the amenities were great, and it was peaceful. You're well off the main road to not have any traffic noise - yet not TOO far to travel while en route to get there (15 miles from Cedar Rapids). We'd have loved to have stayed there longer and explored or simply relaxed - and very willingly give our highest recommendation if you happen to be in the area!
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on October 5, 2006
Pleasant Creek State Rec Area - Iowa
4530 McClintock Road
Palo, Iowa 52324
Attraction | "Badlands National Park - South Dakota"
The park is divided into three sections - the northern one being the most accessible - right off Rt 90 with a beautiful car driving loop going through it. Near the eastern entrance is the Visitor's Center - worth a stop to begin your visit. There's a well-done movie explaining the park and it's critters - and other exhibits to meander around. Naturally, there's also a gift shop and restrooms.
Like critter watching? For Bighorn Sheep, look along the road near the Pinnacles overlook/entrance early in the morning. They were regularly eating there then when we visited and were up close. Buffalo/bison are often seen down Sage Creek Road - anytime of the day, but can be in the distance. Prairie Dogs have many towns both along the road towards the western side and along Sage Creek Road.
So what's so special (besides the animals)? The erosion of the rocks... Rocks you say, just rocks? Well, no, not "just" rocks - incredible scenery of cliffs that go on and on beyond your view's end. The color is spectacular. The erosion unbelievable - and not equaled in sight anywhere we've seen in such massive amounts. Hiking here is a must - even for a short hike - just to touch the cliffs up close and personal (yes, it's allowed - just don't take any).
Note that the only food available in the park is at the Cedar Pass Lodge (near the Visitor Center, but not at it) - you need to head to Wall, Interior, or Cactus Flat otherwise (or bring a picnic). We ate in Wall Drug in Wall. It was good - though crowded. Wall (and Wall Drug) is the local tourist area - and the place to go if you like shopping, etc, plus a little local history.
Quite honestly, we've talked with people - well, we've also BEEN people, who expected a short drive through the park seeing some neat scenery (on our last trip) and were WOWED with what we actually saw. That time we didn't have time to really see this park, so this time we started here - and "wowed" my mom and nephew with the same sights. To many folks (us included) Badlands NP and Bryce NP (Utah) offer some of the most spectacular, unexpected scenery. See some of my other entries for specific hikes we did...
You probably wouldn't want to spend a week here, but a day or two is well worth it. Our whole family enjoyed it much more than Mt Rushmore... It's some of nature's scenery at her best.
Badlands National Park
25216 Ben Reifel Road
Badlands National Park, South Dakota 57750
Attraction | "Notch Trail - Badlands National Park (SD)"
To those who do this hike, you're rewarded with a nice meander through - and up - one of the many canyons in the Badlands. You get to see, touch, and marvel at the colors and texture of the cliffs and can almost literally see the erosion making them the gems that they are. At the end, you reach a notch (hence the trail name) approx. 500 ft or so up where you get a spectacular view of the White River Valley. There's no bench, etc, but we used some well placed rocks to sit down and eat our breakfast there one morning - it was peaceful and nice. Since we were there early, we didn't see more than a handful of other hikers, but I suspect later in the mornings this hike might be popular.
If you'd like to hike the Notch Trail, definitely wear hiking boots. The rock of the Badlands is hard - yet brittle in places - and the traction provided by boots would be a necessity in my opinion. Hiking sandals might be uncomfortable with bits and pieces of said rock ending up under your feet. After a rain, this hike is said to be hazardous due to slippery conditions - so judge accordingly. It wasn't an issue when we were there - though it would have been neat to see water in some of the washes... There was one area where the trail had been rerouted due to erosion, but it was well marked with signs. In all cases, beware near edges...
Other thoughts... like anywhere in the Badlands - or hiking in general - take water. It can get hot out here easily - esp in summer. Sunglasses are also an asset. We saw mule deer, ground squirrels and birds, but most of the beauty lies in the terrain. Enjoy it as you hike.
After being in the notch, head over to the Cliff Shelf trail and you can look up and see where you were...
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on October 6, 2006
Attraction | "Door & Window Trails (Badlands NP)"
Window is a short, handicap accessible, trail providing everyone a chance to get into the Badlands - at least a little bit - to see them outside your vehicle. At the very least, do this trail - though it will undoubtedly be crowded.
Door is one of my favorite trails in this park. (Notch is the other.) The Park Service calls this a moderately strenuous walk, but we don't. We consider it a barely intermediate hike... however, maybe that's because we hike a good bit more than the "average" person? The first bit of Door Trail is a boardwalk - accessible to all - and like Window - leading just behind the parking area to see the "interior." Once the boardwalk ends, you are free to keep hiking with painted trail marks here and there to guide you. One need not stay on a single-width trail though - explore (within reason, of course - there IS a trail) - and find a "path" that works for you. In your exploration, don't get lost... supposedly that happens once in a while.
In truth, there are some ups and downs - comparable to natural "steps", and maybe some are "put off" by the ruggedness of the trail (instead of a typical "line" one follows), but my mom handled it just fine - and her knees aren't what they were in her younger days. She did have a hand or two helping once in a while. She said it was worth it to see the terrain.
In any event, you can go as far - or as little - as you feel comfortable with. And in reward, you get to see the rugged beauty to go with the rugged trail. Look down in the gullies - look up at the pinnacles - look out at the vastness of it all - and marvel that it all exists without a touch of man's engineering.
Hiking boots or shoes are recommended, hiking sandals might be ok too - if you don't mind the possibility of getting bits of rock under your feet once in a while. Tennis shoes or regular sandals are not recommended for traction reasons. Water is highly recommended, of course, as are sunglasses. Expect crowds - and heat (if you're there in summer). The crowds do lessen the farther you go. Most folks do just a touch of this trail.
Door & Window Trails
Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Attraction | "Cliff Shelf Nature Trail (Badlands NP)"
This is an interpretive trail and you do yourself a disservice if you don't buy the guide to read as you go along (50 cents or borrow it). Since we had 4 boys with us (mine and my nephew) we let them take turns reading at the different stops. The guide explains the flora, fauna, and terrain details quite well and some of the hike is in the welcome shade. Allow half an hour to an hour or so.
While this is a nice trail to do, and worth the time since it's different (in content) than the others, if you are constrained by time, pick either Door or Window to do for a better look at the interior of the Badlands themselves.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on October 6, 2006
Cliff Shelf Nature Trail
Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park, South Dakota 57750
Attraction | "Mt. Rushmore"
We've been there twice now having stopped there two years ago on our first western trip, and then considering it important enough to take my nephew and mom to see it this time. Had my nephew and mom not been with us, we'd have skipped it the second time. However, I do think folks should see it once - esp if they're in the area - mainly because it's so famous.
This trip, we opted to go there from Rapid City's airport after picking my mom up - then took the route through Custer State Park (that's worth doing too - very pretty drive) on our way back to the Badlands (see journal entries for Badlands - don't miss them - everyone we've talked with that have seen both prefer the Badlands - we suggest seeing both).
On your way to the monument from Rapid City you'll pass by several small entertainment options - a typical tourist area. We skipped all those (both times) but stop and see them if you're so inclined. I'm sure they'd appreciate the business. For us, we were just doing a "quickie" on our way out west.
The monument itself is well done - with a nice "Avenue of Flags" (one from each state) leading to it making a nice picture spot from the front. There's a huge gift shop and places to eat. Head down the avenue, and then down the elevator or steps to access the Borglum Museum/studio which gives a great presentation of the history of making the monument - including telling what it was originally supposed to be - and what it ended up being. A visit isn't complete without seeing this aspect of it as the history lesson is quite informative. You can walk below the monument (Presidential Trail - some elevation change with this), but not to the top (surprising some folks).
At night they have lights on the monument - and a ceremony lighting them if you're inclined to stay for that. People that have stayed said they enjoyed it (we left to see Custer State Park before dark). There's lots of great picture spots all over, but in general, you only need to allow 2-3 hours to thoroughly see this place - maybe more if you listen to some of the ranger talks (interesting, but generally restating the same info you can read). Enjoy.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on October 7, 2006
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
13000 Highway 244
Keystone, South Dakota 57751
We're a family of 5 (hubby, myself, 3 boys) and are Eastern US dwellers - having been born and lived in this section of the planet - from NY to FL (and some states in between) our whole lives - thus, our perspective. Our boys on this trip were 14, 12, and 10. It's our 2nd trip out west (didn't know about these reviews after our first one two years ago). Some places we visited were repeat visits and many were new. Our preference is seeing new places. We get more of a "high" from that I suppose. I guess it's our need to fill in our "mental maps" of the world. We often find that what we THOUGHT would be the picture, isn't... Our ultimate goal would be having the whole planet "filled in" but that's doubtful considering our finances...
On this trip, we added my nephew (age 16) and mom (you guess her age) for the first half. Neither have really traveled with us before (my mom had never camped either), so we wondered how we'd all adjust... (it worked out fine). They had to return at the end of August for my nephew to attend school, so flew out from Seattle. (This is our first year homeschooling our youngun's - they love it -but as a warning - homeschooling is not for everyone. Our kids are self-motivated and learn well on their own...)
Our trip itself had a two-fold purpose... first, we wanted to take our nephew to see some areas of the west (Badlands, Yellowstone, the Pacific) we enjoyed the first time as he's never had the opportunity to travel far. We added a few new spots in between other destinations. Then, when he and my mom went home, our family was to meander our way back with nothing really specific in mind - other than we wanted to see more National Parks. We ended up heading to the far south - the deserts, across to Carlsbad, NM, and eventually back through the Smoky Mountains. So, overall we did a huge loop - PA to SD, WY, MT, WA (with nephew and my mom) and OR, CA, AZ, NM, etc back to PA with just our family. We lost track of the miles and days - and, quite honestly, had a blast. We wish we were still out traveling... however, tis time now to earn money for our next trip.
Since we're not independently wealthy, for jobs, hubby works for himself in Civil Engineering and I substitute teach math and science courses in our local high school. This allows us time (and money) to travel. Well, that and the fact that we don't really plan on retiring in the "traditional" way nor is our house up to some folks standards. Hey, we all choose where we use our money - and we only have one trip on this planet - so we each choose for ourselves.
Then, you should know (for perspective purposes), we're not "normal" by typical American standards...we're weird - and we like it that way. We don't watch TV much, and aren't into fashion of any sort (function is of more importance to us). When we do watch TV, it's travel shows, history shows, animal shows (documentary style) or such things. Our boys get along fairly well with each other and aren't into video games as most kids are. They very, very seldom ask if we're there yet and never complain about a trip. They're as "hooked" on travel as we adults are. From a young age I overheard one of my sons telling a friend that he didn't consider a trip "long" unless we got to spend at least one night away from home and not with relatives! This other friend had considered traveling an hour to Grandma's house to be a long trip... Our kids have as much fun planning - and have their dream destinations (Africa, Antarctica, South America) just as we adults do. We're also not shopping or golf lovers - though we do have a huge magnet collection on our fridge - and could use another fridge!
With the travel, we love nature and are not as fond of cities or "man-built" creations - though sometimes we do visit/enjoy those as well. We very seldom dislike a place - but do have preferences about what we like. We love finding "hidden gems" - wonderful places we didn't expect to find.
Getting out and seeing/experiencing nature is often a big part of our traveling. We love camping, hiking, snorkeling, diving, traveling back roads and eating at local places. With hikes, we're game for anything from 1/2 mile to 12 miles - pending our time allowances. Our boys are pretty sure-footed - we "old folks" often call them our "mountain goats." If we're caving, our youngest is nicknamed "mouse" as it's his job to crawl through spaces to see if it's worth it for the rest of us. In the water, we can snorkel for hours. For this trip, the "water" part really doesn't apply though. Our youngest is into all sorts of critters and is our resident critter and insect expert.
We often tent camp - though can be as varied in our lodgings from primitive camping to 5 star resorts. Flexibility is the name of the game. We have, however, discovered the budget goes much further with camping than with the 5 stars, so to travel more, we tend to opt for cheap.
While we appreciate good food and service, it's not really a priority with us. Often times we'll merely "forage" with items we buy along the way to keep in the van. If we do eat out, it's usually lunch - it's cheaper and allows us to stay out away from our campsite. We also have a rule when traveling - we can't eat anywhere we could have eaten at home. This eliminates a TON of chain restaurants and introduces us to many wonderful local eateries. Once in a while this rule gets broken, but it didn't on this trip.
Due to finances and where we were born on this planet, so far most of our traveling has been in the US and Canada. We hope to explore more world-wide in the future, but expenses for the 5 of us increases rapidly once we add airfare, etc, to do it, so who knows? We've been to 49 of the 50 states (need to see Alaska) and have done all of the Eastern Provinces of Canada except Newfoundland and Labrador (maybe next year?).
Anyway, we're always up to a challenge - love exploring - and hate crowds - so work hard at avoiding them. Driving on roads other than interstate highways is a big priority - at least - once we're at the place we consider our trip to have started at. We can use highways to get there quicker.
Hmm, can I think of anything else? Guess not right now... At this point, you should have an idea if you're "weird" like us and want to know more - or if you want to read more just out of curiosity and had no idea folks like us existed. If so, welcome to our world! :)
Iowa is pretty!!! And no, it's NOT just like the other states - at least - not from our experience. We entered from the Southeast - at Davenport - drove to/through Cedar Rapids via highway, then went off highway taking mostly Rt 218. It's amazing how many times one gets to cross the Cedar River on that route! So while we only saw mostly Eastern & Northeastern Iowa, what we saw was pleasant to the eyes. There were pretty rolling hills and farmland - and not all this farmland was irrigated (as is the norm in the west). We saw small towns and while some definitely could use economic revival, all the people we met were extremely friendly. In all, the natural green scenery, rolling hills, and ruralness made us fall in love with this state and we regretted that we had only allotted time to just drive through it - spending only one night.
Iowa reminds us of our chosen home area of South Central PA - without the crowds that are moving in here - and without the mountains (highest point in the state is only 1670'). If we were looking to relocate our home base from PA, Iowa actually ranks up in the top two of places we'd seriously consider (HI being the other one). Remember on this that we love rural though - if you like cities and "people" things... your opinion on relocating might be different.
For a visit, if you're looking for a rural experience on a vacation - even if just some "slow time" en route to unwind - Iowa certainly should be worth considering. The welcome center we visited had plenty of smaller attractions to visit (we wished we could have) - and the state park we camped at was really nice (one of the best campgrounds on the trip - esp for the $11 price - see journal entry for more on that). All in all, with what we were told/expecting vs what we found - we thought a journal entry letting others know that Iowa might indeed be worth a look was in line...
For our definition of "rural west" we're mainly considering west of the Mississippi, but looking at a map, perhaps these tips best apply for states west of Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, etc. The definition of "rural west" doesn't apply once one reaches populated (IE coastal) California.
Tip #1: "Civilizations" in the rural west are far and few between. Just because a "town" makes the map doesn't mean you'll be able to get gas, food, and especially lodging there. One "town" we passed in WY had a population of 4. Therefore, get gas/food/bathroom breaks when the opportunity is there and be sure you can drive a couple hours at all times. You may not be able to eat at a specific time without a bit of planning and delay. Look for bigger towns for the basics.
Tip #2: Gas gets cheaper as you reach the bigger towns - and for a state to state comparison, use the website, US Gas Price Map. There's nothing worse than paying 20 cents more per gallon than you could have if you had waited 20 miles.
Tip #2b: If you need gas, but know it's cheaper shortly down the road, don't fill the tank... half full (or less) can usually get you to the cheaper gas.
Tip #2c: Gas tends to be unreasonably expensive IN the National Parks - so gas up outside of them or be prepared to pay...
Tip #3: Speed limits are faster in the west - even on the back roads (70mph is not uncommon for back roads) - so there's less of a reason to need to use highways unless that's the only road from point A to B. Hop off the highway and see some of these small towns. If the distance is shorter, you'll also save time. The views are certainly better and the lack of traffic is awesome.
Tip #4: Mom and Pop motels might be older, but are often quite adequate and tons cheaper than the chains if you're on a budget and don't need luxury - or simply want to support local. They don't always stay open for you to check in at late hours though. State Park campgrounds are also worth considering if you camp.
Tip #5: Local restaurants also tend to be quite good, so try them if you can. A big tip is if you see a lot of local cars outside, it's worth a stop. We've never gone wrong using that "sign." Without local cars it's usually worth passing - unless you're starving. Of course, this works in the east too...
Tip #5b: Have food/drinks in the car with you. Pretzel logs make a great, dry, snack that comes in handy when you realize you've misjudged where you might find a place to eat. Sandwich cookies were also a favorite with us - and string cheese. You'll be surprised at how good they taste when you realize you're at least an hour away from your next possibility...
Tip #6: Wyoming has to be the main state "where the deer and the antelope play." Towards evening you can't drive anywhere without seeing them - though they are most definitely in other states too.
Tip #7: If you want to find crowds in the west - stop at Wal-Mart. Everyone is usually there - well, that and the major National Parks. Incidentally, pretty much all Wal-Marts are set up similarly, so if you're used to shopping there, things are usually easy to find. You can locate stores easily by buying one of their Rand McNally maps and checking the front/back (depending on what state you're looking for).
Tip #8: It's almost impossible to avoid crowds in the major National Parks. To try to do so, get up and going EARLY when most folks are just getting up or eating breakfast. Hikes/drives/views are all MUCH less crowded before 9am. The "plus" to that is that's when many of the animals are active too. Also, eat "off hour" when you can - early or late. Weekdays are less crowded than weekends - and holidays can be atrocious.
Tip #9: If you want to camp in the major National Parks - and they take reservations - you usually need to make those super early - many times the first day they take reservations for the best spots. Some campgrounds are first come first served. Even the best of those fill VERY quickly though. In general, we absolutely love camping in the National Parks...
Tip #9b: Don't camp in some of the National Parks if you're afraid of bears... (we aren't). And DO put all your food in the bear boxes if it's recommended at the park. While the slides of many cars conditions after a bear opted to help himself to the food inside were neat - on a road trip, it would be awfully inconvenient to have that be YOUR car.
Tip #9c: National Park Campgrounds don't have swimming pools - and many do not have showers either. Those that have showers require that you pay for them - have quarters for most. If you're the first one showering in a while, expect cold water for the first minute or two that you've paid for. Campgrounds with less "accessories" tend to be MUCH quieter and less crowded... and you can still go to the other ones to use their showers.
Tip #10: There's no one or two states that have the monopoly on rude/inconsiderate drivers or people and there will almost always be one or two wherever you go. We like to laugh at them...(privately of course) and many still make our stories we tell to others. We have found higher concentrations of them in cities and on highways - and often wonder if the crowded conditions generally found there tend to bring out the "worst" in people or if it's just because there are more people - therefore making it more likely that you'll find those "special someones."
Tip #10b: It's rare to find those "special someones" at the LESSER (known) National Parks or Monuments - a NICE plus to visiting and staying at those places. It's also more rare (but not impossible) to find them on the back roads or in local restaurants or motels.
Tip #11: Heard the myth that the west is "dry heat" and you don't sweat? Well, it might be dry, but you still sweat... quite a bit on hot days too. Have water available at all times and don't even take a short hike on a hot day without it.
Tip #12: Many rivers in the west are dry in the late summer... still seems strange to us to pass over a "river" and see a dry bed. Since rivers are dry, so is the land. You really won't find natural "green" in very many places - only where they irrigate. Seems strange and it's definitely different. In many places you can literally drive for miles and miles and see lots of barrenness (with sage, etc). If you get bored easily, perhaps this will be a problem. For us, we enjoyed conversation...
Tip #13: Wildfires are common in the west - while you won't likely have issues with the actual fire, they can haze over views even many miles or states away.
Tip #14: Have flashlights with you. These are important if you camp, but they also came in handy in both Lava Beds National Monument and Carlsbad Caverns... unexpectedly so in both cases. Headlights are small and easy to either carry or wear.
Tip #15: Have hiking boots or shoes. Many trails are less developed in the west and require a good sturdy shoe if you want to go on them.
Tip #16: Slow down... not driving-wise, but mentally. Don't try to do a National Park in a day - or worse - two in a day. Take your time to actually SEE what you went out to see. Remember, you're on vacation. Be flexible, be open-minded, and be prepared to be astounded by nature's beauty of all sorts.
East Berlin, Pennsylvania