Monday July 9th
It was fortunate that I was able to make it all the way to the Badlands National Park and able to find a camping spot in their Cedar Creek Campground near the main visitor center. I was in bed and asleep by 10:00pm MDT and up before sunrise the next morning. My plan was to find a scenic location to catch the sunrise for what I hoped would be lovely photos. From my pre-trip research, Norbeck Pass seemed to fit the bill, so that was my first destination on my drive of the park. With a 5:15am sunrise, I was ready with time to spare since it would take some time for the sun to clear the craggy peaks located along the Fossil Trail. In the meantime, I spotted my first wildlife in the park, a small rabbit. Once I was spotted, however, it hopped away.
As much as I do enjoy a beautiful sunrise, they seem to happen entirely too quickly . . . with the perfect photo moment fleeting away. I did capture several nice images as the sun climbed into the sky. Perhaps more interesting was the effect of the rising sun on the landscape around me. The colors of the rock formations with their banded layers of sediment and fossils, take on varying hues as the sun climbs high into the sky.
Previously my other trips through the Badlands had been at or near high noon, when the sun is its harshest and the reds and yellows are awashed to brown and grey.
Early morning also found lovely song birds singing away; grazing animals enjoying the moist grasses in the valleys . . . and a beautiful swift fox hunting small rodents for breakfast. It was a magical time to have the entire park pretty much to myself! I think I saw my first human around 7:00am.
I wanted to exit the park at the Wall, SD entrance in order to get to the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site visitor center around 8:00am in order to obtain an admission ticket for their first tour of the day at 9:00am. SUCCESS! While I didn't get there until closer to 8:30am, traveling as a single, they were able to add me to the first group going to the Delta 01 Launch Control. That worked out perfectly as it would not require my hanging around Wall to kill time until my assigned tour time.
This National Historic Site is free, but has very limited capacity (max of six every half hour) for their main tour of the launch control facility. At the visitor center, they have a couple of small exhibits and show a brief (12-15 minute) video explaining the significance of the missile facilities that existed throughout South Dakota during the cold war era of the 1960's. With the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991, the Delta Launch Control as well as the Minuteman II missile silo (aka Delta 09 Launch Facility) located some 10 miles away, were decommissioned and the missile itself unarmed.
The amazing history learned as part of the two-part tour is well worth the couple of hours it takes to participate in the guided tour of the control center as well as the separate visit out to the actual missile silo location. Because of how my schedule went on my original visit, I returned to the silo during my drive home through South Dakota the following weekend. Lucky for me, I arrived early enough to find a ranger onsite providing an operational overview of the missile silo location.
After my time at the Minuteman Missile Historic Site, I headed back into Badlands National Park to travel out the far western end, in hopes of see more wildlife including buffalo. Unfortunately, this part of my drive seemed to really be a long waste of time as the herd was too far away to see anything more than brown "dots" and the road itself was just a rough washboard gravel surface making for a long and bumpy ride. Coming out at the other end of the park, I then drove north into Rapid City where gas was a top priority before heading on to Custer State Park.
I arrived at Custer State Park from the northern entrance near Mt. Rushmore. I had no interest in visiting this National Park Service site as I have been there before and have a general issue with them having no admission fee, but charging $11 for parking. As a national pass holder, I would get my admission free but the pass does not cover parking fees. In my opinion, this is a way around honoring their pass holders and still getting money out of all visitors. Besides, it really is not a site with a view that cannot be found from the surrounding area. This photo was taken as I passed through one of the three tunnels on the Iron Mountain Road that connects the Mt. Rushmore area to Custer State Park.
Custer State Park was also a bit of a disappointment as the buffalo herd was also off quite a distance from the road. I get that these places are not drive-through zoos; I just wish there had been more opportunities for photographing these large animals. That said, I did get to snap some shots of the mule deer found in the park as well as the resident (and apparently tame) wild burros. To my amazement, park visitors are encouraged to feed them which has led to their domestication. It was clear to me, there was nothing "wild" about them as people gathered at one of the turnouts to feed and pet them.
After my drive along the Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park, I headed out towards the town of Custer. As with the town up by Mt. Rushmore, the tourism industry seems to be providing visitors with all of the trappings of any good tourist town. It looked remarkably like Branson, Missouri or Wisconsin Dells in terms of the old time photo shops, candy & fudge stores, tee-shirts selling two for $25, etc, etc. and too many people wandering the streets. I must say, however, I did enjoy all of the artistically painted buffalo found throughout Custer. Many told a historical story while some were simply decorated in wild and outlandish designs.
I left Custer, South Dakota heading on west towards Wyoming. The next several hours would find me traversing through a lot of small western towns through the plains and oil fields that brought economic boom to this area many decades ago. I ended my night at the KOA in Buffalo, Wyoming . . . a perfect location to start my final drive day to Yellowstone.