south dakota: the roadtrip, the badlands + rapid city

badlands national park, south dakota

badlands national park, south dakota

“Traveling - it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” - Ibn Battuta

to say i visited south dakota without any bias would be a lie. i'm ashamed to admit it, and perhaps because of it's proximity to nebraska, i had this picture in my head of vast, flat emptiness. nevermind that i was going to visit the black HILLS, or black FOREST, or that four guys you may have heard of have their faces carved into the side of a MOUNTAIN. my logical brain understood that this picture i was conjuring up wasn't correct, but i simply couldn't get the painted picture out of my mind. and for that, i must apologize to the state of south dakota.

as someone from iowa, i certainly know what it feels like to have people wonder, often out loud, if you live on a farm with your nearest neighbors being pigs, cattle and corn. i've even been asked if we go to the bathroom in out houses. only twice, but two times too many. 

when i explain to these inquiring minds that not only do i not live on a farm, but that i've barely even been to a farm before (do vineyards count?), that i buy my groceries from target, i graduated from one of our two private colleges in our city, and i bought my vehicle from one of the 30 dealerships here, they're, well, stunned. 

and while the folks in iowa have the ashton kutcher's and elijah wood's of the world talking about iowa and displacing the crazy notion that we're all eating straw in our overalls on our farm, i felt even worse about my assumptions of south dakota having regularly been on the receiving end of judgement and assumptions about where i live. it's okay to not be familiar with a place, but it's not okay to have judgements about people and places you've never even been. 

it became obvious that there was one answer: clear my mind and go check out south dakota for myself. 

my quest to discover what south dakota was really about fit perfectly in my quest to visit all 50 states before i turn 40. south dakota would be my 30th state, and it proved to be the perfect introduction into the 30s of my 'states visited' list. but let's start at the beginning of my trip recap.

THE ROAD TRIP

we planned our trip over a long weekend; dylan had good friday off and we're not religious so it was the perfect time for sneak away for a long weekend road trip. on a side note, we're heading to ireland in a week for a 2 week road trip, so perhaps we would have stayed longer in south dakota, but with our upcoming ireland vacation we knew we needed to keep this to a quick weekend getaway.

it's approximately 10 hours from cedar rapids to rapid city and we had booked a hotel, via hotels.com, for a what we thought was a hotel with a 24 hour check in (more on that in a bit). based on the flexible check-in time, we decided to leave work a bit early and get on the road by 3-3:30. 

before we left I adhered to some of the tips I told you about in my post to save money on a road trip; I bought healthy snacks and water for the car, and we booked a hotel via hotels.com to earn an overnight stay (plus we got free Starbucks coffee!).

off we went, and the drive to rapid city was smooth and uneventful - just what you want a road trip to be in the middle of the night. as a side note, we listened to the s-town podcast on the way there it's amazing! if you're into podcasts, or curious about them, s-town had us hooked from the first episode.

we pulled into our hotel around 1:30am, ready to check in and get some shut eye so we could have a full day visiting the badlands, however things didn't quite go as planned...

THE HOTEL...ERR, HOTELS

hotel alex johnson, rapid city, south dakota (image via google image search)

hotel alex johnson, rapid city, south dakota (image via google image search)

we had booked a room at hotel Alex Johnson in rapid city. per the hotels.com website they had 24 hour check in; perfect for us arriving at 1:30am. when we drove to Colorado over Labor Day last year we had to book a room for the night we drove since we arrived at 4am, so we were pleasantly surprised to learn that the hotel Alex Johnson would allow us to check in without paying for that extra night that we drove.

well as the old saying goes, sometimes things are too good to be true, and our 24 hour check in was no exception. as it turned out the check in for the hotel Alex Johnson is not until 4pm. yep, 4pm. and they were booked solid. and while the front desk staff appeared to not care at all about our predicament when we explained that they're hotel had incorrect information out there, they did find us a nearby hotel in town that was available - AmericInn. 

I've never stayed at an americinn though I've driven by them numerous times in all my travels. and at 2am I was past the point of caring. I just wanted a clean place to rest my head for a little shut eye. 

americinn lobby, rapid city, south dakota

americinn lobby, rapid city, south dakota

their king suite was $54.99, they had free wifi, free breakfast, and the woman at the front desk was friendly as can be. unlike the woman at the front desk at the hotel Alex Johnson, this woman had happily embraced her 2am shift and the cast of characters that came with it. 

the room smelled a bit; like someone had smoked in it and they tried desperately to clean it. had it been my final resting place for the entirety of the trip I likely would have requested another room, but despite the smell the room was clean, and since I was only going to be there for 5-6 hours I dropped my bag, brushed my teeth, and collapsed into bed. 

WALL DRUG

after 5 glorious hours of sleep at the americinn we woke up to gorgeous 70 degree weather and were ready to take on the badlands. 

we grabbed a quick breakfast at the hotel, trying to keep it as light as possible. the usual suspects of eggs, biscuits and gravy, bacon, and sausage were being gobbled up the other hotel guests, but we didn't want a heavy breakfast sitting our stomaches so we opted for toast, fruit, and cereal, and then we were off - our first stop: wall drug.

americinn breakfast, rapid city, south dakota

americinn breakfast, rapid city, south dakota

so what the heck is wall drug? well I had never heard of it until my coworker said 'if you're going the badlands, make a stop at wall drug.' 

wall-drug-south-dakota

basically, wall drug is a strip in the middle of this small town just outside the badlands that has souvenir shops one side and one long drug store on the other, and it looks like a wild wild west town. by design of course. 

the history is that the folks who opened wall drug gave out free ice water to passerby's; a gimmick that led to the growth of a massive, eccentric drug store selling food, coffee and more chotjscky's you could ever need. and they still have free ice water to this day.

wall-drug-south-dakota
wall-drug-south-dakota
wall-drug-south-dakota
wall-drug-south-dakota

our first stop was at a souvenir shop to get a gift for...our dog. yep. we're those people. provided we can find something, our black lab gets a stuffed toy from everywhere we go, and we were on a mission to find a stuffed bison for her, and we got lucky on at the first place we walked in to. as we made our way to the back of the store for the bison we spotted (and shuffled quickly past) confederate flag merchandise. I had no idea that South Dakota was a place that would so prominently display signs of racism proudly and publicly. and I should note that not all of South Dakota has this crap on display, but as you'll read about in part 2 we did encounter pockets of it throughout our vacation. 

we then made our way across the street to the massive drug store portion, wandering through aisles and aisles of souvenirs. my take? it was interesting to see, but i'm not a chotjscky person at all and you can only wander through the same thing so many times before it becomes repetitive and looks the same. it was quickly time to make our way to thing we really came to do that day - see badlands national park. 

wall-drug-south-dakota

THE BADLANDS

one of the best things I discovered a love for in my 30s has been national parks. nature, climate, formations - this world is a pretty amazing and beautiful place, and I have so much respect for the work that national parks do to preserve the natural beauty in the world. 

dylan and I went to our first national park, rocky mountain national park, last september and we've sort of made it our unofficial mission to visit a national park whenever we can. enter - the badlands.

badlands-national-park-south-dakota

expansing 244,000 acres, according to the national park service badlands national park is a mixed-grass prairie that contains one of the richest fossil beds in the world, and is home to bison, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, and black-footed ferrets. and rattlesnakes. but they don't mention the rattlesnake part on their website, you just see signs letting you know.

it cost us $20 to get in, and that fee was per car and would get us in to the park for 7 days.

badlands-national-park-south-dakota

we got lucky though and spotted three of the main four wildlife mentioned - bison, bighorn sheep and prairie dogs. no rattlesnakes. phew!

bighorn sheep, badlands national park, south dakota

bighorn sheep, badlands national park, south dakota

bison selfie! badlands national park, south dakota

bison selfie! badlands national park, south dakota

and though the national park website states that the badlands is a mixed-grass prairie, and much of the park is prairie, there is so much more depth, uniqueness and beauty to the badlands.

the natural rock formations are breathtaking. jagged rocks open to valleys of green trees, then just a few miles away rolling green hills layer the landscape of mountains of rock, and just across the road (literally, you turn around and look across the street) and bright pink and yellow give shape to soft round beige rock mounds. 

badlands-national-park-south-dakota
badlands-national-park-south-dakota
badlands-national-park-south-dakota
badlands-national-park-south-dakota

RAPID CITY

after a long day (and 5 hours of sleep the night before) we decided to head back to rapid city and check out the downtown and finally check into our hotel, the hotel alex johnson.

hotel-alex-johnson-rapid-city-south-dakota
hotel-alex-johnson-rapid-city-south-dakota

the drive from the badlands back to rapid city is about an hour or so, depending on where you exit the park at. 

rapid city lies just east of the black hills with a population of approximately 72,000 people. known as a gateway to mount rushmore, you'll find statues of every president littered on street corners. the downtown is a cute, walkable area with breweries, restaurants and shops. 

dylan is very into craft beer so after freshening up from the badlands we walked over to our first stop - firehouse brewing. an old fire station that had been repurposed into a brewery and attached winery.

firehouse-brewing-rapid-city-south-dakota
firehouse-brewing-rapid-city-south-dakota
firehouse-brewing-rapid-city-south-dakota

while dylan didn't particularly care for the beers at the brewery, we did a tasting at the winery and we absolutely loved the wine!

after firehouse we went to the vertex, a rooftop bar on top of our hotel. while vertex typically requires a membership, as guests of the hotel we had complimentary access to the best seat for a sunset in rapid city.

vertex-bar-rapid-city-south-dakota
vertex-bar-rapid-city-south-dakota
vertex-bar-rapid-city-south-dakota

large fire pits allow you to gather around with your drink of choice while you enjoy the beautiful views over rapid city.

vertex-bar-rapid-city-south-dakota

after watching the sun go down we went to the bar that was connected to our hotel, however one drink in we both realized how utterly exhausted we were. the overnight drive and five hours of sleep had finally caught up with us, so we turned in early to get a good night's sleep and be ready for our road trip through the black hills the next day.

stay tuned for part 2 of our road trip through south dakota!

planning a trip to south dakota? pin this information for later!

south-dakota-badlands-rapid-city

cheers!
heather