Just Two Bros in North & South Dakota
As most of you know at this point, Whitney A & I usually have an early December Christmas with our family & spend our holiday in a National Park somewhere. This year we decided to spend ours with the likes of Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, & four of America’s most important president’s, including Theodore Roosevelt, spread out over three parks between North & South Dakota. The parks were Badlands, Wind Cave, & Theodore Roosevelt National Parks.
Badlands, a 1939 national monument was solidified as a National Park in 1978 & is home to over 1,200 Bison & has also been the setting for Hollywood Blockbusters “Dances with Wolves,” & Michael Bay’s “Armageddon.” Wind Cave is the U.S’ sixth oldest park, established in 1903 by Theodore Roosevelt to preserve the caves & wildlife that lies within it. Wind Cave was one of many parks founded by Roosevelt. A couple others being Crater Lake in Oregon & Mesa Verde in Colorado. Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, was dedicated in 1978 to the 26th president of the United States by then President Harry S. Truman.
Whit & I flew into Rapid City, South Dakota the night before Christmas. We spent our first night, before we hit the road at the Fairfield Inn. Normally I wouldn’t mention something like this, but the hotel has a waterpark inside & it ended up being a blast. One of the water slides rips through the hotel bar & uses a glass tube enclosure so you can watch riders zip by as your enjoy a White Claw & the Packers getting smoked by the 49ers in the NFC title game.
The next day we decided to head out to Badlands first, because the Ben Reifel Visitor Center had open hours on Christmas Eve day. Along the way we stopped in the small town of Interior for a beer at the Wagon Wheel Bar. It was the only thing open this time of year & the bartender made sure to let us know that if we needed any help she lived just down the street.
We were greeted by smiling rangers at the visitor center happy to see us in our Christmas sweater, snowman outfit combination. They told us to take Badlands Loop Road up to the Sage Creek campground for some easy winter camping. What they didn’t tell us is what we might see along the way.
As we trucked along, we came around a big bend & right there were 5 big horned rams, an animal I never thought I’d see up close. We were cautious at first, taking photos at a distance. I had brought with my 70mm – 200mm zoom lens & as I got a little more comfortable, was able to stand right in front of them on the opposite side of the street & get some great shots. Something any new wildlife photographer, including myself needs to remember, is no matter how comfortable you feel or the animal appears, they’re still wild. They need space, so make sure your come prepared for that. Bring long lenses. Don’t show up with wide lenses & try to get within petting distance. There are very few shots that can’t be achieved with a longer lens.
The rams were just the appetizer. We had hoped at some point that we would see buffalo. I talked to a few park rangers before we came to see what the chances were & they said it was more than likely. What they didn’t say is how there’s buffalo everywhere. Between Wind Cave & Badlands we saw hundreds.
We were going nuts after seeing both rams & bison on our first day but we knew the sun was going down so we headed over to set up camp at the Sage Creek campgrounds. We got there & right away I didn’t want to sleep in an established space. The campgrounds are flat & exposed to anyone that may drive by. Perfect for a family party setting in the middle of summer, but not what we were looking for during the parks slow season. Instead we headed off to the side of the campgrounds, to a creek near some tall hills & set up camp there.
At one point during the evening Whitney A & I were playing “Go Fish” in her tent & heard something just outside. Right away Whitney crapped her pants & began to wimper, on the other hand I was fearless, stoic as you might expect, but that quickly changed & I too thought we were about to be mauled by the wolves we had heard howling earlier in the distance. Turns out it was just some brush rubbing around outside the tent & we carried on having a few drinks, laughing & telling stories. Now for any of you that have been camping somewhere desolate, the most amazing thing is how a sound a half mile away can sound like a hoard of banshees getting ready to tear your camp apart & eat your friends & family. Nope, it was just a tumbleweed rolling across the desert sands. Shrug…
Mount Rushmore in December was under construction & closed on Christmas Day but that didn’t stop us from stopping by. I have the opinion that most monuments you can see on a postcard are probably equally as exciting in person as they are on paper. For example, when I was in Paris, I was very underwhelmed with the Eiffel Tower. Now that might be because I’m American & that isn’t my heritage but on the contrary, Mount Rushmore is unreal.
Carved into Mt. Rushmore in the Black Hills, Keystone, South Dakota. Historian Doane Robinson, in 1923, originally suggested the idea of carving four of the United States most notable presidents as a way to promote tourism in South Dakota. In 1924 he recruited Danish – American sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, his son Lincoln & approximately 400 workers to complete the task. The project’s execution took place over 14 years from 1927 to 1941 using drilling & dynamite to carve the faces of the presidents. Originally the project was supposed to consist of the president’s heads down to their waists, however, in 1941, Gutzon died of an embolism in early March & Lincoln tried to continue the project but quickly ran out of funds, leaving only the four heads we see today.
I knew in advance going to Wind Cave that the elevator was down & nowhere close to being fixed. We wouldn’t get to see the inside of the cave but the rangers bragged that this was a great park, cave or no cave. What a huge surprise that this would be one of my favorite parks. It’s loaded with Bison & beautiful trails & wouldn’t you know it, the weather ended up being perfect the day we went.
Camping was relatively easy at Wid Cave, mostly because we decided it was too cold to sleep outside & we knew we’d want to move fast in the morning.
It was a 5 1/2 hour drive up to Theodore Roosevelt through Deadwood & Sturgis South Dakota. If you’re into Wild West History, Deadwood is a must. Stop at No. 10 Saloon to see the chair Wild Bill Hickok was shot in or Seth Bullock’s Hotel. For me the best part was visiting Mt. Moriah Cemetery & seeing the graves of Wild Bill & Calamity Jane.
About an hour & fifteen minutes South of Theodore Roosevelt is the town of Amidon, North Dakota. Home to a whopping 25 people in 2019 & there’s a bar, maybe the greatest bar. Mo’s Bunker Bar is owned by a husband & wife who got tired of drinking alone on their couch & wanted to extend an invite to people to drink with them. Funny thing about meeting the owner of the bar the night we were there, is that he’s also the mayor of Amidon. A minimum 13 people said to themselves “This is our guy!” & if I lived in Amidon, he’d have my vote too. They were gracious hosts, allowed dogs in the building & over all a great idea that opens them up to an endless amount of possibilities.
Theodore Roosevelt was the last stop on our trip. It’s composed of two units, the North & South, & is home to upwards around 170 wild horses, hoodoo rocks, & petrified trees. It’s easy to see why Roosevelt loved it so much & now we do too.