Exploring South Dakota

posted in: Road Trip, South Dakota, Van Life | 2

The Badlands

The Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park

This 40 mile scenic byway along highway 240 is a geological wonderland. Unfortunately, I’m not a geologist. I am however a lover of fantastic shapes, stark contrasts, and interesting facts. Did you know that The Badlands are a natural artistic masterpiece that have been in the making for over 80 million years! A span of time which is almost inconceivable. Another reminder of just how small and insignificant we as humans are on this ever evolving world. Just as slowly as they were formed, they are also disappearing. According to the visitor center, the Badlands erode at approximately 1 inch per year.

The Badlands. Shows flaky earth's crust.

Compromised of mud, sand, gravel, ash and clay, these crusted buttes make for an interesting expedition. I set out for a short hike climbing upward and onward. Multiple times, it felt like the ground would just give way under my feet or I would be swallowed up by the Earth’s flaky crust.

*If your curious about how The Badlands were formed, click here for an interesting article.
The Badlands National Park
East Badlands

I was surprised to see the variation in landscape from East to West. A vast difference, each side providing it’s own rugged beauty and geological story. The east was comprised of fun shapes both large and small (see photo above), while the west offered endless views of multi colored hills (see photo below).

West Badlands

We had planed to spend a few days exploring the area but due to lack of sleep, unusually high humidity, and temperatures still in the 90’s, we decided to spend one night then move on. The sunset that night was remarkable. I rode my bike around looking for a good spot to take some photos and enjoy the view while Eric mingled with our neighbors.

The next day, we woke to the sun casting shadows in every shade of gray as it rose high above the intermittent clouds.

Here are some of the photos from the day:

We heard that this area had gotten an unusually large amount of rainfall this year which accounted for all the green. It was a welcomed contrast from the grey sand towers high above us.

Wall Drug

After leaving The Badlands (if traveling West) the most natural next stop is Wall Drug. It started off as a joke roughly 230 miles prior to hitting this adored roadside attraction. After seeing what seemed like 1,000 signs with funny pictures and catchy phrases, it was hard to pass up. Some examples include: “Free Ice Water: Wall Drug”, “Something to Crow About: Wall Drug”, “Do Lunch or Be Lunch: Wall Drug”….Wall Drug, Wall Drug, W-A-L-L D-R-U-G. Let me tell you, repetition works. We knew it was a tourist trap, yet, we still stopped because of nothing more that pure and simple curiosity.

Come to find out Wall Drug is home of to a 6 ft. jackalope, 80 ft. dinosaur, 5 cent coffee, a ZOLTAR, and much more. There are also over 3,000 signs encouraging curious motorists to stop. The story of how Wall Drug came to be famous is quite interesting and if you want to read all about it, click here. Three words: FREE ICE WATER.

borrowed from google.com images

The Black Hills

Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore was everything I thought it would be, but not more. This wasn’t a planned stop but we were driving right by it so I snapped a picture from the road. You can of course pay $10 and delve in to the mysteries of why anyone would carve up a perfectly good mountain with the faces of these men. Men who owned countless numbers of slaves and attempted to annihilate the Native Americans in the quest to conquer the west—-It was their “destiny” after all. I have mixed emotions about the whole thing (if you couldn’t tell). Obviously it was a different time, the history of it all is a bit more complicated, and I’m not here to share my political or personal views. While I am not a fan, you can’t deny (from an artistic standpoint) that this is an impressive body of work.

Dispersed Camping

Wow. Where to begin. The Black Hills are beautiful and full of opportunity. The forest service roads are bumpy, steep, not well maintained and internet is scarce, but if you aren’t limited by those things, the possibilities are endless!

I would have loved to spend about a month in this area traversing it by bike, but unfortunately, this was not the time for such adventures for various reasons. As it turns out, this would end up being the best stop of the month so I’m glad we did spend the week here!

We had awesome views…

Campsite #1
Dusk at campsite #2

Ate like Kings and Queens….

Taco Tuesday (or was it Wednesday…Thursday???) Days no longer matter!

Found some cool stuff….

Tons of cool branches and misshapen bark
Anyone know what animal this used to be?

Shared our space with others….

We even met a local!

Unfortunately, I didn’t catch his name…

The George Mickelson Trail

Since Eric was working, I decided to spend a day riding part of the George Mickelson Trail, a 109 mile multi-surface path running north and south extending from Deadwood to Edgemont. I rode a total of 30 miles that day from Hill City to Mystic (and back).

We found the perfect office for Eric that day overlooking a lake and mountains, made coffee, watched the busy Osprey, admired the zen-like Heron and I prepped for my ride. It was truly a great morning.

I take that back.

It was a great day!

To the right you can see the Heron which to my surprise, was perched in the exact location upon my return. Eric gave a detailed report of his/her activity for the day. Apparently the bird DID move, it wasn’t a decoy, and provided my hard working hubby with some much appreciated entertainment.

I feel like the first 4 miles of my ride were broken up by several stops to take photos. You know how it is! When something is new, it’s hard to take it all in so quickly. I was like, “oh, new flower”. Stop—take photo. “oh, squirrel doing something funny with a beautiful backdrop”. Stop—take video. “oh, rocks like I’ve never seen before”. Stop—take photo and video. And this was pretty much how I spent most of my day. My soul was on fire and my heart was full. I couldn’t imagine spending my time any other way.

I know I talk a lot about adventures and perhaps I use that word too loosely. An adventure in my mind doesn’t always have to be condisered “epic”. I define an adventure simply by doing an activity that allows me to lose track of time for hours on end while exploring the natural world. It could be a city or somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Boring Kansas or Beautiful Idaho…adventure is everywhere!

Here are some photos from the day!

Beautiful view of the Black Hills facing Hill City
Lots of bridges and jagged, plate-like rocks
A wild turkey feather which I didn’t put there just for a photo op!
Blue Wood Aster growing between the massive, angular rock.
Stunningly beautiful at every turn
A few short tunnels (no headlamp required). Tunnel #1
Tunnel #2
Big hills, long bridges, no bears (today).
Really cool rock formations towering over the trail.
Horseshoe bent rivers
Oh and of course, a happy Jenni.


Did I mention that it was a great day?

After a bit of a rough start to van life, it was a much needed break. The only thing missing was an Eric.

Custer State Park

The Drive

The drive was worth the $20 it set us back to get in. Despite the heavy traffic, I was able to get a few shots with no cars. Miracles do exist! 🙂

One of the options you have while driving through this 71,000 acre paradise, is the scenic, 14-mile Needle Highway. Named for its incredible needle-like rock formations, also called spires, this is a must see if you’re ever in South Dakota.

While at the overlook we met a really nice van lifer by the name of Joe (from Wisconsin). He and Eric swapped van talk (ie: solar, batteries, plumbing, etc) and I of course took photos and explored the area. Joe told us about the National Parks Pass (which we later purchased) and gave us some heads up on decent campgrounds in the area if we chose to stay in the park. Not knowing we’d later catch up with him at a nearby lake a few days later, we discovered he was nice enough to snap this photo of us going through the popular Needle Eye Tunnel. So cool. Thanks Joe!

With ears tucked, we fit just fine!
Seriously awesome!

The Hike

With a little convincing, Eric was willing to entertain my desire to explore the French Creek Nature Area. I mean, how could we come all the way to this glorious park and not do a hike? I think the photo above pretty much sums up my excitement, no words required.

Rearing to move my body after what seemed like hours in the van, we set of on our map-less, unmarked adventure. The trailhead basically says, “follow the river”, and based on some light research we could see it was roughly 12 miles one way. I was loving it!

Not far down, the trail opened up to vibrant shades of orange, yellow, and green. A smile swept across my sun lit face as I followed behind to take photos and scan the area for wildlife.

About 1/2 mile into the hike we had our first of 3 creek crossings. Luckily we were wearing sandals despite warnings of poison ivy along the trail. We’re such dare devils! Hopefully our luck of having natural defenses against poison ivy will withstand all of our adventures to come.

Creek Crossing #1

Once we crossed the river, the terrain began to change. The colorful bluffs faded into the distance and orange path turned to a mixture of dirt and grass as we entered the flatland.

Creek Crossing #2

After the second crossing, the landscape changed into a thick forest of trees and brush. The trees in this section were my favorite.

Creek Crossing #3

On the third crossing, we saw our first buffalo track.

Not much smaller than my size 9 foot

Did you know that Custer State Park is home to about 1,300 free roaming buffalo? For such large beasts, they know how to hide from the masses quite well. During our week in and out of the park, we saw only one small herd.

Much like the other creek crossings, the landscape changed again, this time incorporating rocky hillsides and fallen trees into the mix.

Eric traversing the steep downhill like a pro.
Fallen trees wee everywhere reminding us of our bikepacking trip of Idaho last year.

This part of the trail was more damp allowing the mountainside to be freckled with moss and mushrooms.

After countless attempts, Eric and I were finally graced with some solitude. What a great place to escape the crowds.

It was a beautiful day, fun hike, and lovely drive.

Stockade Lake

While it is not the most beautiful lake in the area (hard to believe, right?), it was pristine, quiet, and offered speedy internet!

We woke up early that morning in hopes of finding a good spot that would allow us loads of play time after Eric finished working for the day. Stockade Lake did not disappoint. That afternoon, we pumped up the paddle boards and shared the lake only with a few osprey, a heron, and a handful of ducks.

Later that afternoon, the wind really picked up so we sat and paddled to avoid a spill into the cold waters.

While paddling back to the van, we spotted our friend Joe (from Wisconsin) that I mentioned earlier. This is where we swapped info (email, phone, etc.) and learned that he was going to be on the same path as us until Idaho. Why people miss Idaho, I have no idea? It’s the best state on this planet! haha.

It was another good day and we enjoyed the last bit of sunshine we’d have for a few days as we ventured into Wyoming.


Full of beauty, unique landscapes, and millions of miles to explore, South Dakota was a real treat! Eric and I would love to go back when we are completely off grid and have the time to roam freely without being a slave to the INTERNET.

Stay tuned for some upcoming blog posts on Van Life, our time in Wyoming, and more!

Thanks for reading. Until next time friends…..

2 Responses

  1. Gail Risse

    Love living through you. I enjoy hearing how you connect with nature.

    Jim’s family is from South Dakota. I felt like I was going back to the 1950’s. Love the slower pace and beauty. Thanks for sharing.

    • Jenni

      What a wonderful state to be from! The people were great and the landscapes were interesting and beautiful! Thanks for reading!!!

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