It was time to plan for the Independence Day Long Weekend. Me and my friends wanted to visit a place which is iconic and and which is of great importance for the American history for the long weekend. Rather an visiting some city or town we decided to visit the Mount Rushmore National Memorial which is an internationally recognized icon and artistic treasure. It symbolizes both national pride and an awesome feat of engineering. So it was decided for the Independence Day of 2014 we were driving to visit Mount Rushmore and the beautiful Black Hills National Forest.
07/3 Thursday: We picked up the rental car from Midway International Airport and the plan was to drive overnight to reach in time for the sunrise at Badlands National Park. (BNP)
BNP is almost 850 miles from Chicago so for us to reach at sunrise we began our drive at around 4pm on Thursday.
However, as is the norm with every long weekend and with everyone wanting to leave the city to get away to some place for the weekend the major part of the evening was spent in getting out of the city via the I-90. Thus the start of the journey was pretty slow.
So once we were away from the traffic it was time to recover some lost time and ensure that we reach BNP in time for the sunrise.
It was going all smoothly till I got the red white and blue lights blinking right behind me. I started cursing myself why was I supposed to be the lucky one tonight. I wasn't able to plead the cop to let me go and that gave me my second speeding ticket of my driving history. Coincidentally I have received both my tickets during a trip undertaken during the Independence Day Weekend; so I think I should be off the wheel or maybe just stay at home the next time onwards. (However I didn't do such a thing in 2015 but was cautious enough to not get pulled over)
Nonetheless we reached in time for the sunrise after the all nighter and it was a sight to view.
The rugged beauty of the Badlands landscape boasts a maze of buttes, canyons, pinnacles and spires. It also contains one of the world's richest fossil beds. The park also has a variety of animals where amid the expanse of the mixed grass prairie you might get a chance to encounter bison's, big horn sheep's, ferrets to name a few.
Beware there are signs all along the park to watch out for Rattle snakes so we were looking all around to make sure we don't encounter a rattle snake!
Here we completed the Door, Window and Notch Trails which offers extensive views of the Badlands.
We then visited the Ben Reifel Visitor Center (GPS: 25216 Ben Reifel Road, Interior, SD 57750) to learn more about the National Park history and with the overnight drive I think all of us needed a bathroom break to freshen up.
After visiting the Visitor Center; we then proceeded to complete the Badlands Loop Road.
On the Loop Rd there are pullovers for Overlooks and there is a Fossil Exhibits Trail (0.3 mile round trip)
Continue onwards on SD-240 to reach I-90. (Exit 110)
For the various overlooks on the Loop Rd you can get the visitors guide at the Visitor Center.
Next destination was Mount Rushmore National Memorial and take exit for Keystone and Mount Rushmore Memorial.
(GPS: 13000 S Dakota 244, Keystone, SD 57751) There are no fees to view the structure however there are fees to park in the parking structure.
Looking at the faces of the Presidents carved on the huge granite mountain made me fill up with amazement at the engineering marvel.
There are trails (boardwalk) to walk around the memorial which enables you to take pictures up close. (However you cannot visit the top of the mountain!)
Due to it being the Independence Day weekend we got to see a US Park Ranger led military facilitation program honoring few US Army Veterans and Active Duty Members.
Thereafter we drove towards Hot Springs for our hotel Stay.
07/5 Saturday: The next morning we decided to go to Wind Cave National Park so that we could get another national park checked off on our list.
(GPS Coordinates: N 43 33' 22" W 103 28' 38"; 26611 US Highway 385, Hot Springs, SD 57747)
Below the prairie grasslands and forested hillsides; sits Wind Cave, one of the longest and most complex caves in the world. Named for barometric winds at its entrance, this maze of passages is home to boxwork, a unique formation rarely found elsewhere. (Till date I have visited many caves but this remains the only one with Boxwork structure - Boxwork is made of thin blades of calcite that project from cave walls and ceilings, forming a honeycomb pattern. The fins intersect one another at various angles, forming "boxes" on all cave surfaces.)
As we were getting ready to enter the cave after parking the car we had one of the most common mishap which I have seen my other friends experiencing it too.
The car door was closed with the keys lying on the back seat of the car. That made me really upset because there was hardly any mobile signal available at the place and wasn't sure how will we able to get the car unlocked.
We called for the Park Ranger to help us out. He tried his best but couldn't get the keys out.
We then suddenly thought about calling the rental company if they could unlock the car remotely and what a relief it was after they did that!!
(During the whole time my friends were trying to cheer me up but I could afford to smile only after the car doors were unlocked)
We then took the Natural Entrance Cave tour offered by the National Park Service. This tour is close to 90 minutes long.
There are other tours also offered such as Fairgrounds Cave Tour and Garden of the Eden tour but the Natural Entrance Cave Tour is the most popular.
Depending on the time on hand you can also choose to visit the Jewel Cave National Monument. (We had skipped this to do some hiking)
Next we visited the Rushmore Tramway located at 203 Cemetry Road, Keystone, SD 57751.
The Rushmore Tramway offers opportunities for people for having some fun and adventure. Here we took the chairlift to ascend the mountain and after spending some time enjoying the views and eating at the top (aptly named Mountain Top Grille for some food and drinks) we descended down via the Alpine slide.
Overall it was a fun activity to complete.
We reached the tramway by traveling north on US-89 N/US-16 E/US-385 N and traveling east on SD-244 to reach Keystone.
Thereby also covering a part of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway.
After the tramway the next stop was the Sylvan Lake Campground.
To reach the Sylvan Lake we took the scenic route with traveling via US-16A W and turning right on SD-87 N.
SD-87 N is also known as the Needles Highway. It includes 14 miles of sharp turns, low tunnels and impressive granite spires and you need to drive slowly to enjoy the views the byway has to offer.
Next we stopped at Sylvan Lake.
At Sylvan Lake we first completed the Sylvan Lakeshore Trail which is approximately a mile in length. Here you can just laze around near the perimeter of the lake, or go for a swim.
Next we followed directions for Harney's Peak Trail. (The Harney's Peak trail is about 3.5 miles one way) The trail is a bit steep so allow ample time but if you are over zealous and excited as us you will complete it soon! The steep hike is definitely worth it for the views it has to offer at the top. There is a fire tower at the top of the peak. (Trail-head # 9 from Sylvan Lake) The Harney Peak Trail is very popular and widely used in the summer months.
Additionally you can view the granite spires (needles) from different overlooks along the route to the top.
It took us about 3-3.5 hours to reach the top and get down back to the parking lot. This concluded our activities for the day which had a very interesting beginning with the car keys!
We then drove to Spearfish for our night stay at an Air BnB.
07/6 Sunday: The next morning we drove for another famous scenic byway known as the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway which is lined up with different waterfalls.
You can begin the journey by taking the exit 10/14 of I-90 and travel south on the Spearfish Canyon scenic byway.
Spearfish Creek lines the canyon floor while canyon waterfalls make for popular roadside attractions. Bridal Veil Falls and Roughlock Falls are must-sees along the route. You will get many instances to pull over along the route and capture the scenic beauty.
The Bridal Veil Falls can be accessed on the Scenic Byway itself.
For visiting the Roughlock Falls while driving south on the byway turn right on Roughlock Falls Rd and look for signs for Roughlock Falls Trail.
You can view the falls by walking down the boardwalk and it was one of the most beautiful waterfalls I had seen. Roughlock Falls is known for its crystal clear water and towering cliffs so rest assured the 1 mile walk to the falls is worth undertaking.
Along the trail you can also take scenic pictures of the Little Spearfish Creek lined with birch and pine trees.
Roughlock Falls was the last scenic spot on this journey to the Prairie State of South Dakota and we began our drive for back home to Chicago which was close to 900 miles away!
I wasn't expecting Badlands or South Dakota to be so beautiful! I was totally taken aback viewing the buttes, the prairies, waterfalls and other scenic sights which South Dakota has to offer.
South Dakota is truly a land of Great Faces and Great Places!