We are now officially almost three weeks into our travels and it alternately seems like we left yesterday and six months ago. There has definitely been a bit of adjusting to our new lifestyle- everything from learning how to sleep with a large 95-pound furry bed hog in a queen-sized bed to figuring out how to not feel guilty for working less.
The first stop on our travels took us to the Black Hills of eastern Wyoming and western South Dakota. We spent four days sightseeing, hiking, and enjoying the beauty and cooler weather of the area. Instead of giving you a minute-by-minute recap of our time spent there, we’ve chosen some of the highlights of our trip to share with you. Starting with this post and moving forward, we will be giving each park, monument, tourist trap, restaurant, campground, or whatever we choose to review a rivet rating, with one rivet being something to skip and five rivets being something to add to your bucket list.
What to See: Devils Tower
In the middle of northeastern Wyoming lies an ancient volcanic core that seems to appear out of nowhere as you head north on Wyoming Highway 24. Brought into public consciousness by five musical notes and a pile of mashed potatoes in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Devils Tower National Monument is America’s first national monument and well worth, at the very least, a drive-by. Plus, the world’s largest prairie dog village lies within the monument boundaries and they are pretty darn cute and extremely photogenic.
Unfortunately, Devils Tower is not dog-friendly, as dogs are not allowed on trails; and parking is very limited, particularly when pulling a trailer, so we weren’t able to do anything more than circle around the main parking area, snap a few photos, and head back out.
Based on these limitations, Devils Tower earns 3 out of 5 rivets. Its historical significance makes it an exciting feature to visit, but we would suggest doing so on your way to somewhere else.
Devils Tower: 3 / 5 Rivets
What to See: Mount Rushmore
One of America’s most iconic monuments and a key player in one of our favorite movies (North by Northwest), Mount Rushmore National Memorial is in a word- awesome. It’s easy to imagine that some heads carved into granite could be less than exciting, but to see them in person makes you realize the incredible vision of sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, and the hard work of the men that spent more than 14 years carving them. The entrance into the monument is quite grand, as you pass through two rows of pillars that hold a flag for each state (we admit that we did seek out and take a picture of the Colorado flag). Once you’ve passed through the pillars, you find yourself on a stone patio that has a direct and relatively close view of the monument and a perfect opportunity to ask the couple standing next to you for a photo- we would have published ours…but it’s not so great.
Centrally located to most towns in the Black Hills, the drive to Mount Rushmore is easy and there is a plethora of parking. Dogs aren’t allowed in the monument, but there is plenty of covered, shady parking and we were more than comfortable leaving Finley in the car for 30 minutes.
On the rivet scale, Mount Rushmore earns 5 out of 5 for its awe-inspiring beauty and for being one of our country’s most recognized images. This is a do not miss, go out of your way to see this one!
Mount Rushmore: 5 / 5 Rivets
What to Do: Hike Harney Peak
At 7,244 feet, Harney Peak located in the Black Elk Wilderness (and recently renamed Black Elk Peak in honor of the Lakota Sioux medicine man for which the area is named) is the highest peak in South Dakota and also the highest point in the Northern Hemisphere between the Rocky Mountains and French Pyrenees (super cool!). Located just a few miles from our campground, we made plans to hike Harney Peak on a Friday in hopes of avoiding the crowds, but the weather had other plans. A rainy, cold day had us delay our hike until Saturday, which turned out to be beautiful and sunny, but brought out literally hundreds of other hikers.
The most popular trail and the one that we hiked is Harney Peak Trail Number 9 that leaves from the day use area at Sylvan Lake, a gorgeous lake surrounded by granite spires located within Custer State Park and recognizable from the movie National Treasure: Book of Secrets (the second one). The dog-friendly trail (leash or voice command) is 3.3 miles each way and it took us about 90 minutes get to the historic fire tower at the peak, where we enjoyed breathtaking 360 degree of views of the Black Hills. Due to the volume of other hikers, the trip down also took about 90 minutes; but thankfully we got started early, so our hike up was mostly quiet and we were lucky enough to meet a few locals that pointed out some interesting things along the trail, including the fact that you can see the back side of Mount Rushmore from the top.
One the rivet scale, this one earns a 4 out of 5 for its beautiful views along the trail and at the top, its quality of leg burn from the hike, and cool factor for being the highest point in the state.
Harney Peak: 4 / 5 Rivets
What to Do: Drive Iron Mountain Road
U.S. Route 16A has a 17-mile stretch of narrow, windy road with hundreds of curves, more than a dozen switchbacks, three one-lane tunnels designed to perfectly frame Mount Rushmore (when traveling north), and tons of gorgeous views known as Iron Mountain Road. We accidentally found ourselves on this highway after leaving Mount Rushmore and for two car enthusiasts, stumbled onto what we consider the best thing we experienced during our time in the Black Hills, which earns Iron Mountain Road 4 out of 5 rivets. Pictures do it no justice, add this one to your scenic road bucket list!
Iron Mountain Road: 4 / 5 Rivets
Be the Ultimate Tourist: Visit Wall Drug
We know, this place is a massive tourist trap- but that’s what makes it so cool. Originally gaining popularity because they offered free ice water to travelers in the 1930s, Wall Drug has been a popular stop for cross-country travelers ever since. Now known worldwide because of the “Where The Heck is Wall Drug” bumper stickers seen for decades on cars everywhere, including both of us that have seen them for pretty much our entire lives (despite growing up in Illinois and Colorado), and a 5¢ cup of coffee, our stop at Wall Drug did not disappoint.
Our first stop was in the Wall Drug Backyard, to let Finley stretch his legs and force him to pose for pictures in front of the miniature Mount Rushmore and climb onto the back of a Jackalope. After a short walk around a few blocks of town, we headed into the store (without Finley) and tried to wrap our heads around the store after store that lay before us. From diner mugs to rock specimens to books to fudge to the kitschiest logo item you can imagine, there was literally something for everyone. As we had a fair amount of driving ahead of us for the day, we prioritized and (not surprisingly, if you know our love for food and coffee) opted to stand in a rather lengthy line to get a 5¢ cup of coffee (a to-go cup will put you out an extra 29¢) and try three of the four donut options. It may not have been mentioned yet, but we have a bit of donut problem. Although it was brief and a bit overstimulating, Wall Drug was absolutely worth the stop.
A true piece of Americana and a staple of family road trip stops for generations, with donuts that we would definitely eat again (especially the vanilla frosted one), and great photo ops for people and dogs, we give Wall Drug 4 out of 5 rivets. A must-see for the Americana and kitschy tourist stop enthusiast!
Wall Drug: 4 / 5 Rivets
We could go on and on about the other areas that we visited and drove through, but this would be the longest blog post ever. If you plan to visit the Black Hills, other points of interest that should be considered are a drive on the beautiful Needles Highway, driving by buffalo on the side of the road in Custer State Park, enjoying a scoop of huckleberry ice cream in Custer at Bobkat’s Purple Pie Place, or taking a drive through Badlands National Park on the gorgeous Badlands Loop Road/South Dakota Highway 240.
Need ideas for lodging and food? Check out our reviews of Riverside City Park in Douglas, WY where we spent our first night and had our first boondocking experience, the Rafter Bar J Ranch RV Park here we stayed in Hill City, and the Queen City Bakery in Sioux Falls, SD.