Our second vacation of the year was a road trip to San Francisco and back. We timed the trip around the Minnesota Vikings and San Francisco 49ers Monday Night Football game on September 14th in Santa Clara, California. In typical fashion for me, I took that date and planned a massive 15 day trip to the West Coast that included three National Parks and so much more to see and do along the way! Labor Day was September 7th. Can you really expect me not to take advantage of a National Holiday and a free day off from work?! Of course not. So we knew when we wanted to leave. We knew where we wanted to go. All there was to do was pack the car and figure out what to do with the dog for two weeks.
My lovely wife and I debated whether or not we should bring our Shetland Sheepdog, Maeby, along on our next trip. The other option was to leave her with Beth’s parents. I was worried that having a rambunctious ball of energy on the road would be a major hindrance to our travel enjoyment. She doesn’t like to be alone, either, having been chained up in the yard by her first owner. Would she be alright in the car alone if we wanted to eat inside a restaurant? Beth convinced me she wouldn’t be a problem. Maeby’s doe-eyed stares didn’t hurt her case either. That being said, I planned our trip, to a certain extent, around having a neurotic pet along. I included few indoor activities along our route, especially ones that would require longer amounts of time indoors. We also ate in the car more often than usual. I won’t spoil anything but, in general, Maeby was well behaved and provided us with valuable travel memories.
I did something really different for the blog post about this trip. If you’ve read my previous Trip posts (congratulations) you know I can be a bit long-winded (massive understatement). For this trip, instead of one extremely long post, I’ve split the trip into 13 still quite long posts. It’s a new format for me but I think it will be a great way to accommodate my readers with shorter attention spans. Either way, if you like what you see, check out all 13 posts or even go back and read the posts for our first six trips. Enjoy!
Day 1, Twin Cities, MN to Custer, South Dakota:
Beth, Maeby, and I left the Twin Cities at 9am on September 5th, 2015. We were leaving 45 minutes after I wanted to but considering we were still packing our bags the previous night and celebrating Beth’s birthday, it wasn’t too shabby. It rained for the first two hours of the trip, ranging between light sprinkles and heavy downpours. Maeby does not like when the windshield wipers are active (something we already knew) but she handled it well enough. The sun eventually came out and we experienced no more rain the entire trip. I’m not kidding. It got cold on us in places and cloudy in others but damn it, the weather was close to perfect most of the time! We reached our first interstate, I-90 and started passing hundreds of windmills erected in the area. Loyal readers and Facebook friends will know I’m a huge fan of windmills.
Dozens Hundreds of pictures will prove that. Beth even likes to take pictures of me taking pictures of windmills. I love the concept of solar energy, of course, but windmills are also just cool on their own. I’ll spare you seeing hundreds of pictures and only show you my favorite.
We made a quick pit stop in Adrian, Minnesota where I experienced the cleanest public restrooms I’ve ever seen at their highway rest stop. They were spotless, a rarity anywhere much less on the road. We crossed the border of South Dakota and I took some pictures of the dog. Oh okay, a ton of pictures of the dog. She’s already a target of my photo-obsession as it is in my normal, non-traveling life. She was anxious to get out of the car and so were Beth and I. We weren’t planning to stop much South Dakota at first, but then I started seeing billboards for some famous SD landmarks. The first was in Mitchell, South Dakota, the Corn Palace. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s a large public building covered in corn kernel art attached to Mitchell City Hall. It’s a tourist trap, of course, but it’s worth a quick stop. We decided to just see the exterior of the building so we could take Maeby along on a walk. There was a volleyball tournament occurring in the Palace that day and Maeby made a lot of friends. We took her picture in front of a corn man statue. The buildings across the street are also catered to tourists and I bought my first of many souvenirs lapel pins.
Back on the road the next three hours were uneventful as we approached the next billboard-famous landmark in Wall, South Dakota. I’m talking about, of course, Wall Drug. The town of Wall is known only for Wall Drug. That business put Wall on the map. Billboards and bumper stickers all over the country announce the offerings of the small town roadside attraction. We saw no fewer than 200 of those signs along I-90. It’s kind of a requirement to stop with that amount of marketing effort. Beth fed the dog while I went inside to check it out. I did a quick loop, taking pictures of the fun statues in back (like the jackalope) and buying some delicious fudge. I got raspberry vanilla fudge for Beth and mint chocolate for me. Beth declined her turn to go inside, opting instead to find a place to get some actual dinner (What? Fudge doesn’t count?!). Other than the sit down restaurant in the drug store/tourist trap, there aren’t a lot of dining options in Wall. I try to eat at a variety of places on vacation but Subway was the best option we could find. At least we found a nice little park where we could eat outside in the sun and fresh air (with the dog of course).
From Wall we drove to Rapid City and then South towards Mount Rushmore. The sun was already setting in the valley and the small tourist town of Keystone, South Dakota was alive with dinner folk. We had both been to Mount Rushmore previously so we didn’t enter the monument itself. There wasn’t much time with it being so late but I also knew it was an expensive/crowded stop. I had been with my family when I was sixteen years for the 3rd of July fireworks (July 4th fireworks are reserved for the State Capitol in South Dakota). I learned during that visit that parking is expensive and the crowds unbearable. It’s an awesome sculpture, of course, but if you go, prepare yourselves. On this trip we drove right through Keystone and turned down a scenic drive called the Iron Mountain Road. I had discovered U.S Route 16A, also known as the Iron Mountain Road, during my trip planning. I read that it was a good place to see Mount Rushmore from the road so we could avoid paying entry to the monument itself. This scenic drive certainly delivered! The narrow road winds through the Black Hills National Forest, the Black Elk Wilderness, and Custer State Park. It’s no more than a glorified go-kart track for much of its length with 35mph speed limits, tunnels, cool bridges, and constant elevation changes. In fact, some of the looping bridges were designed just to gain elevation. I had an absolute blast driving. Each of the tunnels were also specifically dug to aim directly at Mount Rushmore. How cool is that?
We stopped off at two points along the scenic drive. The first was a random spot to get out and walk. The forest and cliffs were amazing. It wasn’t clear if walking away from the road was permitted but we took the risk. I even climbed down into a little gap between two big rocks. I successfully avoided getting stuck like the guy in 127 Hours. The second place we stopped was an overlook of Mount Rushmore. The sun was setting completely so we looked around and waited for the spotlights to illuminate the monument. Fifteen minutes past the time the lights were supposed to pop on and it had not yet happened. It was late so unfortunately we were forced to give up. At this point we had to figure out how to get to our campsite in Custer State Park in the dark and without a map.
Our phone’s had poor service in this remote location and our best hope for a map, a ranger station at the entrance, didn’t exist. We happened upon a campsite, the wrong one, but a helpful inhabitant provided us with an extra map. The only “ranger station” we eventually saw was basically a shed in the middle of the park with a drop box for park entry fees ($15 per vehicle). From there it was just a five minute drive to our campsite at Legion Lake. The only notable part of the drive was seeing a skunk along the road with his tail lifted, ready to spray (he didn’t, luckily). Our pop-up tent and air mattress took a couple minutes to set up and, although it was dark, it was about 70 degrees and extremely comfortable. The stars above were extraordinary. We could see the Milky Way in all its beauty. I’ve never had a better view while walking to brush my teeth. End of day one.