I think today was one of our longer driving days…maybe second only to our trip from Hill City to Sioux Falls on Saturday. Fortunately, we gained an hour driving west since the time zone changes in the middle of South Dakota.
We got an early start (8:00 a.m.) and drove for a couple of hours to the Badlands National Park. We drove on the Badlands loop – full of construction that made the drive a bit stressful because the roads were made into one-way roads and you had to sit and wait for a while. Most of the Badlands were really pretty, though the lighting could have been better. Clouds pretty much washed out the colors that the sun would have made a lot more vibrant, even in the middle of the day. One area that was particularly gorgeous, though, was toward the end of the drive at a turn out called Yellow Mounds Overlook. This area had the most color in the rocks and was my favorite view.
At the end of the Badlands Loop, the road runs right into Wall (of Wall Drug infamy). We stopped and ate lunch at a bar/diner there. Most of us had a buffalo burger. It didn’t really taste all that different from a hamburger, except that it was a little bit drier. We also had some time to explore Wall Drug, spending most of our time taking photos in the “Back Yard” area where they have their famous Giant Jackalope. We also got ice cream at the soda fountain. Why is it that ice cream tastes so much better on a waffle cone when someone else scoops it?
It was then on to Ellsworth Air Force Base just outside of Rapid City and the South Dakota Air and Space Museum. We spent a little bit of time looking at all the planes they have on display (John really liked this stop). We also took an hour-long tour of the Air Force Base, and the highlight of that tour being the training site for the Minuteman Missile II. It’s the only place you can actually go into a missile silo (the nearby historical site only allows you to view the silo from above ground). Granted, the site we visited was only a training facility, but it is identical to the actual silo sites that were scattered all over the country during the Cold War. It was really cool to see this up close. Next time we are in the area, we’ll have to stop at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site to see the underground Launch Control Center.
Since we already had a long day, some of our group headed straight to the hotel in Hill City while the rest of us went up into the hills to Bear Country, USA. This place is REALLY neat! It’s a drive through wild life park where you can view animals in their “natural” habitat from the safety of your vehicle. Think Jurassic Park, but without the dinosaurs. I was actually driving at this point, and it was pretty scary having a black bear just feet away from your window. We saw elk, reindeer, arctic wolves (these were really cute!), bighorn sheep, mountain goats, mountain lions, buffalo/bison, and of course, the main attraction, the black bears. There were a TON of them in their area and it must have been just the right time of day because they were pretty active.
The highlight of the bear section was the “guard” that was pacing back and forth in front of the electric cattle guard at the entrance to the area. You had to time it just right to drive into the area. I was scared the bear was going to attack the car because we had passed by! The other interesting part was the “blonde” bear (it was actually a lighter color and was just sitting there with a “duh” look on its face) while two other bears were getting rather friendly (if you know what I mean) right next to it. I couldn’t stop laughing, which made it kind of difficult to drive!
The final stop at Bear Country is Babyland – easily my favorite part. Here, they have an enclosure for two Grizzly bears, Tank and Cherokee. We waited for a while, hoping the male (Tank) would come closer to the edge so we could get good pictures, but he must have been camera-shy.
The rest of Babyland has a variety of animal exhibits (I’m not sure if there are actually baby animals or not – other than the baby bears). We saw porcupine, lynx, badgers, beavers, foxes, skunks, otters, and a peacock who was apparently not part of the exhibit, but decided to make himself at home with the sleeping skunk.
Of course, the best part of Babyland were the baby black bears. They were born in January, making them between 4 and 5 months old. They were SO cute and playful. I wanted to take one home with me, but I was reminded of the fact that they do get big and mean! Oh well, I’ll have to settle for a dog…someday.
We ended our trip at Bear Country in the gift shop. I found this really cute ornament with two bears on it holding a Christmas tree that read “Bear Country USA.” Being that John and I use “bear” as a nickname for each other, it was the perfect souvenir and the price couldn’t be beat!
Our drive up the mountain to Hill City was pretty uneventful and once we were all settled into our hotel rooms, we ate dinner at the hotel diner and then the girls all walked over to the grocery store (I got breakfast food for John and I for the next few days) and then down to the main street to see what was there.
I crashed when we got back to the hotel because it had been such a long day AND we had another early (and long) day on Thursday.