Last Chance Road Trip – Part 3
Sunday, August 1, 2021 – Cody, WY to Custer, SD
We all awoke super early, threw our packed stuff in the car, said good bye to the sweetest AirBnB ever, and we were off! We zoomed into Cody which was creepily empty (later we realized it was probably church day for everyone), and hit up Beta Coffeehouse for some coffee and muffins – good service and good coffee. FINALLY. It just took 5 days to find somewhere decent.
The plan was to drive up into the Bighorn Mountains, and check out Medicine Wheel. The views were okay – they would have been excellent but there was a haze we suspect was wildfire related in the air. We cruised up higher, driving through weird small towns (sorry but true). We read some plaque at a turnout that informed us the Mormons had settled this part of Wyoming. We then drove by a Mormon church that was packed with cars in a town of 63 people. Gotcha.
We eventually wound our way up to Medicine Wheel which is a sacred Native American site found high in the Bighorn Mountains. It is at an altitude of 9600 feet on Medicine Mountain and consists of stones arranged in a circle with spokes. Interestingly, no indigenous group claims it as their own – the Crow people state in their oral history it was already present when they came into the area, and it was built by their ancestors, or “the people without iron”. We were very interested in seeing this – you take a gravel road high onto the mountain, and park and walk another 1.5 miles to the wheel. There were rangers knitting at the parking lot and one at the wheel. It is a very powerful place, and the kids were very well behaved, except Zoe, who chose that time to throw a small tantrum and grumpily lurch around the fenced in wheel. But at least she did it quietly.
We descended back to the parking lot, then covertly obtained our stamps (yeah baby, stamps), then made our way back down to the highway. The drive over to Burgess was beautiful, with winding Tongue River along the side of the road, with lots of fly fisherman out. We then pulled off into the National Forest to find a place to get out the cooler and eat. We found a scary random picnic table and Matt mentioned going to the see the dinosaur footprints in Red Gulch, which would be backtracking all the way back into the mountains on a different highway. Wait, what?!? Sarah thought Matt had vetoed her dino prints, so she was pumped.
So off we went! And HOLY crap the mountains were so much more beautiful on this highway instead. We drove through to Shell, and then saw the dino track site sign and pulled in. Then almost fell down the gravel road as it started, it was so steep. We drove 5 miles out into the middle of nowhere to a BLM site that was beautifully done, with boardwalks and signage.
Millions of years ago, in the middle Jurassic period, there was a beach here – you can see the ripples from waves in the stone. The rippled area is studded with many many dino tracks. Now to be clear, they are sort of millions of years old and you have to use some imagination. And it was very very hot out. But B was in his element – he happily climbed up the crumbling hills near by and searched for fossils while the rest of us sucked down water and moaned up how hot it was.
We then took off, back for the FOURTH time through the Bighorns, and it was stunning. Clearly the path to take through is US-14 east, not US-14 ALT and not any other direction. WOW! We stopped to look at Shell Falls, and marveled at all the rock formations – they list the kind of rock and how old the formation is on signs. The granite formation was 1 billion years old. We would have googled if that means all granite is 1 billion years old and everyone with a granite countertop has a 1 billion year old countertop except that we had no cell phone reception.
We made our way back to Burgess, then finally hit Sheridan on the interstate. Oh my god we were so hungry. We hit up a mickey D’s, then hit the road. Oh yes, Wyoming interstate sucks. At least you can go 80 mph, but it is so boring. Then we turned off of I-90 onto whatever god forsaken highway takes us down to Custer SD, and that was even more boring. We went through some scary-ass towns. Matt wanted to poke his eyes out driving.
We finally hit the Welcome to South Dakota sign, the Black Hills National Forest, and we were here in Custer! Holy tourist trap. People walking everywhere, restaurants open, tourist shops bustling… wow. We pulled into a driveway across the street from Stockdale Lake at the west entrance to Custer State Park, and were greeted by our VRBO owner. She likes to “meet everyone” who rents her cabin, which is conveniently located right next to her house. She then met us at the cabin and showed us the entire place.
The cabin is quite nice! It is originally from 1930s, and then a kitchen, bathroom, and large bedroom were added on. It wasn’t clear to us what the bed situation would be until we got here – the large bedroom has a double and queen. We also found a rollaway bed in a closet so we decided we would all sleep cozy in the bedroom together. Well, the kids were THRILLED about this. No A/C, but lots of windows and fans. We have a large porch overlooking the lake across the road. It is a very eclectically decorated cabin. Gorgeous large Red Wing crock, snowshoes, Native American things, and lots of dolls that appear to be watching us. One is holding a smaller baby doll. Noah: “This is unsettling”. Hey kids, you find a place closer to Custer State Park than this.
Miles driven: 471 miles
Beer drank: Snake River Brewing Pako’s IPA – their motto: “Put our river through your liver”
Monday, August 2, 2021 – Custer, SD
Well, the last main stop of our Last Chance Trip. This is a place Matt and his family never really went to growing up, and a place Sarah has been to as a kid. We’ve done Mount Rushmore at least once as a family before, maybe twice? Theoretically a lot to do, but we’ve always been up in Rapid City. Now we are full on tourist down here in the Black Hills.
We all awakened early (for us, haha), ate our delicious muffins and fruit that our host had out for us (seriously, pistachio muffins?!? and lemon poppy seed? they were amazing) and were on the road by 7:30, as we wanted to get to Wind Cave National Park when the visitor center opened at 8. We heard you had to get there early to get tickets for the cave tours, and we specifically wanted to do the longest and most strenuous one (spoiler: it wasn’t strenuous, and “long” meant 1.5 hours).
We didn’t see a single car on the road, and we pull into the NP parking lot and it was a circus. Line extending out of the visitor center all the way down the sidewalk in front of it, would estimate there were 50-75 people or more in line already?? And people pouring out of cars into the line? Seriously WTF people? So we hurried into line and then Matt pointed out that Wind Cave, as of yesterday, was requiring masks in all buildings and caves, regardless of vaccination status. The thought had never occurred to us that maybe being underground in a dank small cave with a bunch of strangers from all over the US during a pandemic was a bad idea. So we were cool with this. And so were all the other people in line, apparently. Nobody was screaming and crying and shouting about masks. Good.
We made it up and snagged the Campground Tour (there were 3 tours to pick from) for 10:20, and then hit of the gift shop where Zoe purchased everything she could get her hands on until we cut her off (imitation legos, spot it camping game, a baby bison stuffed animal (okay, it WAS adorable), a ranger hat, the list goes on, oh Zoe….). We hung out in the car eating snacks and people watching until it was time to hit the cave (meanwhile, Zoe discarded her jackolope on the floor and was hugging her baby bison the entire time).
On our way to the cave entrance, a lady behind Sarah pointed out her Grandma’s marathon shirt. She got to talking, and turned out the lady is from Superior and claimed to know Sarah’s brother as they both lived in the East End. Alert: Sarah’s brother has no idea who the lady is. Also, she had been to Waupaca and proved it by commenting on the beautiful color of the chain o lakes. Maybe this lady is OUR stalker? either way, small world.
We entered into the elevator to the cave area, and our tour guide, who was fantastic, gave us an intro speech. Ten at a time into the cave elevator we went and then we were down there. The cave system is thought to be one of the largest in the world, with currently only 5% of it explored. There are underground lakes with hundreds of new species discovered in them, and many new kinds of bacteria. We did not get to see those as it would have been going down hundreds more feet – we already were 285 feet below the surface. We had some good question askers on our tour, including B asking about fossils. They went over the history of the caves and exploration, as well as the geology and ecology. It was a fantastic tour, and everyone enjoyed themselves.
Once outside, we walked over to near where the natural entrance tour began. There was an area on the hillside below the visitor center which is where Native Americans and white man became aware that there was a cave system – it was an opening in the rock where it either sucks in air or pushes air out, depending on the day. Today it was blowing cool air out, and was a pretty amazing thing to see.
We then made our way back to the car, and headed off to explore Hot Springs, SD. Eesh. Not recommended. This little town was kind of a failed tourist trap. They also had a plunge mineral waters place, but it didn’t look as maintained as the one in WY. Their downtown was empty, and all the places to access their hot springs were privatized into little spas and fancy boutique places, all of which were empty (at least on a Monday at 1 pm). We did find a little ice cream place (which was slightly suspect itself, but at least in business) and got ourselves a scoop and sat outside (for the record, the Hot Springs size scoop is just that, a scoop – man our kids have been spoiled by Scoopers and various national parks, and the children did curtly inform us about that).
We continued on our way, and after having dessert, we motored home and ate some sandwiches for lunch and rested for a bit, lightly arguing about what to do. For unclear reasons, Zoe was fixated on a pool or swimming. We decided, eh, let’s do a drive through Custer State Park – the entrance is across the street from our little cabin, and off we went! Us, other bedraggled families, and all the bikers. Ah yes, the bikers. That magical time of year when we always go on vacation, Sturgis.
We drove up the Needles highway, children loudly fighting and Matt trying to keep the car from slipping off the road. Once the kids figured out that we would stop to take pictures and they could scamper like mountain goats over the rocks near the edges of the cliffs, they were all about this drive. (Note: Z and B are getting signed up for rock climbing classes that are coincidentally when Noah has orchestra each week, little do they know). We saw a man rock climbing which was awesome.
We then hit up Sylvan Lake, as featured in National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets. It looked amazing. Zoe: “swimming!!! I want to go swimming!!” Now in theory, this lake should be one of the highest elevation lakes east of the Rockies, as the nearby peak is the highest elevation east of the rockies. We don’t actually know if it is. Surface elevation on this lake is ~6000 feet. But it felt so good! The kids all changed in the car, and we walked over and in ran Z and B – the water felt so good that we adults went back to the car for our suits, and then dragged Noah in with us. It was a great mix of drunken college kids, drunken families, and bikers (not drunken, interestingly) hanging out at the beach, jumping illegally off the large rock formations. It felt so good to be in the water. Fine, Zoe, it was a good idea.
We cruised back to the cabin and everyone showered up. Zoe ate 14 things of Annie’s Mac and Cheese before we stopped her. B ate one. The adults and Noah got food from Bugle and Bull, basically the only place open in town on a Monday. Matt went to pick it up, and the bartenders were attentive, the food was ready quickly, and it was delicious. Except Sarah mysteriously had no top bun for her burger. And yet this meal was better than anything experienced in Cody, go figure.
We settled in for the night with a margarita, and enjoyed some time on the porch. Time for another day tomorrow!
Miles driven: 131 miles
Beer drank: none – margaritas!
Tuesday, August 3, 2021 – Custer, SD
The plan was to wake up very early, hit up Jewel Cave for tour tickets, preferably for lantern tour tickets, then hike a nearby hike after. WELL. Everyone was exhausted. Matt staggered out of bed 30 min later than expected, Sarah had slept poorly due to hearing ghost sounds all night, B was sick the prior night with a headache, and Zoe and Noah fought over covers all night. In addition, in a rare disagreement, Matt felt lying about Zoe’s age so we could go on a certain cave tour was wrong. Matt! The rule breaker! Sarah, the rule follower, felt that Zoe being almost 8, the required minimum age, was fine (note: she is 7 years and 2 months). With so much drama and tiredness, we all just decided screw it, and made a lazy morning out of it. Matt picked up donuts in town, and we drank coffee on the porch and enjoyed donuts until the kids staggered out of the bedroom, one by one. Then we all laid around, playing on electronics, watching motorcycles roar by (ah, Sturgis), and watching the Olympics. What a morning.
We ate some lunch (whatever anyone wanted as long as it was already in the house), then decided to lazily make our way to Mount Rushmore. Sarah and Matt were dragging on this, as it really is the worst tourist attraction. At least for our family. We took the Iron Mountain road up to the monument – WOW! The road is beautiful in a different way than Needles Highway from yesterday, and threads through Custer State Park and the Black Hills forest. At one point, you are going through a narrow one lane tunnel that perfectly frames the faces of Mount Rushmore (until some asshole with IL plates tries to get into the tunnel in front of you).
We happily motored about with the many many motorcycles, random UTVs, families, and elderly people, on a beautiful day. Then we popped out at Mount Rushmore! Apparently we hit the jackpot. Our kids are finally old enough not to pitch fits (mostly) (saw a 4 year old girl being dragged along by her dad on the ground, then she streaked past us as her dad tried to catch her) AND we went around 3:30 pm, which was perfect. Yes lots of people, but we had our space, it wasn’t super hot, and lines for the ever important ice cream and stuffed animal (an adult bison) were not long. Looks like in all NPS facilities masks are required now to be indoors, and they even provided them here heading into buildings, which was nice.
We headed back home and collapsed, and ended up getting PizzaMill pizza for supper – a cheese and supreme. Both were delicious! We were pleasantly surprised. After arguing over SpotIt camping (why do all our games devolve into screaming and a child stomping away?), everyone showered up, ready for a day of caving and hiking tomorrow? Haha, it will be our last chance as we aren’t ever coming back here. (We will see).
Miles driven: minimal
Beers drank: still Pako’s IPA – best one we’ve found on this trip so far
Wednesday, August 4, 2021 – Custer, SD (last day!)
Okay, we got our crap together and did what we planned to do yesterday, but were too lazy to actually do. We all dragged ourselves out of bed after another unsettling night of sleeping here. Yes we are all sleeping snug in a single room, which you think would provide protection with safety in numbers, yet it sounds like someone is walking around in the place and honestly, it could be ghosts. Either way, we all were exhausted.
We ate up whatever we could find (we adults split the pistachio muffins which were freaking amazing again) and off we went! We drove up to Jewel Cave National Monument, Wind Cave’s lesser sister. Wind Cave NP: gorgeous, multiple rangers, multiple tours, lines out the door. Jewel Cave NM: small kiosk, only two tours currently available and given our family’s honesty, only one we were eligible for. It cost us like $8. We decided to sign up for the 2:00 tour and head over and go hiking first, which was a GREAT idea!
We then dipped over to Hell Canyon, a 5.3 mile hike up along the ridge and floor of Hell Canyon – this is the original canyon that the natural entrance to Jewel Cave was found in (another case of wind blowing out of a crack on the surface), and had we known that before our hike, we probably would have aggressively explored more caves on the hike looking for air blasting out of them.
We pulled up at the trailhead, geared up, and were off! This is a loop trail and we decided on clockwise (thank you AllTrails for that advice) and began a slow steady climb up the ridgeline. We took several snack breaks early on, and honestly it seemed the kids got bored with the snacks and were more content hiking. Go Zoe, hiking the entire thing herself, even when she was scared (some drop offs that Sarah wished Zoe hadn’t shown her).
We ambled out to a look out, then maybe went a bit more off course as team leaders Sarah and Zoe missed a trail sign (sorry, family) but soon enough we were stumbling along on the top of the wall of the canyon, with dramatic views down. This is a trail also used by horses and mountain bikers (oh good god, cannot even imagine biking this). We then noted some horses down on the canyon floor, and knew we would be meeting them soon. But first, we looked up and looking down at us, and it was a herd of bighorn sheep. Like dozens of them. All staring at us. Then up ahead, they were on our trail. Like a dozen of them. And stretching below the trail. Huh. We know how to ward off black bears, grizzly bears, etc. But bighorn sheep…. ??? Unsure. They did make some sounds at us, and we vaguely recalled that they do something with their big curly horns, but these horns were smaller, were they actually goats? We had no cell service to confirm any of our knowledge. So we sat there and waited for the horse people to come towards us. Then they appeared. And sat there. Great. So they ended up dismounting and walking their horses through the goat/sheep things, which scattered a bit, and then rode past us. So on we went, with several of the goat/sheep creatures still glaring down at us from above the ridge. Very cool!
What the kids were most excited for were the reported 4 creek crossings. We descended rapidly into the canyon, and there appeared to be a dry creek bed. Bummer. We found some caves, including one that Zoe desperately wanted in to.
Then we hit the creek crossings! 4 of them, all involved jumping on rocks to get across, but maybe only 6-12 inches deep at most. Sarah just happily splashed through the creek, boots and all.
Total mileage was ~6 miles after, and Z and B ran the last 1/4 mile of it. GREAT hike!
We then picnicked and headed over to the Jewel Cave visitor center before our tour. They had a nice exhibit and did confirm for us that we saw bighorn sheep, not goats. Zoe promptly purchased a bighorn sheep stuffed animal. We stamped our passports, and off we went for the tour!
They warned us it was a strenuous hike down to the cave, and honestly, this time they were not lying. We gathered down by the cave – usually there is an elevator down to a room filled with crystals, but the elevator which was been in operation since the 1960s is being repaired, so this is an abridged tour. It’s okay. We want an elevator that will not break down if we are doing that. We were lead to a room through an airlock and heard a 15-20 min presentation from a ranger and enjoyed ourselves. Out we came, and powered our way back up the hill to the visitor center.
We decided to hang around for a bit, and found a stone slot near the little theater and visitor center. If you want to do one of the actual caving tours, you have to be able to slide into the stone thing and through. Zoe did it multiple times, B got through, Noah refused to try. Matt tried and got stuck and same with Sarah. There were multiple spectators including a family all clutching full size national park passport books (with bookmarks, dang) and a ranger who wandered over and told Matt he could get through, so he knows Matt could get through. It was a good time. Then we were like, man, we are in a cave mood, so we drove off to find the natural entrance to the cave, which was near our picnic area. We explored around, and then took off for ice cream!
Custer was a hot mess, with motorcycles and ravenous families everywhere. We ultimately settled on Horatio’s Ice Cream place which was delicious and not super stingy. We then cruised home, starting packing, and got ready for journey home tomorrow. Kids ate leftovers and mac and cheese (oh, Zoe) and we got Maria’s Mexican Food Truck food which was JUST PERFECT, esp with what was left of our margaritas.
We packed up, showered up, and then relaxed until bedtime. Bye, Custer, and your lack of staffing in restaurants, motorcyclists, and caves!
Miles driven: negligible again
Beer drank: margaritas!
Thursday, August 5, 2021 – Custer, SD to Sioux Falls, SD
And we are off! Up on time and out the door. Good bye creepy haunted cabin and dolls with eyes that follow you! Matt and Sarah had trouble sleeping – it REALLY sounded like someone was walking around the cabin last night. We cannot wait to sleep in a hotel tonight. Oh my god. Even with THREE fans going last night, we could hear something creeping around inside, super freaky.
Anyway, we stopped at Miner’s Coffee company for some drip coffee to fuel us – and we were off to Wall Drug! We pulled up, and Matt came back with a dozen delicious fresh PERFECT donuts! Oh my god, they are so good. Sarah ate two right away and didn’t feel as sick as she should have. Then we motored on.
The crowning achievement of this trip was obtaining Delta-01 Minuteman missile Launch Control Facility tour tickets. They are sold out weeks in advance, and go on sale 90 days before the tour date you want. We have driven by the little missile site for years, but usually have been unable to predict what day we would be in the area. NOT THIS TIME. Matt waited until midnight 90 days ago, then 1 am because stupid Mountain time, and those tickets were ours!! Four tours a day at 6 people each, and we got one! Today we guesstimated our time a bit wrong – we had 11 am tickets and were there by 10 am, so we jaunted over to the Minuteman National monument site 4 minutes down the highway, and looked at the exhibits and stamped our passports. (AND Matt finally found expander packs for our little passport books, as we ran out of space for stamps for the Rocky Mountain region lol).
We then went back over to the minuteman site. You walked up to a chain link fence and waited there in the hot sun next to a sign that said “Authorization of deadly force beyond this point” or something like that. YEAH. This guy in a NPS ranger outfit comes out and greets us and the other guy in our group. He said they have been sold out of tickets for months and get calls daily asking if there have been cancellations. He lets us in and gave us a tour – this was the place where the military personnel in charge of this missile lived, and we got to go down in the command room for the missile. He gave a detailed description and was an excellent tour guide. He was in the Air Force, then had been a teacher for 30 years and retired after this last year. He also had the same glitter iPhone case that Sarah does, endearing him to her.
We had an excellent experience and would recommend the tour to anyone interested in Cold War history – also we did the tour years ago at the Air Force Base nearby and would highly recommend that one as well.
Off we went in the car. We are so done. South Dakota is so boring. Have been cycling through the kids music preferences (Zoe: home; Noah: various classical violin pieces; Z: YouTube Minecraft and Among Us video music). We stopped for lunch at a rest stop and ate the fastest ever due to all the flies. And 96 degrees temps. Saw a woman climb out of a semi with a large knife and watermelon and cut it behind the cab. OMG that watermelon looked so good.
We did spin through Mitchell, SD as we were tossing around the idea of hitting up the Corn Palace. Ultimately based on the biker rally going on in front of the Corn Palace, we decided “maybe not this year” (geez, if we don’t get there on the Last Chance Road Trip, I think we can safely say we will never ever go there).
We hit up the Staybridge Suites in Sioux Falls, with the entire area looking vaguely familiar to us? Kids played in the pool, and we all relaxed and watched the Olympics while dining on Chevy’s Tex Mex Food. Like, we get that it’s trashy, but every time we come to Sioux Falls we get it, because this was our treat when we lived in Tacoma (note: the Tacoma location went out of business more than 10y ago). And it was delicious this time around! There’s a reason this one is still in business.
Miles driven: 418 miles
Beer drank: margarita theme, anyone?
Friday, August 6, 2021 – Sioux Falls, SD to Waupaca, WI (home!)
And we were off! Hit up a Caribou Coffee for coffee and bagels, and then we were on the road. This is one of the worst drives – through southern Minnesota. It basically is field after field of corn. This is one of the reasons why America is unhealthy – many fields of corn used for feed or making high fructose corn syrup. We have time to come up with all these criticisms because the drive is so boring. Also, we drive through Worthington, MN, the most soulless city in America. Years ago we stayed in a hotel there, and everything about it was empty. Not like fun, Stephen King vibes. Oh no, that would give Worthington personality. It has none. We drove by it, and still feel the same way. Have you ever heard of that city? NO. No one has.
Anyway, we stopped at Culver’s in Austin, MN to grab lunch (and had vague recollections of doing that in the past), and motored on. We tried to take a pic of us standing in the Mississippi River to make a cool picture to contrast with us standing in the headwaters at the start of the trip, but there seemed to be a lot of muck at the boat landing we found, so we settled on this photo instead. We then hit up Starbucks for some coffee in LaCrosse (which was not the best we have ever had).
Then we motored on through deliverance country… ahem, Adams County, then up the interstate, over to 10, and home we were! Cats had been well fed by Grandma Darlene, and no major disasters occurred while we were gone! (Well, aside from the massive storms that destroyed many trees and damaged many cabins on our little lake in Portage County – our cabin was fine but the canoe and kayaks took a beating…). Home sweet home!
Miles driven: 460 miles
Grand total: 3741.9 miles
Beers drank: Lupulin 8 Count IPA
So what is the plan for next year?? Who knows! Thinking maybe doing a trip in June and hitting up the American Southwest? We need to expand our stamp collection to something beyond the Rocky Mountains, Midwest and Pacific Northwest!