After leaving Madison we headed northwest to the Mississippi River. I had heard that the northern section of the river was quite beautiful and I wanted to drive along it to make our way to Minneapolis. We stopped for lunch at Perrot State Park in Wisconsin which has trails going up along the bluffs, offering a fantastic view of the river and Minnesota on the other side. Later we stopped in Wabasha, MN at the National Eagle Center, an eagle sanctuary that has some rehabilitated bald eagles and exhibits about the bird, along with great views of the Mississippi. We wanted to stop for dinner in Red Wing but it happened to be a holiday, the 4th of July, and almost everything was closed. We kept driving to Minneapolis instead and checked into our room, a one bedroom suite downtown in Embassy Suites, Minneapolis, free with Hilton certificates. The room was nice and big with a dining table, sectional sleeper sofa, and bedroom with a king size bed. This part of the city also seemed pretty dead, so we ordered take out and went to bed.
The next morning we decided to walk over to the sculpture garden to see the famous spoon and cherry sculpture. The hotel normally offers free breakfast but because of staffing shortages all they had was some hard boiled eggs and yogurt, which the kids did not want. We told them we would eat breakfast out after our walk. The walk to the gardens was not far but it was very hot, about 96 degrees before noon! The sculptures were great and luckily they had some mist spraying so we could cool off. We decided to get brunch at a local place, Eggy’s, on the way home, and the wait was an hour for a table. We went over to a local game shop and bought a family version of Cards Against Humanity and played that while we waited. Once we got our table we still had to wait in line to order at the counter! The food was worth the wait however. It was really good and very filling. We were extremely full as we walked back to the hotel, stopping at the Mary Tyler Moore statue so I could do my best impersonation.
Since it was so hot out we spent the rest of the afternoon in the hotel, swimming in their pool and resting. That evening we drove over to Minnehaha park, which is a park in the city that has a gorgeous waterfall and trails along the river. It was the day after the 4th of July so it was a holiday, and lots of families were there picknicking and hanging out by the river. Afterwards we drove over to the Lyn Lakes neighborhood for some Vietnamese food and gourmet ice cream.
The next day was rainy and I had wanted to visit some of the local fabric shops. My husband and the kids wanted to see Mall Of America so they took an Uber out there. I found some amazing pieces of fabric and had fun exploring the various neighborhoods. They enjoyed seeing the largest mall in the world, although my husband said, “I don’t need to go back there.” We wanted to try some African food for dinner since there is a large Somali population in Minneapolis. We ended up getting some great Ethiopian food from Grubhub and called it a night.
We started the next leg of our journey heading towards Walnut Grove, Minnesota, where Laura Ingalls Wilder spent some of her childhood and the Little House on the Prairie series was set. Along the way, as we drove through rural Minnesota, my youngest son’s stomach was upset, and unfortunately he threw up all over the car. It turns out he wasn’t sick, he just had a bad reaction to the bagel with butter and orange juice he had for breakfast. After getting him cleaned up we continued and made it to the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum. It is small and has some artifacts and a lot of replicas of the time period, but as a fan of her books and the TV show, I enjoyed it.
The rest of the day we spent driving across South Dakota, stopping in Sioux Falls for lunch. They had a great food co-op where we stocked up on food for camping. We made it to our next destination, Badlands National Park, around dinner time. The scenery was amazing and we had a campsite in the park. The problem was there were 20 mph winds whipping across the prairie, which made setting up camp a little rough! After dinner we went to bed but the winds kept going and practically blew the tents down on top of us. Then it started thunderstorming! The kids and I got so freaked out we spent part of the night in the car. It reminded me of our first night camping in Zion NP through a crazy thunderstorm. Things finally calmed down and we got a little sleep, but not much.
The next morning we headed to the trails early to try to beat the heat. It was going to be in the high 90s in the park. We went and did the Window, Door, and Notch trails which are short trails that take you through the mud buttes and to some great views of the Badlands. We even spied some longhorn sheep. You are also allowed to hike off trail at Badlands so we had some fun exploring around the buttes.
After some time on the trails we stopped at the visitor center. This was our first encounter with the huge National Park crowds of 2021. They had a cool exhibit about the park but it was shoulder to shoulder with people. They also had a fossil room with specimens found in the park and a few scientists working on fossils who you could talk to about their work. Badlands has tons of fossils of post-dinosaur animals, such as the first horses. Visitors find them all the time and if you find a fossil you are asked to report it to the park service.
After lunch we decided to do the driving loop trail but we stopped to hike Saddle Pass and the small Fossil trail. It started getting really hot so we spent the rest of the time in the car stopping at overlooks to see the amazing vistas. We made our way into the town of Wall to visit the famous Wall drug, which was totally packed and kind of cheesy, but they did have a camping store where we picked up some supplies we were needing. We also stopped in the Buffalo National Grasslands visitor center which has some nice exhibits about the prairie if you need to escape from Wall drug. We started getting some weather warnings on our phone that a bad thunderstorm was going to be moving through the area with golf ball side hail 😳 and we started freaking out about being in tents through it. We headed back to camp and watched the weather, and luckily the storm passed us by. When it got dark we walked over to the ranger program about the night sky. They had telescopes out for us to use.
Unfortunately, after we went to bed, the wind and rain started again. My youngest son was so freaked out he came into the tent with me. We did not need to sleep in the car but we had another night with little sleep.
The next morning we wearily packed up camp and headed west into the Black Hills of South Dakota. About 90 minutes from Badlands is Mt. Rushmore. It was pretty cool to enter the Black Hills and see the landscape change from yellow, brown, and flat, to mountainous with green trees. The towns around Mt. Rushmore are very touristy and we drove straight to the park. The National Monument is free but there are huge parking decks around it and they charge $10 to park. It was incredibly crowded but the monument is so big you can still get a great view. We were a little freaked out by the size of the crowds so we decided to skip the museum and headed out.
We drove over to Custer State Park, which I had heard was amazing. I wanted to camp there but their campsites book as soon as they are released. We ended up at Sylvan Lake, which it turns out is one of the “Crown Jewels” of the park. It is a damned up river and a beautiful small lake surrounded by huge granite rocks. Many people were out swimming, picknicking, and walking around the lake. We hiked the trail around the lake which takes you up and over some of the large boulders and gives some great views. They also have a lodge on the lake and kayaks and paddle boards to rent.
We left the park and headed over to our campsite past the town of Custer in the Black Hills National Forest. We were watching the forecast and saw that it was going to thunderstorm that evening. We were so tired after camping through two thunderstorms in Badlands we couldn’t stomach the thought of another sleepless and scary night. I checked what rooms were available in Custer and luckily I was able to book a room at the Holiday Inn using IHG points. We still checked in at the campground and set up our tents. Afterwards we decided to drive the Needles highway through Custer State Park, which is a scenic highway that goes through some of the largest granite rock formations, with one lane tunnels through some of them. You ready do feel like you are driving through the eye of a needle! It was incredible and we stopped at some of the lookouts over the Black Hills. At one we saw a mountain goat and her kid!
We had dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Custer and then went to bed, as we were going to wake up super early the next day to get cave tour tickets at Wind Cave National Park.
We arrived at the park around 6:15am and were the 2nd ones in line but people started coming. For this park you cannot reserve the tour tickets online and must line up at the visitor center to buy them when they open. I read online that people get there at 8am when it opens and the line is already 200 people long! I didn’t think it was that bad but getting there early did allow us to get our choice of tour so we got tickets for the Fairgrounds tour at 11am. We obviously had some time after that so we ate breakfast and had some coffee at a picnic area of the park and explored the visitor’s center. Our tour was awesome; about 90 minutes through Wind Cave, a dry cave with some interesting “boxwork” and “popcorn” formations.
After the tour we had lunch in Custer and got some groceries and then we headed back to Custer State Park. This time we decided to drive the Wildlife route in the park in the hopes of seeing some bison, as the park does have a herd. The drive was beautiful but we did not spy any bison. We did see wild burros that live in the park and are very people friendly. We also stopped at the visitor center. This park is huge and well funded, it is on par with many of the national parks and it would have been fun to camp there.
We headed over to our campsite, made dinner, and had a nice evening around the campfire. It did not thunderstorm but it did get rather chilly at night, and we worried a little that we would be cold while camping in Yellowstone.
The next morning we broke down camp and headed northwest to Devil’s Tower National Monument, which was about a 90 minute drive away. Along the way we stopped in Sundance, WY, because a friend of mine from college happened to be on a road trip out there and wanted to say hi. We got to Devil’s Tower around 3 and could see the huge rock formation rising up in the distance out of the flat prairie. It was pretty amazing to finally see in person what we had seen for years in pictures and movies, of course the most famous being Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
When we got to the park it was really crowded, but we did the hike around the huge tower, staring up at it in awe the whole time. It was amazing to see the naturally formed rock columns up close and to learn about how they were formed. We also got to see some rock climbers ascending and we learned how the Indigenous people saw this sacred space, which they called, Bear (something). We left around 5 and drove for many hours across Wyoming, stopping in Casper for dinner. We finally made it to Riverton, WY, where I had booked a Hampton Inn on points. The hotel was actually really nice and had a great breakfast including home fries with steak!
This leg of the trip was not without its trials but overall was pretty cool. Looking back we would have spent less time in Minneapolis. Badlands National Park was amazing and the Black Hills were an awesome surprise, especially Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park. I would highly recommend a visit to this area and if you can camp at Custer State Park, it would be worth it to spend some time there. Devil’s Tower was mind-blowing and also worth the drive, and could easily be worked into a trip to the Black Hills.