Wild West Road Trip 2017 Part 3: Eastern Wyoming and South Dakota

Our last day in Jackson Hole was a sad one. We did not expect to love the area as much as we did and there was still a lot to do and see, not just in Yellowstone, but in the Grand Tetons as well. But we got up early to visit one last time before heading through Wyoming to Devil’s Tower and on to Deadwood, South Dakota where we stayed as a base for visiting Mt. Rushmore and Badlands National Park before heading back home.

It was during this time, though that wildfires started burning more area, causing a haze (and hazard) over a lot of Wyoming, Montana, and even Colorado. We got lucky that our visit was not affected by the fires.

Day 14: Leave Teton Village for Devil’s Tower and Deadwood, South Dakota (travel time: about 8 hours in the car plus about 4 hours of stops)

It was a beautiful morning, so we got up early to see Schwabacher’s Landing (Grand Tetons) before leaving the area. It is a stunningly beautiful spot that is quite popular for weddings. There were mostly just photographers there when we arrived, all of us trying to get a good picture of a moose cow grazing in the Snake River.

Schwabacher's Landing, Grand Tetons

The first portion of our drive east was on a desolate highway in Wyoming dotted with small towns. The mountain terrain flattened to prairies covered with cattle, often interrupted by buttes of varying sizes. We passed many historic sites, including the infamous Teapot Dome! As we drove through the area, we listened to music on the Native American radio stations. The littlest Eats was not a fan, but we thought it was really interesting.

Side note: it was great to have a minivan with a huge gas tank, because there were long stretches where we saw no other people--not gas stations, cars, nothing but cows and grass (and signs advertising Wall Drug). Luckily, we had plenty of food for sandwiches and snacks in the car, too.

Typical view on Wyoming highways headed east.

We arrived at Devil’s Tower around 5:30 p.m., which is the absolute perfect time in mid-July. We were very fortunate to have clear weather, so the late afternoon sun cast it in a golden glow. This is a sacred site for the Native Americans and it has many prayer cloths and bundles left as offerings. Devil’s Tower was a real highlight for my husband and me. He’s more a fan due to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (which we both saw as children), but I also recall the site from a short film that used to play during intermission at the drive-in theater when I was a kid. Devil’s Tower was always shown during a particularly dramatic portion of the music and it had quite the impact on my memory.

Sunset at Devil's Tower

Our expectations of the site were exceeded by far, though. It was an amazing experience; magical and spiritual. Even the hum of a busload of tourists that arrived shortly after us didn’t disturb the tremendous feeling of peace we felt being there. At times, the only sounds we heard was the whistling of the wind and an eagle flying around. While there, we stopped at a souvenir store and mailed an alien postcard to my husband’s brother’s family. Devil's Tower is almost as popular among believers in ETs and ALFs as Area 51.

We stayed until just after 7:30 and about an hour or so later, we arrived in Deadwood, South Dakota at The Lodge at Deadwood. Short-term rentals are a little harder to come by in this area, which is a popular gaming (gambling) area. The Lodge is a casino hotel, but you don’t have to go through the casino to get to the rooms and it had a really fun indoor water park that I figured would be great for some much-needed downtime after a couple of weeks of intense activity. The hotel was really nice and comfortable and not very expensive at all. It’s at the base of Mt. Roosevelt, so it’s perched above the main tourist zone, making it a much quieter place to stay than in town. One afternoon, we found a herd of bighorn sheep ewes grazing on the lawn!

Bighorn sheep ewes and a lamb finishing up their graze on the hotel lawn.

Day 15: Mt. Rushmore and Deadwood (travel time: about an hour and a half to Mt. Rushmore)

We arrived at Mt. Rushmore a little after 10 a.m. (it is about an hour and a half from Deadwood through the Black Hills National Forest). It was already full of tourists and was the most crowded site we’d been to during the trip (since the site is pretty concentrated as opposed to an area that is spread out for hiking and nature viewing). Despite already being extraordinarily hot, the mid-morning sun was good for nice pictures (the monument faces east).

Mt. Rushmore from the observation deck.

Mt. Rushmore was a huge disappointment for several reasons. Though I should note that I didn’t do a lot of research beforehand. First, it was incredibly tacky. I learned that it was created purely as a tourist destination, the area officials being concerned that the natural beauty was not enough of a tourism draw. The designer, Gutzon Borglum was er, not a good dude, either. After being so impressed by the beauty and spirituality of Devil’s Tower, it was disappointing to see the beautiful landscape marred by this monument. 

Second, and less importantly, I’d had an unrealistic idea of what eating lunch at the monument would be like. I pictured civilized people having table service while admiring the view thanks to seeing North by Northwest. Reality was a bunch of tourists in our touristy clothing eating very bad food in a cafeteria. The food selections were so terrible, that I only had a small side salad to eat.

Very sad salad in the cafeteria overlooking Mt. Rushmore. Not at all what North by Northwest had inspired in my expectations.

Lastly, the visitors to this monument were very different from the nature lovers at the national parks. I saw as much confederate flag paraphernalia as I’ve seen in downtown Nashville during peak season. Did they get it confused with Stone Mountain, I wondered? Are they unaware that they’re admiring an image of Abraham Lincoln and other representatives of a United States?

Anyway, we ate our sad lunch and a $6 cup of Jefferson’s vanilla ice cream and headed through the tourist traps and back to Deadwood.

For $6, you have have a scoop of vanilla ice cream made from Thomas Jefferson's recipe (that he brought from France).

Deadwood is an historic “old west” town and very much a tourist trap, but in a fun way. There is interesting people-watching and shopping (plenty of confederate flag merchandise, which I would love to say I don’t understand because of the location but…). We stopped in and had a family “wild west” photo taken (neither of us did this with our families as kids, so it was really fun to do it with ours) and ate at one of the oldest buildings in town, the Deadwood Social Club (neat place with lots of old photos). We drove around downtown a bit; many of the homes were built in the late 1800s and are beautiful Victorian style. We did not visit the famous Mount Moriah cemetery (where Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane, and a number of other famous people that lived in the area are buried), but we did drive past. It’s a gorgeous area that’s very hilly.

Downtown Deadwood, South Dakota (popular destination for motorcycle enthusiasts).

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at Taco John’s, the other western taco favorite. They also feature tater tots, so we got some tater tot nachos. Not as good as Taco Time, but I still love the tater tot option. We ate dinner in the “water park” area, which thrilled the kiddo.

Day 16: Wall Drug and Badlands National Park (travel time 1-2 hours)

I’m not quite sure when I first heard of Wall Drug, but it is legendary, so we were excited to visit. It’s about an hour away from Deadwood and on the way to Badlands National Park. It’s a large complex now that sells just about everything you can imagine (there is an actual drug store), but mostly souvenirs and food. We had a brunch (freshly made donuts, pancakes, and more) as well as ice cream before wandering the grounds. It was definitely a fun stop.

Wall Drug main entrance
Happy kid with a freshly-made donut at Wall Drug.
The famous Wall Drug jackalope in the "back yard."
Wall Drug ice cream (it's really good). Mine is the soft serve with both caramel and hot fudge. Heh.

On the way to Badlands, we stopped at the Minuteman Missile Monument, where our daughter got a quick lesson about the Cold War. Then, outside the Badlands, we stopped at The Ranch and fed a few of the resident prairie dogs.

The Ranch outside Badlands National Park.

Once we arrived at the Badlands (east entrance), we did a couple of short hikes, the Door Trail and the Cliff Shelf trail. This area is truly amazing. The prairie gives way to this landscape that is how I imagine Mars must be. It’s very stark, too how the prairie grassland just stops and the Badlands are revealed. Pictures don’t do it justice. We saw a lot of wildlife here, too including more bighorn sheep, pronghorns, prairie dogs, and a burrowing owl.

Overlooking the Badlands.
Wide angle view of how prairie gives way to the Badlands. A storm was moving through at the time.
Bighorn sheep trot alongside cars in Badlands.

We drove through the Badlands and up to the west entrance and then back to Wall Drug for dinner. I was happy to find a Gardenburger on the menu!

Headed back to Deadwood after leaving Badlands west entrance.

Day 17: Deadwood to Pacific Junction, Iowa (travel time: about 10 hours including stops)

With the fun part of our vacation over, it was time to head back to Nashville. I chose a small hotel in Pacific Junction, Iowa for our overnight because it was cheap, safe, and convenient (it was definitely a no-frills place; it even had real keys for the doors). On the way, I thought we might detour for the Corn Palace, but I was disappointed to discover that the corn is used primarily for decoration and that there was no large selection of culinary corn specialties (just a few options for food including popcorn and corn on the cob). What a missed opportunity. So we skipped it.

It had been quite some time since I had vegetables, so I was happy to discover a place called Al’s Oasis in Oacoma, South Dakota, which is a bit like a mini Wall Drug (in that there are souvenir stores in the complex). We had an early dinner at their salad bar, which had several types of salad greens and all the typical toppings and dressings plus pasta salads, potato salads, and a dessert bar with fresh fruit, pastries, and (of course) puddings. At $8 per person (and $4.75 per kid), it was a great value. Even Mini Eats ate vegetables on her salad! And we were full for the evening, so we didn’t have to stop for dinner. We did have a mishap with the minivan that resulted in having to move all of our stuff into a GMC Acadia at the Sioux City airport, though. That wasn’t fun. But we were fortunate that they had a vehicle that could hold all of our gear.

Day 17: Pacific Junction, Iowa to Nashville (travel time: about 11 hours)

I was able to time most of our travel to avoid rush hour in the major cities, but could not avoid it for St. Louis on the return. Fortunately, we were headed in the opposite direction of most of their traffic, so it wasn’t too bad. But there was congestion a full hour outside the city, which made me realize how small Nashville really is.

I made a wonderful discovery on the way, though. With another “late lunch” stop (a “linner,” if you will), the other members voted to stop at Denny’s. Mr. Eats loves breakfast for dinner and Mini is all about pancakes. But I was still craving salad, so the server let me order a simple grilled cheese sandwich with a side of their kale salad. The kid and I both loved this salad, that was dressed with lowfat vanilla yogurt and topped with cranberries, almonds, granola, and feta. I make it at home now (minus the feta).

After fueling up outside St. Louis, we made our last stop at the rest area in Metropolis, Illinois for a photo op. We arrived home tired and sad and already wanting to go back to Jackson Hole around 10 p.m.

The last photo from our vacation, Metropolis, Illinois.

Catch up! See Wild West Road Trip 2017 Part 1: Colorado and Wild West Road Trip 2017 Part 2: Utah and Wyoming, too.

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