Back in the late ’90s we had driven through the night, westward across the Canadian prairies, in a rush against time to deliver a drive-away car to Vancouver. We wanted to take our time through the prairies, this time in South Dakota, exploring the less traveled back roads. The awe-inspiring scenery South Dakota offers varies from bright green farmlands and pastures to chiseled spires, deep canyons, and jagged buttes of Badlands National Park, before reaching Black Hills National Forest where granite peaks and forested mountains dominate the skyline.
We entered South Dakota from the east through Minnesota, and made our way southwest. Our first stop was on Lake Kampeska in Watertown where we swam, bathed, and settled into our chairs with ice-cold beers, enjoying the breeze off the lake.
The wind suddenly picked up and the sky darkened, whitecaps peaking on the lake’s surface. The sky lit up with lightning from every direction, surrounding us. All through the night the storm stayed with us, rocking the truck and lighting up the windows, as heavy rains washed the dust off the camper. We were greeted in the morning with still waters and colourful skies. As we drove through South Dakota, we learned this would be the norm. Most nights it stormed, and every day was beautiful.
In search of a garage we headed for the town of Pierre.
Garages with 14′ bay doors, who specialize in Dodge manual diesels, we’re learning, are few and far between. The search continues… We decide to treat ourselves to a real campground, and find a nice spot on the lake in Farm State Park, Pierre. We take advantage of the facilities- dump our wastewater, rinse the tank, fill our freshwater, and go for a SUP. It would be the only campground we pay for in over 3 months.
“You’ve got to visit Wall Drug,” a friend insisted.
We asked, “What’s Wall Drug?”
All along the highway for hours and hours we kept seeing these signs for Wall Drug. So of course we had to check it out…
Mr. Fox has seen better days.
The Wall Drug store, as it turns out is 76,000 sq ft, and got its meagre start back in 1931 during the Depression, when founders Ted and Dorothy offered free ice water to thirsty travelers. It’s still a pharmacy, and now home to 5 cent coffee, an arcade, T-Rex, famous homemade donuts, fine art, historic artifacts, and souvenirs, among many other attractions. Word is, their flashy signs can even be seen on highways through Europe! Wall is also the northern gateway to Badlands National Park.
We spend the day driving through the Badlands, past buffalo (bison), prairie dogs, and wildflowers. It was quite a sight! We drove the backroads west through the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. There was something in the air, that didn’t quite feel right. It didn’t help we were cautioned not to drive through here. So we headed for the mountains, the Black Hills, into the town of Hot Springs, where we found a quiet place to camp for the night along a little river in a pretty park just beyond town.
Custer State Park beckoned, promising more scenic routes, wildlife, pristine lakes, and rugged mountains. Also a wildlife reserve in the Black Hills of southwestern South Dakota, the park is home to a famous herd of 1500 free roaming bison. Elk, mule deer, white tailed deer, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, mountain lions, and wild burros also inhabit the park.
We entered the park from the west side, and followed the wildlife loop down and up around counter-clockwise to Needles Highway. It was amazing to sit and wait while hundreds of bison strolled across the road right in front of us, with all the time in the world. There were so many cute calves, only weeks old, alongside playful youngsters, moms and dads, and slower elders.
Following Needles Pass along the northern part of the lake, we were not prepared for the extremely narrow, winding, steep roads through the granite mountains. Nimble cars took corners too fast, in the middle of the road, barely missing our bush bumper. More than once the outer left tire of our dually truck left the road, with nothing but steep forested canyons beyond. Yet nothing prepared us for the impossibly tight single lane tunnels ahead. The alternative was to head back the route we came. With a quick measure with our tape, we decided to give it a shot. We entered Tunnel #6, measuring a mere 9′ wide by 12.3′ tall. Once in, there was no backing up. We banked on the measurements being a bit generous. Our truck camper measured a solid 9′ wide by 12′ tall…
With only inches to spare before grinding our sides into rock, Stefan’s leg was shaking intensely while holding control on the clutch.
Strangers cheered us on, their cameras flashing, as we made it through unscathed! Such RELIEF, whew!! PS, don’t try this in your RV. We were pretty dumb for taking such a risk, as exciting as it was.
Cute critters were everywhere!
Onward we drove to Sylvan Lake…
A hike was due, the perfect cure for peaked nerves after Tunnel 6. A bit of rain wouldn’t keep us from hiking the 3 miles up to Harney Peak. The view was well worth it!
Always in search of a nice free place to camp, we returned to Stokade Lake, where we entered the park earlier that day. The lake was beautiful and glassy, with mountains beyond, and grasses in front, framing the lake. It was a great place to make dinner at least. Shortly after the sun began to set, a warden arrived to suggest a campsite. Not in our budget, we settled for a grocery store parking lot in nearby Custer City.
After many phone calls, we found a garage in Billings, Montana. Dodge diesel specialists, we carried on a northwest route with hope for our ailing ride. Such pretty scenery followed the road, leaving us with a strong and memorable impression of South Dakota.
We spent the following 6 nights in Montana, at the Pro Tech Automotive & Diesel parking lot in Billings. The first night we were woken up to the pitching noise of a pneumatic drill. Someone was trying to steal wheels off one of the cars in the lot. We called the police, but the crooks were long gone by then, empty handed. We figured they’d be back with different tools sooner or later. And they did return! While we slept they managed to stealthily make away with 4 wheels, leaving the stripped truck propped up on rocks. We felt sick knowing we were right there and could have helped the police catch the guilty party. At least the truck they chose to rob had been abandoned by its owner for over 4 months. It could have been worse.
Rick, our new friend at Pro Tech, insisted we rent a car and go out to explore “God’s Country” while his crew waited for parts to rebuilt our drivetrain. It was a good call! We spent Saturday in Yellowstone National Park, ooo’d and awe’d as we drove in from the northeast Bear Tooth Pass entrance through mountains and weather in the morning, and all afternoon by the hot springs plateaus, geysers, and paint pots. It was rushed, a trip that could have taken a week, but we were so glad to see all that we did, especially as the sun set through Chief Joseph Pass on our way back to Billings.
It was late afternoon as we were leaving Yellowstone…
Heards of wild antelope, bison, and free roaming cattle speckled the vast and changing landscape.
We passed by mountains, rolling pastures, and desert buttes that wouldn’t have changed much in millions of years, long before humans walked the earth.
We’ll be back to visit Montana again for sure, with lots of time to roam and appreciate all this breathtaking state has to share.
Next, we travel north to Alberta, then west to British Columbia and Vancouver Island before heading south…