Wind Cave-Badlands-Minuteman Missile
Trip Start Jun 20, 2012
40Trip End Jul 31, 2013
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After the week in Wyoming, we began our journey to South Dakota through the Bighorn National Forest. The drive was quite dramatic with the sky looking as if it were about to explode its fury, which contributed to amazing colors enhancing the already spectacular views. During our time at Yellowstone and Tetons National Parks, Michael was hoping to see a moose, having not before seen one in the wild. Unfortunately,no such luck. However, as we reached the high prairie of our sheer climb into the Bighorn Forest, there thew were! Geula spotted 2 cows just off the highway munching on the greens. We parked the car and watched for a while - there was no one else in sight. They were fun to watch, much smaller than their male counterparts, but equally great
Once we reached South Dakota, our first stop was to see Mt. Rushmore. After seeing these images in school books and on many postcards, the boys and Geula were interested in seeing it firsthand. Across the board, it was less impressive than they had imagined it would be. Nonetheless, it was one of those "things to see". After reading about this site, we learned more about that its complex history with the Native American tribes (particularly the Sioux) since this monument is carved into the Black Hills, which were not only "owned" by the Sioux, but were considered their spiritual epicenter. To forever have the carvings of "white men" who defeated them prominent in this land that they hold evokes strong emotions. Not unlike other countries, our Nation has a past with different peoples within our borders that is filled with shame. Seeing this first hand versus learning this in books makes a profoundly different impact.
We spent the afternoon in Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis. For anyone who's never heard about this event, well, it's worth googling. This is a yearly event, which brings serious hard-core bikers to this little town in SD from all over the US and the World - we're talking about 400,000-600,000 hardcore bikers to a town with a year-round population that is less than 7,000 (the entire State of South Dakota is only 750,000 - the fifth-least dense state in the US with 11 inhabitants per square mile). We met Aussies, Kiwis and people from many other countries - all in leather of every conceivable kind
The next couple of days we spent visiting the Wind Cave National Park. We camped at the park in a wonderful campsite. The park is comprised of beautiful rolling meadows with one of the longest measured caves in the world underfoot. At over 130 measured miles, experts have determined that only about 5% of the cave has been explored - wow! The cave also is teeming with rare boxwork formations (over 95% of the known boxwork in the word is found here) and is considered the world's most complex cave - who knew? We participated in a ranger-led tour, which was a fantastic experience with an animated and informed guide. As part of the tour, we not only saw the cave in light, but also in darkness. The park ranger wanted to give us the experience of what its like to be a cave explorer, crawling through the narrow paths in complete darkness
We visited areas in the Black Hills around Wind Cave National Park, which are worth a look for those traveling this area. Custer State Park, named after General Custer, is a fabulous park. The park contains the famous Needles Highway. It was great to drive through and marvel at the rock spires. Also, Sylvan Lake is a nice spot in this park, with beautiful views, rock climbing around the lake, prevalent (but officially prohibited) intense rock jumping into the lake and a nice beach. We enjoyed the namesake of the town of Hot Springs. Some of the hot springs feed the stream running into the town from the stream bed, so we splashed around there for a bit. These springs are also known for their special mineral content. After camping for days, it felt great to swim in the hot springs.
Rounding out our South Dakota visit, we traveled to the Badlands National Park. It was named "Badlands" by both Native Americans and French trappers who saw this area as impenetrable and unproductive land and mountains
We also discovered that South Dakota played a very interesting place in Cold War history. Near Badlands National Park is Minuteman Missile Historic Site. This National Parks Service Site contains a decommissioned, but preserved, underground nuclear missile launch site and, miles away, an actual underground minuteman missile ready for launch (sans warhead). Of the some 1,000 silo launcher sites constructed in the 1960's, these are the only inactive sites (that we know of) that have not been destroyed per treaty with the Soviet Union. Of the original 1,000 sites, some 400 remain. The location of these underground sites scattered throughout the Western Plains is/was strategic in a few respects. Being sparsely populated, an attack on these sites, would not impact urban centers, the underlying bedrock is geologically stable and the distance from the coast makes submarine launched missile attacks difficult. Our visit to the underground control center was fascinating. Given the elevator size, the tour is limited to 6 people. We were lucky to have a former missleer (one of the two Air force officers per site with the launch keys and codes), a retired Major. The Major explained how everything works (in a condensed manner), including the nuclear attack-resistant bunker, the bob-blast doors and the sequence of instruction and attack. Michael peppered him with questions about the experience - how did it feel? How did your family think? What did you know..
All of our expectations (save Rushmore) about this vast South Dakota were exceeded. With the rich and tumultuous history with Native Americans, Minuteman Missile site, Badlands, Wind Cave, Crazy Horse carving and many more places, South Dakota definitely is a place for us to return.