Sunday, October 9, 2011

South Dakota mancation: National parks and the great buffalo roundup

I recently took a four-day mancation to South Dakota with my brother Bill and my 8-year-old son, Chris. It was a short trip, but jam-packed with the kinds of things guys enjoy.
We flew into Rapid City, S.D., on Saturday morning Sept. 24 after an unplanned overnight stay in Denver. (Our plane from Washington, D.C., was delayed because of mechanical problems and we missed our connecting flight that Friday night.)
On our first day, we drove across the state line to see Devil’s Tower National Monument in northeastern Wyoming. The huge column of rock is a spectacular, one-of-a-kind sight. No wonder Steven Spielberg chose to film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” there.
The weather was warm and sunny and a number of climbers were ascending the tower. We took the paved path to the pile of boulders at the base of the tower, admired the view, took some pictures and moved on. After all, we had a schedule to keep.
After lunch at the hard rocking Ponderosa Cafe in Hulett, Wyo., we drove to historic Deadwood, S.D. We stopped by Saloon #10, a bar and museum that celebrates Old West figures like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. There, actors reenact the fatal shooting of Hickok. I got to play one of the poker players at the table where Wild Bill was shot in the back. I even had a few lines of dialogue.
On Sunday Sept. 25, we drove out east to odd-ball tourist trap Wall Drug in Wall, S.D. After picking up some souvenirs, we drove to the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.
We experienced the Cold War arms race between the U.S. and Soviet Union up close by visiting a silo containing a decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missile. Hundreds of such weapons of mass destruction used to dot the landscape of South Dakota and the Great Plains. Many have since been dismantled. But others remain as a deterrent to aggressors of the U.S.
After that we toured Badlands National Park. The otherworldly landscape was amazing. The park is a geological oddity and a great place to find fossils. It’s not very hospitable to life. Signs warn of rattlesnakes. Even the cute prairie dogs carry the plague.
We then drove west to Custer, S.D., for the night. We ate pizza at Pizza Works, a pizzeria housed in an old opera house and silent movie theater. It was the restaurant’s last night of operation for the tourist season. They will reopen next May.
On Monday Sept. 26, we got up early and drove to Custer State Park in Custer, S.D., to witness the annual Black Hills buffalo roundup. This event was the reason we timed our trip when we did.
The Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup is an awesome Old West experience. Cowboys and cowgirls on horseback (and in pickup trucks) drive a herd of about 1,300 American bison over the hills and into large corrals. The roundup is critical to maintaining a strong and healthy herd because the park can only support so many buffalo during the winter.
After the roundup, park staff sort, brand and vaccinate the herd for the buffalo sale, held in November. Every year the park auctions off 200 to 500 head of live buffalo. They’re purchased to supplement an existing herd, to start a herd or to eat.
We didn’t stick around to see the bison up close in their holding pens. Instead we drove to Wind Cave National Park to the south. Wind Cave was the first cave to be designated a national park. It features one of the longest cave systems in the world and notable for its rare boxwork calcite formations.
After that, we made a pilgrimage to Mount Rushmore National Monument. Chris and I saw the monument from the sky days earlier on our flight to Rapid City. Now we got to see it up close.
Seeing Mount Rushmore is a patriotic experience. The 50 state flags line the entry way and columns note when each state was admitted to the union. The sculptures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt are fantastic in their scale and detail. We hiked the base of the monument to get a closer look.
With our trip nearing an end, we drove back to Rapid City. We stopped at Dinosaur Park, a quirky attraction on Skyline Drive overlooking the city. The park was dedicated in May 1936 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The seven dinosaur sculptures were constructed by the city of Rapid City and the Works Progress Administration.
We then drove to downtown Rapid City where we took some goofy pictures with the presidential statues that mark the street corners. I also admired an alley that blazed with color from graffiti artists appropriated named Art Alley.
We had dinner at the Firehouse Brewing Co., where I ate a buffalo burger. You can’t go to South Dakota without eating some bison meat. Then it was back to the hotel to rest before our early morning flights out of town.
Now it’s time to plan next year’s mancation.


Rapid City, S.D.

Devil’s Tower National Monument

Wyoming Official State Travel Website

Ponderosa Cafe in Hulett, Wyo.

Deadwood, S.D.

Saloon #10 in Deadwood, S.D.

Wall Drug in Wall, S.D.

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

Minuteman Missile Delta-09 site

Badlands National Park

Pizza Works in Custer, S.D.

Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup

Wind Cave National Park

Mount Rushmore National Monument

Dinosaur Park in Rapid City, S.D.

Art Alley in Rapid City, S.D.

Firehouse Brewing Co. in Rapid City, S.D.

Black Hills, S.D., tourism website

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