After spending a week caravannning with Dylan’s family, we drove East to the Dakotas! Neither of us had been to these states and we were blown away! However, this journey from North Dakota to South Dakota was not without its road bumps. It was the hottest week 🌡 we’ve ever spent in the van and we had to content with the Sturgis biker rally.
After seeing most of the country and National Parks, we were starting to get antsy to get back home. Our wedding was coming up and we had lots to do 😳. Luckily, the Dakotas drew us in and kept us entertained. Read more about our travels below!
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Table of Contents
North Dakota to South Dakota
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Dylan and I had a few more national parks to hit, so we started off in North Dakota. We spent the night in a beautiful spot overlooking the badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park (NP #44).
In the morning, we went to a coffee shop 30 minutes down the highway to work. The town outside of the park was so small that there was no wifi anywhere and it was supposed to be 95 degrees 🥵. We knew we wouldn’t survive a day in that heat. Luckily, we found a cute place in Medora to work.
Theodore Roosevelt has two parts: The North Unit and the South Unit, but we only had time for the South one. We were trying to fit a lot in, because we wanted to see Devil’s Tower before the sun went down. So, we quickly did the scenic drive and stopped along the way at the overlooks. We saw tons of bison 🦬 and prairie dogs, but no bighorn sheep.
After zooming through the park, we drove South to Devil’s Tower. Devil’s Tower is a rock formation that rises out of the ground and looks like it appears from nowhere. We were really getting stressed about timing, because we knew the sunset around 8:30. Luckily, made it to the tower at exactly 8:32 and the sky put on a show 🌅. We just pulled over on the side of the road, made some quesadillas for dinner, and watched pinks and purples light up the sky behind the tower.
Black Hills South Dakota
Once we left North Dakota, we had to go to South Dakota. The Black Hills are a gorgeous area in this state known for the rocky hills and pine trees. There are many amazing sights to see in the Black HIlls, and we knew we wanted to spend a few days there.
Unfortunately, Sturgis- the largest biker rally in the country 🏍- was also beginning while we were there. Motorcyclists filled the streets, biker gangs crowded the sights, and bikes took over most of the parking. It was quite an interesting time to be there and it definitely made it memorable. That and the heat wave that was rolling through the area! We were sleeping in 90 degree weather in the van, with no AC… it was just slightly miserable.
Mount Rushmore & Crazy Horse
On our first day in the Black Hills, we went to a couple of monuments in the area. First, we went to Mount Rushmore. I don’t think anything screams “America” 🇺🇸 quite like going to Mount Rushmore in the middle of Sturgis. Mount Rushmore is a large rock sculpture of four US presidents. It’s an impressive piece of work, but it has a mixed history. The indigenous Lakota tribe believes that land is sacred and they were very unhappy with the sculpture.
So, here we are looking at four past US presidents, surrounded by state flags and the crowds of bikers. Many of whom are wearing American flag or USA apparel. We really felt like we were truly having a touristy moment. We didn’t stay very long and instead drove to the Crazy Horse monument.
Crazy Horse is one of the most important individuals in Native American History. They are constructing the largest rock sculpture ever. It has been in the works for over 40 years and it still has a lot to be done ⚒️. When you go see the monument, you can read more about the local tribes in the museum, and learn about the construction. We found this spot much more interesting than Mt. Rushmore. However, I don’t have much faith that they will ever complete this piece of art!
After getting our touristy moments on, we decided to go a bit off the beaten path. Dylan and I went on a quest to find Hippie Hole– a great swimming hole 🤿 in the area. It’s unmarked and much of the terrain to get to the swimming hole is steep and muddy. We had to climb over many fallen trees and rocks, but eventually we came to the beautiful swimming area.
Rocks line both sides of the water and there is a nice waterfall that flows into the center of the swimming hole. People in the past have put a ladder 🪜 and rope up, so that you can climb up to the boulders and jump over the falls into the water below. The water is dark and it’s very hard to tell just how deep it goes. Luckily, there were two other people there, because I wouldn’t have jumped first.
The two boys climbed up the ladder and after a brief pep talk jumped in. Once I saw them do it, I knew that I could go. Climbing up the rope and ladder was a bit tough, but I made it to the top. I counted to three and jumped in immediately. It felt so good for the cool waters 💦 to cover my body, so I went a couple more times before heading back out.
That night, Dylan and I really needed to escape the heat of the van. So, we grabbed sub-par ramen at a local restaurant and went to the movies 🍿! We saw the new Thor, which was a fun way to spend a few hours in the cool, dark movie theater. Once we got out, we drove to a Lowes parking lot and tried our hardest to sleep in the oppressive heat.
Custer State Park
The next day, Dylan and I went to one of the highlights of the area: Custer State Park. This large state park is known for having scenic rock formations, roaming bison herds, and the tallest point ⛰ in the state of South Dakota. Honestly, this state park is more impressive than a lot of national parks we’ve been to this year.
First, we set off on the Black Elk Peak trail, which is the hike to the tallest point in the state. We climbed past the beautiful Cathedral Spires and up to the fire tower on the top of the mountain. It felt like we could see for miles all around. It was such a stunning panoramic hike and there were plenty of 🌸 wildflowers 🌸 on the trail, but no wildlife (maybe because it was 95 out).
Most of the reviews on Alltrails said it took people 5-6 hours to complete. I don’t know if Dylan and I are speed demons or we were simply trying to get out of the heat, but we finished the hike in just over three hours.
When we got to the bottom of the hike, we were covered in sweat and dust. So, we did what everyone should on a hot day in Custer State Park. We went for a 💦 refreshing dip 💦 in Sylvan Lake. This lake is right by a large parking area and it was extremely crowded on a hot summer day. Families were having picnics and people were jumping off the rocks (even though it’s illegal) into the cool lake. It was a great way to get an alternative shower in.
That night, we were really worried about overheating, so we went to the movies again. I’m not sure if I’ve ever gone to the movies two nights in a row. But, desperate times call for desperate measures. We saw the movie NOPE, which was really good and I highly recommend! However, I do not recommend living in a van in a heat wave 🔥. We spent another night tossing and turning as the van would not cool down.
Wind Cave National Park
Once we did a load at the local laundromat in Rapid City, we drove directly to Wind Cave National Park (NP #45). This park is also located in the Black Hills of South Dakota and is known for having one of the longest cave systems in the world. You have to book a tour 🎟 in order to see the cave, but they rarely sell out.
We went on a natural entrance tour into the cave. Thank goodness the cave was a cool 50 degrees, because outside the sun was still blazing ☀️☀️☀️. We learned about the cave’s history and about its composition. Although this was a cool tour, we definitely enjoyed some of the other caves we had been to before more.
After the tour, we drove out of the Black Hills and on to another part of South Dakota: the Badlands.
Badlands National Park
Badlands are a type of terrain where softer rocks erode over time and create an interesting landscape of steep hill like areas. There are may places to see badlands in the US, but none are quite as ✨ impressive ✨ as Badlands National Park (NP #46). This park is one of the coolest in the country and somewhere that everyone should see once!
Before you get to Badlands National Park, hundreds of signs will point you towards the famous Wall Drug. Signs reading “10 miles to Wall Drug 🪧” or “Get free ice water! 🪧” line the highway for hundreds of miles. You cannot miss them. If you don’t know what Wall Drug is, then you’re missing out.
Wall Drug is the largest drug store in the country, but it’s also so much more than that. It was our first stop in the area and as soon as we walked through the doors we were overwhelmed 😬. There are all kinds of shops in this large store that fills an entire block. You can find yourself in a jewelry store, in a fun zone area, or in a cafe that is cranking out food.
Also, hordes of Sturgis bikers crowded the entire building. So, it was a bit of a zoo in the entire place. Still, Dylan and I decided to partake in some of the most famous dishes. We sat at the cafe and dined on buffalo burgers 🍔, buffalo hot dogs, and beef sandwiches. Honestly, the food really hit the spot and we even went back the next day for seconds.
After eating our fill, we went to go find a campspot for the night. Oh boy, we found an amazing spot on the rim of the Badlands. Badlands just went on for miles and miles. Luckily, the weather was starting to get cooler. We sat outside, read books, and enjoyed the cool breeze 🌬 that was hitting us.
However, that night the wind really picked up and a huge ⚡️ thunderstorm ⚡️ hit! I have never been more scared in the van, I really thought a tornado might come through. It was a pretty sleepless night after an already sleepless week.
Despite the lack of sleep, we woke early to venture into the park and spend the day exploring. First, we went on a search for bison and we found hundreds of them. Then, we drove the scenic road and stopped at various lookouts. There were so many different perspectives of the badlands and it was awe-inducing 🤩.
Along the way, Dylan and I spotted 9 different Bighorn sheep hanging amongst the landscape. It was so cool and we truly enjoyed it. We also did a few trails to get further into the Badlands. All of them, were fairly easy and were the perfect way to fill up a day. Once we had seen all the major sights, we left the park and drove East out of the Dakotas 🚐.
Our travels from North Dakota to South Dakota were incredibly unique. We saw areas of the country that we had never seen before. Despite the intense heat wave and the large biker rally, I’d do it all again. Only a couple more stops before we head home to get married!
Where We Stayed
- Hill Top Near Teddy Roosevelt National Park (46.94141,-103.57622)
- Lowes Rapid City
- Spot on rim by Badlands (43.90744,-102.22818)
Let me know in the comments if you enjoyed this van chronicle!
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