Rejuvenated from our four day stay near Theodore Roosevelt National Park, we turned due south, headed for our only remaining state in the lower 48 in which we had not yet RV’d: South Dakota. We were looking for a campground that would allow easy day trips to the nearby major parks: Wind Cave National Park, Mount Rushmore National Monument, Custer State Park, and depending on our time, Badlands National Park.
We chose Ellsworth Air Force Base’s Family Camp just outside Rapid City. After looking at the private options, the FamCamp was the better deal: with so many major attractions nearby prices were a bit inflated from what you might expect in South Dakota. For $28 we got full 50 amp hook ups, and used the last of our five free night stays we had gotten for purchasing the $40 Air Force Frequent Camper package.
In total we have derived $117 in value for those free night stays, and we are getting close to earning another five free nights (for every ten different AFB Family Camps at which you stay, you get another five free nights, and we are up to seven different FamCamps.) If you have access to the military campgrounds and do a good amount of RVing, we can’t recommend this program enough, though we attach two caveats: The initial package is a great value but many AFB Recreation Offices don’t seem to have it available to sell. It took us four bases before we found ours. And though the initial package is well worth the money, you may experience problems getting the second (and subsequent) set of five free nights once you have completed each tier of ten different AF campgrounds. Word on the street is that the program is poorly run, with members having a extensive delays and little cooperation from the program managers. I’ll let you know what we experience when we get to that point.
We only secured two nights at Ellsworth since we had plans to sprint south into Nebraska for a couple of nights to be within the Eclipse Totality. We used our second day to visit Custer State Park, which my Dad and Stepmom insisted should be top priority for the region. It did not disappoint. Custer makes a nice contrast to TR National Park in terms of appearance and method of exploration: rugged vistas mixed with grasslands and a long loop road to view the wildlife. The key difference is the shear density of that wildlife, especially the buffalo, of which we had not seen a single specimen in TR. Just ask for the herd’s location at Custer’s entrance gate or visitor center, and they will give you the general area you should explore.
That information was dead accurate, as we started spotting single “loner” bison as we neared the herd area, and then had to stop behind a dozen other cars for about 20 minutes as the more than thousand strong herd blocked the road during a slow movement across it. Encouraged along by the big bulls, the long procession of beasts wandered across the roadway, in between and feet from the vehicles and their ogling occupants.
We also saw plenty of prairie dogs, some pronghorns, and ostensibly wild burros (though they were beyond tame in their interaction with the tourists.) As I mentioned earlier, Custer Makes an interesting “compare and contrast” with Teddy Roosevelt NP. They both have great and interesting views, but if you want a guarantee of seeing buffalo, pick Custer. But if you want something that feels more natural, or stated differently, less “open zoo/controlled safari” like, then TR is probably a better bet, and it is generally less crowded.
Another great thing about Custer, however, is the Needles Highway drive, a winding road through increasingly dramatic rock formations that exits the park on the northwest corner. It culminates in a series of narrow tunnels that are just wide enough for a single car. Literally, you can touch the walls out either side window as you pass through. As you near the higher elevations, you catch site of the incredible formations from which the drive derives its name.
Departing Custer via this route placed us just a few miles from Mount Rushmore, and though we had not planned to include that during our day trip, being so close we couldn’t forego it. I’ll admit to being underwhelmed. Yes, it is an amazing engineering and sculptural feat, and its impressive, just not quite as magnificent as I imagined. Perhaps I was put off by the National Park Service playing a game of “gotcha” with the fees: We purchased the $80 annual pass with the understanding it would give us entry into all NPS properties, and yet Mount Rushmore wanted $10 for parking. Seems a bit chintzy, particularly since we could just pull over in one of the several wide turnouts from the highway and take pictures.
The timing of the eclipse combined with follow on obligations resulted in a rather inefficient itinerary for our exploration of the major South Dakota parks, but our pleas to reschedule the solar-lunar alignment were ignored so we did what we had to do. This meant two days in SD for Custer and Rushmore, a sprint south to Nebraska, and then a sprint back to SD for the remaining spots. All of that in coming posts!