We recently took our first real vacation in over three years. Yes, 3 YEARS. That’s what happens when you up and move across the country with no job prospects and then go and buy a house. Also consider that we moved far away from both of our families, so much of our vacation time was spent traveling to visit family in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Georgia.
“So why South Dakota?” You might be asking. Short answer: because it’s awesome. Long answer: because we can’t afford plane travel right now, and no matter how much gas is up to, it’s still cheaper than jet fuel and car rental at your destination. Plus, this is a very scenic part of the country that neither of us have been to before, just a 2-day drive from Knoxville.
When we were tossing around this idea, I got hooked on the prospect of sleeping in a tipi (or teepee, tepee, etc.). Wouldn’t that be totally sweet and so wild west of us? Well, I got to googling the idea. (Did I mention I’m a really ‘effin great googler?) But the only tipis I could find in the Black Hills area were part of a lame-o RV campground.
But then I found… THE YURT. This place looked like exactly what we were looking for: an established tent-like structure on an 12 acre property deep within the Black Hills. Without much discussion, we booked 3 nights there in mid-August. In the spirit of our old European travel adventures, we’d fly by the seat of our pants for the other 5 nights of our 9 day trip.
The first day’s drive took us from Knoxville to Kansas City, a solid 12 hours on the road. But as it turns out, KC is awesome. It’s a way bigger city than I thought it was. I used my stellar googling skillz from my iphone en route to figure out the hip part of town where we could find a decent hotel room, an actually good restaurant and cool bars to have a few drinks in. We ended up in the Westport neighborhood, and had possibly the best meal of our trip at Beer Kitchen. It was right up my alley, great beers and foodie-ish bar food. Highly recommended if you ever find yourself in Kansas City.
Then through the doldrums of Iowa we finally made it into South Dakota. Our first stop was the famous Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD. Essentially it’s a tourist trap photo op in the middle of the state where you really need an out-of-the-car break. Kitschy, but not much else.
We stayed the night in a town called Chamberlain because we couldn’t quite make it to the Badlands entrance that day. But we found a charming local pub to have dinner and a few pints, The Anchor Restaurant and Lounge.
The next day another 2 hours westward took us to Badlands National Park. This place was incredible. Really. Just an enormous rocky canyon erupting out of the plains. I saw the Grand Canyon as a kid, which is pretty amazing, but I wonder why people don’t talk more about the Badlands. It’s a remarkable landscape that rivals the Grand Canyon’s beauty in my book.
We popped back onto the interstate just in time to see Wall Drug. Yet another tourist trap on par with South of the Border for us east-coast-oriented folks. And after dropping $50 on a straw hat, coffee mug, coozie, and root beer, we were off to Rapid City.
Our night in Rapid City was actually really fun. It’s the biggest city in the western part of the state, and they’ve managed to maintain a very cool, very walk-able downtown area with lots of restaurants, shops, and bars. I happened upon a Tandy Leather Factory store that was running a sale on…wait for it…COW HIDE RUGS. Oh hell yeah. I’ve been talking about these for the past few years, and previously the best price I could find on one was about $140. Well, they were on sale for $99. Yes.
On from Rapid City, the next day we saw Mt. Rushmore, the great monument to our founding fathers, and Crazy Horse the Native American in-yo-face response down the road.
Mt. Rushmore was more spectacular than I anticipated, but overall the classic American landmark tourist spot. They had a nice walking trail that ran in a loop around the foot of the mountain that gives you a variety of angles for your pictures, and tidbits of history along the way.
In a way, though, Crazy Horse was a little more interesting. It was designed by this crazy Polack that worked on Mt. Rushmore. Since they refuse government funding, it’s already taken them over 50 years to get just the face done. It’s kind of cool to know that our $20 admission was funding the project, and maybe one day when we’re old and grey we can go back and see it finished. And if it is ever completed, it will have been the largest sculpture in the world.
That night we stayed in a quaint mom and pop motel called The Bavarian Inn. For an affordable rate, we got a room with a balcony to relax on, a nice outdoor pool and dinner at the on-site authentic German restaurant.
The next day we had some time to kill before we finally hit the yurt. We went to Deadwood. No matter how much you like the HBO series, there’s really no reason to spend much time here. Well, maybe if you’re really into slot machines.
But behold… the yurt…
It was the perfect place for us. Rustic and remote and cozy and comfortable. Being out here in the woods in this yurt was incredibly relaxing. During our three days there, we did a bit of sightseeing at Devil’s Tower across the border in Wyoming, which was another spectacular sight to see.
And other than that, we did a lot of chillaxing and hiking.
Then (sadly) it was back on the road to the east for the 1600 mile trip home. We stayed the last night in Ames, Iowa at a Microtel on the side of the highway. Surprisingly, there was a wedding party going on that night. Who knew people got married at roadside Microtels in Iowa?
Although the drive back was long, it was all worth it. What an awesome trip. And cheap too! I had $500 worth of Amex travel rewards to cash in, which really put a dent into the accommodations budget. When all was said and done, we only spent about $1200 including all food, hotels, and gas. And when you subtract the standard $200 we usually spend at home every week on food and gas, we really made out like bandits.
And now it’s back to the grind… Although, I’m super motivated on the home improvement front. I have to find a spot for my cowhide rug!