Heading South to SD
September 7th, 2021
We left our free spot in the municipal lot in Erin, Ontario by 7:30 in order to give us time to get to London to meet our friend, Joanne around ten. We made good time and managed to park the trailer on the street behind the park behind her apartment building. We had a nice, albeit, short visit catching up. We left about 11:30 and headed to the US border at Sarnia.
We were a tiny bit concerned about crossing the border; not for COVID reasons but because we had mailed off our US passports for renewal in late July in case we wanted to go away this fall. We normally cross the border with just our NEXUS passes but the “rules” say you should have your passport ready if asked for it. We had read that a naturalization certificate works as well which we got out at the ready, if asked.
There was a huge line up of trucks and getting over the Blue Bay bridge was slow even before reaching it as this is where you pay the hefty toll ($15 for us – four axles). Entering the US did go smoothly and we were happy.
We made our way to cheap gas then stopped at a Walmart outside of Flint to get groceries. By now it’s late afternoon and the storm clouds are building. When we left Erin, London and Sarnia it was sunny and warm; now not so much. We arrived at a huge rest area about 5 miles north of Flint and parked for the night. Before settling in, we walked the rest area to get our steps before the deluge of rain began and that went on and off for the next few hours.
For a freeway rest stop it was pretty quiet as the side we were on was far from road. We awoke to mixed weather and began the next leg of our drive stopping for gas. Our plan was to take the passenger ferry from Mackinaw City to the Island before crossing the bridge to the UP (Upper Peninsula of Michigan) but the weather worsened and we figured it was not worth it as we had hoped to rent bikes to get around the car free island and in the rain, not a great idea.
So we crossed the bridge mid afternoon and parked/camped outside a casino on the other side in St. Ignace for the night.
They had actual RV sites for $15 a night and a dump station but we don’t need services so we just parked in the lot by the sites for free and then used the dump station in the morning as well as filled our fresh water tank as they had potable water.
Thursday we did not want another long driving day so we only went about 180 km / 110 mi to the other side of Manistique. We stopped a few times are roadside parks for views of the bridge and then the sandy beaches of Lake Michigan.
The roadside park in Manistique has an almost 3km / 2mi paved walking trail so we got out and stretched for about a half hour before camping at a boat launch 30 km / 18 miles west. We saw many monarch butterflies here and later that day.
It was only mid-day so we had the afternoon to chill before finishing our drive into northeastern Wisconsin tomorrow. There we have been invited to a friend’s cottage for the weekend. Christine and Matt were our neighbours when we lived in Minnesota and we have kept in touch and visited over the years. (Matt joined Doug when he climbed Kilimanjaro back in 2012.)
Fran got on the phone with the medical clinic where we have our appointments for annual physicals and managed to move all the appointments forward ten days although not all on the same day; so Fran’s appointments are for the 17th and Doug’s is on the 18th – they were originally for the 27th but as we are moving along faster than expected with not a lot of spots to make enroute, this helps slow our roll after them.
Friday morning we made our way to the “Northwoods” of Wisconsin via Iron Mountain, MI where we stopped for gas and groceries; we are in charge of dinner Saturday night at the cabin.
We arrived at Julia Lake around 11, Matt was waiting for us at the end of the road to take us to the cabin to scout out first where we’d like to park the trailer – very kind of him!
We got situated after some maneuvering:
Matt, Christine and her Mom were all there and had arrived the previous night. They bought this cabin several years ago – it had been one that both Matt and previously his father had been the caretaker of for many years and when the owner decided to sell, she reached out to Matt first and they jumped at it.
It’s right on the lake with their own private dock and the weekend was full of peace and friendship. There are loons around and their lovely calls were beautiful.
Friday evening we went for a pontoon ride after happy hour around one side of the lake and did the other side Sunday morning before leaving. Friday night they did a bbq brat dinner and we did a grilled chicken dinner with salad and potatoes on Saturday night, after which we sat around a fire enjoying the quiet.
Saturday morning while Fran and Christine enjoyed a morning tea/coffee on the dock, they saw a bald eagle fly overhead and early on Sunday morning when Matt and Christine went for a kayak trip, they spotted one on a tree:
That afternoon Matt took us an a small tour of the nearby town – this is where he grew up and the resort his family owned in the sixties is still a going concern although most of the buildings are gone or refurbished.
Christine and Fran did a couple of long walks; Doug ran a half marathon for his weekly long run on Saturday morning. The ladies all did a 1000 piece puzzle in less than 14 hours:
After our morning boat ride, we hit the road trying to get to the Twin Cities before dinner and made it to Burnsville around 5pm where we parked at a Cracker Barrel for the night. We had an appointment for the Tundra’s 15,000 mile on Monday and Doug took it in early and got it done quickly. We hitched back up and made our way southwest to Mankato where we treated ourselves to a hotel for the night.
At this point in our trip, Fran remembered that we should be checking for roadside attractions like we’d done when we were heading to Canada – so be prepared for a bunch of weird, and sometimes lame, sites!
After a nice long hot shower on Tuesday morning, we made began the drive southwest to Sioux Falls where we stopped to see the “Potato Man”:
This is a lifelike sculpture of a 19th century Irish potato farmer carrying a bucket of potatoes. This is a tribute to the large population of Irish immigrants and their love of the “spud”.
After a gas fill up at Costco, we continued westward on the I90. Gas prices have varied along this trip since we got into the US. After paying up to $1.30 CDN a litre (approximately $4 USD a gallon) in Ontario, we found just over $3 a gallon in Michigan. The price was higher further north but when we crossed into Wisconsin, we could find under $3 and this continued through Minnesota. The price began to rise crossing into South Dakota and kept rising as we headed towards Rapid City which is very close to the border with Wyoming.
We made a stop in Mitchell, SD to see Thunder Bunny – a jackalope.
We then stopped at a rest area with this tiny church:
No explanation given…..and then we used the free dump station and fresh water fill-up located here.
We stopped in Oacoma to see Al’s Oasis and its big Buffalo.
This place is trying to be a smaller version of the famous Wall Drug outside the Badlands National Park.
Continuing a tiny bit westward we crossed the Missouri river:
and spent the night just past here on the Oacoma Flats right next to the river
where we had a beer sitting on the rocks along the shore in the sunshine. The weather has continued to be mostly sunny since we left Michigan with highs in the low to mid 20’s – 70’sF.
Wednesday enroute we saw many many fields of sunflowers – who knew?
Our destination was the Badlands National Park today – we’d been here at least three times before but now that Fran is 62 she qualifies for the lifetime senior parks pass for $80 and this has been our first opportunity to obtain it and of course, visit another of one of the great national parks this country has to offer. (photo of card at the top)
After turning of the highway we stopped next to a gas station to see a prairie dog town:
Then it was on to see the six ton prairie dog and its surrounding “town”.
This concrete statue was set in place just before Fran was born: July 1, 1959! We watched the few dogs running around here – it was a little sad here as you can purchase peanuts in the shell to feed these creatures and some of them were rather fat compared to the previous stop. Of course, despite the sign saying do not approach the dogs, people are getting them to feed out of their hands – feeding wild animals is a practice we do not partake in.
We drove the Badlands loop stopping to do a few short hikes at the Door and Window and then several road side pull outs.
We left the park at the north entrance where there is a huge area of dispersed wild camping all the top of the “wall”. Lovely views for miles and lots of other rigs but we found a spot of our own and got set up for the night. Doug did a few electrical chores before we had a nice happy hour before the wind picked up.
Thursday morning we had a leisurely wake up and didn’t hit the road until around 10. We only had about 13 km / 8 miles to get to the famous Wall Drug which had been advertised on billboard almost as soon as we entered the state! No trip across South Dakota is complete without stopping there; ha ha ha! We have been here a couple of times too but it’s always an interesting stroll.
We arrived in Box Elder on Americas Way – the street where our mailbox service is located before heading into Rapid City.
As we pulled off the freeway into Rapid City, we saw the World’s Largest Quarter Pounder outside the McDonalds:
It reportedly weighs 11.5 tons – equivalent to 92,00 real quarter pounders. Apparently Rapid City has the most Quarter Pounder with cheese fans per capita – not sure that’s a distinction to be proud of!
We had to get some documents notarized for our estate planning and did that first at the UPS store before trying to find a place to spend a few nights. iOverlander referred to both a Walmart and a Menards (a store like Home Depot for those of you not from the Midwest) but the first had “no overnight parking” signs and the latter didn’t seem good for a truck and trailer and when Fran called, they said they don’t allow it.
Our next stop was the DMV office to get some changes made to our vehicle titles and although it took almost an hour we got it done. We then tried to get library cards from the main library because technically we are residents of this county, but they do not accept the Americas Mailbox address as a residence so that was a bust.
A local told us about an abandoned mall that we might be able to park at and we went there, parked behind the closed grocery store out of site of the road. It got very windy during the evening and threatened rain but it never transpired.
Friday the 17th, was Fran’s annual physical appointment day including her annual mammogram so Doug disconnected the trailer and she went to take care of that. As we have health insurance now, we are also going to try and get certain shots done that are covered: shingles (now that we’re over 55), update our tetanus and we’ll inquire about the flu shot but we could be too early.
Fran had her appointment and all went smoothly; she got the Tdap shot there and was told to get the Shingles shot at the CVS Pharmacy along with a refill of her BP meds. She had to go for some blood work and was told there was at least a half hour wait so she made an appointment for just before her mammogram at one pm. That worked out well and by 4pm she had the blood test results. As usual, slightly elevated cholesterol but she’ll keep working on that.
We then went to see a few things around the after returning to the library to get all our estate documents scanned for free – even without a library card! While Doug was in the library doing this Fran took a walk and saw a few of the president statues that line the main street of this, the City of Presidents – Rapid City.
We went to see the two pieces of the Berlin Wall that are featured in Memorial Park along with the Spinning Rock.
This was created by the artist Zach Coffin and is a 9,000 pound 3.3 m / 11’ high chuck of granite balanced on a bearing.
After stopping to get our propane filled, our next stop was the Museum of Geology at the SD University campus. We found free visitor parking and spent about a half hour looking at fossils and rocks and Doug was overwhelmed by the volume of information. He loves this stuff.
We moved on to what we’d read was a free Classic Car museum but it seemed to be more of a used car sales lot although it did have a few cars outside.
Final stop today was the CVS Pharmacy for our shots. Fran got the Shingles vaccine in her right arm (had received the Tdap this morning in the left) and Doug got both shots in the same arms. We will have to get a booster on the Shingles vaccine within the next 2-6 months. We both had sore right arms that night especially while raising them but had expected this. Fran’s doctor said side effects could last 2-3 days with the main ones being sore arm, achiness and headache.
We spent a quiet night back at the spot behind the abandoned mall.
Saturday, after a leisurely morning wake up, we packed a lunch and drinks in our new cooler box (we opted not to buy a portable fridge due to their size and price – we only need one for day trips without the trailer so a light weight insulated box with a carry strap is what we opted for) and made our way south to Custer State Park and the many sites around there.
Along the Highway 79 north of Hermosa, we came across the “Big President Heads”:
This is an alternative presidential site where you can view giant busts of JFK, Reagan and George W.
We are now feeling more effects from the vaccine and are both very tired, achy and have headaches. Doug is quite wiped as he didn’t sleep well the previous night at all.
We started with the Iron Mountain Highway only to find halfway through that the most scenic section was closed! WTH!? We could not find anything about it online so we made our way to Keystone in the hopes of finding an Info office to find out why. As we approached the town, the traffic got quite heavy and there were people everywhere! We found the info building and Fran got out while Doug drove around the block but despite the sign saying they open at 9 and it’s now after 10, no one was there but Fran noticed many people had medals around their neck and realized today was the day of the Mount Rushmore half marathon so that probably explained the closure of Highway 16A. We decided to head to Mount Rushmore itself and as we passed the west end of the 16A saw the people who were still running/walking coming off that road into town.
So we instead continued westward to The Mount Rushmore National Memorial which we’d see at least twice before but it is an impressive site and it’s free. However, they get you on the parking – $10 a vehicle which we could probably have gotten a half price with our new Park Pass but for us it’s the principle of the thing. Fran had seen a spot on iOverlander that showed a parking/info pullout just beyond the park and we pulled in there and walked the ten minutes back.
Now on our roadside website, Fran had discovered a site called “Clinton Rock” about a mile and a half west of Mount Rushmore. We had to check this out. It a little tricky to find and turns out you can only see it eastbound but we found it:
It’s a rock formation some identify as ”slick Willie’s Willy” in a characteristic pose! ha ha ha ha !
We then began the drive along the Needles Highway figuring our truck would be too wide for at least one of the three tunnels along this road based on the dimension given on our map from the SD Visitor’s Centre.
We wanted to see Sylvan Lake and maybe do a hike. We reached the first tunnel before the lake and we saw the width (says 8′ 9″) and after folding in the truck mirrors, made it through with a few inches to spare. We arrived at the Lake Sylvan Resort where you cannot see the lake (?) and decided to turn around as Doug was sure we couldn’t make it through the next tunnel.
So we back tracked a bit and took a short cut down to another road and then took a short drive through the town of Custer to see their painted buffalo statues and a fading statue of Dino the dinosaur from the Flintstones:
We decided to go to the other end of the Needles Highway and approach the narrow tunnel from that side in the hopes of being able to also see the actual Needle.
Well turns out our map’s scale was off and the two other tunnels are much further down the highway than shown and the Needle with the narrowest tunnel was almost back at Sylvan Lake on the other side!
We got through the eastern tunnel no problem and stopped at a small parking/viewing area before the narrow one. Turned out the Needle was on the other side of course! Here we had our lunch.
We watched some vehicles go through and a large Silverado went through and stopped near us and Doug asked him how it was; said he made it with no problem, just put his mirrors in; so we did too!
On the other side we stopped in the small parking lot and got out to find the Needle –it’s not signed at all until you are actually under it!
We then drove westward again to the lake and were both feeling very tired and hot (it’s now approaching 33 C / 90F) and have no desire to walk a mile in the direct sunlight with no shade anywhere. We did pull into the lot and got some photos of the pretty lake though.
Finally we returned toward Keystone and Highway 16A was now open and we drove the pigtail bridges and through these three tunnels with ease. When you go through the first one, if you look in the rearview mirror you can see Mount Rushmore. We stopped on the other side and Fran got out for a photo.
So our last drive was to see main part of Custer State Park – we drove down the western side and cut across to the eastern side through the middle near the south end. The road up the eastern side is closed for construction until next week. We did not see much wildlife at all in much of the park (the Needles and the pigtail bridges are all part of the park).
On this internal road we saw a small prairie dog town and then a few pronghorn deer before reaching the 2/3 of the way mark and coming across a large herd of bison. This was really slow going as some crossed the road and so many people were stopping to take photos. But this is what you come to see when you come to Custer so we glad we’d taken this road.
We turned off this road before the Visitors Centre and made our way back to the 79 to head back to Rapid City where it’s now 36F / 96F and the inside of the locked up trailer is hot! We both just wanted to lie down but it was uncomfortable with NO breeze. Fran finally plugged in our 12v portable fan and we flaked on the bed which was somewhat more bearable but still not cool. Finally the sun went down and it cooled up somewhat but remained warm most of the night. We left all the curtains open all night to catch whatever breeze there was but although Doug slept, Fran hardly did.
Sunday we both felt much better only a little tenderness at the site of the shot and there was a breeze today and it’s not supposed to get so hot. We had planned to take a drive northward to Deadwood and Spearfish but we’ve been before and felt a day off driving was in order.
Doug went out for a walk in the late afternoon to get a cold drink and met a fellow full-timer, Darren, who ended up joining us at the place where we camped. As we stood around in the late afternoon, an older lady came out from behind the fence and told us “it’s not usual for people to camp here” and we told her we’d be quite and leave tomorrow. That seemed to satisfy her. Fingers crossed. The weather was a bit cooler today; only 32C / 91F but after dinner the wind picked up and we had some rain which cooled it off big time.
Monday morning was significantly cooler. Doug dropped Fran off at a laundromat while he went for his annual physical, then he hooked up the trailer, picked her up and we went out for a burgers, beer and fries lunch – all our blood work was done and we wanted some “bad” food. It was yummy at Sickies Garage Burgers & Brew and we left quite full but happy!
We decided a night at a cheap hotel was in order and checked into a Quality Inn & Suites before we leave Rapid City tomorrow.
Sidebar: COVID situation in SD – this is neither the most or least vaccinated state in the country. There are definitely less “must wear a mask” signs around but there are stores like WalMart where they are “recommended”. The medical clinics and all Federal properties do but in many indoor places, we were more often than not one of the few or the only ones (like at the laundromat).