Lassen Volcanic National Park and Hat Creek Hereford Ranch

Staying at Hat Creek was our biggest and most costly mistake to date…

When we left the NorCal Coast city of Trinidad, we headed inland. We had booked two nights at Del Loma RV Park in Big Bar, but as we were driving, we were feeling pretty good and like we could handle a couple more hours. I called Hat Creek Hereford Ranch, which was our next destination, to see if we could add two more nights to our stay. We were able to, so we kept on driving to Hat Creek. We hadn’t paid a deposit at Del Loma, so canceling was easy and free. We should have known we were going to have an issue when we went for a stretch of almost three hours during our drive with no cell signal. When we arrived at Hat Creek, we had no signal on our AT&T phones. Before checking in, we should have checked our Verizon phone and hotspot, and tried all of our phones with our WeBoost, but we didn’t. When I checked in, the young woman at the counter mentioned that we were staying a long time – originally 7 nights, now 9. We were staying so long because we wanted to explore nearby Lassen Volcanic National Park and Burney Falls. And though we usually travel on weekends, we chose not to this particular upcoming weekend because it was Labor Day. Anyway, I made the comment we were only staying if we could get a strong enough cell signal to be able to work, seeing as we work full time. She said nothing. I paid our remaining balance and we went to our site.

After getting set up, we realized we had no cell signal with either Verizon or AT&T, and our WeBoost did nothing for us. We tried using their wifi, but that kept dropping and wasn’t even strong enough to open web pages. We were in a pickle. Seeing as it was a Sunday, we were going to stay put for the night because we didn’t need to get online for anything. After talking through our options, we decided we needed to move on the next day. There was no way we would be able to last more than a week without a cell signal. That evening, we drove up the road a bit where we noticed we had gotten a bar of signal earlier in the day when we had driven to the grocery store. We parked on the side of the road, in the darkness, and surfed the web to find a new place to stay for the remainder of the week and the holiday weekend. We found a place in Reno where we were able to cobble together two different reservations in order to cover most of the time, and then we adjusted our next reservation in Lake Tahoe to arrive a day earlier.

The next day, we explored Lassen Volcanic NP for a few hours and stopped at the tiny post office where we had had our mail sent. We headed back to Hat Creek Hereford Ranch to pack up, hitch up, check out, and hit the road. We were already fully hitched up and parked in the driveway when I went into the office to check out. The same young woman was working, along with an older woman who I assume is the owner. I told them we had to leave because there’s no signal. They seemed a little befuddled, but I explained that we work full time, and there’s just no way we could stay. The older woman asked if we had tried their wifi, and I said we had, but it was pretty slow and kept kicking us off. She explained how their wifi used to be great, but a recent wild fire caused an electric surge that basically blew up their previous setup. The internet company had replaced the equipment, but the speed wasn’t nearly as strong or fast and it would be getting fixed soon. She tried talking me in to staying a few more days, but I said that we were already hitched up and had reservations elsewhere. She then got a little defensive, saying, “Everybody knows there’s no signal here!” I explained we weren’t from the area and did not know that, but it was our fault for not doing better research. This is when I found out their refund policy, which is they don’t do refunds. If you cancel more than seven days before your reservation, they’ll refund the deposit. If you cancel within seven days of your reservation, they keep your deposit. If you’ve already checked in and paid, they refund nothing. I tried arguing that technically we hadn’t checked in yet for our original reservation, so I should get a refund minus the deposit, but it was a no go. We had nine days booked at $44 per night (plus a $5 reservation fee), for a total of $401. Yikes. She felt bad, so she did refund $100 and credited us with two free nights to use in the next two years. Seeing as we had stayed one night and were checking out late on the second day, we counted it as two nights. When subtracting the refund, the two credited nights, the two nights stayed, and the reservation fee, we ended up eating $120, or about three nights. Of course, that’s if we end up using the two nights of credit.

Lesson Learned: Do better research – on both cell signal and refund policy.

Honestly, I don’t know what happened with this one. We ALWAYS check the cell signal; both with Campendium/Google reviews and the Open Signal/Coverage apps. We totally dropped the ball. In the future, we’ll keep to weekend stays for non-signal areas.

It’s also important to note that we’ve lost money on canceling reservations before. We lost a night’s stay worth once and multiple reservation fees, but altogether it probably adds up to about $60 or $70. We do our best to avoid cancelations, but sometimes we book far in advance at national or state parks, because you have to, but then change our minds. It’s just part of the full-time lifestyle.

Hat Creek Hereford Ranch RV Park & Campground

Address: 17855 Dory Road, Hat Creek, CA 96040

Phone: (530) 335-7171

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull-Thrus (but not really)
  • Laundry
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Tent Sites
  • Picnic Table
  • Fishing/Swimming Pond

The park itself is nice and quiet. Farmland borders it, so there are happy cows and goats out your window. It’s peaceful and quaint and rustic. The layout is a little haphazard, with sites in odd locations and directions, and nothing that delineates one site from the next. Above, I mentioned that there are pull-thrus, but not really. We were able to pull into our site easy enough (after relocating the fire ring made of rocks and driving up an incline), but at the front of our site was a retaining wall. In order to drive out of our site, we had to drive at an angle down an decline. We didn’t have any neighbors, so we were able to get in and out of our site easy enough, but if we did have neighbors, neither would have been very easy. We were there for such a short amount of time that we didn’t use any of the facilities, so I can’t comment on those.

Site 3 – The four picnic tables in the photo show how close together the sites are.
The surrounding area is a beautiful country setting.

The location is pretty remote, with the small city of Burney a 22-minute drive away. That’s where you’ll find a Safeway grocery store, a Rite Aid, a post office, a few places to eat, and a few hotels. The Burney Falls Visitor Center is a 25-minute drive and the Subway Cave Lava Tubes a 20-minute drive – neither of which we had the chance to visit.

Lassen Volcanic National Park is about a 35-minute drive. If dry camping is your thing, there are plenty of places to stay outside the park (National Forest campgrounds) and within the park itself. Lassen is a mostly-unknown, little-visited National Park that has all the best stuff: Volcanoes, mountains, lakes, mud pots, sulfur springs, steam vents, waterfalls, and enough trails to satisfy every hiker from novice to expert! We’re really looking forward to a return visit to explore the park more fully like it deserves.

 

 

Hood Park – Burbank, WA

As we drove from Spokane to the Oregon coast, we stopped at Hood Park for one night. This is an Army Corps of Engineers campground that is located on Lake Wallula. Our National Parks Interagency Access Pass gave us 50% off the $24 nightly fee, though there is a $10 reservation fee, which means we paid $22 for the one night. All sites have electric hookups and there are water spigots available throughout the campground.  There are restrooms and showers, neither of which we used. There’s also a small amphitheater where they show kids movies on Saturday nights during the summer.

Address: 592 Camp Circle, Burbank, WA 99323

Phone: (509) 547-2048

Amenities:

  • Pull Thrus
  • Electric Hookups
  • Water Fill
  • Dump Station
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Amphitheater
  • Playground
  • Gate Locked from 10pm-6am
Site 20 – Nice and Level with Shade

North Spokane RV Campground

We stayed at North Spokane RV Campground for six nights. When we booked it, we were unsure of Travis’s work travel schedule and we wanted to be somewhere for a week near an airport in case he needed to visit a customer onsite. That didn’t end up happening, so we spent the week doing some work, doing some exploring (though the heat made it difficult), doing laundry, getting hair cuts, getting the truck’s oil changed, picking up our mail, and various other errand-type things. It was also during this week, after many, many weeks of temps in the high 80s and 90s, that we decided to alter our upcoming route through central Oregon and make our way to the coast instead. So, we also spent a full day canceling old reservations and finding and booking new ones, which was no easy task as coastal Oregon is very busy during the summer.

North Spokane RV Campground opened in 2014 and it shows. The grounds are immaculate: beautifully manicured green grass; large, level concrete pads; smooth blacktopped roads; very nice laundry, showers, and TV room; small, but clean swimming pool. There’s also a decent dog park that was the only place within the park that really had any trees for shade. The lack of shade with temps in the mid-90s was definitely a drawback, but luckily there was virtually no wind so we were able to use our awnings from sun up to sun down.

Address: 10904 N Newport Hwy, Spokane, WA 99218

Phone: (509) 315-5561

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull Thrus
  • Cable
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Swimming Pool
  • Propane Fill
  • Dump Station
  • Dog Park
  • Playground
  • TV Room
Site C1 – Level, Long and Grassy!
The sites in our row were in opposite direction every other site. This meant we somewhat shared the patio area with one neighbor, but couldn’t see our other neighbor’s hookups, which is always a little gross.

It was also during this week that we made a run to Home Depot to purchase Reflectix Insulation to put in the windows in order to combat the heat. It definitely helped, and we wished we would have done it sooner!

Any service you could need is within a short drive of North Spokane RV Campground and some are even within walking distance. There’s an Anytime Fitness nearby that offers a daily rate of $5. Right across the street is a cute little restaurant called Frank’s Diner. It’s in an old railcar that serves food all day, but their breakfast is their claim to fame.

We were busy with work and errands most of the week, but we did find some time to explore a bit. One evening, we ventured down to Riverfront Park. Much of it seems to be under construction, which makes navigating around a bit difficult. The heat, still 90+ degrees well after dinner, caused us to cut our walk a bit short, though it looks like a nice park with quite a few activities.

Riverfront Park’s Clock Tower

We also checked out the Japanese garden in Manito Park. There are other gardens within the park, but we were under a time crunch, so we only had time to visit this one.

While we didn’t get to thoroughly explore Spokane, we probably won’t return. We weren’t very impressed with what the city had to offer. The layout is just odd, and many of the areas seem to be pretty run down. And the traffic — ugh. It would take 25-30 minutes to drive 5 or 6 miles. While there seemed to be a few breweries worth a visit, we didn’t find one restaurant that screamed “Eat here!” through any of our various search  methods (Google, Yelp, etc.). No worries, though — we have a lot of cities left to explore!

 

Square Dance Center & Campground – Lolo, MT

We only spent one night in the Missoula area as we drove from Bozeman to Coram. We stayed at the Square Dance Center & Campground in Lolo, which is about a 25-minute drive into Missoula. The Square Dance Center is exactly what it sounds like – a place for square dancers, but they welcome non-square dancers at the onsite RV park as well. We didn’t use any of the amenities during our brief stay, so I can’t comment on those. The RV park is spread out through tall pines and sits far enough off the highway that you don’t hear traffic. The park claims to be dog friendly, and I suppose it is as dogs are allowed; however, when walking Max, the gentleman that checked us in was riding past on his bike and told us not to allow Max to pee on any trees or other sites – we were supposed to take him to the pet relief areas marked on the map. There were two problems with this: 1) Male dogs pee on everything and 2) All of the pet relief areas had sprinklers running. Essentially, we weren’t able to take Max on a proper walk. It’s for this reason that as long as we have Max, we would never stay here again. I also would not recommend staying here to anyone who has a dog.

Address: 9955 Lolo Creek Road, Lolo, MT 59847

Amenities:

  • Water and Electric Hookups
  • Dump Station and Pump Service
  • Pull Thru Sites
  • Restrooms with Shower
  • Cable TV

We went into downtown Missoula for dinner at the Red Bird Restaurant in the historic Florence Hotel, which is now a mixed-use building. The food was decent, but it was the Art Deco décor that we really enjoyed.

Route Planning and the Billings KOA

The most difficult part of route planning for us is when Travis has to fly somewhere for work. The business trips aren’t usually last-minute trips, so that helps, but sometimes we find ourselves in places that we wouldn’t otherwise be in. However, Billings is not one of those places (a place we wouldn’t otherwise be in, that is). When we started planning our route back west from our extended stay in Wisconsin in May, we knew we wanted to spend some time in Montana. We also knew that Travis would need to fly to Minneapolis during this time and that the trip would be during the week of the Fourth of July holiday. Before settling on Billings, we first made a list of all the commercial airports in the approximate area we’d be in — Wyoming and Montana. We then searched to see which ones have direct flights to Minneapolis, because who wants a layover when you’re not flying very far? Then, we had to find a safe place to stay with availability for the holiday week, not too far from the airport. I say a safe place because Travis never wants to leave me (and Max) in a questionable location, obviously. Taking all of that into consideration, we landed on the Billings KOA.

This has been our method of operation since we hit the road full time back in January. Travis has had to make a business trip once a month, so these trips have somewhat determined our route. With each booked business trip, we’ll have a specific date and location we need to be. We also throw some personal date/location combos in there too to make it even more interesting — Crater Lake Rim Run in August, our friends’ October wedding in San Diego, and the Joshua Tree half marathon in November. It forces us to plan ahead, which suits our personalities just fine. We just aren’t go-with-the-flow type of people when it comes to trip planning. Twice we’ve had gaps of a night or two in our route where we were just going to wing it and see where we end up and both times we caved and booked something last minute.

I think there are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, we don’t like long travel days and not knowing your destination may make your day longer. Two hours is great, three hours is fine, but when we get into four to five hours, we get crabby. We can’t comprehend how some people travel eight to ten hours a day — that just sounds miserable to us and like a waste of a day. If you don’t NEED to be somewhere fast, what’s the hurry? Secondly, this has been a hot, hot summer. After boondocking Memorial Day weekend, we learned that we want and need an electric hookup. We have a 13.5-year-old dog that we want to keep comfortable and we’ve had to work some very long days, so having electricity is essential. Yes, we have a generator, but many places have limitations on generator use and when it’s really hot, we burn through gas like crazy. Also, we would never leave our generator running unattended, so we’d become prisoners to the Airstream — and that’s not fun!

Before we hit the road, we had these romantic ideas, like so many tend to, that we’d boondock nonstop and wake up next to the ocean one day, and in the mountains the next, and so on, without another human in sight. And while there are plenty of Airstreamers and RVers that do just that, we’ve determined we’re not those people. We like electricity and showering every day and doing laundry once a week (or at least every two weeks) and strong cell signals and eating great food at restaurants and exploring cities along with our country’s natural wonders. Anyways, what I’m trying to say is that we’ve learned what type of full timers we are over these last six months. On the full-timer spectrum with off-the-grid boondockers on one end and snowbirds that only move twice a year on the other, I think we fall right in the middle.

Back to Billings.

We settled on Billings and I’m glad we did. We stayed from a Saturday to a Saturday (I’m actually writing this the day before we leave). KOAs are notoriously expensive and this one is no different. I don’t know if they jacked their prices because of the holiday, but our water and electric site (no sewer hookup) was $75 a night, $67.50 with our KOA membership. Thus far, the most expensive place we’ve stayed. That being said, this is such a nice KOA. It’s the first in the country and the current owners have owned it since the 70s. There’s a huge staff that meticulously maintains it and the amenities are great. There’s a decent-sized, albeit cold, swimming pool. There’s a nice little mini golf course that Travis destroyed me on. The bathrooms and showers are so, so nice — probably the nicest we’ve ever seen. We’ve used the showers a few times because we don’t have a sewer hookup and don’t want to be so concerned with the grey tank level. The onsite store is well equipped. Breakfast and dinner are offered every morning and evening (for a price). Our site is super long, allowing us to park our truck at either end of the trailer. We have a nice patio with a picnic table, porch swing, and fire pit. Now, amenities like this are definitely NOT a requirement for us, but if we’re going to pay this much, they’re nice to have.

Site 37

There’s more to this KOA than just the amenities, however. The location is fantastic! It’s not far off I-90 making it extremely accessible for those that are just passing through. Downtown Billings is literally 5 minutes away. We have had some great meals here; we’d recommend Walkers and The Fieldhouse specifically. And one of the best parts — the airport is 13 minutes away! We usually have to drive 45 minutes to get to an airport, so the short drive is really a nice change.

All in all, our stay in Billings has been great. It was a little loud the night of the Fourth (I hate you, fireworks), but other than that, no issues. With the next business trip tentatively scheduled for October, we’re looking forward to moving on to Bozeman, Missoula and Coram to explore more of Montana.

7th Ranch RV Camp – Garryowen, MT

We stayed at 7th Ranch RV Camp for two nights. There’s not much in the area, but it was a good location in regards to how far we needed to travel on a certain day but still be able to get a half day of work in. The property is very nice, with all the sites being pull throughs, some having water and electric only and some having full hookups. Check in and check out are both at noon, and we got there a little early as our drive didn’t take as long as we thought it would. They gave us a little bit of a hard time, which we’ve never experienced before, but still allowed us to check in as the person who had been in site A16 before us had left. The bathrooms and laundry are clean, and if we ever found ourselves in the area again, we would stay here again.

Address: 662 Reno Creek Road, Garryowen, MT 59031

Phone: (406) 638-2438

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull Throughs
  • Tent Sites
  • Cabins
  • Playground
  • Bathrooms with Showers
  • Laundry

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is located less than 15 minutes from 7th Ranch. I would highly recommend a visit to this historic site, even if you’re just passing through the area. From their brochure: “Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument memorializes one of the last armed efforts of the Northern Plains Indians to preserve their ancestral way of life. Here in the valley of the Little Bighorn River on two hot June days in 1876, more than 260 soldiers and attached personnel of the U.S. Army met defeat and death at the hands of several thousand Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. Among the dead were Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and every member of his immediate command. Although the Indians won the battle, they subsequently lost the war against the military’s efforts to end their independent, nomadic way of life.”

There’s a 20-minute orientation film that plays at regular intervals in the visitor center that is definitely worth watching to learn the history that led up to the battle, what happened during battle, and what was the result of the battle. I recommend getting to the monument right as it opens, if possible, at 8am, so that you beat the crowds and are able to explore and take in the site, which is somewhat haunting, without distractions from others.

Atop Last Stand Hill is a memorial dedicated to the 7th Cavalry. From this vantage point, you can see where ‘Custer’s Last Stand’ took place as there is a headstone marking the spot where he perished.

Adjacent to Last Stand Hill is the fantastic Indian Memorial.

After visiting Last Stand Hill and the Indian Memorial, walk along the quarter-mile Deep Ravine Trail to really get a sense of what took place on this site. Throughout the battlefield, there are white headstones marking where U.S. Army personnel died and there are red headstones marking where Indian warriors died.

After the trail, visit Custer National Cemetery, which is an onsite veterans cemetery.

If you still have time or interest at this point, drive the 4.5-mile road to the Reno-Benteen Battlefield, which was the first stage of the Battle of Bighorn. There are cell phone audio stops along the way that provide information as to what occurred at each location.

The Badlands and the Black Hills

I usually do a separate post for each destination we’ve traveled to, but I felt that Badlands National Park area, Custer State Park area, and Devils Tower area could all be combined into one post about the places to stay and things to see in the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming.

First up…

The Badlands

We spent two nights at the Badlands Interior Campground, which is 1 mile south of the Badlands Interior Entrance. There are a handful of RV parks outside the various entrances of the park and they all looked to be about the same quality. Our campground was nothing amazing, but it was a pull through site with full hookups. I popped my head in the restroom at one point to see what it was like and it was old but seemed clean; otherwise, we didn’t use any of the amenities. The one thing we really did not like about this place was that it flooded easily. I know they can’t control the weather, and the weather in June in this part of South Dakota can be pretty crazy, but they seemed to have a real drainage issue. When we moved on to our next city two days later, even though there was still a lot of rain, there was no where near the same amount of standing water. It was so bad that one motorhome needed to be towed while trying to park in their site. There are also two campgrounds within the national park — both first come, first served, though one is undeveloped. I usually take pictures of everywhere we stay, but forgot to here. I’d say this campground, and any of them in the area, really, are decent for a 1-2 night stay.

Address: 900 SD Hwy 377, Interior, SD 57750

Phone: (605) 433-5335

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull Throughs
  • Tent Sites
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Swimming Pool
  • Hotel on Site
  • Picnic Table and Fire Ring
  • Dump Station

The very first thing we did after getting set up at the campground was drive to Wall, SD so we could get something to eat. We ate at Wall Drug, because there’s not a lot to choose from, but we also wanted to check out the place we had been seeing signs for for the last 300 miles. (Seriously, they advertise from one end of South Dakota to the other). We grabbed some burgers that were surprisingly decent and meandered through building after building of souvenirs. Satisfied that we’d seen enough, we headed over to the grocery store to pick up a few things, as the only place to get food in Interior looks like a meth lab fronting as a grocery store.

On our way back to the campground, we stopped at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center. The park consists of three sites along I-90 between Badlands and Wall: the Visitor Center, the Delta-01 Launch Control Facility, and the Delta-09 Missile Silo. The launch facility and missile silo are deactivated remnants of the cold war that are representative of the nuclear arms race. Tours are available of the Delta-01 Launch Control Facility, but they book days in advance and we hadn’t planned accordingly. The Delta-09 Missile Silo is open from  8am-3pm. It consists of a Minutemann II (unarmed) missile positioned in the underground silo with a glass window covering it, allowing you to view inside.

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center
Delta 09 Missile Silo – We showed up at 3:30, not realizing it closed at 3, so this is as close as we got.

The major draw of the area is, of course, Badlands National Park. Whenever we visit a national park, we like to visit the visitor center and take a drive through the park with our dog Max. We’ll stop at overlooks and take some pics, but the main reasons for doing this are so Max gets some fresh air and we’re able to see what we want to focus on in the park. This isn’t always possible due to size and time constraints, but the size of Badlands allows for it. The best overlooks along the Badlands Loop Road are probably Conata Basin Overlook and Yellow Mounds Overlook. Also during our first day of exploring, we drove the Sage Creek Rim Road, which is an often overlooked road due to it being gravel and long — it took about 45 minutes to drive it and then another 45 minutes to get back to our campground. However, if you want to see wildlife, this is the place to do it! We were lucky enough to see oodles of bison, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, turkeys, and a snapping turtle.

Most national parks aren’t very pet friendly, and Badlands is no different. However, we always like to include Max as much as we can, so we’ll bring him along for a ride through the park.

Yellow Mounds Overlook

Bison along the Sage Creek Rim Road
Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep along the Sage Creek Rim Road

During our second day, we hiked the 1.5-mile Notch Trail, which the trail guide rated as moderate to strenuous. We’d personally rate it somewhere between easy and moderate, with the log ladder being the most difficult part. It was a nice trail with some great views. After the Notch Trail, we did the Cliff Shelf Trail, rated moderate, which I would agree with due to the number of stairs you need to climb to get to the viewing platform. It’s a nice little half-mile, paved loop trail through junipers in which we saw a beautiful white-tailed doe kicked back and relaxing, chomping on some leaves.

Notch Trail – The ladder was the only difficult part of the trail and it’s more difficult going down than it is going up.
Notch Trail

 

The Cliff Shelf Trail involves a lot of stairs.
White-tailed doe along the Cliff Shelf Trail

It’s important to note that June is the rainiest month in the Badlands. And we’re not just talking rain, but thunder, lightning, and hail as well. Always keep an eye on the weather as there was a flash flood warning the entire time we were there.

Custer State Park

We originally had planned to be in the Badlands for five nights instead of the two we ended up spending. About a week prior, we decided to change our plans and spend the other three nights in the Custer State Park area — and we’re so glad we did! While we weren’t able to get a spot at a campground within Custer, we found a nice place right outside. Southern Hills RV Park & Campground in Hermosa is a good home base to explore the area. It’s a very well kept park and our site was a nice, level pull through with full hookups. Bonus: When it poured rain, it seemed to drain well and dry up fairly quickly. If we had our choice of campgrounds within the park (which can be reserved up to a year in advance), we would choose Game Lodge Campground due to its great location and layout. I guess we’ll have to plan ahead next time!

Address: 24549 Highway 79, Hermosa, SD 57744

Phone: (605) 939-7609

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull Throughs
  • Level Sites
  • Bathrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Picnic Table
Site 2 at Southern Hills was very spacious and level!
These three giant presidential busts sit at the entrance to Southern Hills. I don’t know why they’re there, but I do know they make finding the driveway to the RV park easier.

After we got settled in to Southern Hills, we drove into Custer SP to Legion Lake Lodge for a late lunch. While the service was a bit slow, the food was good and the view from the outdoor seating is phenomenal. After lunch, we walked the trail around Legion Lake, which has a swimming beach and canoes and kayaks for rent. After the walk, we had to get back to the Airstream to do some work, but returned to the park after dinner with Max in tow to drive the Wildlife Loop Road. Custer SP is home to all sorts of wildlife, including elk, coyotes, burros, mountain goats, and even a few mountain lions, as well as the animals we saw on our drive which were bison, white-tailed deer, prairie dogs, and pronghorns (antelope).

Legion Lake
A white-tailed deer and her babe along the Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park
A bison (with a tiny hitchhiker on its back) along the Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park
A male pronghorn along the Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park
Even without the wildlife, the views along Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park are pretty nice

On our second day near Custer State Park, as it was a rainy morning, we chose to visit Wind Cave National Park. Wind Cave lies at the southern border of Custer SP in Hot Springs. It is the third longest cave system in the United States behind Mammoth Cave and nearby Jewel Cave. There are various cave tours available, but they are all first come, first served, so arrive early to beat the crowds. We took the Natural Entrance Cave Tour, which lasted about 1.25 hours. I’m not sure if any of the other tours are more exciting, as this one was just okay. As I mentioned, it was raining, so we didn’t explore anything above ground in the park. Instead, we headed into Hot Springs to get some lunch (nothing to write home about) and then headed over to The Mammoth Site, which is also in Hot Springs. The Mammoth Site is an active paleontological excavation site with the greatest concentration of mammoth remains in the world. We waited in a line that was out the door and seemed to be making no progress until we decided to opt out and return home. Some days you’re feelin’ it, and some days you’re not — and we just weren’t feeling it that day. One thing to note about The Mammoth Site is that dogs are allowed inside as long as they are being held or in carriers. We returned to Custer SP before dinner so that Travis could get a run in on one of the trails. I explored the Visitor Center and the State Game Lodge and then meandered along one of the trails until meeting up with Travis to return home for the evening.

A Map of the Wind Cave Cave System
The ranger is standing next to the cave’s only known natural opening. In order to equalize the atmospheric pressure inside the cave, sometimes air blows out of this opening and sometimes it’s sucked in. Either way, it can reach speeds of up to 70mph, which is how the cave got its name.
Interior of the Cave
It’s very difficult to get good pictures inside a cave, but this photo is of the boxwork formations that are found throughout Wind Cave. Wind Cave is home to about 95% of the world’s discovered boxwork formations.
The Visitor Center is beautiful and informative, though no gift shop. Gift shops can be found in each of the lodges.
The State Game Lodge was the ‘Summer White House’ of President Calvin Cooldige
Grace Coolidge Creek

On our third and last full day in the area, we once more headed into Custer SP to the Sylvan Lake area in order to do the hike up to Black Elk Peak, which is South Dakota’s highest point at 7242 feet. We hiked trail #9, which is a 6.6-mile roundtrip trail that’s rated moderate to strenuous. We both felt it was the hardest trail we had ever hiked and thought it leaned more towards the strenuous end of the spectrum. There’s a gain of 1470 feet and you can definitely feel it. Black Elk Peak is actually located in the Black Hills National Forest, and there’s a sign on the trail that indicates when you cross into the forest. A stone fire tower at the peak provides excellent views of the surrounding landscape. When reading reviews of the trail, some people noted it took up to six hours to complete the roundtrip hike, but we needed to get back to work as soon as possible, so we booked it to the top and back in just under three. Before leaving the park, we stopped at Sylvan Lake Lodge for lunch. We ended up getting our food to go, as we really needed to get back to the trailer for work. I had an excellent burger and Travis had an equally excellent chicken sandwich. Once back at the trailer, Travis got to work while I drove into Box Elder to Americas Mailbox (our mail forwarding service) where I picked up our mail and packages that had been collecting for a few weeks. On my back to Southern Hills, I gassed up the truck and drove it through a car wash in preparation for our morning departure to Devils Tower.

If the 6.6-mile roundtrip hike isn’t your thing, there are views like this along Trail 9 that aren’t too far from the trailhead in Sylvan Lake.
There’s a good mix of sun and shade along the hike, but be prepared with sunscreen and water as the most difficult part of the hike (towards the peak) is out of the woods and in direct sun.
Black Elk Peak is actually in the Black Hills National Forest, not Custer State Park, and there’s a sign marking where you cross into the Forest. You also must register, so they know who’s out there and where you went.
Views!
More views!
There’s the fire tower signifying we made it to the top!
But you have to climb a lot of uneven stone stairs to get there — my calves were definitely burning!
Handkerchiefs from Previous Hikers

There are more sites to see that we didn’t get around to this trip. We didn’t drive the infamous Needles Highway in Custer SP, which I’m bummed about, but we just never found the time. If we had known what Wind Cave NP was going to be like, we probably would have used that time to do the drive instead. Of course, there’s also Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Crazy Horse Memorial. We visited Mount Rushmore last September when we were in Rapid City/Box Elder getting our drivers licenses and things set up with Americas Mailbox. Crazy Horse, along with Jewel Cave National Monument, will have to wait until our next trip. And we never made it into Rapid City (except to get groceries at Safeway), which was another small disappointment as we had really enjoyed downtown Rapid City on our previous visit. We will definitely return to Custer State Park!

Devils Tower

Devils Tower was declared the first National Monument in 1906 by Theodore Roosevelt. It’s 867 feet tall from summit to base. If you want to stay at Devils Tower for a night or two, there are basically two options. The Belle Fourche Campground is a first come, first served campground within the boundaries of the park. There are no hookups, but water is available as well as bathrooms. The second option is the Devils Tower KOA, which sits right outside the entrance to the monument. We chose the latter, because everywhere we’ve been so far this summer has been super hot and we didn’t want to have to worry about generator restrictions in order to use our A/C — we wanted hookups! As far as KOAs go, this one is pretty nice. We didn’t use their restrooms or laundry, but did take a dip in the pool (it was freezing) and got some ice cream from the onsite store. There’s also another store across the street that sells similar items, and both stores have prepared food available for purchase. The Devils Tower post office is basically right in the KOA’s parking lot and every night at 8pm, the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind is played at the campground.

Address: 60 Highway 110, Devils Tower, WY 82714

Phone: (307) 467-5395

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull Throughs
  • Cabins
  • Tent Sites
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Swimming Pool
  • Playground
  • Community Fire Ring
  • Propane Fill
  • Cafe/Gift Shop/Store
While most sites at the Devils Tower KOA have tower views, our site (51) didn’t because of a tree — a tree that we were very thankful for later as it was extremely hot and the shade if provided was helpful.

The Visitor Center is open from 8am-7pm, but Devils Tower itself is accessible 24 hours a day. Being right at the entrance afforded me the opportunity to get up to the monument at 7:45am before crowds started rolling in. I walked the 1.3-mile paved Tower Trail and only saw three other parties. This trail, which circles the base of the tower, is the most popular trail and gets quite busy for most of the day. Travis ran it at about 5:45pm and it was still pretty populated. Climbing the tower is allowed; though climbers must register with a ranger before and after their climb.

Dog aren’t allow anywhere except the parking lot and one gravel road, which is where we took this picture.

Besides Devils Tower, there is nothing else in this area. Most visitors seem to make it a day trip, but if you want to or need to spend the night, one night is plenty. There is a gas station about a 10-minute drive up the road in Hulett.

All in all, we really enjoyed our time in the Badlands and Black Hills. We will definitely return Custer State Park, but one visit to Badlands National Park and Devils Tower National Monument is enough.

Arrowwood Cedar Shore Campground – Oacoma, SD

We spent four nights at the campground at the Arrowwood Resort and Conference Center at Cedar Shores. The campground sits on the Missouri River in the small town of Oacoma, which is across the river from the larger city of Chamberlain. The 44 sites are all full hookup with cable, with a picnic table and fire ring at each. The best sites along the river were taken by what appeared to be seasonal campers, which is what most of the campground seemed to be. Those staying at the campground have access to the neighboring resort’s amenities, including the pool and fitness center, though six cardio machines don’t make for a ‘fitness center’ — but it was better than nothing. Our site (#36) was the most unlevel site we’ve ever had. Besides the 1.5″-2″ lip to get on the concrete pad, the site had a huge incline from front to back, and wasn’t close to being level from side to side either — definitely one of the more challenging sites to get in to.

Address: 1500 Shoreline Drive, Oacoma, SD 57365

Phone: (605) 734-5273

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull Throughs
  • Cable TV
  • Picnic Table and Fire Ring
  • Bathrooms
  • Laundry
  • Playground
  • Basketball Court
Our very unlevel site. We put as many levelers as would fit under the fully retracted jack and then we extended the jack as high as it would go and we were just barely level.

There really isn’t a lot to see and do in the area, but we made the best of the time we spent there even though it seemed to rain almost nonstop.

A definite must see is the Dignity of Earth and Sky Statue at the I-90 Lewis & Clark Info Center in Chamberlain. Besides being a rest stop, there’s also a little museum dedicated to the time Lewis & Clark spent in the area. The 50-foot statue was erected in 2016 and bares a plaque with words from the sculptor, Dale Claude Lamphere, that reads, “Standing at a crossroads, Dignity echoes the interaction of earth, sky, and people. She brings to light the beauty and promise of the indigenous peoples and cultures that still thrive on this land. My intent is to have the sculpture stand as an enduring symbol of our shared belief that all here are sacred, and in a sacred place.” It’s location along I-90 makes it a perfect pitstop if driving east to west or west to east across South Dakota.

We also visited the Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center, which is a nice little (free) museum that is a tribute to the Lakota Sioux people. It’s small, but informative, and gives a good glimpse into the lifestyle, both past and present, of the Lakota people. The museum can be found in Chamberlain as well.

This display referenced the close bond between a warrior and his horse, which made the difference between success in the hunt or life and death in battle. The warrior shown here is modeled after “Wind in His Hair” from Dances with Wolves. The actor wore this outfit in the film.

The last sites to see in Chamberlain are the South Dakota Hall of Fame and the adjacent South Dakota’s Veterans Park. Over 700 of South Dakota’s best and brightest have been inducted in one of 15 different categories. Notable inductees include: Tom Brokaw, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and George McGovern. Both facilities are also located right off I-90, and though we didn’t stop, the Veterans Park looks like a fantastic memorial complete with a handful of military vehicles and planes as well as a picnic area.

Conclusion: The Chamberlain/Oacoma area is more of a drive by situation, but if you’re looking for a place to stop for a night, you’ll find a few things to do to occupy your time. You’ll also find gas stations, a small grocery store, a car wash, and other such services that a traveler might need.

Lake Mitchell Campground – Mitchell, SD

Lake Mitchell Campground is a city-run campground on Lake Mitchell in Mitchell, South Dakota. Many of the sites are pretty shallow and difficult to get in to, so I’d recommend perusing the satellite view on Google Maps to figure out what works best. While there were full hookups at our site (site 30), the water hookup was too far back for our hose to reach. We only stayed two nights, so we just filled our water cans a couple of times and filled the fresh water tank. We didn’t utilize any of the amenities, so I can’t comment on their quality.

Address: 2601 N. Main Street, Mitchell, SD 57301

Phone: (605) 995-8450

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull-Thru Sites
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Picnic Table and Fire Ring
  • Tent Sites
  • Lake Access
  • Camp Host
Site 30 had two concrete pads, both with hookups, so the trailer could have been parked on either one. Unfortunately, this meant we had to choose between opening our door right into our neighbor or having a sewer hookup in the middle of our site. We chose the sewer hookup.
The view of Lake Mitchell from the tent sites was very nice.
Unfortunately, the lake is having an algae issue that seems to be a longterm problem.

There’s not a whole lot to do in Mitchell, except visit the Corn Palace. They were removing last years designs while we there, so the Corn Palace was minus some corn.

If we ever drive through this part of South Dakota again, we’ll probably avoid Mitchell altogether, as the campground was just okay and there’s not much to see or do.

Big Sioux Recreation Area – Brandon, SD

Big Sioux Recreation Area in Brandon, South Dakota is part of the State Park system and lies on the banks of the Big Sioux River. South Dakota’s largest city, Sioux Falls, is a short drive. The campground is very basic but well kept. The sites are large and as there weren’t a lot of people staying there, it was a pretty quiet five days. The showers in the bathrooms are pretty decent, with good water pressure and hot water, although it takes a bit to warm up. The sites are electric only, but there’s a dump station and water fill as you enter/exit the campground. My only complaint is the amount of ants — they crawled everywhere, including all over the trailer; although they never made it inside as far as we can tell. The nightly rate is $21, but there is also a daily park entrance fee of $6 and a reservation fee for nonresidents of $8. As we had purchased a South Dakota parks pass at the last place we stayed, Hartford Beach State Park, and are South Dakota residents, we only paid the $21/night fee.

Address: 410 West Park Street, Brandon, SD 57005

Phone Number: (605) 582-7243

Amenities:

  • Electric Hookup
  • Dump Station
  • Water Fill
  • Picnic Table and Fire Ring
  • Bathrooms with Showers
  • Firewood
  • Campground Host
  • Tent Sites
  • Playground
Site 13E
The mature, green trees made for a peaceful setting.

The park itself has trails for hiking, biking, horse riding and snowshoeing. There’s also disc golf, two canoe launches, a playground and archery.

We hiked the Valley of the Giants Trail, which is supposed to be 1.5-mile hike, but we took a wrong turn at a fork in the path and had to backtrack a bit. Some of the state’s largest trees reside along this trail.

The suspension bridge seen in the header photo is at the beginning of the Prairie Vista Trail and crosses the Big Sioux River to provide access to the Horse Trail Trailhead and Archery Range.

While in the area, of course we had to visit Falls Park in Sioux Falls. The area surrounding the park is not so great, but the park itself is beautiful. We visited on an overcast, sprinkle-filled day, so the full beauty of the park is hard to determine from the pictures. The park is 123 acres and home to some of the city’s first buildings. The Queen Bee Mill used to operate here along the banks of the Big Sioux River, but all that remains now are ruins from the original 7-story building that was the victim of a fire. The 1908-built hydroelectric plant now functions as the Falls Overlook Cafe, where we had a fantastically delicious lunch. There’s also a visitor center and gift shop with a 50-foot viewing tower that is free to access.

The Falls of Sioux Falls
The Visitor Center, Gift Shop and Viewing Tower
The Falls Overlook Cafe — Great view with equally great food!

We went to downtown Sioux Falls for dinner one rainy, gloomy night. The downtown area is VERY nice — clean and well kept with great shops and restaurants. We ate at Crawfords Bar & Grill, where the food was delicious, the cocktails on point, and the decor a blend of rustic and vintage. Due to the rain, we went for a very short, post-dinner walk and were able to enjoy a few of the more than 50 sculptures that are part of the Sioux Falls SculptureWalk. If the weather had been better while we were in the area (and we were able to work less), we definitely would have spent more time downtown.