Helena, you were a nice surprise!

We stayed in Helena for a week along our route up to Canada. We had never really heard anything about the city, so didn’t know what to expect, but we were pleasantly surprised by a beautiful, clean, quaint city that has a lot to offer and seems like a great place to live. We were able to explore quite a bit during the week and were happy that a city that was initially added to the itinerary as a place to kill time before going into Canada for reservations at Banff turned out to be a great place to spend the week.

Helena North KOA

850 W. Lincoln Road, Helena, MT 59602

www.koa.com

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull-Thru Sites
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Propane
  • Picnic Table
  • Wifi

The Helena KOA became a KOA at the beginning of this season and is still in the midst of transitioning. As a matter of fact, it seems to currently be a KOA in name only, as even their maps still say Lincoln Road RV Park. It’s missing the things KOAs are known for: Cabins, tent sites, dog park, playground, and family-style shower rooms. However, none of those things matter to us, and we found the property to be very clean, well maintained, and sufficient for our needs. The sites are level, long, and gravel with a concrete patio, picnic table, and really nice grass. The employees are all very nice and helpful. The wifi generally worked pretty well, which is a bonus seeing as we had terrible cell reception, even with a booster — good enough to make calls and texts, but was intermittently dependable for anything more than that. The location is great — very close to I-15 and you can get anywhere in Helena in about 15 minutes.

Things to Do in Helena

Montana State Capitol – A self-guided tour is available, though not necessary to appreciate the beautiful facility.

Cathedral of St. Helena – The cathedral rivals most cathedrals/churches we’ve seen around the world. Built in 1908, the cathedral was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

Gates of the Mountains Boat Tour – The tour on the Missouri River lasts about two hours. The guide provides historical and environmental information about the area, which was so named by Lewis and Clark and recorded by Meriwether Lewis in their travel journal on July 19, 1805: “this evening we entered much the most remarkable clifts that we have yet seen. these clifts rise from the waters edge on either side perpendicularly to the height of 1200 feet. … the river appears to have forced its way through this immense body of solid rock for the distance of 5-3/4 Miles … I called it the gates of the rocky mountains.”

Hike Mt. Helena – There are a number of routes up Mt. Helena from the trailhead, where there’s a parking lot and a pit toilet. We chose to take the 1906 trail up, which is 1.5 miles one way with over 1,000 feet of elevation gain. We took the Powerline Trail down, which is 1 mile one way with the same 1,000+ feet of elevation, making it pretty steep and hard on the knees. The 1906 trail is definitely the better route and has nicer views than the Powerline Trail. At the top, there’s a 360-degree view of Helena.

Food & Drink – From what we saw, Helena isn’t really a culinary hub. We ate at home for most meals, but we did visit Blackfoot River Brewing Co. and Big Dipper Ice Cream, both located near the historic, walkable Last Chance Gulch area of town. We give two thumbs up for both establishments!

We really enjoyed our week in Helena and would definitely return!

 

 

Bozeman, MT: Back to the Hot Springs

As we did last year, we again went from the Billings KOA to Bozeman Hot Springs Campground & RV Park. Please read about our previous stay here, as I’m not going to repeat all of the info from that post.

We originally had booked five nights in Bozeman, but after our first night, decided to extend our stay another three nights. Because there are very few options for RVs in the area, the Hot Springs Campground is pretty much at capacity most of summer, which resulted in us staying in one site for our first five nights, a second site for one night, and a third site for our last two nights — not the most convenient, but we were able to experience different sites and realized some of the negatives we experienced during our stay last year can easily be remedied by staying in the right site.

When we got off I-90 to make our way to the campground, we found ourselves in the middle of a pretty intense rain/hail storm. We waited out the worst of it in the parking lot at the campground and then checked in and made our way to our site. Our site was completely under water. Attributing it to the recent storm and figuring there wasn’t anything we could do, we backed in and began getting set up. After hooking up the electricity, I noticed that any time I touched anything metal on the trailer I could feel an electric current. We had never experienced this before and had no clue as to whether this was a result of all the water or if there was something wrong with the electrical. I know, I know — two places in a row where we had issues with electrical. It was a bit defeating and very frustrating. We told the employees in the office what we were experiencing and they moved us to their emergency site. It was a super long pull-thru without much shade, but at least it was dry. To compensate for the trouble of moving, they gave us a night free, which was greatly appreciated.

Our second site, which was actually the third, was a pull-thru right next to the site we stayed in last year. We hated this site as much as we hated our site the previous year. The quality of the various sites is so disproportionate to the price you pay. We realized how important it is to reserve a site here a decent amount of time in advance in order to have a good selection.

Our third (fourth) site was a super long pull-thru in the same row (G) as the emergency site we first stayed in. These sites are so long that there are actually two options for hookups depending on where in the site you want to park your trailer. The G row sites are also pretty shady which comes in handy when it’s hot and sunny.

G0 – The emergency site where we spent the first five nights.
J7, our second site.
J7 – The quality of the J row sites is horrendous compared to the rest of the campground — weedy, muddy when wet, and don’t seem to receive as much attention as other sites.
G4, our third site. Lots of nice grass and trees for shade.
We could have parked the trailer back further to use the hookups offered there, but we chose more forward in the site due to the placement of the large tree.
After a few days of rain, we took advantage of the giant faux tree stump fire pit at G4.

As you can see, not all sites are created equal even though you pay the same price for many of them. We paid the same for all three sites: H4 (our original site), J7, and G4. If we were to stay here again, I would try to get a G row site. They’re huge and shady and the grass is so well maintained. C row, H row, and I row are also nice. The K row sites have concrete pads as opposed to gravel like the rest of the sites, but no shade.

The campground has a large, fenced-in dog area that I don’t recall from last year. It was nice to let Max wander around off leash for a bit.

We made sure to really take advantage of the hot springs during our stay, visiting them pretty much daily. We also used the fitness center twice, which is a great bonus option seeing as it can be hard to get a good work out in while traveling full time.

We’ll most likely return to Bozeman again, so we decided to check out the other RV options. If you need hookups, there are basically four options: Hot Springs Campground, Sunrise Campground, Bear Canyon Campground, and the Gallatin County Fairgrounds. We drove through both Sunrise and Bear Canyon and found neither to be very impressive. However, Sunrise is VERY close (about a 3-minute drive) to downtown Bozeman, so if downtown is what you’re looking for, this might be the place for you. Bear Canyon sits a little further out and some of the back-in sites have nice canyon views, but just like Sunrise, most of the sites seem to be fairly narrow and lacking privacy from your neighbor. We did not get a chance to drive through the fairgrounds. We determined that for us, even though it’s the most expensive and a bit further from downtown Bozeman than we’d like, Bozeman Hot Springs Campground & RV Park is probably the best place to stay.

The Museum of the Rockies is a must-see destination for anyone remotely interested in dinosaurs, as they have the largest collection of dinosaur remains in the United States. In addition to the multiple Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops remains, there is a nearly complete Allosaurus. You’ll also find other prehistoric mammals including mammoths and rhinos. In addition to the paleontological exhibits, historical artifacts, photo murals, and textiles help to tell the story of Montana’s past including Yellowstone, Native Americans, fur traders, gold miners, and white settlers. There’s also an extensive temporary Genghis Khan exhibit that’s fascinating — did you know he’s responsible for passports, paper money, pants, and forks, among other things? To compliment the exhibit, there’s a twice daily live performance with Mongolian artists in the auditorium. We also timed it right to catch the Capcom-Go film in the planetarium, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. If you find yourself in Bozeman, definitely visit the Museum of the Rockies. Bonus: Your ticket is good for two days.

Food & Drink

We tried three new places for food and drink during the week that are worth sharing:

The Coffee Pot Bakery Cafe is less than a half mile from the campground. They, of course, have coffee and pastries, but also sandwiches, salads, hot breakfast items, and the best chicken pot pie we’ve ever had. We picked up food to go from here a couple of times because of how close and convenient it was and were never disappointed.

Nordic Brew Works is located about halfway between the campground and downtown Bozeman. It was under construction when we visited last year, so it’s super new and clean. We had a delicious dinner and Travis enjoyed a flight of beer. We also picked up burgers to go for dinner one night, which were also fantastic.

Blackbird Kitchen is located in downtown Bozeman. It’s a small, organic Italian restaurant with a limited menu, but every bite we had was delicious.

Minus the electrical issues, we enjoyed our time in Bozeman. There’s still so much to explore, so we hope to make a return trip soon!

The KOA in Billings, MT

This was our second stay at the Billings KOA — read about our first stay here.

Billings KOA Holiday

547 Garden Avenue, Billings, MT 59101

www.koa.com

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull-Thru Sites
  • Cable TV
  • Cabins
  • Tent Sites
  • Wifi
  • Game Room
  • Swimming Pool with Hot Tub
  • Family-Style Restrooms with Showers
  • Mini Golf
  • Playground
  • Basketball Court
  • Laundry
  • Convenience Store and Gift Shop
  • Breakfast and Dinner
  • Ice Cream Stand
  • Fishing Pond
  • Picnic Table
  • Dog Run
  • Fire Pit (Some Sites)

We again found ourselves in Billings over the July 4th holiday, and Travis again had to make a trip to the Midwest for work. We arrived on a Sunday to check in for our two-week stay, and the woman behind the desk told me they didn’t have us checking in until the next day. I’ve never made that mistake before (reserving a site for the wrong day(s)), but luckily they had a site for the night that would accommodate the Airstream. They put us in a spacious water and electric site that backed up to the fishing pond. The next day, we moved to our new site, but stopped at the dump station first to empty our tanks. The site we had reserved was also only water and electric, which meant we were going to have to rely on the public restrooms and showers in order to make it through the two weeks without a sewer hookup.

Site 162 was a spacious back-in site with water and electric hookups and a nice view of the pond. The only downfall is that people hang out by the pond, so they’re sometimes only a few feet from your window.

We were assigned site 121, which is a narrow pull thru with water, electric, a picnic table, and a good amount of shade. The site was plenty long for our 28 foot trailer and truck, but the surrounding fifth wheels barely fit in the neighboring sites, with some of them having to park their tow vehicles perpendicular to their trailers or on the grass in their sites.  When we first hooked up our electric, our surge protector had an ‘open ground’ error. Thinking it was a fluke, we flipped the power off, unplugged the surge protector, plugged it back in, and then flipped the power back on, this time with no error. Everything worked fine until that night, when at 2am-ish, I woke up and realized we didn’t have power. I went outside and performed the same process I had done earlier in the day, and power was restored; however, we now knew there was something up with the power at this site. An open ground means that the safety path is open, or incomplete, which can result in fire, shock, or electrocution. This is why a surge protector is so important, as it alerts you to any unsafe conditions and will cut the power to the trailer if an unsafe condition should arise. The next day I reported the power issues to the office and an employee came over right away to check things out. He opened the electric box and tightened all of the connections after finding one a little loose. We had no more issues for the next nine days.

On day nine, which was a very hot Wednesday that found Travis in Wisconsin, I started having issues with the power kicking off and the surge protector reading ‘open ground’ again. I spent about 15 minutes flipping the power on and off and unplugging and re-plugging the power cord back in, but nothing was working — I kept getting the error. I went to the office again with my issue and they sent someone over again. He opened the box, checked all the connections, and couldn’t find an issue. I went back into the office to see if we could move to a new site. The guy behind the counter, who seemed to be some type of manager, said the power issue was probably because of our surge protector and that, most likely, there was nothing wrong with the power being supplied to the box. I respectfully disagreed and returned to the Airstream. He came over to the site and along with two other employees, tested the electric box with a volt meter, which read normal. I explained that just because the right amount of power is coming through the box doesn’t mean that the power is grounded properly. I also explained that in our almost 550 consecutive nights in our trailer, we have never had an issue anywhere else. He said there’s no way of knowing if there was an issue with the power cord or with our trailer as opposed to the electric box. I explained that the site we stayed at there our first night gave us no issues and the site we stayed at there the year prior gave us no issues. He again tried to blame the use of a surge protector as the culprit, saying they only have issues with power with people who use them. I said of course that’s the case, a person without a surge protector won’t know if there’s an issue with the power unless something serious happens. I told him I’d plug in without my surge protector if he would sign something saying that they would be responsible for any damage caused by faulty power — he didn’t go for that. I showed him how both of our surge protectors (we had recently bought a new one) were giving the ‘open ground’ error even before we plugged the power cord from the trailer in, meaning the issue had to be with the electric box and not the trailer or power cord. They plugged both of our surge protectors into electric boxes at other sites and did not get the ‘open ground’ error. Finally, without admitting something was wrong with the power, the guy said he could move us to a different site, two sites down from where we currently were.

This was both great and terrifying at the same time. Obviously, I wanted to be at a site where I didn’t have to worry about the power kicking off on a 90°+ day, but I have NEVER hitched the trailer up and moved it by myself — neither of us have. Travis and I each have our own tasks that we do during arrivals and departures, and hitching up is always his thing. Also, I’ve only towed the trailer once, and that was on a wide-open highway, not within a campground with narrow streets, tight turns, narrow sites, and kids running around everywhere. I didn’t really have any other option, so I had to bury my apprehension deep down inside of me and just get it done. My neighbor put the very heavy hitch on the truck while I got everything else ready and then he directed me while I backed up the truck to hitch up. I very slowly pulled out of our site, drove through the campground, and pulled into the new site where, again, the neighbor let me know when I was positioned properly. All in all, it was an uneventful, quick move that gave me the confidence of knowing that if the occasion were to ever arise again where I needed to bug out solo, I’ll be able to do it.

I’m happy to report that we had no issues at our new site for the rest of the stay. I’m dismayed to report that the KOA put someone else in our old site immediately, though I did notice an electrician van at the site the morning after we moved.

Site 119 was our third site, just two sites down from our second. Both were shady pull-thrus with a picnic table and water and electric hookups.
We were able to see the Billings fireworks from our window!

After our second stay here, these are our takeaways:

  • Close to downtown, which has good restaurants, a grocery store, and gas stations.
  • Close to the airport, which is super easy to get in and out of.
  • There’s a lot of turnover. Most people seemed to stay only one night as they were making their way to somewhere else. The positive of this is that for a large chunk of the day, many sites are empty and the place is fairly quiet. The negatives are that people are up and leaving early, making some noise as they do so. Also, a lot of people arrive fairly late, again making noise as they do so.
  • We never ate the dinner that is offered, but we did eat breakfast a few times, and it’s pretty decent.
  • The family-style bathrooms are pretty nice. They’re very busy in the morning when people are trying to get showers in before they leave. The bathrooms are cleaned about 11am, so if you wait until about noon, you can shower in a freshly cleaned bathroom.
  • The maintenance wasn’t as pristine as it was during our visit a year ago. During our two-week stay, the water at one of the dump stations had an out of order sign the entire time. There was always as least one restroom with an out of order sign, but usually at least two. About half of both the washers and dryers had out of order signs. During our first day, the grass was mowed at most of the sites, but not ours. We kept waiting for them to come back and finish the job, but they never did. After more than a week of waiting and when our grass had gotten pretty long (which is annoying when you have a dog and it rains a lot, which it did), I went into the office to request that they mow the grass. They did mow it, fairly quickly, and then mowed all of the other sites in our row that had been missed as well.
  • The staff is pretty great and accommodating, minus the one guy who seemed to think I was overreacting when we kept losing power.
  • There’s another RV park right down the road. We drove through it out of curiosity and found that the sites are even tighter than the KOA and after looking it up online, it’s more expensive than the KOA. It looks really nice from the road, though.
  • Cottonwood trees. While we were super thankful for the shade the cottonwoods provided us, they were losing their ‘cotton’ during this time and it’s quite a mess. It attaches to everything — window screens, awnings, chairs, clothes, dog, etc. and it’s difficult not to track it into the trailer or truck. We haven’t cleaned it up yet, but a serious vacuuming of the awnings and screens is needed, as well as checking to make sure it didn’t clog up any vents or the air conditioner.

While in Billings, we visited Pompeys Pillar National Monument, which is a half hour drive from the KOA. The only remaining evidence of the Lewis & Clark Expedition can be found at Pompeys Pillar, located on the Yellowstone River 25 miles northeast of Billings. Amongst an abundance of Native American petroglyphs and early pioneers’s initials, William Clark carved his name and the date into sandstone. He documented the deed in the expedition journals and named the rock formation Pompy’s Pillar (the E was added later) after the son of expedition member Sacagawea, whom he had nicknamed Pompy. Unlike any other national monument we’ve been to, dogs are allowed here. However, no dogs are allowed in the Interpretive Center (which is pretty great) or on the stairs leading to the signature and top of the pillar.

Pompeys Pillar is part of the Bureau of Land Management and is a beautiful property along the Yellowstone River that is worth a visit.
“The natives have engraved on the face of this rock the figures of animals &c. near which I marked my name and the day of the month & the year.” -Lewis & Clark Journals – July 25, 1806
W. Clark – July 25, 1806

Would we stay here again? Last year I would have said yes. This year my answer would be only for a night if we were on our way to somewhere else. This isn’t necessarily because of the KOA, but more so about the city itself. We noticed a drastic increase in the number of sketchy people, most likely drug abusers, around the downtown area. Apparently, violent crimes related to meth have increased dramatically in recent years in Billings and with a few interactions we had with some residents, it’s very obvious there’s a drug problem. While there is definitely more to Billings than downtown and safer areas elsewhere, it’s the part of the city that’s closest to the KOA. Because of this, I didn’t feel comfortable venturing out on my own very often while Travis was gone, and that’s a sign to us that we should just keep on driving.

Medora, ND: Boots Campground & Theodore Roosevelt NP

Medora, North Dakota is probably one of the busiest small towns you’ve never heard of. It’s definitely worth a few days’ visit; however, we were only able to stay one night. Because we work full time, we try to keep our driving relegated to the weekend. As we definitely wanted to see Theodore Roosevelt National Park (and fill in North Dakota on our travel map), we drove from Spearfish, SD to Medora for Saturday night, and then moved on to Billings, MT on Sunday.

There are a handful of places to park an RV in and around Medora, but since it was so hot and we needed to have electricity to run the a/c, there were three options: Medora Campground, which was completely booked; Red Trail Campground, which had availability, but seemed quite snug; and Boots Campground, a first come, first served, no frills campground a few minutes outside of town. We opted for Boots Campground, hoping there would be a site available for us, but knowing we could fall back on Red Trail Campground if there wasn’t. Thankfully, there was a spot open — a handful, actually — and we were happy to pull in next to another Airstream.

Boots Campground

3576 East River Road, Medora, ND 58645

www.bootsbarmedora.com

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull-Thru Sites
  • Cabins

When I say no frills, I really mean no frills. According to their website, there are 16 full hookup sites, but there seem to be about eight that are readily available for temporary stays. The other eight are kind of scattered around the property amongst the cabins available for rent, occupied by what look to be longer term residents. The sites are snug, both length-wise and width-wise, and there would be great difficulty in parking tow vehicles if they were all occupied. The sites are half dirt, half weeds, but level enough that we didn’t need to use any levelers. If you look at the photos below, there is actually a site open on either side of us, which shows how narrow they really are. There no restrooms, no showers, and no laundry. There are three bonuses to staying here over the other two options: 1) There are great views of the badlands out the back window of the trailer, 2) it’s very quiet away from the crowds in town, which is less than five minutes away, and 3) it’s cheap! Boots Campground is part of the Passport America program, so the regular rate of $35.00 is discounted to $17.50, which is paid at the Boots Bar in town. This area felt very safe and we had good cell signal on both Verizon and AT&T.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

There are a number of things to see and do in Medora, but number one is the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The entrance to the park is right in town and about a five-minute drive from Boots Campground. The visitor center has a nice little museum devoted to Roosevelt’s life here in the 1880s. A number of his belongings are on display, including the shirt he was wearing during an assassination attempt in Milwaukee in 1912.

Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross Cabin can be found just behind the visitor center. Built in 1883, the cabin was Roosevelt’s first home in North Dakota, though it was located seven miles south of where it now sits. The cabin was larger than most frontier homes of the time, with a living room, kitchen, bedroom, and sleeping loft for the ranch hands. While the rooms are partitioned off with plexiglass, you get a sense of the way he lived as a few of his personal items are on display.

The 36-mile Scenic Loop Drive offers a number of overlooks and access to the various trailheads. When we visited, a portion of the road was closed, so visitors could only drive to a certain point before they had to turn around and drive back. Because of this, and because we forgot to get gas after making our long drive from Spearfish that day, we weren’t able to drive the entire road. We drove as far as the Boicourt Overlook before we needed to turn around. During our drive, we saw a bison, a wild horse, and oodles of prairie dogs. We had heard that this park is great for viewing wildlife, but I think it was just too hot when we visited. Out of curiosity, we drove through Cottonwood Campground in the park. It sits along the Little Missouri River, has no hookups, tons of tall cottonwood trees, and the sites are surrounded by long prairie grass. Despite the heat, the campground was full.

We spent less than 24 hours in Medora, but we really enjoyed our time there. Besides getting to enjoy the gorgeous badlands of North Dakota and visiting a great national park, we also became friends with our Airstream neighbors, Aaron & Valerie, and spent the night chatting, getting to know one another, and sharing tales of the roads.

 

The Black Hills of South Dakota – Custer, Hill City, and Spearfish

We spent the month of June in the Black Hills area of South Dakota: Two weeks at Beaver Lake Campground in Custer; one week at Game Lodge Campground in Custer State Park; and we split the fourth week between Rafter J Bar Ranch in Hill City and Elkhorn Ridge RV Resort in Spearfish.

This was our second time staying in the Black Hills area with the Airstream. To read about our past trip, as well as other places we’ve visited in South Dakota, check out these blog posts:

Campgrounds/RV Parks

Beaver Lake Campground

12005 W. Hwy 16, Custer, SD 57730

www.beaverlakecampground.net

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull-Thru Sites
  • Cabins
  • Tent Sites
  • Store
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Propane Fill
  • Dump
  • Rec Hall with Live Music
  • Swimming Pool with Slides
  • Dog Run
  • Horse Shoes
  • Playground
  • Firewood
  • Picnic Table
  • Fire Pit

We were originally supposed to stay one week at Beaver Lake and two weeks at Game Lodge Campground, but after spending a few days at Beaver Lake, we decided to change it up. My parents were driving to Custer from Wisconsin during our second week in South Dakota, so we decided that staying in the city of Custer where they would be would be better than us being in Custer State Park, which was a little bit of a drive. Because of the last minute change, we stayed one week in one site at Beaver Lake and had to move to a different site during the second week. The staff was very flexible, giving us a couple of options for both our first and second sites. I think we ended up with the best site in the campground for our first week. Site 60 is a spacious back-in site with full hookups and a view of the small lake. The cell signal was a little wonky here for Travis at times, but fine for me, even though we’re on the same network. If he wasn’t within range of our WeBoost cell booster, his phone calls would cut out.

Our second site wasn’t quite as nice, but still decent. Most of the sites are fairly level side to side, but need some help from front to back. Our second site, site 10, was water and electric only, so we used the campground showers during the second week. The showers and restrooms are nice and are conveniently located near the sites that are sans sewer. The laundry room is nice as well, with a change machine, which we don’t see often. Also, beware of falling of pine cones! They fell from the tall trees with enough force to set off the truck alarm. Luckily, there were no dents to either the truck or the Airstream.

Beaver Lake is a great place to stay while exploring Custer and the surrounding areas and we would definitely stay here again!

Game Lodge Campground

Custer State Park

www.campsd.com

  • Electric Hookups
  • Tent Sites
  • Cabins
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Water Fill
  • Dump Station
  • Laundry
  • Picnic Table
  • Fire Pit
  • Playground
  • Small Fishing Pond with Swim Beach

After two weeks at Beaver Lake, we spent one week at Game Lodge Campground in Custer State Park. The campgrounds in Custer can be booked up to a year in advance, so if you want to stay for an extended period of time, you need to plan ahead. There are always cancellations, so check often. For instance, we had originally booked two weeks, but changed it to one, so that one week became available less than a week ahead of time. The sites have electric only, so we filled our fresh water tank and 6-gallon water can at Beaver Lake, and that was enough to get us through the week. We used the showers every day, which are nice, and filled and emptied our dish tub in the bathroom in order to wash dishes. The sites in the campground are spaced out nicely and there’s a little distance between you and your neighbors. Some sites are fairly shady while others are almost always in direct sun, so if this is a concern for you, I’d check out the satellite view on Google Maps to determine which site will work best for you. We were in site 48, which didn’t give us a lot of shade, but since it wasn’t very hot during our stay, shade wasn’t necessary. We were pretty close to the bathrooms, which was convenient for our daily showers. The one thing that was strange is that the fire pit for this site is located opposite of the door-side of the trailer, as seen in the second picture below. Within the campground and in the Game Lodge area, we had great cell signal.

The campground is a half mile up the road from the State Game Lodge, which has a restaurant, bar, and gift shop. There are numerous lodges with restaurants, gift shops, and convenience-store type items throughout the park, though the closest decent grocery store is in Custer, which is a 25-minute drive from the Game Lodge Campground, but much closer for the campgrounds on the west side of the park. If we would stay in Custer SP again, we’d try for the Sylvan Lake Campground, as it’s close to all of the good hiking trails and closer to the attractions of the area (Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Jewel Cave, and the cities of Custer and Hill City). Game Lodge is a good location in the park if you want to explore Rapid City, which is about 40 minutes away. In fact, we used one of our days in Custer SP to run errands in Rapid City, which included a doctor’s appointment, getting an oil change, and making stops at CVS, Petco, and Walmart as well as eating lunch.

Rafter J Bar Ranch

12325 Rafter J Road, Hill City, SD 57745

www.rafterj.com

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull-Thru Sites
  • Tent Sites
  • Cabins
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Swimming Pool with Hot Tub
  • Basketball Court
  • Volleyball Court
  • Pancake Breakfast
  • Playground
  • Store
  • Picnic Table
  • Fire Ring

Rafter J Bar Ranch is probably the most centrally-located place to stay in order to visit all of the sites in the area — Crazy Horse Memorial is 12 minutes; Sylvan Lake Lodge in Custer SP is 16 minutes; Mount Rushmore is 17 minutes; Jewel Cave National Monument is 30 minutes; and Wind Cave National Park is 38 minutes. The breweries and wineries of Hill City are 10-15 minutes away; the city of Custer is 15 minutes; Rapid City is about 40 minutes; and Deadwood is about an hour. Day trips to Badlands National Park and Devils Tower National Monument are possible.

Rafter J is a very large, spread out property that is well maintained. They have shady sites, sunny sites, sites in the trees, and sites out in the open spread amongst the seven various ‘camps’: Ranch Camp, Lower Ranch Camp, The Island, Line Camp, Base Camp, Main Camp and Cabin Camp. You have to call in order to make reservations, and this is so that they can ask you a few questions and assign a site to you that fits your needs best. When I made our reservation, I requested a shady site, thinking it was going to be hot and sunny like it was last year when we visited the area. While it wasn’t very hot, we still appreciated our site in the wooded, shady area of Ranch Camp, which is the most remote section and furthest from the office and activities. Ranch Camp is a mixture of full hookups, electric/water hookups, and tent sites and has a bathhouse with restrooms, showers, and laundry. The back of our site, site 148, sat at the top of a hill with distant views of Black Elk Peak. We had good cell signal with AT&T on this part of the property, but noticed when we were near the office by Base Camp it wasn’t so great. If we were to stay at Rafter J again, we would request to stay in The Island, where there are fewer sites, no bathhouse, and more space between sites. Sites 231, 237, 247, and 248 are ideal.

The only amenities we used while here were the laundry, which was a little pricy, and the all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast that is served Thursday through Monday (they weren’t very good). You’ll find restaurants, shops, and grocery stores in both Custer and Hill City, though Custer has a better grocery store and better dining options. There were two issues we experienced while at Rafter J: 1) For some reason, a lot of people cut through our site or walked between ours and our neighbor’s site. I’m not really sure why this was such an issue here, but this is one reason we would request to be in The Island if we returned to Rafter J. 2) The pollen from the trees was so, so bad. A yellow-green dust covered everything and made for some annoying allergy symptoms.

Elkhorn Ridge RV Resort & Campground

20189 US Highway 89, Spearfish, SD 57783

www.elkhornridgeresort.com

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull-Thru Sites
  • Cabins
  • Tent Sites
  • Communal Fire Pits
  • Picnic Tables
  • Large, Fenced-In Dog Park
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Propane Fill
  • Pool with Hot Tubs
  • Store
  • Playground
  • Basketball Court
  • Volleyball Court
  • Tennis Court
  • Horse Shoes
  • Event Center
  • Wifi
  • Coffee Bar

Elkhorn Ridge is a large, very nice RV resort situated equidistant between Spearfish and Deadwood. It’s clean, well maintained, and offers a number of amenities, the only of which we used was the pool — and unfortunately, the hot tubs were out of order at the time. Our site (#341) was a spacious back in with full hookups. As you can see from the picture above, we had a view of the highway out our back window. There are a lot of back in sites along this side of the property, but most had a berm behind them that blocked the view of the highway. Seeing as they had a lot of sites open, we found it odd that they’d put us in this site instead of one of the other ones. Our site was fine, though, and the road noise didn’t bother us. The property really is beautiful, with nice views of the surrounding hills. There’s a full-size basketball court and tennis court, both of which are of very high quality. The fenced-in dog park is extremely large and even has separate areas for large dogs and small dogs. The location is fantastic for exploring both Deadwood and Spearfish, including Spearfish Canyon, which is a must!

Places to Eat & Drink

Custer

We were pleasantly surprised with the food options in the city of Custer. Here are our recommendations:

  • Skogen Kitchen – Small, family-run restaurant with a limited, yet delicious menu. This is the fanciest place you’ll find in Custer, with excellent service and it is by reservation only. They are open for brunch on the weekends and dinner most nights, but check their website for exact hours.

  • Black Hills Burger & Bun – Rated by some as the best burger in South Dakota, this place does not disappoint. The menu has more than just burgers, but honestly — just get the burger. The cheese curds were delicious too and they offer a decent selection of both bottled and draft beer. As with many places in Custer, they’re closed on Sunday.

  • Pizza Mill – This is some of the best pizza we’ve ever had! You can eat in, or do as we did, and have them deliver right to the campground. The other pizza options in town — Pizza Works and Pizza Hut — don’t come close to the quality of Pizza Mill.

  • Purple Pie Palace – Hopefully you’ve left room for dessert, because the pie from the Purple Pie Palace is delicious! Whether you get it by the slice, by the pie, or ala mode, you won’t be disappointed. They also have a dining room that serves pot pies, paninis, and such, but we just sampled the pie, so I can’t comment on the food.

Custer State Park

If you’re looking for culinary masterpieces, you won’t find them here. I’d describe the food at CSP as nothing to write home about, but good enough to fill your tummy when you don’t feel like cooking.

  • State Game Lodge – The State Game Lodge has a dining room that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner and a lounge (in the bar) that serves food from noon to 11pm. We ate the lunch buffet twice, which is a good price at $13.75 per person, and had dinner once, which was a little underwhelming.
  • Legion Lake Lodge – We had lunch at Legion Lake once and it was fine — not good, not bad. They do, however, make delicious ice cream sundaes!

And that’s the extent of our dining in CSP. We cooked in the Airstream, mostly, and I’d recommend for those that are able to to do the same.

Hill City

Hill City is a tiny town of less than 1,000 people, but it’s the place to go if you’re looking for beer or wine in the Black Hills, as there are multiple breweries and wineries.

  • Prairie Berry Winery –  They have a great selection of berry wines and a nice little menu with soups, salads, cheese/charcuterie boards, sandwiches and pizza. The wine tasting is free and the food is delicious! They also sell jams, honeys, and compotes that are made in small batches at their winery.

  • Miner Brewing Company – This craft brewery is located right next door to Prairie Berry, as they are run by the same person. The atmosphere reminds me of the breweries you’d find in San Diego, with a small disc golf course and bocce ball court. There’s a lot of seating on the patio, which it makes it very dog friendly. The beer is good and the food menu may look familiar, as they offer a selection of Prairie Berry’s menu.

  • Firehouse Winery & Brewery: Smokejumper Station – If you’ve driven along I-90 in South Dakota, then you’re familiar with Firehouse Brewery — they advertise their Rapid City location for hundreds of miles. The Hill City location seems more winery than brewery, but that’s okay, because their wine is fantastic — we went home with four bottles! They also offer a food menu, but we didn’t partake when we visited; however, a friend said their cheese board is to die for.

Things to Do

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

What’s a trip to the Black Hills without a stop at Mount Rushmore?! Because it’s a memorial, entrance is free; however, parking is not. It costs $10 to park onsite, $5 if a senior citizen, and free for all military. Your pass is good for one year. Make sure to walk the Presidential Trail (.6 miles with 422 total stairs) to find multiple new vantage points from which to view the memorial.

Three Fun Facts:

  • 1) Originally, South Dakotan historian Doane Robinson, the man who came up with the idea of Mount Rushmore, originally wanted the carved statues to be of Wild West figures that would promote tourism to the area. People such as Lewis & Clark, Red Cloud, and Buffalo Bill Cody were possibilities. The carver of Mount Rushmore felt the presidents would offer a wider appeal.
  • 2) Originally, Jefferson was to be to Washington’s right, but because the rock was unsuitable, he was moved to the left.
  • 3) The statue below shows what the original plan for Mount Rushmore looked like. The four presidents were to be represented from the waist up, but due to budget constraints, just the faces were done.

If you want to skip the craziness of the crowds within the memorial as well as the $10 parking fee, there are two areas that I know of that you can view Mount Rushmore from outside the park. Just a bit up Hwy 244 west of the entrance to Mount Rushmore is a parking area with signage that says something like ‘profile view’. If you pull in here, you’ll get a nice profile shot of George Washington like you see below. The other place to see Mount Rushmore is through the Doane Robinson Tunnel when driving north on Iron Mountain Road, which starts just inside the east entrance of Custer State Park and ends east of Rapid City. It’s a windy road, just like Needles Highway, and also just like Needles Highway, has three vehicle-size-restrictive tunnels.

Crazy Horse Memorial

Sculptor Korcak Ziolkowski was invited to the Black Hills by Henry Standing Bear to carve the image of Crazy Horse into Thunderhead Mountain in order to honor the Lakota people. The project began in 1948 and the second and third generations of Korcak’s family continue it today. If completed as designed, it will become the world’s second largest statue. The third picture below shows the sculpture that is being used as the model, which is 1/34th the scale of the final product. Entrance is $12 per person or $30 per car if there are more than two people in the vehicle. You can pay an extra $4 to take a bus that gets you quite a bit closer. If you want to skip the entrance fee altogether, there’s a parking lot outside the entrance from which you can see Crazy Horse. When driving from Custer to Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial is along the route. It’s hard to say if visiting the memorial is ‘worth it’. I think it’s going to be amazingly beautiful when complete, which won’t be for at least another 50 years. The memorial receives no federal or state funding, so they count on visitors to help keep the project going.

Fun Fact: Twice a year, visitors are able to hike all the way to the top and stand eye to eye with Crazy Horse. It’s a 6-mile hike that takes place on the first weekend in June and on the same day as the Custer Buffalo Roundup in September.

Jewel Cave National Monument

Jewel Cave NM is the third longest cave in the world. We took the Scenic Tour, which lasts about an hour and twenty minutes and leads you on a half-mile loop with 723 stairs (some up, some down). At the deepest point, you’ll find yourself almost 40 stories below the surface. Pretty much everyone on the tour that has visited both Jewel Cave and Wind Cave agreed that Jewel Cave was more impressive. The Scenic Tour is the only tour at Jewel Cave that you can make advance reservations for and is $12. All other tours are first come, first served, and they do reserve some day of tickets for the Scenic Tour as well.

Needles Highway – CSP

The impossibly curvy Needles Highway, completed in 1922, is a 14-mile scenic byway that should be experienced at least once. Sharp turns, steep drop-offs, snug tunnels, granite spires, and topnotch views are what’s in store for those that make the trek. When you hop on the highway in the Legion Lake area and drive towards Sylvan Lake, the first two-thirds of the drive may not be that impressive. However, the final third consists of stomach-dropping views, including the Needles Eye.

Wild Life Loop Road – CSP

From afar, we saw bison, pronghorn, coyote, and prairie dogs. We saw the infamous begging burros up close and personal towards the end of the loop. We drove the Wild Life Loop last year and the wildlife was pretty scarce at that time also. If you want to see a lot of animals up close, I’d recommend driving along Sage Creek Rim Road in Badlands NP.

Spearfish Canyon

Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway winds through the floor of the canyon, alongside Spearfish Creek and the towering canyon walls, with pine, spruce, aspen, and birch overhead. Bridal Veil Falls and Roughlock Falls are must-sees along the route, the latter found in the Roughlock Falls Nature Area, which is the perfect mix of natural beauty and man-made walkways that offer a variety of viewpoints of the Falls.

Mount Roosevelt Tower

Upon learning of Theodore Roosevelt’s death in January 1919, his friend, influential South Dakotan Seth Bullock, wanted a suitable memorial built to honor him. On July 4, 1919, the Roosevelt Tower, located just west of Deadwood, was dedicated. There’s a moderately difficult 0.6 mile loop trail that will take you to the tower. You’ll find parking, picnic tables, and pit toilets at the trailhead.

Mount Moriah Cemetery

I’m a sucker for old cemeteries and Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood is a beautiful one. Mount Moriah Cemetery accepted burials from 1878 until 1949. The cemetery has a number of distinct sections including a Civil War veterans section, a Jewish section, a children’s section (for those that succumbed to cholera, smallpox and typhus), a mass grave section, and previously a Chinese section, though only a few of those graves remain today. The most notable graves belong to Wild Bill Hickok, who was shot and killed while playing Poker in Deadwood in 1876; and Calamity Jane, who was buried next to Wild Bill in 1903. There’s a great view of Deadwood near the flagpole, where the flag flies 24 hours a day, due to approval by Congress during World War I, to honor all veterans who have served our country. There’s a $2/person entrance fee that is used to help with ongoing maintenance and beautification of the cemetery.

Deadwood

We weren’t really sure what to expect with Deadwood. It turned out to be a pretty nice little historic town, with cobblestone streets and gorgeous architecture. Of course, there’s a cheese factor in some parts, with actors recreating a Wild West shoot out in the streets, but there are nice casinos, museums, and spas that make Deadwood a Black Hills destination. Our favorite casino was Cadillac Jack’s Gaming Resort, with three hotel options, super clean casino, and decent food options. Also, we were happy to find that all casinos are smoke free. We wandered into the bar where Wild Bill was shot while playing poker; though, the actual location is behind closed doors and requires a fee to enter. Deadwood is definitely worthy of a visit if you’re in the Black Hills, and we wish we would’ve had more time to explore.

Belle Fourche – Geographic Center of the Nation

Our last stop in the Black Hills was by chance. We noticed as we drove north from Spearfish that the city of Belle Fourche has received the title of Geographic Center of the Nation. Even though we were towing the Airstream, it was an easy pitstop to make to view the 21-foot-diameter compass rose that commemorates the title. While the actual geographic center has been delineated by the U.S. National Geodetic Survey at a point approximately 20 miles away, the specific point will always be imprecise due to changing shorelines.

Hiking

Custer

  • Skywalk Trail to Big Rock Observation Deck – Even with a short length of approximately 1 mile roundtrip, this trail has pretty steady elevation gain (about 400′) and really gets the heart pumping. It’s a nice wide trail that is sometimes dirt, sometimes stairs, and culminates with a climb to the Big Rock Observation Deck that offers views of the city of Custer. It was a nice, close trail when we stayed at Beaver Lake Campground.

Custer State Park

  • Lovers Leap Trail – According to the trail map you get at the visitor center, Lovers Leap Trail is three miles. However, according to the sign at the trailhead, as well as my watch, it’s actually four. The trailhead is located in the Game Lodge area, so it was a very convenient hike during our stay in the campground there. The trail is a loop with a number of stream crossings, all of them over some type of makeshift bridge. There’s about 750′ of elevation gain, and you definitely feel it. Another person we ran into on the trail said she saw mountain goat at the peak, but we had no such luck.

  • Little Devil’s Tower Trail – The hike to Little Devil’s Tower is a fun one! It’s about 2.8 miles roundtrip with 700ish feet of elevation gain. It’s rated as strenuous by the park but moderate on AllTrails. I’d say it falls somewhere in between as the elevation gain isn’t too horrible but it does require a decent amount of scrambling. You have views of Black Elk Peak from the top, but beautiful views throughout the hike, as well.

After our month in the Black Hills this year and our trip last year, we conquered South Dakota’s Great 8: Mount Rushmore, Jewel Cave National Monument, Crazy Horse Memorial, Badlands National Park, Deadwood, the Missouri River, Custer State Park, and Wind Cave National Park — yet, there is still so much to explore. South Dakota is our adopted home state and we always look forward to visiting the land of Great Faces and Great Places!