Roadside America: Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska edition
August 1, 2017 12:55 PM   Subscribe

Doing a road trip that starts and ends in Denver and hits Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska. Is there anything (ridiculous or iconic) I'd regret not seeing in this thousand mile loop?

This is more or less my route and I know it's a ton of driving. I'm a fan of these fly & drive road trips and am OK with the distances. This is late summer so weather shouldn't be an issue.

From the map you can tell some of what I have planned, both iconic and ridiculous. In further detail so you can get an idea of my interests:

-Belle Fourche - geographic center monument
-Wall and all its silliness. Yes, I'll ride the jackalope
-Oregon Trail tracks at Scotts Bluff

When I lived in Australia I loved the Largest X and am as much a fan of "silly and memorable" as I am of "scenic and in all the travel books". In particular I'd love something in Wyoming to get out and stretch on the long drive to Devil's Tower, but I've done Cheyenne before.

Overnights are: Denver airport (late night arrival, want to get early start with rental car. Did Denver proper last summer so no need/interest in going anywhere further), Deadwood, Rapid City (x3), Cheyenne

I'm pretty sure I have the major parks/monuments covered (Devil's Tower, Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Badlands, Black Hills) but if I'm missing any, please let me know.

Colorado is essentially a non factor in this trip other than airport base (cheap flights) as I've done parts of it the last two years. The side trip to the Stanley may or may not happen, but was disappointed to have missed it on a recent trip to Rocky Mountain NP.

Thank you!
and looking at my history. I live up to my name with my questions!
posted by TravellingCari to Travel & Transportation (24 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The Reptile Gardens web site says that they no longer put a bumper sticker on your car while you're inside, so that's an improvement over the last time I was there.
posted by Bruce H. at 1:12 PM on August 1, 2017

Check out the The Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD.
posted by cwarmy at 1:13 PM on August 1, 2017

If you like silliness, you might consider going up through Encampment, WY, (near Riverside) from CO (and also seeing the fantastic valley and town of Walden) and seeing a *2 story* outhouse. If you want to stay off the interstate then you could go up through Medicine Bow and/or Rock River, which is right by Como Bluff, site of the dino wars, and there's an awesome house made out of dino bones near there. There's a few alternatives in that area to get back on your route. including going back to the fork at the WY/CO border and then going up to Laramie. (You could even go up through Muddy Gap and see Independence Rock.) *I* think the area is gorgeous and much better than driving the interstate, but it will add some mileage to your trip. (Alternatively, you could go east near Saratoga and see some beautiful mountain scenery, ending up in Laramie, which would bring you over the old Lincoln highway and a place called Vedauwoo in the Laramie range if you go back east on I-80, or you could take highway 34 through the Laramie range that ends up in Wheatland.

Also if you're interested in Oregon Trail ruts, I think the ones near Guernsey, which is on your route, are far more interesting than the ones at Scott's Bluff. That'd be a good "stretch" on the way to DT.

Also be prepared for Rushmore to not meet expectations.
posted by barchan at 1:23 PM on August 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

I really enjoyed the Golden Spike Tower in North Platte, NE. Looks like it's pretty far off your route, but if you think seeing the largest rail classification yard in the world would be fun, it could be worth it. If you're lucky, there'll be a retired rail worker on hand to help you make sense of everything you're seeing from the observation deck.

Here's a list of possible Wyoming activities, including a visit to the state's only two escalators.
posted by asperity at 1:39 PM on August 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Barchan, you have absolutely nailed my interests. Thank you!

Also be prepared for Rushmore to not meet expectations.
My expectations have been calibrated to: seriously, people road trip for *this*?!? so I'm hoping I can't be disappointed.
posted by TravellingCari at 1:40 PM on August 1, 2017

Off the top of my head I'd say while in Rapid City check out Dinosaur Park, and possibly the Museum of Geology at the School of Mines. Downtown there are Presidents on every corner! Get your picture with your favorite!

In Deadwood check out the Mount Moriah Cemetery, and if you're a real fan of Seth Bullock there's a criminally-unknown, decidedly simple tower he conceived as a monument to Teddy Roosevelt called Friendship Tower (at least the views are great).

Your path doesn't show a detour deeper into the Hills, but if you have the time I always suggest going to the Crazy Horse Memorial, (and just drive past Mount Rushmore). Unless you have a reason to go to Sturgis you could alter your route out of Deadwood and go south on 385 past the lakes and Hill City to Crazy Horse (it's a nice drive). Get back to Rapid via 244 to go by Mt Rushmore and through Keystone Or if you have even more time consider Iron Mountain Road / Needles Highway / Pigtail Bridges. It's a lot nicer drive than 90 from Sturgis to Deadwood but it will turn into a whole day instead of an hour.

You say you're going to Wall but your route doesn't show that. The drive from RC to Scenic is anything but, you'll get more Badlands by taking 90 east out of Rapid to Wall then heading south.
posted by achrise at 2:00 PM on August 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Seconding the recommendation for Thermopolis - specifically, their hot springs. Local lore says that when the native Americans signed over the land, they insisted on a clause granting free access to the hot springs to everyone in perpetuity, because of their healing powers.

Also, the Wyoming Dinosaur Center is in Thermopolis.

The Big Horn Mountains are just so incredibly scenic, and driving through Crazy Woman Canyon, its name made us laugh. . . until we learned how it got its name.
posted by Lunaloon at 2:01 PM on August 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Archrise, I learned there's a limit in Google Maps. I have a more detailed one but couldn't work out how to clone it and thought removing semi private information and re-adding would take too much time. I have a couple of yours as I'm using Rapid City as a base to explore the surrounds due to much easier accommodation there, but hadn't yet explored specific routes between the sights so thank you very much for the tips there.
posted by TravellingCari at 2:16 PM on August 1, 2017

Sure! I'll rack my brain for some other places, too. If you go to the Stanley and back to I-25, take one route up through Lyons and then return through Loveland for a change of pace. Keep an eye out as you drive in the canyons - the area had a devastating flood a few years ago and there's still plenty of evidence of it. Also, the Stanley tour is pretty interesting. If you really want to go up there but have any (common) concerns about driving in the mountains, MeMail me! I'm in Denver and I'd be happy to play tour guide.

(Also while Thermopolis and the Bighorns are amazing, that is an incredibly long drive from Denver to Deadwood via that route, and I say that as someone who drives all over Wyoming all the time and is used to it. It's 3 hours alone from Buffalo straight to Deadwood without the additional trip to DT/Montana included (if I'm reading your overnights right). You'd probably want to add another day if you did that. But if you did, you could go up through Rawlins and see Independence Rock, etc. If you decide to do that, memail me on that too - that is my neck of the woods where I've lived/worked/played for almost 40 years, and I know LOTS of fun/cool/weird places to go! Dunes! Dino tracks! Pie!)
posted by barchan at 2:17 PM on August 1, 2017

Thunder Basin Grasslands is very natural and empty, somewhat desertlike but more hospitable to humans -- find a place to park and walk as far as you can off the road, it's more in the 'scenic' vein and not something you'll run across often. Plus, it fits in your "stretch legs on the way to Devil's tower".
posted by AzraelBrown at 2:21 PM on August 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Fort Robinson State Park in western Nebraska is fascinating. It's filled with a ton of history and they've done a great job of preserving it. The Trailside Museum there has the "clash of the mammoths" -- the fossils of two mammoths that perished when their tusks became locked together -- it's pretty cool.
posted by Ostara at 2:47 PM on August 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

You might consider taking an eastern jog out of South Dakota and drive through the Nebraska Sand Hills via NE 27, then head west to Alliance on Rt 2. The Sand Hills, stabilized dunes dating from the last ice age, are unique and it would be a shame to pass them up when you're so close.
posted by plastic_animals at 2:52 PM on August 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: A MeFite who wished to remain anonymous showed me how to make a more detailed map public without redoing a ton of work. This should provide a better idea of what I have, and incorporates some you've provided here. Even if some are too far afield for this trip, they won't go to waste, this grew out of last summer's where I fell so in love with Colorado and Wyoming I didn't make it further northeast.

These are all perfect - thank you!

posted by TravellingCari at 3:06 PM on August 1, 2017

The Laura Ingalls Wilder sites in de smet sd
posted by brujita at 4:35 PM on August 1, 2017

Reiterating, but make sure you hit the Black Hills, and feel free to skip Rushmore. I've never been, but I've heard visiting described several times as a big ole 'welp, that sure is Mt. Rushmore'.
posted by so fucking future at 6:42 PM on August 1, 2017

If you are willing to travel another 50-60 miles east from Mitchell, Sioux Falls has a really lovely rock park (Falls Park) with many waterfalls and an observation tower. There is also a Japanese garden in Terrace Park. Downtown Sioux Falls has Washington Pavilion, an art/science museum and theatre; Zandbroz, a fun book/variety store; and a sculpture walk.
posted by intrepid_simpleton at 7:54 PM on August 1, 2017

Seconding Thermopolis and a sulfurous swim there if it ends up feasible.

Also: Keep an eye out for Basque food. The best & most memorable meals I’ve had in various Wyoming trips were at hole-in-the-wall family-style Basque places with little/no signage and attached to gas stations. (There’s a small & old Basque community in Wyoming, much of it centered around sheepherding.) I can’t google up any of the specific places I’ve been to, but I believe some were close to Gillette.
posted by miles per flower at 7:40 AM on August 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

There are several panels of the Berlin Wall in Rapid City.

I also strongly second Dinosaur Park.
posted by potential lunch winner at 3:41 PM on August 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

There are a few buffalo jumps in Wyoming, if that floats your boat.

There is also a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Wyoming, as well as one in Nebraska.
posted by rhizome at 5:57 PM on August 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all - this is amazing. No bests for now as they're all great. While I don't think I'll be able to go as far afield as Mitchell, SD or Thermopolis, WY, it's food for future trips. This trip itself grew out of two priors. Will keep monitoring this thread so feel free to add suggestions and I'll post back with what I do for future searchers. South Dakota is an underpopulated tag here.
posted by TravellingCari at 7:59 PM on August 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Jewel Cave is utterly fantastic. I'm glad you've got the Needles Highway on there. The Black Hills Playhouse is also in Custer State Park near Center Lake. Their shows are usually pretty good, depending on what's playing. I spent four glorious summers there as a painter, and it attracts theatre professionals (usually on the tech side) from all over the country just because the location is so wonderful.
posted by lauranesson at 6:57 AM on August 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

And the Cosmos are one of those ridiculous places where they pretend that gravity's shifted. I hear it's even sillier/better if you're high.
posted by lauranesson at 6:58 AM on August 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: A flight change made day one not as much of a marathon drive, whee!

Suggestions from this thread that made the list for sure
-Guernsey Ruts/Register Cliff
-Presidents' & Dinosaur Park in Rapid City
-Needles Highway

Full report when I'm back. Thanks again!
posted by TravellingCari at 10:29 AM on August 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: What an amazing trip and region.
I'll have more photos, but my Instagram (obvious self link) has a handful. Hard to capture this magnificent landscape. This was my final-ish Google map and the ones I turned green are the ones I hit. Ended up a hair shy of 1600 miles (insane that I basically drove the distance from NYC (home) to Denver in a road trip). It was reasonable chunks that allowed me to take my time and get off the interstate (other than Denver->Douglas) which makes me happier. Longest stretch was Rapid City to Cheyenne which was long, but manageable ~400 miles via the Oregon Trail sights in Nebraska. That day was mostly car sightseeing as it went over 100 and heat was a little much. Badlands were pure magic and Needles Highway looks other worldly. Even though it was a holiday weekend, schools out west are back in session I think so it was way less crowded than I expected. Only Devil's Tower was what I'd call "busy" and not even that bad.

Some thoughts related to the tips in this thread:

barchan: you were absolutely right on most every point, and I'm truly thankful. The difference between the Guernsey ruts and Scott's Bluff is striking, but I think both are useful for the Oregon Trail tails they tell. Scott's Bluff is definitely the better site as far as info and storytelling but that comes with the resources of the National Parks behind it. I did end up doing the Stanley on the way south from Cheyenne (I forgot about Fort Collins and could/should have stayed there). I took the Loveland exit from I25 (257?) up and then came down via Boulder. It was hazy due to the country west of the Rockies being on fire, but I loved Big Thompson canyon. It was a flyby of the Stanley because I was wiped out by this stage of break neck travel, but glad I did it. I didn't get any further west than I25 in Wyoming, but have added them to my broader bucket list for when I return, as I will.

Your path doesn't show a detour deeper into the Hills, but if you have the time I always suggest going to the Crazy Horse Memorial, (and just drive past Mount Rushmore). Unless you have a reason to go to Sturgis you could alter your route out of Deadwood and go south on 385 past the lakes and Hill City to Crazy Horse (it's a nice drive). Get back to Rapid via 244 to go by Mt Rushmore and through Keystone Or if you have even more time consider Iron Mountain Road / Needles Highway / Pigtail Bridges. It's a lot nicer drive than 90 from Sturgis to Deadwood but it will turn into a whole day instead of an hour.

This was more or less what I did. I did a drive by of Sturgis (don't get it at all, I realize that's heresy) on my way into Deadwood from Belle Fourche and the next morning left from Deadwood and doubled back up to Spearfish on the interstate to come down via Spearfish Canyon, Pactola Lake where the ranger had me go down to Crazy Horse (magical!) and then back up to take Needles into Custer and then Iron Mountain to Rushmore since I said I was OK with driving all day. This was a gorgeous if long day and probably my favorite of the whole trip. I was both underwhelmed by and satisfied with Rushmore. On first view (Iron Mountain from Custer) after having seen Crazy Horse and taken the bus to the base, I thought "that's it?" but as I drew closer it intrigued me. I didn't decide whether I was going until I was there and I decided why not. Sunset was beautiful and I enjoyed the lighting ceremony. I think key for me was to take it for what it was in 1930s vs. what it is now - pretty remarkable creation. I contemplated getting back the next day to do the Trail and visitor center/museum, but lingered in the Badlands and didn't have time. Still glad I went once.

Rapid City was adorable but I was glad I didn't pay the rates the hotels were getting as Box Elder was fine for what it was - a place to close my eyes. Dinosaur Park and the Presidents were fun. Ran out of daylight to find the Berlin Wall, but we have fragments here, I've been to the Newseum and Berlin so I was OK with missing those.

Jewel Cave/Minuteman- just ran out of daylight and time. Nearly six full days (Denver-> Douglas, Douglas -> Deadwood, Deadwood-Rapid City x 2, Rapid City-Cheyenne) was good, as I don't think there's ever enough time to see everything.
My only suggestions I'd make to deviate from my itinerary (most of which would have been solved with more detailed pre planning):

-see if you can find a closer airport There's a lot of lost time driving to & from Denver. I couldn't find anything reasonable for Rapid City though and wasn't sure where else to try.

-don't rely on Google maps in the Black Hills. They invent non existent roads. The Ranger at Pactola Lake (great stop to stretch by the way, gorgeous!) had a chuckle as I was not the first to come in with some maps that didn't reflect reality. She happily annotated one of their tear off maps for me.

-brush up on Oregon trail/Sioux history . I was 10 miles from fort Laramie when at Guernsey and didn't do it because the road was not great. Now kicking myself since I know significance.

-pay extra and stay closer to Black Hills one night (Keystone has every chain) especially if you're doing evening at Rushmore or Crazy Horse. Rapid City/suburbs are fine for base for Badlands.

All in all an amazing trip. Thank you all so much for your input. Not marking best as it would be all.
posted by TravellingCari at 10:55 AM on September 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

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