Rapid City South Dakota – An Incredible Destination for Park Lovers

Rapid City, South Dakota.  I don’t know about you, but that’s not the first place I think of for a park-themed trip.  Utah, California, and Colorado come to mind first.

Sure, I think most of us have heard of Mount Rushmore.  But Rapid City is also close to a lot of OTHER park sites – most are within an hour or two’s drive in various directions.  In my mind that makes it a “must-visit” for anyone who loves parks.

I have good friends who are in the area now, which brought this topic to mind.  Lee and I visited with friends last September.  Late September was a great time to be there.  Nothing was too crowded and the weather was nice – we had mostly sunny days with highs in the 60s.

Here are the places we visited during the four days we were there – and by no means did we see everything:

Mount Rushmore – the figures are impressive, but we spent more time in the Visitor Center watching the movie and learning about how it was created than we did looking at the monument.  Unfortunately the Sculptor’s Studio was closed, as was the path to it, so we couldn’t explore very much.  Be aware that a National Park Pass will NOT give you free entry – EVERYONE pays for parking on the way in, though the parking permit will be valid for a year.  Per vehicle fee of $10, or $5 for 62 and over, or free for Active Duty Military.  There is an evening show when lights come on, illuminating the faces…we didn’t see that.

Mount Rushmore

Jewel Cave National Monument – You’ll need to take a ranger-guided tour to see anything inside the cave.  Tickets are first come, first served.  A limited number of Scenic Tour tickets can be reserved in advance. We did the Discovery Tour, a 20-minute tour which visits one large room.  Check the web site for information on the physical requirements of the tours and what to bring and what not to bring: backpacks, purses, etc. are NOT permitted in the cave. Get there early if you don’t want a long wait for a tour.

Jewel Cave – Discovery Tour

Devil’s Tower National Monument – Perhaps the only thing that most of us remember about the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”  🙂   I will admit that I was underwhelmed.  There’s really not much to do there beyond walking around the base of the tower.  The Visitor Center is quite minimal – no movie or exhibits. It’s a quick visit.

Devil’s Tower National Monument

Wind Cave National Park – You’ll need to take a ranger-guided tour to go inside the cave.  Some tours are first come, first served, but advance reservations are available up to one month ahead for the Candlelight and Wild Cave Tours.  We did the Natural Entrance Tour, which gave us a good overview of the features of the cave.  It required us to go down some very narrow circular staircases.   Be sure to check the web site in advance for information on the physical requirements of the tours, and be aware that photography is not allowed on the Candlelight and Wild Cave Tours.

Wind Cave “Boxwork” Formations

National Grasslands Visitor Center – Located in Wall, SD, a block from the famous Wall Drug Store.  The rangers there were delightful, and the movie, though quite dated, was very informative.  We enjoyed learning about the endangered black-footed ferret.

Badlands National Park  – The Badlands Loop Road offers a scenic drive through the areas of the park with the most easily visible rock formations.  The Door and Window Trails, located in the eastern part of the park along the Loop Road, are easy walks to viewing areas: from the Door Trail you can walk out into the Badlands on your own.  Bring water.

Badlands National Park

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site – the exhibits and movie in the Visitor Center give a sobering look at a tumultuous time in history.  A tour of a Delta-01 Launch Control Facility is available – reservations can be made up to 90 days in advance.  There is a Delta-09 site that anyone can drive to and view from the outside.

Minuteman Delta-09 Silo

Custer State Park – maybe the best state park I’ve ever visited.  There is SO much to do here – I want to go back and spend more time.  The Needles Highway itself and the views from it are impressive, and there are lots of hiking trails and beautiful lodges by serene lakes.  The Wildlife Loop Road is a “don’t miss.”  You are almost guaranteed to see bison, burros, and prairie dogs; antelope, deer, and elk are also common sightings.

Custer State Park

Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway – a 22-mile drive between Spearfish and Lead on highway 14A.  The road passes through a gorge along Spearfish Creek – there are several waterfalls to see along the route, as well as limestone rock formations.

Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway

The Mammoth Site – in Hot Springs, SD, is an indoor dig site with the largest concentration of mammoth fossils in the world.  It was a sinkhole with steep sides where mammoths and other animals become trapped and died.   We found it surprisingly fascinating, and well worth the time and the $11/person admission charge.

The Mammoth Site – Hot Springs SD

There were many other cities and sights in the area that we didn’t visit…like the Crazy Horse Memorial, the town of Deadwood, the geographic center of the United States at Belle Fourche, and Bear Butte State Park…and I could have spent a lot more time in Custer State Park.  It was really a beautiful area and I’d like to go back and visit again.


Hiking in Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve

Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve is located near the town of Julian in San Diego County.  There are about 2900 acres of land, including grass land and forest.  The area is administered by the County of San Diego Department of Parks and Recreation.

The most popular trail is a 5-mile round trip to the top of Volcan Mountain, which climbs about 1200 feet.  It’s fairly steep in places.  Generally there are excellent views from the top, and on a clear day you can see all the way to the Pacific Ocean (almost 50 miles away) in one direction, and to San Jacinto (also almost 50 miles away) in another, as well as towards the desert and the Salton Sea.

I recently hiked this trail with my friend Belinda and her two dogs (dogs permitted, but must be leashed).  Be aware that there are no services at the trail head at all – no water, and no outhouse or porta-pottie.   The day that we did it was an unseasonably cool and overcast day for May, and the mountain was covered in fog.  In some ways this was a good thing, because the trail has little to no shade, and on a warm day it can be a hot hike.

The trail head is located at 1209 Farmer Road just off Wynola Rd.  What’s confusing is that there are TWO Farmer Roads off Wynola Rd, within about 100 feet of each other.  You want to take the one that doesn’t have signs for the two wineries.  If you’ve chosen the correct road, you’ll see the Volcan Mountain Preserve sign soon after you make the turn.  Parking is along Farmer Road – there’s a wide shoulder there.

After parking, walk up the dirt/gravel road.  First you’ll see the sign pictured above.  And then you will see this much more impressive gateway, created by a local artist named James Hubbell. Beautiful detail on the animals and birds carved into the wood, which are all native to the area.  Beyond this gateway, the trail follows a nice wide road.  Good footing, somewhat rocky in a few places.  You could do it in running shoes, but I wore lightweight boots.

Volcan Mountain Gateway by James Hubbell

Even though it was a bit late in the season for wildflowers, we still saw quite a few…I think because it  has been a cool and wet spring for us.   The hills were also much more green than they usually are by this time.

Volcan Mountain Wildflowers

Most of climbing takes place in the first 1.3 miles of the hike.  The last 3/4 mile is mostly along the ridge towards the summit.  There are a couple of viewpoints on either side along the way with signs that show you what you should be able to see.  But as you can see below, we were in the clouds and all we could see was a sea of gray.

Maybe a half mile from the summit we came upon this old rock chimney – what was left of the Volcan Mountain Observatory Outpost.  Volcan Mountain was one of the sites considered for the Hale Telescope, but it was placed on Palomar Mountain instead.

It was really windy on top, and the temperature was 42 so it felt pretty cold!  We didn’t stay long at the top, but as we were taking the loop around the summit the clouds began to lift a little bit and gave us a view over the San Felipe Valley towards the desert.

It took us about 1.5 hours to climb up and an hour to go down.   It was a very nice hike – challenging enough that I felt I had a decent workout, but also with interesting things to see.  With all the flowers and the green hills this was certainly a great time of year to do it…I wouldn’t want to do it in the summer unless I got a very early start.

After our hike we drove back down the road to Wynola (about 10 minutes) and had lunch at Wynola Pizza and Bistro.  Not at all crowded on this particular day, though it can get very busy.  We enjoyed a nice margarita pizza and some Julian hard cider and Volcan Mountain wine. Skipped the apple pie this time, though that’s something that the Julian area is known for.

For more information on Volcan Mountain, click here.

The ABCs of National Parks

Did you know that there are 61 national parks in the U.S. National Park System?  (As of this writing.)  I thought it would be fun to look at them alphabetically with this little rhyme…

A is for Acadia, American Samoa, and Arches.

B is for Badlands, Big Bend, Biscayne, and Bryce

Also Black Canyon of the Gunnison (which does not rhyme nice).

C is for Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Congaree,

Channel Islands, Crater Lake, all starting with “C”.

Also Carlsbad Caverns and Cuyahoga Valley.

D is for Death Valley, Dry Tortugas, Denali

E is for Everglades, home of things creepy crawly.

F is a letter with no park to claim

Though many historic sites have “Fort” in their name.

G is for parks that are all great and grand: Gates of the Arctic, Gateway Arch, Glacier, Glacier Bay,

And Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Great Basin have much to display.

Then there’s Great Smoky Mountains, Great Sand Dunes and Guadalupe.

H is for Hot Springs, Haleakala, Hawai’i Volcano,

I is for Indiana Dunes and Isle Royale where moose go.

J is simply for Joshua Tree

K for Kings Canyon, Katmai, Kenai Fjords, Kobuk Valley.

L is for Lake Clark and Lassen Volcanic

M is for Mount Rainier, Mesa Verde, Mammoth Cave (gigantic).

N is for North Cascades, O for Olympic

P is for Petrified Forest and a Pinnacles picnic.

Q is a letter that so far’s been forgotten,

R is for Redwood and the wild Rocky Mountain.

S is for Saguaro, Shenandoah, Sequoia

T is for Theodore Roosevelt – and park lovers owe ya.

V is for Virgin Islands and Voyageurs Parks

W is for Wind Cave and Wrangell-St. Elias landmarks.

X is for, well, let’s rename it Xaguaro,

Y for Yosemite and Yellowstone, that look to tomorrow.

Z is for Zion, the last at this time

And that’s parks A-Z, and the end of my rhyme.


Quiz: National Parks – In Which State?

Time to test your knowledge of National Parks again!  Do you know in which state these national parks can be found?  There are 20 different questions, but the quiz will randomly select 10 of them – take the quiz again to see a different selection!

If you’d like to see more quizzes, please leave a comment and let me know!

A Learning Experience

This whole blog thing is a learning experience in so many ways!  I’ve worked with WordPress but never had my own WordPress site before, so just the setup has been quite a process. Fortunately I have a friend who has helped me a lot.  Still, there are so many decisions.  Picking out the “theme” for how it will look, deciding on colors and layouts and what I want to see on the top and the bottom, and in the menus on the side…there’s been a lot to consider.   And that doesn’t even count all the decisions on content and how to organize it.  I’ll be working on that for awhile, and probably making some changes.

But the more fun part has been finding out so much about parks that I didn’t know!  In developing my quizzes and in putting together the data for my “Today’s Park Fact” tweets (#TodaysParkFact on twitter), I’ve already learned so much and gotten interesting ideas (at least I think they are interesting) for things to write about in the future.

The National Parks get a lot of press, but there are so many cool city and state parks!  Like Falls Park in Sioux Falls South Dakota, which has these beautiful falls and cascades where the Big Sioux River runs through it.    And did you know that Niagara Falls State Park in New York is considered to be the oldest state park in the United States?  (Niagara Falls is still on my bucket list.)

More places to add to my list for another “Tales of the Two Bit Traveler” road trip.

Welcome to “I Heart Parks” Blog

I’m Laura, and I love parks.  National parks, state parks, city parks, county parks…And also theme parks, though more Disney theme parks than anything else.  One of my “bucket list” items is to visit all 61 (as of this writing) national parks in the United States.  I’m currently at 36 – over halfway there.

But here in my little corner of the blogging world I plan to write about parks as the mood strikes me.  I plan to share my experiences in various parks in addition to information and photos that others will find of interest.  I hope that my tips and research on helpful web sites will be useful to other people.

You can also follow me on twitter: IHeartParksBlog