For most Americans, and visitors alike, North and South Dakota or Nebraska and Iowa are often seen as, so called, flyover states. Places on a way from somewhere to elsewhere, boring flatness between the excitements of the east and west coasts. It is deeply unjust for these great places. Having said that I have to admit I wasn’t initially planning to go there this summer. I was planning, for a long time, to visit spectacular western Canada. But, on one of the quiet afternoons, somewhere in February or March 2009, I was walking by the USA section in Stanfords (which I take care of) when map of the North and South Dakota caught my attention. And that was it, after just few minutes of studying it, I knew that Canada plans were gone and Great Plains was my next destination.
I started my trip in Minneapolis as it is big transportation hub (with direct flights from London) on the edge of otherwise sparsely populated region I wanted to visit. I didn’t spend much time there. First because I wanted to explore it at the end of my trip, and second because it was raining like a hell. So, after night in some random chain motel, I drove straight west to North Dakota. And boy, what a long drive it was. 420 miles (about six hours), of the often dead straight interstate 94. Was I disappointed or bored? Absolutely not. After leaving busy metropolitan region of Twin Cities it was just relaxing cruising along the quiet and excellent quality highway. Accompanied by lots of country music I had a great day. That’s what I like in America.
Anyway, eventually I arrived to quite small city of Bismarck which is the capital of North Dakota. The biggest attraction there, (and possibly the only one), is the state capitol. Surprisingly, everyone can enter it without any questions or security checks. I haven’t seen even a single CCTV camera in, or around it. What a difference from London, where even public toilets will soon require full, airport style, security checks. It is one of the only few state capitols without a dome. It is actually quite spectacular art deco skyscraper, which, with its 19 floors, is also the tallest building in the state of North Dakota. Well, to be honest it is not that great achievement if you consider that population of the state is less than a million (650 thousands to be precise) stretched on a territory larger than England and Wales combined.
Following day I left major interstate behind and followed local state highways on my way to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Travelling these smaller roads you can really appreciate size and emptiness of North Dakota. There were long moments when I couldn’t see a single vehicle in front or in the rear view mirror, all the way until distant horizon.Theodore Roosevelt NP is one of the least visited parks in the whole national parks system (apart from Alaska), which means no crowds whatsoever. This park offers great opportunity to see wildlife (bison, prairie dogs, feral horses, elk, white tailed deer and more) in really great unspoiled landscape of amazing badlands formations. There are maybe not as spectacular as those in Badlands National Park (about which later) but lack of crowds makes it great place to relax and soak the atmosphere of the Wild West. The only thing you can hear, when you switch off the engine of you car, is wind. Wind, which actually never stops blowing on the Great Plains. I spent a night in the southern unit of the park at the camp-ground located on the banks of the Little Missouri River. Nice, quiet, well protected from wind, location, right off the scenic drive.
From T.R.N.P. I drove south towards the Black Hills region in South Dakota. It involved more hours on the empty highways cutting in straight lines through the very vast open spaces. With more country music on the radio (by then I even started recognizing some songs) it was great time indeed.Black Hills were named as such by Native Americans because they are covered by pine forests which appear black when seen from the distance. And in relatively flat South Dakota they are visible from far away. Word hills is rather understatement because this huge granite outcrop has definitely more mountain feel than some proper mountain chains. With area over 4800 square miles and elevation reaching 7242 feet above the sea level, (which is the highest point between Rocky Mountains and The Alps) this varied region offers plenty of outdoor opportunities. Camping, hiking, fishing, mountain biking, you name it.
But the biggest tourist attraction there is actually a man made one. The world famous Mount Rushmore. Probably most people are familiar with the image of four president’s heads sculpted into the mountain face. The whole place has a bit of Disneyland-ish feel (including huge gift shop and plenty of toilets) but you definitely shouldn’t skip it. It is, at the end, an unique American icon. The most annoying about it is fact that although there is free entrance you have to pay 10$ for annual parking permit. Why on earth would anyone need annual parking there is beyond me.
Another interesting attraction in the Black Hills is Crazy Horse Memorial. Not finished yet, but already quite impressive, it is another mountain carving but much, much bigger than Mount Rushmore. In fact when finished it’s going to be the largest sculpture in the world. The whole project commemorates great chief Crazy Horse and also includes cultural and educational center dedicated to Native American culture and history. In the gift shop you can buy some authentic native craft. It is also possible to join tours of the monument itself and there are laser shows after dark.
Interior of the Black Hills is criss-crossed by some spectacular scenic roads. And I really mean spectacular. Let’s take the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway. It is loop, over 68 miles long, which follows four different local highways. So, good map is essential. Forget the stereotypical American road. Wide, straight, designed for comfortable driving. This road is curvy and narrow, actually very curvy and very narrow. In some places it is just ribbon of tarmac, wide enough for one and half car, squeezed between the rock walls and sheer drop on the other side. There are tunnels where you have to honk before entering, so you won’t have a head on collision with some oversized pick-up truck, and pigtail bridges where you make full 360 degrees circles. In general this scenic byway is more like Spanish or Italian mountain roads than American highway. I really had fun driving it.
During the few days I spent in the Black Hills weather wasn’t absolutely cooperative. Rainy afternoons and evenings meant that I didn’t camp (even if I was tempted by some nicely located camp-grounds) but used motels in Rapid City as my base. Still, I managed to hike a bit. One of the trails I do recommend is one leading to the Cathedral Spires. It starts from the small parking lot just off the SD highway 87 (part of the scenic byway) and leads to the top of some spectacular rock formations. From the top you can see even more rocky madness (spires, boulders, domes, etc.) It is short but rather steep hike, especially in the final section, where you climb some exposed rocks. If you prefer something easier just few miles down the road lays Sylvan Lake which offers flat trail encircling it. Perfect for a half an hour stroll. And you can still enjoy rocky scenery.
When weather got really bad (it was raining all day long) I used my time to visit Wind Cave National Park. Major attraction there is one of the longest cave systems in the world. Based on the air movement, scientist estimate that over 200 km of corridors explored so far, represents only 5-10% of the whole cave. Park rangers lead various tours throughout the underground maze. Although those tours cover only fraction of the explored corridors they are long enough to let you understand the sheer size and beauty of the cave and also make you tired end disoriented. It is really good way of escaping rain, as you still stay close to the nature but dry.
From the Black Hills it was time to turn back east. On my way to Badlands National Park I decided to stop at the Ellsworth Air Force Base. It might sound as a strange destination but it is one of the few places around the world where you can visit a missile silo from the Cold War era. After visiting small museum you will be driven through the active military base into the disused Minuteman rocket silo. It is surprisingly small and cramped place, and the whole experience is quite chilly. Not so many years ago thousands of similar rockets were waiting for a launch command, ready to wipe out humankind from the face of planet in matters of minutes. Around the base museum you can see some disused planes, among them the B1 bomber.
Fifty miles east of Ellsworth AFB, I finally got to probably the most spectacular destination during my entire trip, Badlands National Park. It is not a huge park by American standards but offers some great scenery. The main attractions there are multicoloured rock buttes eroded by wind and water out of the soft rocks. And I mean really soft. Sometimes you can feel rocks eroding around you while you walk some of the trails. Unfortunately, changing weather caused shortening of my hiking experience. Fortunately even on a cloudy day you can still see how the rock formations change colours depending from the light. Apart from the geological wonders Badlands NP also protects one of the largest remaining tracts of the mixed-grass prairie which once covered most of the Great Plains. It is great contrast between deep green of the prairie (at least in spring) and red, brown, yellow or grey colours of the rocks. Scenic drive and strategically located viewpoints make exploration of the park easy. You can really see it in a day. And if you are tired, hungry and thirsty you can always pop in to the world famous Wall Drug Store, just outside the park in a small town of Wall. You will see billboards advertising the free ice water there for hundreds of miles in each direction. It started as a small local store but developed into a major tourist trap, including few restaurants and huge shopping emporium. Yes, it is kitschy but offers some surprisingly entertaining and interesting shopping experience.
One of the common misconceptions about the Great Plains is that it is totally flat region. Nothing more wrong. Of course there are some flat places but most of the region contains rolling hills scenery. Nowhere is it more apparent than in Sand Hills region in Nebraska. If you look at the map of Nebraska (in Stanfords for example), you can notice big empty space in the middle, which is cut by really just one road, Nebraska Hwy 2, also called Sand Hills Scenic Byway. It is not an extreme road like some in the Black Hills region, more of relaxing, gently curving one. The scenic part of the highway starts in town of Alliance where you can visit Carhange which is one of these peculiar roadside attractions common in the US but rare in Europe. In this case it is reconstruction of the Stonehenge but made of old cars. Weird and funny.
From Alliance the scenic byway continues for almost 300 miles in east – south east direction to Grand Island, crossing through the middle of the Sand Hills region. What makes scenery of this part of state so interesting is one of the world largest sand dunes systems. It is probably the largest dune area in the western hemisphere. Most people think desert when they hear word dune but they are wrong. Dunes in Nebraska are actually covered by grass which also stabilises them and creates green and hilly pastoral landscape. Highway 2 winds peacefully between these dunes crossing small towns from time to time. One of them is Mullen in Hooker County. No, it is not me who stole the road signs with that county name, even if I have though about it. It was one of the most relaxing days during my trip. Lazy drive, not going anywhere in particular, just sort of floating in space. Day when I saw more cows than people. Such days, for me are the highlights of holiday in America.
I really recommend visiting Great Plains for anyone who is looking for something more than just coastal America. In no other region you can really appreciate how huge and sparsely populated this country really is. Simple task of moving from town to town may involve hours of driving through the middle of nowhere. I absolutely love it. I love the big sky and open horizon which better than anything else describe the region. And if you see it yourself you will fall in love too.