Americas Mailbox – Mail Forwarding & So Much More in South Dakota!

Full-time RVers and other long term travelers enjoy incredible freedom in a wonderfully independent lifestyle, but we still need to get our mail every once in a while! Fortunately, there are mail forwarding services of all kinds in several states.

Surprisingly, each mail forwarding service is a little different in what they offer their customers. Some simply collect your mail and then send it to wherever you are when you ask them to while others offer additional services from assisting with vehicle registration to offering a place to stay while you establish residency in the state.

If you’re researching the many mail forwarding options out there, here are some of the things we’ve learned about mail forwarding during our dozen years of full-time RVing. Looking back over those twelve years of travel adventures, we estimate that we’ve received around 120 shipments of snail mail containing about 3,500 pieces of mail. Yikes!

Americas Mailbox Mail Forwarding for Full-time RVers and RV travelers

Americas Mailbox provides mail forwarding, vehicle registration and domicile assistance for full-time travelers

Even though most modern communication is done online or over the phone, when you become a full-time RVer or full-time traveler you’ll probably still want to have a way to receive your mail, whether it’s financial documents, old fashioned birthday cards or magazines.

Selecting a domicile state can be quite easy, and the requirements for establishing residency can be quite minimal. However, it is worth noting that if at some point in time you are called upon to prove in court that your chosen state is your true domicile rather than a different state where you might have more ties, you may face an uphill battle if you own large assets like real estate and/or spend a lot of time in a state that isn’t your chosen domicile state.

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America by license plate — on the wall at Americas Mailbox!

There are lots of resources to help with your domicile state decision, including our blog post on the subject here which is the third article in our three part series on full-time RVing here, here and here.

Choosing a state to be your legal domicile is just the first part of the process, however. The second part is selecting a company that will assist you with establishing residency in the state and forward your snail mail to you on the road.

Americas Mailbox Mail Forwarding Service for full-time RV travelers Rapid City South Dakota-min

Americas Mailbox is right off of Exit 41 on I-90 – Easy!

The three most popular domicile states for full-time travelers are South Dakota, Florida and Texas, and each state is home to several mail forwarding service companies:

We joined the mail forwarding service Americas Mailbox, located in Box Elder, a suburb of Rapid City, South Dakota, last year, and we have been very pleased with their service. During this past year we have relied on Americas Mailbox to deliver our mail in eleven different states, and we’ve also received their assistance in registering and paying South Dakota sales tax on two new vehicles, our street legal Polaris RZR and the utility trailer it rides on (we triple tow).

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A sweet reminder on the wall at Americas Mailbox.

Some mail forwarding services do all their work over the phone and online, and it is possible to become a resident of South Dakota without physically meeting the people who run the mail forwarding service you choose.

However, Americas Mailbox is very serious about their role in assisting customers with establishing their residency and other things that require staying in South Dakota for a while, and they have not only built an RV park on their property, providing both full hookup, electric only and dry camping campsites, but they have also built several hotel rooms in their main building for customers who don’t arrive in an RV.

We spent several days in the Americas Mailbox RV park on two separate occasions last spring and summer, and we set up camp alongside lots of other Americas Mailbox customers in the dry camping area.

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We joined the group lined up in the dry camping part of the Americas Mailbox RV Park.

It was a lot of fun because most of the customers were brand new full-timers who were just getting their wheels rolling, and their enthusiasm and excitement about their new lifestyle was palpable.

Some RVers were doing their mandatory single overnight stay to establish South Dakota residency, and others were staying for 30 days to comply with the concealed carry requirements in South Dakota. In addition, many folks were establishing relationships with professionals in the Rapid City area, from estate planning attorneys and accountants to doctors and dentists and insurance agents.

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We had fun chatting with other full-timers who were staying at the RV park. Many were just starting their adventures!

When we first walked in the Americas Mailbox headquarters building, we were taken aback when we heard a voice say, “Welcome home!” Wow! We were soon shaking hands with the General Manager and being introduced to members of the staff.

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What a surprise to hear “Welcome Home!” as we walked in!
“Travel” is the theme and there’s even a compass rose on the floor!

It really did feel like coming home. All the customers in the room were living the same crazy full-time RV lifestyle as we are, and most were setting up new Americas Mailbox accounts.

There was a flurry of activity all around us. An inviting living room-like waiting area was on one side and a long service counter for staff to work with customers was in front of us. We quickly felt ourselves swept up in a surprising sense of community and homey warmth.

Americas Mailbox was founded by Don and Barbara Humes after they had traveled full-time in their RV for a few years in the early 2000s.

Prior to opening Americas Mailbox, Don and Barbara studied the entire country to determine which state and which county within that state would be the most favorable for full-time travelers to use as a legal domicile.

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Americas Mailbox founder, Don Humes (right), is a full-time RVer who understands the needs of folks living a footloose and fancy free life on the road.

They settled on Pennington County in the Black Hills of southwestern South Dakota near the fabulous tourist destinations of Mt. Rushmore, Devil’s Tower, Badlands National Park, Wall Drug, Sturgis, the town of Custer and Custer State Park, all places that RVers love to visit.

Rapid City is the county seat of Pennington County, and Americas Mailbox purchased a fantastic piece of property in Box Elder just outside of Rapid City, located right off of Exit 41 on I-90, an easy place to find and a convenient place to stay for a while to get your legal and financial affairs in order in your new home state.

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The waiting area is like a living room — very inviting.

Americas Mailbox now has a big staff not only up front serving customers who walk in and call in, but also in the offices behind the reception counter where the envelope scanning and vehicle registration work happens and also in the mail sorting room out back where truckloads of mail arrive and are sorted into thousands of customer mail boxes each day.

In addition to providing step-by-step paperwork for changing your legal address to be an Americas Mailbox address, there are step-by-step instructions for registering out of state licensed vehicles, registering new vehicles, obtaining a driver’s license, registering to vote, and obtaining a concealed carry permit. Americas Mailbox also provides a reference list for professionals of all kinds in the area.

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Out behind the main building with its hustle and bustle of mail sorting, vehicle registrations and assorted paperwork going on in the Americas Mailbox offices, the on-site RV park had lovely views of farm fields and was very peaceful. Additional long pull-through campsites were nearing completion during our stay and could easily accommodate our rig. At the far end foundations for future cabins had been poured as well.

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The campsites out back are very nice!

One thing we loved is that Don and Barbara live in their motorhome on-site. Not only do they talk the talk about full-time RVing, but they walk the walk too!

Also, they are so committed to keeping in close touch with their customers and helping them with any issues they might have that Don gives out his personal cell phone number.

The hotel rooms Americas Mailbox were full during our visit, so Don showed us their beautiful hotel suite that just happened to be vacant. It was an elegantly furnished one bedroom condo with a beautiful kitchen. Nice!

Hotel room kitchen Americas Mailbox Mail Forwarding Service for full-time RV travelers Rapid City South Dakota-min

The hotel suite would be a comfy place to stay while doing business in Rapid City!

Hotel room Americas Mailbox Mail Forwarding Service for full-time RV travelers Rapid City South Dakota-min

Want to get it all done without driving your RV to South Dakota? Stay in a beautifully appointed suite on-site!

Hotel room Americas Mailbox Mail Forwarding Service for full-time RV travelers Rapid City South Dakota-min

A nice and homey place to relax — but there are more basic hotel rooms available too

One of the reasons Americas Mailbox was so incredibly busy during our visit was because another mail forwarding company in South Dakota had just gone out of business without giving any advance notice to its customers. People were flocking to Americas Mailbox and other South Dakota mail forwarding companies to pick up the pieces and move on with their lives. Chaos ensued at all the South Dakota mail forwarding facilities for several months!

This unfortunate scenario brings me to some of the things we think are worth considering before choosing a mail forwarding service:

Long Term Stability of the Company

Your life will quickly turn upside down if your mail forwarding company goes out of business unexpectedly. It seems like it should be easy to switch to a new company. All you have to do is let everyone know your new address. However, there’s a bit more to it.

Most companies require you to keep a balance of cash in their possession to cover future postage expenses they incur on your behalf, and that money may not be refunded to you if they go out of business unexpectedly. They may also never send you the mail they’re keeping in their possession on the day they shutter the business. In addition, any monthly or annual dues you may have paid up front may not be refunded.

This may not sound like much but could add up to a loss of a few hundred dollars on top of the frantic search for a new mail forwarding servicing and letting all your contacts know about your address change.

Most aggravating is that you may not be able to forward your mail to a new mailing address using the US Postal Service change of address form (PS Form 3575).

When you move from one home to another you can fill out the US Postal Service Form 3575 to forward you mail from your old address to your new one. However, your PMB (Personal Mail Box) at your mail forwarding company’s street address is not distinguished by the US Postal Service as unique from all the other PMBs at that address. Obviously, you can fill out and submit the form and hope for the best, but the Postal Service may not acknowledge the address change and may be inconsistent about forwarding your mail to your new address if they even do it at all.

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The offices and waiting area at Americas Mailbox are trimmed with all kinds of fun travel themed decorations.

It is impossible to know for sure if a company will last a long time, and I remember vividly how shocked the engineering community in Massachusetts was when Digital Equipment Corporation went from being a major employer with campuses all over the state to vanishing into thin air over the course of two very short years.

Some mail forwarding companies have seen several changes of ownership and management in recent years, and with each change there are staff, policy and procedural changes that affect the customers, whether they are explicitly notified about what’s going on or not.

In general, though, if the mail forwarding company has been around a long time, has a lot of customers, and treats those customers well, it is likely it will survive. Don and Barbara have many long term plans for Americas Mailbox and theirs is a family operation with plans in place for the company to outlast them.

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How Fast Will They Ship Your Mail?

Every mail forwarding company has a different policy for how quickly they commit to packaging up your mail and sending it to you after you make your request for them to do so.

Some companies require that you notify them by 5:00 p.m. the night before it is shipped out. If you are in an earlier time zone or don’t think to make the call before 5:00 pm their time, your mail won’t be packaged up until the day after that! That is, a mail shipment request made at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday won’t be packaged up and sent until Thursday. This means your mail probably won’t arrive until the following Monday because of the intervening weekend unless you are in a neighboring state.

If they receive your request after 5:00 p.m. on Friday, then your mail will not be shipped until the following Tuesday, four days later! If you are in a distant state, it may not reach you until the following Friday, a week after you requested it! This is very frustrating and very inconvenient.

Americas Mailbox has a really rapid response time and will get your mail off to you first thing in the morning as long as you request it by midnight the night before and it is a weekday. Requests made at any time during the weekend up until midnight Sunday night will go out Monday morning.

For us, that is a huge advantage. Lots of full-time RVers plan their travels in advance, so that kind of instantaneous response isn’t important, but we regularly extend or cut short our stays depending on whims like changes in the weather. So, if we suddenly decide early one morning that we want to take off in a few days, it is critically important that we be able to get our mail packaged up and sent out as quickly as possible.

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Some America’s Mailbox customers are international travelers.

Virtual Mail – What Do You See and Not See on the Envelope?

Many companies offer a “virtual mail service” where they scan every envelope you receive and either post the images online or email them to you for you to view. You can then instruct them to open the envelope and scan the contents or shred it or just hang onto it until you request your next shipment of mail.

We have found this to be very useful, but the quality of the scanned images can vary a lot, and poorly scanned envelopes are useless. The most important piece of information for us is the return address, of course, so we can see who the piece of mail is from! You’d be surprised, but sometimes scanned envelopes show only YOUR name and address.

It sounds silly, but you need to be able to read the full name and full address of whoever sent the piece of mail or you’ll be left scratching your head. Obviously, if the image is blurry or cuts off the company name (you’d be amazed how often that can happen) or if the image is of your own name and address instead of the return address of the sender, then the image is useless.

We chatted with the gal doing the scanning at Americas Mailbox and watched the meticulous care she takes with each envelope to make sure the scanned image is not only readable but is of the correct address — the return address (not OUR address).

Americas Mailbox outsources the software that manages the scanned envelope images and we’ve found it works very well.

One thing that is especially helpful with their software is that they clear out all the images of the scanned envelopes once they are sent to us. That way we can distinguish between the mail that is waiting for us in South Dakota and the mail that we have received. You see, if all the images are left in the database and you receive regular mail from certain entities, it can be very confusing to look at a scanned envelope and determine whether it has already been forwarded to you or not, especially if it was scanned right around the time you ordered a mail shipment.

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Ins and Outs of General Delivery

When mail is sent to an RV park it is a pretty straight forward process if the park regularly receives mail on behalf of its customers. But sending mail to General Delivery at a post office can be tricky. For starters, it must be addressed very simply (no street address is included), and the software has to make sure no street address is inadvertently inserted (bad software can do that!).

General Delivery mail is addressed as follows (USPS explanation/example is here):

Your Name
GENERAL DELIVERY
City, State Zip-9999

If a street address is included, all hell breaks loose. Literally. It can cost days in delivery time.

We prefer to use small town post offices instead of big city post offices for general delivery because they have less volume and fewer employees.

We like to call the small town post office directly ahead of time to find out if they accept General Delivery. The USPS website lists whether each post office accepts General Delivery mail, but in a few cases we’ve found that the website says they do when they actually don’t. Disastrous!

We also like talking to the folks at the post office because we can let them know our package is coming and approximately when we’ll be in to pick it up. Post offices are supposed to keep General Delivery mail on hand for 30 days, but we had one post office return it to the sender after 24 hours. Of course, the contents of that package were very important time sensitive financial documents, and at the time we were total full-timing newbies who had been out on the road for all of a week!

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Despite being on the outer edge of Rapid City, the area right around Americas Mailbox is wonderfully rural.

Addressing Mishaps Caused by Auto-Fill !

Another thing to watch for is the “Bill To” versus the “Ship To” addresses when you order something online.

Lots of websites have Auto-Fill, and they’ll very helpfully fill in all kinds of info for you. Unfortunately, the next thing you know, you’ve sent a huge package to your mail forwarding address that you wanted to go to the address of the friend you’re currently visiting. Not only will your receipt of the item be delayed by a bunch of days but you’ll have to pay to ship that heavy package twice, once to your mail forwarding company and then again to your friend or some other destination you’re headed to!

Don told us a hilarious story along those lines. Americas Mailbox goes out of its way to accommodate any and all packages that are sent to them, even when they are a bit unwieldy. One day they received several mammoth crates from Harley Davidson that turned out to be all the pieces for a big beautiful motorcycle.

Curious what they were supposed to do with it, they called the customer the crates were addressed to and asked if he’d just ordered a motorcycle from Harley Davidson. “Yeah, I did. How did you know?” the confused customer asked. “Well, we’ve got all the crates right here at Americas Mailbox!”

Of course, the customer meant to have those boxes shipped directly to wherever he was in the world at the time, but he had mistakenly given his Americas Mailbox address as the “Ship To” address.

Shipping crates is outside the norm for Americas Mailbox, but they hired a qualified shipping company to pick up the crates and get them to the address where their customer was staying.

As a side note, many companies charge a small fee for oversized packages they receive because they require extra time and space to handle. Americas Mailbox charges a dollar or more for oversized packages depending on the size.

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We had some wonderful stormy days during our stay at Americas Mailbox.

What Happens to Improperly Addressed Mail?

Despite your best efforts, some entities won’t address your mail correctly no matter how often and how nicely you tell them what it is.

Most addresses in this country don’t include a PMB number, and some folks just leave it off. The correct address must include your PMB number, preferably on the same line as the street address, and it may be written as “123 Main Street PMB 789” or “123 Main Street #789.”

In our experience, an awful lot of entities leave off the PMB number all together. By leaving off the PMB number, the address they send our mail to is simply the street address of the mail forwarding company itself, leaving your piece of mail lost in a sea of thousands of people who share the same address.

When this incorrectly addressed piece of mail arrives at the mail forwarding company, the mail sorters have to figure out who it’s for and what the PMB number is so they can put it in the right box. The bigger mail forwarding companies use super fast mail sorting machines as well as people reading the addresses, and an incomplete address gums up the production in a massive way.

Some companies have a policy in place to set the piece of mail aside and then later look up the name of the person to find out which PMB they have, write it on the envelope and then carry all the mis-addressed envelopes to the appropriate PMB files.

However, some companies simply mark the envelope “RTS” (“Return to Sender”) and put it in their outgoing mail for USPS to pick up because it is too time consuming for them to go through all the wrongly addressed mail and look up all the PMB numbers.

Americas Mailbox has a tiered strategy. First, they look up the customer name (hopefully your name is unique!) and hand-write the PMB number on the envelope and put it in your box. They’ll call you if they have questions (i.e., “Are you the John Smith that is expecting a package from Amazon?”). Last of all, they’ll write “RTS” on it and put it back in the mail for USPS to return it to the sender.

Be sure to find out from your prospective mail forwarding company exactly what their policy is for mail that arrives without your PMB number, because it is guaranteed that at least one piece of mail for you will arrive that way someday.

Also, take the time to triple check with anyone sending you either important documents, a check, or a time sensitive piece of mail that the address they put on the envelope for you is 100% correct.

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Vehicle Registration and Sales Tax

Americas Mailbox dots every “i” and crosses every “t” when it comes to registering your vehicles and paying any sales tax that is due.

We were floored by the degree of detail and the number of documents necessary to get our RZR and our utility trailer registered, licensed and on the road: Power of Attorney for Americas Mailbox to do the legwork registering the vehicles, images of front and back of our licenses, fronts and backs of the titles, bills of sale, money orders for the sales tax, and a few other goodies.

Americas Mailbox provides a detailed checklist of the documents you must gather, and of course some might have to be notarized. If you don’t have a scanner, you can just take a good quality photo of each document and attach all the photos to your email correspondence with Americas Mailbox to verify you have all the right pieces in place before you mail the package of documents to them.

Another thing to watch for when you buy a vehicle is whether the community you are making your purchase in will impose a local tax on the purchase. Maricopa County in Arizona (Phoenix area) is notorious for dealerships charging tax on all vehicle purchases made by out of state buyers.

So, while you may think you will be paying only the South Dakota sales tax on your purchase, you may find yourself staring at a document at the dealership that requires you to pay a tax to Arizona too. I’m not sure if there are other places in America where this happens, but double check with the person who will be writing up the final sales receipts and taking your check before you finalize your purchase.

Owner-Americas-Mailbox-Mail-Forwarding-Service-for-full-time-RV-travelers-Rapid-City-South-Dakota

On Mother’s Day Don brought roses to all the women on his staff. Now that’s class!

Final Thoughts

There are all kinds of mail forwarding services available, and they range from bare bones to full service. You may need just mail forwarding, or you may want to have someone handle the vehicle registration and lines at the DMV, and/or you may want to have a sense of “home” with an RV park where you can stay each time you return home to take care of life’s legal and financial technicalities.

We’ve found that Americas Mailbox is a wonderful full service operation, and what’s more, we love the Black Hills and being “residents” of this part of South Dakota.

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Soap Box Derby & Barrel Races – A Labor Day to Remember!

September 2018 – When we were in the town of Buffalo, South Dakota, buying groceries, we noticed a flyer on the window that gave a detailed listing of all the many things that were going to be happening over Labor Day Weekend. For a town of 380 people, it seemed like this community was going to be celebrating in style.

All kinds of events were planned, from calf roping to arm wrestling to rodeo kids events to a parade to golf tournaments to movies in the evening to street games and singing and dancing. But it was the Soap Box Derby we wanted to see!

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1st, 2nd and 3rd prize trophies for the Soap Box Derby.

The Soap Box Derby is held on Tabernacle Hill on the edge of town where the road goes down at a gentle angle that is just right for the younger set. The “soap boxes” were a little more sophisticated than the wooden crates we imagined. Sporting steering wheels and sized about like a little red wagon (perhaps a few wagons had been converted for the race!), they looked like a lot of fun to ride.

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The little buggies weren’t quite soap boxes but sure looked like fun to ride!

In the traditional of all great sporting events, before the Soap Box Derby began we all sang the National Anthem.

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Before the races started we sang the National Anthem.

Then the kids climbed into their carts on a starting ramp. To avoid congestion and pileups, the kides raced each other in pairs. The winner of each race advanced to the next round in quarter-final, semi-final and final events.

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A starting ramp was set up for pairs of kids to race side by side down the hill.

And then they were off down the ramp and onto the road.

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And they’re off!

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The kids were pretty competitive and kept a close eye on each other as they urged their buggies to fly down the hill.

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The competition was serious!

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The white car takes the lead!!

Even if they didn’t win, they were having a blast with these little soap box cars.

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All smiles…this is so much fun!

When they got to the bottom of the hill they got a tow back up from friendly helpers in golf carts.

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After each run the kids got a tow back to the top of the hill.

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It was almost as much fun going up the hill as it was going down!

The whole town came out to watch the races. Some of us sat on the curb and some brought out lawn chairs. Two kids watched from perches in an old tree stump.

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Two girls got the best seats in the house.

We got a kick out of catching the action as the kids rolled down the hill. There were no pedals or motors. You just rolled off the ramp and hung on and tried to keep the buggy going straight (a few went off the road onto the grass!).

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Riding to victory!

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All the kids had to wear helmets. We really liked this one!

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The design of each “soap box” was unique.

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I don’t know who was having more fun, the kids or the parents and grandparents!

At the bottom of the hill members of the high school football team caught the riders as they crossed the finish line.

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The finish line was at the bottom of the hill.

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Members of the football team caught the kids at the bottom.

Up at the top of the hill the Gospel Tabernacle gave out free snow cones. The blue raspberry ones were yummy!

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The free blue raspberry snow cones were going fast.

When the races were over and the trophies had been given out, we wandered over to the rodeo grounds to see what was happening there. Three little kids were practicing their barrel racing skills, and boy were they good!

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Over at the rodeo stadium some little kids were barrel racing.

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Riding a horse is easy! (If you’re four).

The kids weren’t super fast on their horses, but these little tykes could make their horses do whatever they wanted.

When they first filed into the rodeo grounds all three of them headed in the wrong gate. A helpful mom called to them to go back out and then go in a different gate. I thought there would be a pile-up of hooves and bridles and flicking tales and flaring nostrils. But instead these three kids very neatly backed their horses up out the gate and headed them down to the correct gate, as if it were nothing!

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A little cowgirl heads towards the first barrel.

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…and heads around the first barrel.

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She makes the turn nice and close to the barrel.

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And the she picks up speed on the way out of the turn.

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On to the next barrel!

We saw the kids afterwards walking three abreast across the field. Mark congratulated them on their riding skills and asked them which one of them was the best rider. All three hands shot up in the air. “Me,” “Me,” Me!”

Then we came across the mom who had been working with them and complimented her on their skills. She grinned and told us they were four, five and six years old. Holy smokes!!

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The little kids had a lot of skill — and a little sass too!

What a fun and heartwarming Labor Day celebration this was.

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Sunset in Buffalo, South Dakota, after a great Labor Day weekend!

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Location of Buffalo South Dakota (Google Maps). The Buffalo Trailer Park is at Rte 85 & Three Toes Street.

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A Smoky Moon, Badlands & Hummingbirds on the South Dakota Prairie

August 2018 — During the dog days of summer we hung out in the Big Horn mountains of Wyoming and in western South Dakota. We took it easy and enjoyed lots of naps.

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Buddy catches a snooze during the dog days of summer.

We hung our hummingbird feeder on our trailer window and lots of Rufous hummingbirds stopped by for a drink.

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We put a hummingbird feeder on our RV window and promptly had customers!

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A Rufous hummingbird says “Hi!”

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Woa… A hummer puts on the brakes as he zooms to the feeder.

They got so familiar with us and our rig that they hovered around us as we moved around our campsite. At times they’d hover right in front of our faces, as if to say, “Thanks for opening the bar!”

It was a blast trying to catch these guys in action as they flew all around us. Usually, just as we’d get the camera focused, they’d zip away. But every so often we got a great shot before they zoomed off!

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Those little wings sure go fast!

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A female Rufous flies by.

As the weeks passed the smoke from the many western wildfires clouded the air. It was eerie to be living in a world that had quietly gone gray! As we drove into northern South Dakota the world seemed to be hiding behind a veil.

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The smoke in northern Wyoming and South Dakota from wildfires far west of here was intense.

The air was thick. For the first time in our lives we heard local weather forecasts that called for “patchy smoke.” We’ve been in plenty of places that were smoky from wildfires, but smokiness was never predicted in the upcoming weather forecast!

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Smoke and mist grays out the view.

However, smoky air has its beautiful side. When the full moon rose it took on a fabulous shade of bright pink and orange as it climbed over the horizon.

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The full moon rises bright orange/pink because of the smoke.

Red full moon from wildfire smoke South Dakota-min

It wasn’t the “Blood Moon” but sure could have been!

Fortunately, a storm front blew in and rain fell for two days. It was odd to be back in sweatshirts with our heater running at midday, but the air outside was wonderfully cleansed by the pouring rain.

RV camping in South Dakota-min

Dark skies brought lots of rained that thankfully cleared the air.

The next day the sun was able to shine once again. We came across a little outcropping of unusual rock formations and badlands tucked into a fold in the vast prairie landscape, and the sky glowed lavender in the early morning.

Lavender sky

Lavender sunrise.

Sunrise Reva Canyon South Dakota-min

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Even Buddy was excited to see the sun!

Dog and sunrise South Dakota-min

Buddy sings “Here Comes the Sun!”

We wandered around among the rock formations, marveling at the exotic shapes Mother Nature had created.

Reva Canyon South Dakota RV trip-min

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Reva Canyon Badlands South Dakota RV trip-min

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Small mesas in South Dakota RV trip-min

We had a ball wandering through these rock formations.

At sunset we saw another beautiful display of pink in the sky.

Sunset in a badland oasis in South Dakota-min

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Sunset photography with puppy-min

Buddy waited patiently while Mark snapped a pic.

Mini badlands in South Dakota-min

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We drove a little further and found the town of Buffalo which boasts a population of 380. On the edge of town we found a directory listing all the businesses and services that can be found in Buffalo. There was something very charming about these signs.

Town Directory Buffalo South Dakota RV trip-min

Town services directory for Buffalo, South Dakota.

Buffalo South Dakota RV trip-min

The main drag in Buffalo.

A pretty white church in town caught our eye. And the wood paneling inside the post office harkened back to a bygone era.

Buffalo South Dakota Congregational Church-min

The cute Congregational church.

Post office Buffalo South Dakota-min

Walking into the post office was a walk back in time.

There are a few places to stop for a bite to eat in Buffalo.

Blossoms and Brew Cafe Buffalo South Dakota-min

Blossoms and Brew Cafe.

One cafe was offering free beer! Well…almost.

Free beer sign in Buffalo South Dakota-min

Free Beer!!! Oh wait… not quite.

We’d seen lots of cattle out on the ranches as we had driven through the area, and of course all the cows had tags in their ears. I’d never thought much about where these tags come from, but inside the hardware store we found a whole display of cow ear tags!

Cow tags for sale in Buffalo South Dakota-min

Z Tags – The cow ear tags that stay in!

In another store there was a pair of swinging doors that led to a dark space lit with a neon sign that said, “Casino.” Why not slip inside and pull the handle?!

Old west casino Buffalo South Dakota-min

“Must be 21 to enter…!”

From friendly hummingbirds to smoky orange full moons to crazy badlands to a tiny town on the prairie, we’ve loved our off the beaten path travels in South Dakota!

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Fall River Balloon Festival in Hot Springs, South Dakota

One of the more unusual types of sightings we’ve enjoyed in our RV travels is hot air balloons flying overhead.

Early one morning last summer while camping in South Dakota’s Black Hills we awoke to the roar of a balloon heater’s flame and we dashed outside to see a balloon floating over our trailer. A few weeks later at the end of August we saw the Fall River Balloon Festival in Hot Springs, South Dakota.

The balloon glow at Fall River Balloon Festival Hot Springs South Dakota-min

Balloon Glow at Fall River Balloon Festival in Hot Springs, South Dakota

This was a small balloon festival with just a dozen or so balloons, but the evening balloon glow was a true delight. The balloonists slowly heated the air in their balloons and raised them to an upright position while holding them down to the ground with tethers.

Inflating a hot air balloon at the balloon glow Fall River Balloon Festival South Dakota-min

During the Balloon Glow the balloons were tethered to the ground so they wouldn’t drift away.
“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!.”

Then, on cue from the announcer on a loudspeaker, they all turned on their heater flames at the same time, lighting up the balloons in the dark.

Balloon Glow Fall River Hot Air Balloon Festival Hot Springs South Dakota RV trip-min

The “Glow” is created by turning on the flame that heats up the air in the balloon.

Fall River Balloon Festival Hot Springs South Dakota RV trip-min

Balloon Glow!

Unfortunately, the wind picked up and the balloon glow had to be cut short. The balloonists did a quick “twinkle” where each balloon turned its heater on and off repeatedly, making the group of balloons appear to twinkle, and then they brought their balloons down.

Fall River Balloon Festival Balloon Glow Hot Springs South Dakota RV trip-min

In a “Balloon Twinkle” each balloonist randomly turns their flame on and off, making the balloons appear to twinkle in the dark.

But the next morning the balloonists were at it again, bright and early, out by the small Hot Springs Airport air strip.

Filling the hot air balloons-min

The next morning the balloonists inflated their balloons for a group ride.

The balloonists arrived before dawn and started laying out the balloons on the ground. Once each huge balloon was stretched out on the grass like an enormous blanket, the balloonist team then began to inflate it with hot air.

Sunrise under a hot air balloon-min

Each balloon was slowly inflated as the sun began to peek over the horizon.

Before long, all the balloons were inflated and sitting on the ground ready to launch.

Fall River Balloon Festival Hot Springs South Dakota RV Trip-min

The balloons were inflated, all in a row, and tethered to the ground.

Then, one escaped.

Fall River Balloon Festival Hot Springs South Dakota-min

A balloon slips away into the sky.

and then another.

Balloon lift-off Fall River Balloon Festival Hot Springs South Dakota RV trip-min

The balloons floated up into the sky one at a time.

And soon they were all in the air, drifting across the open field and following the air currents.

Hot air balloons at Hot Springs airport South Dakota-min

The balloons slowly glide by.

Flying balloons at Fall River Balloon Festival Hot Springs South Dakota-min

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We ran across the field, our cameras clicking away. The folks in the baskets waved down at us and seemed to be having a ball.

Up Up and Away in my beauttiful balloon-min

“Up, up and away in my beautiful balloon…”

Fall River Balloon Festival balloons fly over landscape-min

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The sun crested the horizon and cast a golden glow across the sky.

Dawn balloon ride Fall River Balloon Festival Hot Springs South Dakota RV trip-min

Beautiful…!

Balloons at Hot Springs airport in South Dakota-min

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Before long the balloons were out of sight, and the little handful of spectators began to fold up their chairs and head home.

Fall River Balloon Festival Hot Springs South Dakota RV travels-min

A small group of spectators watched the balloons vanish from sight.

If you have never been to a balloon festival and you are in Arizona now, there is a fun one going on at Lake Havasu this weekend (Jan 19-21, 2018). We saw it, along with the Buses at the Bridge VW Microbus festival a few years back (blog post here).

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Badlands National Park – Rugged Beauty on a South Dakota RV Trip

August 2017 – Several states boast rugged landscapes that are known as “Badlands,” and we have enjoyed two trips to the mysterious Bisti Badlands in New Mexico. But the Badlands in South Dakota are sizeable enough to have been set aside as a National Park.

Landscape Badlands National Park South Dakota

Badlands (along with dot-sized cows) in South Dakota

The town of Wall, home of Wall Drug, sits right next door to Badlands National Park, and after just a short drive from town we found ourselves immersed in the moonscape of a windswept desert where relentless erosion has shaped the sedimentary rock into an endless array of triangles.

South Dakota Badlands Scenery

Rugged “badlands” landscape

As far as our eyes could see, the land was rippled with peaks and valleys, natural pyramids and buttes.

South Dakota Badlands scenery

Slightly hazy from smoke coming from Montana’s wildfires, the golden glow was still beautiful.

Unlike Bisti Badlands, the rock in Badlands National Park is not brightly colored. There is a small section that features rolling yellow and red mounds, but for the most part the land is filled with shades of brown and beige. Despite the drab colors, it is a very stimulating place for photography, and we had fun trying to capture the essence of this desolate land on our cameras.

Photography Badlands National Park South Dakota

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Golden Hour Badlands National Park South Dakota

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Badlands National Park is quite popular, and there are several overlooks where you can get an outstanding view.

Overlook at Badlands National Park South Dakota

There are badlands as far as the eye can see!

For us, one of the coolest things in Badlands National Park was the large resident herd of bighorn sheep. These guys wander throughout the park at their leisure. They are well accustomed to tourists and totally unafraid of people. Best of all, it didn’t take long to spot them relaxing on the various precipices and promontories as they took in the views of the Badlands!

Bighorn Sheep Badlands National Park Overlook South Dakota

Two bighorn sheep enjoy the awesome view.

Like the wild animals at Custer State Park and Yellowstone National Park, this herd of bighorn sheep can hardly be called “wild.” The rangers keep a close eye on the herd and follows their movements about the Park. To help with their monitoring, some of the bighorn sheep have been outfitted with collars that carry rather bulky radio beacons, complete with a long antenna.

Bighorn sheep walks past an RV wearing a radio collar

Have radio, will travel! If the rangers gave this sheep an iPhone X, he could make calls and post pics on Facebook!!

This wasn’t the first time we’d seen bighorn sheep decked out with radios around their necks. The whereabouts of a herd of bighorn sheep at Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area is monitored this way, and the elk that have repopulated Great Smoky Mountains National Park are tracked via radio beacon too.

But the animals seem to manage just fine despite this bulky electronic gear, and only a few in the herd were collared. As the sun set, we found ourselves very close to the herd as they munched the grasses near the road, and we were able to get some wonderful portraits at close range!

Bighorn sheep at sunset Badlands South Dakota

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Bighorn sheep (ovis canadensis) really are in the sheep family (ovis), and they have been around on the North American continent for millenia. During our stay in Wyoming, we’d had a chance to get some fun mom-and-baby shots of domestic sheep too (ovis aries), and this made for an interesting comparison between the two species.

Mama sheep and her lamb

Very sheepish, but a little different looking!

Bighorn sheep in the prairie grasses Badlands South Dakota

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Pretty soon the herd began to leave the roadside and make its way across the shimmering golden grasses of the Badlands. The crowd of tourists on the side of the road murmured and held up their cell phones to capture this majestic and classic western sight unfolding before our eyes. How fabulous!

Bighorn sheep family at sunset Badlands South Dakota

A family of bighorn sheep moves through the golden grasses.

Big horn sheep family at sunset Badlands South Dakota

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Herd of bighorn sheep Badlands South Dakota

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Badlands National Park turned out to be an excellent place for wildlife viewing, and one day at a watering hole just outside the Park we spotted a flock of pelicans getting a drink and a bath. What an unexpected surprise!

Pelican Badlands National Park South Dakota

Here’s a Badlands visitor we didn’t expect to see!

But perhaps the most endearing animals were the prairie dogs. These little guys are just too cute for words!

Tourists like us love them, of course, because of their funny antics as they pop in and out of their holes. But they are not so popular with ranchers because their massive dog town communities spread out for acres and acres. They dig up the grasslands, leaving very recognizable little piles of dirt outside their holes, and it’s just too easy for a horse to step in a hole by accident and injure itself.

But we couldn’t resist them!

Prairie Dog Secrets Badlands National Park South Dakota

“I wanna let you in on a little secret…”

Two Prairie Dogs Badlands National Park South Dakota

“No… are you serious?!”

Prairie Dogs Badlands National Park South Dakota

“Hey! Guess what I just heard…!!”

We made our way across the Park, and at sunset the striped eroded sediment rock of the Badlands began to glow.

Badlands National Park South Dakota

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Badlands National Park South Dakota

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As we drove out of the Park the sun slowly sank out of sight and disappeared behind the hills, taking the rich golden light and dark shadows with it. Suddenly, we spotted one of the bighorn sheep standing on a ridge against the fabulous Badlands backdrop. What a classic image!

Bighorn Sheep Badlands National Park South Dakota

First there was one…

Then two of his buddies joined him.

Bighorn sheep Badlands National Park South Dakota

…and then there were three!

So often we have looked around at a classic western desert landscape and said, “Wouldn’t it be perfect to see a bighorn sheep standing right there!” And there they were right in front of us!

Red ball at sunset Badlands National Park South Dakota

The sun sets in a fireball of red.

If Badlands National Park seems a little out of the way, or if the scenery itself doesn’t lure you to the Park, perhaps the chance to see large communities of prairie dogs and a sizeable herd of bighorn sheep will. We were surprised at just how easy it was to spot these animals and how much they make an otherwise barren landscape come alive.

RV camping in the South Dakota Badlands at sunset

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Wall Drug – An Iconic Pit Stop on a South Dakota RV Road Trip

August 2017 – One of the most famous landmarks we visited on our South Dakota RV trip wasn’t a National Park or stunning natural feature. Instead, it was a plain ol’ drug store that opened in 1931 and has grown exponentially ever since, garnering a reputation that now spreads far and wide!

Wall Drug sign It's Cool Wall South Dakota

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The southwest corner of South Dakota is home to Rapid City, the second largest city in the state with a population of 68,000, as well as the charming small town of Custer City, the beautiful Black Hills National Forest, Custer State Park, the motorcycle mecca of Sturgis and Badlands National Park.

In between these jewels, the land is open rolling prairie, and the view from the highways, especially I-90, are lovely.

RV travel on the open road near Badlands South Datota

Rolling prairie views along I-90 in southwestern South Dakota


After seeing rolling yellow-brown hills, hay bales and cows for 15 minutes, though, the views do get a bit boring. Occasionally there is something really pretty that’s worth grabbing the camera to capture, but how many grassy hills, hay bales and cows do you really want to see?

Scenery on I-90 near Wall South Dakota

I grabbed my camera for this!

However, for RVers and all other drivers, the monotony is frequently broken up by billboards advertising Wall Drug.

Wall Drug sign Homemade Pie Wall South Dakota

Yum!

These signs are spaced every few miles, and they herald all kinds of fabulous things that you’ll see if you get off the highway in the town of Wall and make your way to Wall Drug Store.

Homemade Lunch Specials Wall Drug Store Sign Wall South Dakota

Yummy too, but maybe we’ll order that homemade pie first…!

Wall Drug Fast Food sign Wall South Dakota

For those in a hurry.

Back in 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression, a young couple named Ted and Dorothy Hustead bought the drug store in the small town of Wall (then pop. 326) on the edge of the South Dakota Badlands.

He had recently graduated from pharmacy school, and they were looking for a small town with a Catholic church so they could attend mass every day and raise a family in a wholesome setting.

Their story (link below) speaks of a different era when a young couple contemplating relocating to a new town would go and talk in person with the town banker, the priest and the local doctor.

Using $3,000 they had inherited from Ted’s father, they bought the store and moved into an “apartment” in the back of the store that was partitioned off with a blanket.

Something to Crow About at Wall Drug Badlands South Dakota

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Western Art Wall Drug sign Wall South Dakota

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Ted’s cousin had told him that Wall was “just about as Godforsaken as you can get,” and that it was “in the middle of nowhere” where “everybody…is flat broke busted.”

But Ted and Dorothy liked the feeling of the town, and they decided to give their dream a try for five years.

Wall Drug Western Wear Sign Wall South Dakota

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5 Cent Coffee at Wall Drug Badlands South Dakota

We loved the little cartoon drawings on many of these signs!

By July of 1936 their five year trial period was nearing its end, and they were just about flat broke busted. The Dust Bowl was in full swing, the Great Depression was as deep as ever, and they now had two children to support.

With such a tiny population out in the middle of nowwhere, there was little to bring people to this remote part of the country in those days, so their only customers were their fellow flat broke neighbors.

Nearby Mt. Rushmore had been under construction for nine years but was still five years from completion, and the Interstate highway system which would eventually bring them I-90 wasn’t even a twinkle in the government’s eye.

The only road connecting Wall to the outside world was Routes 14 and 16A, and there was nothing in Wall to pull passersby off those roads and into downtown.

Yet when Dorothy laid down for a nap one hot July afternoon, she couldn’t fall asleep because of all the noise the Jalopies were making out on Route 16A as they rattled down the road to Badlands National Monument (not yet a National Park), the Black Hills and Yellowstone.

Wall Drug Store Shootin Gallery highway sign in South Dakota

Stick ’em up!

As she laid there, she suddenly realized how she could lure all those drivers off the hot dusty highway and bring them into their tiny store — with free ice water!

She told Ted her idea and they quickly made up a series of signs to put out on the highway:

“Get a soda …” “Get a root beer…” “Turn next corner…” “Just as near…” “To Highway 16 & 14…” “Free Ice Water…” “Wall Drug”

Wall drug sign for free ice water Wall South Dakota

Just what hot and thirsty travelers need…

As soon as they had pounded those signs into the ground along the highway, customers began showing up at their drug store.

Where the tiny town of Wall had been empty of cars and people moments before, now there were Jalopies parked all over the place as tired, thirsty, dusty travelers stopped in for free ice water and then bought other refreshments too.

The little town of Wall and its humble drug store suddenly got a new lease on life, and this young couple’s simple dreams were fulfilled — and then some!

Wall Drug ice water sign Wall South Dakota

We’re almost there!!!

I first heard about this unusual drug store from Mark’s tales of his motorcycle ride across country in the early 1970’s. He and his buddy saw the signs for miles and miles. They had never heard of the store, but after seeing all those signs, they just had to stop in.

There wasn’t a whole lot there, but it was a fun and funky little pit stop.

Now, some eighty plus years after the first Wall Drug signs went up, Wall Drug signs can be found all over the world. One rather dated newspaper article I found on a wall indicated there are over 3,000 Wall Drug signs worldwide!

We even heard from RVing friends of ours that that they saw a Wall Drug sign in Mexico’s Copper Canyon!

We weren’t sure what we’d find when we got to Wall Drug Store, but we got off of I-90 to go have a look.

Wall Drug in Wall South Dakota

And there it is! Well, part of it anyway.

The town of Wall is still very small, although it has doubled in size since the 1930s and is now home to 766 people. But the Wall Drug complex is immense and is much more than just a drug store.

Wall Drug Store in Wall South Dakota

This is a very big place for a very small town.

The Wall Drug complex takes up a city block and includes an indoor mall filled with all kinds of classic tourist trap stuff. Across the street, there are even more tourist shops.

Downtown Wall South Dakota in front of Wall Drug

Downtown Wall — across from Wall Drug

Very frankly, there is a cheesy air to it all, but it’s still a very fun stop if you are taking an RV anywhere near all the other goodies that southwestern South Dakota has to offer.

The Disney-like tourist atmosphere is fun for kids and families looking for ways to entertain them. Seeing all those kids scampering around on the various little rides and statues in the courtyard, we couldn’t help but join them, and before I knew it Mark was up on the Jackalope saying, “Take my picture!”

Riding a Jackalope Wall Drug South Dakota

Mark was the biggest kid to climb on the jackalope!

There were lots of gimmicks inside too. Every so often we kept hearing this loud roar and noticing flashing lights at the far end of a hallway. We wandered down there and found a dinosaur that would come to life every few minutes. He’d gnash his teeth, wag his head and roar.

Dinosaur display inside Wall Drug in South Dakota

Every so often this dinosaur would roar to life and scare the littlest kids.

The Wall Drug Store highway signs had ended, but inside we found a wall full of newspaper and magazine articles that continued the promotion and told the story of Wall Drug.

A wall full of newspaper and magazine articles about Wall Drug

Wall Drug is famous!

The little idea of free ice water has come a long way in eighty years, and the mall-like interior of the complex was filled with curious tourists.

Inside Wall Drug Store and mall Wall South Dakota

Inside Wall Drug.

The signs on the highway don’t lie, and we found free ice water available in a water station in the courtyard. Wall Drug also still honors its highway signs for free coffee and donuts for honeymooners as well as five cent coffee for everyone else who wants to grab a cup.

Of course, there are lots of places to sit down for a full meal or grab a snack on the go.

Several walls are also filled with photos that tell the history not only of Wall Drug Store but of Rapid City, South Dakota, the Badlands and the settlers and Indians who lived in this area long ago.

Hallways of history at Wall Drug South Dakota

There is a ton of history told in photos on these walls.

One photo in particular caught my eye. It showed Wall Drug Store back in the early days, long before the arrival of the outdoor fountain and jackalope and automated talking cowboys and rocking western wagon rides for the younger set.

Wall Drug old photo of first store in 1950s

Wall Drug in the early days.

A replica of Wall Drug Store can still be found inside the mall.

Wall Drug Store inside the Wall Drug mall Wall South Dakota

The heart of Wall Drug is the drug store itself!

RVs are welcome at Wall Drug, and there is a special parking area just for big rigs like ours to one side.

The tourist shops sell lots of souvenirs for RVers too, and we got a kick out of them. There were some very cute hand towels featuring old style travel trailers:

Antique travel trailer hand towel Welcome

I love it!

RV towel Home is Anywhere I'm With You

This is what I tell my sweetie.

And there were lots of Happy Camper t-shirts and hats as well.

Happy Camper Hats

Is there any life that’s better? Not for us!

Wall Drug isn’t a destination for spectacular western scenery or authentic western anything, but it’s a hoot and is well worth a stop for RVers heading to Yellowstone, Devils Tower, or the Tetons, if for no other reason than to get a free cup of ice water and be able to tell your friends you’ve been there and done that!

RV sunset camping in South Dakota Badlands

South Dakota skies.

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Solar Eclipse 2017: Time-Lapse Videos from the South Dakota Badlands

August 21, 2017 – We first noticed the mania about the 2017 solar eclipse when we took our RV through the cute towns of Chugwater and Douglas, Wyoming, a few weeks ago. There were solar eclipse glasses for sale at checkout counters and all kinds of tourist pamphlets advertising the event.

We watched it in the Badlands of South Dakota where the eclipse would 95.7% of maximum — pretty close to total.

Timelaps video setup for Solar eclipse 2017 Badlands National Park South Dakota August 21 2017

Timelapse video setup for Solar eclipse 2017 in the South Dakota Badlands!!

We set up three tripods with our cameras facing the rugged Badlands landscape to capture time-lapse video sequences of the two and a half hour progression from normal daylight through the dark skies of the eclipse and back to normal daylight again. We started the time-lapse videos a little more than an hour before the max eclipse time, and set the cameras to take images every four seconds. Then we got busy doing other things.

Solar eclipse 2017 Badlands National Park South Dakota tripod set up for timelapse video time-lapse August 21 2017.

We set the time-lapses to take a shot every 4 seconds.
It was cloudy at the start, and we had no idea how dark it would get, so the exposure settings were a wild guess!

Because of the clouds, it was a little hard to tell that anything was happening. However, the sun eventually came out and it was a little dimmer than normal. Using a technique similar to the pin-hole boxes we had both made during solar eclipses as kids, Mark flipped a pair of binoculars upside down to show the image of the moon crossing the sun on the back of a white pizza box.

He thought of this technique at the last minute, and impressed the heck out of me. What a creative mind he has!! I asked him how he came up with the idea, and he just said, “Well, I needed something with a round hole.” Oh. Right. But of course!

Solar Eclipse 2017 Badlands National Park South Dakota viewing through binoculars August 21 2017.

It’s started!

We were in a quiet area, but as the eclipse progressed we noticed a fire engine pulled up to park a bluff. One firefighter climbed up on the roof of the truck to look at the changing landscape and the other stood out front. Cool!

Solar eclipse 2017 Badlands National Park South Dakota fire truck on hill August 21 2017.

A fire truck showed up on a bluff.

I remember when I was child there was a solar eclipse visible across North America (in March, 1970), and my great-uncle, who was 85 at the time, began telling stories of a solar eclipse he had lived through as a kid in the last years of the 1800’s. He said the animals had gotten confused and had settled in to go to sleep. The chickens all roosted, the dogs curled up on the ground, and all the critters thought it was time to go to bed.

I don’t know if he was pulling my leg or not, but all of a sudden we saw a pair of big horn sheep babies playing out in the grasslands. They were romping around together bounding over the tall grasses when all of a sudden they stopped dead in their tracks and turned around to look at something behind them.

Baby Big horn sheep solar eclipse 2017 Badlands National Park South Dakota

A pair of baby big horn sheep pause in the grasslands to look over their shoulders.

Mark grabbed his Nikon D500 camera and very long lens and snapped a few priceless pics. As we watched this sweet pair, we were both amazed when they suddenly laid down right there on the ground.

Resting big horn sheep solar eclipse 2017 Badlands National Park South Dakota

Time for a little rest.

Baby Big horn sheep solar eclipse 2017 Badlands National Park South Dakota-2

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I’m not sure if they thought nighttime was coming, but one of them dozed off for a moment!

Sleeping Baby Big horn sheep solar eclipse 2017 Badlands National Park South Dakota

Nighty-night!

And then the magic moment arrived. 11:51:36 am was maximum eclipse time for us, and for the next two minutes we were at maximum moon-over-sun darkness of 95.7%.

Mark put his 16-80 mm lens on his camera, attached two 10-stop neutral density filters, popped out the live view display, and took a few shots.

Solar eclipse 2017 Badlands National Park South Dakota photographing 95.7% eclipse August 21 2017.

Mark sets up to see what he can get at the moment of maximum eclipse.

I sneaked behind him to see what he was getting. Very cool!!

Solar eclipse 2017 Badlands National Park South Dakota photographing 95.7% eclipse August 21 2017

There it is!

solar eclipse 2017 Badlands National Park South Dakota 95.7% eclipse at maximum August 21 2017 11-51 am

95.7% of total eclipse.

I wandered around with my pocket camera and got some images of the Badlands. Frankly, it wasn’t really that dark. At least it didn’t seem to be to me.

Solar eclipse 2017 Badlands National Park South Dakota 95.7% maximum eclipse August 21 2017 August 21 2017.

It didn’t seem all that dark during the maximum solar eclipse.

The sun was definitely still shining and there were distinct shadows on the ground. I took a shot of my shadow.

My shadow Solar eclipse 2017 Badlands National Park South Dakota

I could see my shadow plain as day at max eclipse time.
Friends of ours in Idaho said the true total eclipse was as black as night. They even saw stars for a few minutes!

But when we looked at the time-lapse videos later, we discovered the cameras had picked up the darkening light very well. I had a polarizing filter on my Nikon D810 with an 18-35mm lens set to about 20mm with a shutter speed of 1/50 and aperture of f8. Mark didn’t have a polarizer and used a 24-120mm lens with a shutter speed of 1/200 at f5.6.

Here are the three time-lapse videos, the first two from our Nikon D810 cameras and the third from the Nikon Coolpix A. Each one is about 30 seconds long:

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The solar eclipse I remember from childhood was on March 7, 1970, and occurred in the middle of my weekly piano lesson. My wonderful piano teacher and I kept peeking out the window and looking into my pin hole box between recitations of Bach’s sonatas. Very fun! Here’s some info about that eclipse.

More On Photography: Photography Gear, Tips and Resources – What we use and how we learned photography

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Sturgis Motorcycle Rally – Wild and Free in South Dakota’s Black Hills!

August 2017 – The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally has been lighting up the roads around the Black Hills of South Dakota for 77 years, and ever since we experienced the Daytona 200 years ago, we have talked endlessly about taking our RV to Sturgis — until this year when we finally got there!

And what a welcome we received as we drove into town on the first day and discovered the Bikini Bike Wash was already in full swing!

Bikini Bike Wash Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

WOW!!! Welcome to Sturgis!!!

During the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally the little town of Sturgis, South Dakota — population 6,627 as of the 2010 census — is suddenly inundated with 500,000 crazy motorcycle enthusiasts in a wild mix of political incorrectness and patriotism along with a passion for all things Harley Davidson.

Welcome to Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Ahem… a lower key welcome…

Overnight, Sturgis transforms into Hog Heaven as thousands of Harleys fill the streets of town. From both rusty and restored antiques to the most recent brand new models, and from plain Jane Harleys to the most exotic and customized hogs imaginable, the love of freedom and the open road is celebrated in grand style for ten days.

Zippy motorcycle with ape-hanger bars Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Some babes wear bikinis at the bike wash. Others zip around town on cool Harleys.

The town of Sturgis first hosted this motorcycle rally back in 1938 when it was known as the Black Hills Classic. After all these years, the town has become expert at rolling out the welcome mat for visiting bikers.

People from all income brackets come to the rally, and no one is left out in the cold. Besides traditional rooms at motels and campsites in campgrounds, signs on the front lawns of the houses and small businesses in town offered tent camping and a chance for a front row seat to the 24/7 parade.

Tent camping in front yards at Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Entrepreneurial home and business owners rent out tent space on the front lawn!

Even the local Episcopal church had temporarily transformed into the Church of the Spoke ‘n Wheel.

Church of the Spoke and Wheel Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Church of the Spoke ‘n Wheel — Great sermons, by the way!

In downtown Sturgis both sides of all the streets were lined with motorcycles, and they were parked right down the middle too. Meanwhile, a steady stream of bikers rolled by.

Welcome Bikers Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Motorcycles everywhere!

Motorcycle wheels Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

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Motorcycles pass Jack Daniels booth Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Jack Daniels had a huge vendor tent with free tastings!
Other whiskeys, bourbons and wine were on offer too along with $2 pints of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Suddenly, Mark insisted we stop at the Rebel Yell Bourbon booth. This was weird, because Mark is a beer drinker not a bourbon guy.

Rebel Yell Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey babes Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Hmmm. Why in the world would Mark want to check out Rebel Yell bourbon?!

Choppers of every style were on glorious display.

Big wheel motorcycle Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

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Big wheel motorcycle Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Some hogs are exquisitely crafted and decorated.

Hot babes were hanging out at a lot of vendor booths and we even saw an angel crossing the street.

Angel Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

An angel walks by.

But there were some real dogs too.

Little pooch gets a ride Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Pooch gets a ride.

Corsets are a favorite outfit for women bikers, and there were plenty to be found. The guys lean towards more bad boy images, and they go for skeletons of all kinds.

Skin tight leather corsets Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Corsets for the ladies…

Bad boy skeleton t-shirt designs Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

…and T-shirt images for the gents!

One of the favorite pastimes for everyone at Sturgis is people watching. Not only do folks set up chairs in front yards all over town, but the bars have outdoor seating, and temporary standup bars are set up along the roads so you can hang out with a beer and watch the wild procession go by.

Bar scene Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Real bars and makeshift bars were filled with people watchers all over town and beyond!

We saw lots of wild animals in Custer State Park, but Sturgis has a lot of wildlife too!

For lots of Sturgis-goers, the longer the beard and the wilder the duds the better. They even have a beard contest (with a dozen categories) that is a qualifier for the National Beard Contest (who knew there was such a thing?!). We saw quite a few good ones:

Tie-dye hippie Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

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Beard contest Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Ready for the beard contest.

We even saw a beard-and-horns combo:

Long beard horns and leather vest Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

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And there were a few headdresses that were totally over the top.

Crazy hat Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

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Black leather was favored by the motorcycle rally crowd, and leather vests were particularly popular with the guys. Folks put huge patches on the back that told a little about themselves.

Hells Angels California Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Hells Angels showed up!

There was a huge contingent with Combat Veteran patches on their backs, and each had additional patches for where they had fought. There was a strong comaraderie among these guys, and their service had been extensive, across continents and decades: Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Desert Storm, Vietnam and more.

Combat vets vest Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Combat vets gathered with pride.

Sturgis draws people from all over the world, and we saw people from very far-flung destinations!

Rally

A pair of visitors from Mazatlan, Mexco…

German visitors Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

…and from Germany too!

Tatoos are really popular with the Sturgis crowd too, and anyone who didn’t come to the rally with one — or who had a bare spot where they could squeeze in another — had plenty of options around town for getting the tatoo image of their dreams, short term or long!!

Get a tattoo Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Need a tatoo? Come get it here!

One of the most impressive tatoos we saw peeked out from behind a leather vest…

Belly tatoo artwork Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Now that’s a tatoo!

The tatoo artists weren’t the only talented graphics designers around town. We watched one attendee plop down on a bench, pull out a sketch pad, and start drawing the crazy motorcycle scene in front of him.

Motorcycle artist Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

An artist begins a drawing of the crazy street scene on his sketch pad.

At one vendor booth a pinstripe artist drew fantastic curvy designs on motorcycle tanks and fenders. I had no idea these guys did this freehand. What skill!!

Motorcycle Pinstripe artist Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

The confidence and steady hand this pinstripe artist had was astonishing. He worked really fast too!

The engineering design at the heart of the whole motorcycle rally, of course, is the Harley Davidson engine. A massive mockup of the engine was on display in the middle of it all.

Harley Davidson engine Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

At the heart of Sturgis — the Harley Davidson engine!!

There were oodles of really clever motorcycle designs everywhere, and we got a huge kick out of seeing them. One beautiful silver one caught my eye, and I idly looked at the price tag. My eyes jumped out of my head when I saw $94,048. It was handwritten and a little funky looking, so I checked the next bike to see if I’d missed a digit or something. Nope! The next (really gorgeous and extremely customized) bike was nearly the same price. Holy smokes!!

Corvette style motorcycle Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

What a cool ride — with a Corvette style back end!

Motorcycle with rear engine Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

The engine is back here — under the lid!!

Motorcycle tailpipes Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Spitting hellfire and fury out the tailpipes!!

Some people stay in the many motels around town and in the surrounding communities, but many people camp in one way or another. Lots of people camp in big beautiful toy haulers, and Jayco was in town with two brand new models that we walked through and checked out. But bunches of folks were camping in tents.

A few even towed a tiny popup tent trailer behind their motorcycle!!

Motorcycle popup tent trailer Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Motorcycle camping in style with a popup!

The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is as much an industry trade show as it is a social gathering for like minded motorcycle enthusiasts. Every open piece of land throughout the town and out in the hinterlands was filled with vendor booths, and you could buy anything and everything you ever dreamed of for your bike.

And if your bike needed a tune-up or an oil change, you had a choice of at least a dozen places to get that done!

Every so often as we roamed around we’d here the deafening roar of a motorcycle “giving it all she’s got.” It turned out that several vendors had brought enormous trailers that had a complete laboratory dynamometer inside. After installing an engine tuner on a bike, they would dyno the motorcycle to find out its horsepower and torque!!

Motorcycle speed shop Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

What’s your bike’s horsepower and torque? Find out here!

As we walked through one area, we heard the whine of motorcycle engines revving like crazy. Slithering through the crowd, we found some motorcycle tricksters doing all kinds of crazy stunts. Wow!!

Motorcycle wheelie Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

These guys rode their Kawasakis like they were tiny BMX bikes!

Front wheelie bike tricksters Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

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Motorcycle brake torque burnouts Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Brake torque!!

For those who couldn’t quite pull off a wheelie or do a brake torque on a motorcycle, there was a bike set up on a permanent tilt where you could hop aboard and pose for a photo finish in a motorcycle race. I couldn’t pass that up!!

Motorcycle races Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Weeee!!

In many ways, Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is a street photographer’s heaven, and we saw cameras and photographers of all kinds roaming around. When we noticed one fellow with a really elaborate setup, we stopped to chat. It turned out he was from the Travel Channel! He was busy videoing bikes on the road, but inside a nearby bar we found the rest of the crew interviewing rally-goers right at the bar!

Travel Channel TV Crew Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

The Travel Channel was interviewing folks at the bar!

The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally isn’t limited to the small town of Sturgis. Sturgis is just party central!

People bring their bikes to this part of the country because the roads outside of town, and all through the Black Hills, are so ideal for riding. Knowing they’ll be seeing thousands of bikes roll through during the ten day rally, restaurants, campgrounds and motels in all the outlying towns cater to their every need.

There was live music galore at all hours of the day and night at a dozen different venues in town and many more on the outskirts. Some were lesser known bands, but big headliners including Ozzie Ozbourne performed too!

As we drove around the area, we noticed that a lot of bikes kept heading down one particular road, so we decided to follow them one day.

Sturgis motorcycle rally South Dakota

Rolling thunder! Huge groups of bikes dominated the roads for a 50 mile radius from town. Just incredible!

They were heading to the Full Throttle Saloon, and on the way there we passed several sprawling tent city campgrounds that had been set up to house the motorcyclists for the ten day event.

Tent city Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Tent city campgrounds had sprouted up all over the place. Is $75 a night for a tent site too much?

Even here at the Full Throttle Saloon, about 3 miles from the heart of downtown Sturgis, the place was flooded with beautiful motorcycles.

Full Dressers Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Pick your favorite color…

The candy colors were eye-poppingly pretty, and we wandered from one stunningly gorgeous full dresser big wheel bike to the next.

Full Throttle Saloon Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Stunning full dresser big wheel bikes lined up at the Full Throttle Saloon outside of town.

The rally went on for days, and although we had thought we would just pop in for a few hours on the first day, we ended up spending nearly a week in the area. There’s just so much going on–and we didn’t do even a fraction of it–that it’s very hard to leave!

But every so often you do need to take a break. Among the casual, fun-loving and slightly geriatric crowd at Sturgis, taking a breather is never a problem. You can kick back on your bike and take a snooze right in the middle of it all!

Bike snooze Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Long night last night? Catch a few winks on your bike!

If you have a chance to go to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally at some point, it is a really fun event to attend. I’ve got a few links below to help plan a trip.

Custom motorcycle travel trailer Sturgis Motorcycle Rally South Dakota

Sturgis Motorcycle Rally — a really good time!!

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More info about the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally:

Other blog posts about fun vehicle rallies we’ve seen in our RV life:

Other things to see and do in South Dakota – Blog posts from our South Dakota RV travels

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Custer South Dakota Highlights on an RV Trip

July 2017 – We loved our stay in South Dakota’s Black Hills, and this plaque we found hanging on a wall in a restaurant says it perfectly:

RV Vacation in the Black Hills with an RV or travel trailer

Yes, definitely do!

The cute town of Custer is in the heart of the Black Hills, and one of the things that charmed us is that it is decorated with a slew of brightly painted life-size sculptures of buffalo. We found these fun creatures roaming all over town!

Buffalo statue Custer South Dakota

Life-size buffalo sculptures stand in front of businesses and homes all over town.

We had fun finding these guys and posing with them!

Buffalo statue Custer South Dakota

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Of course, the real ones are close by in Custer State Park too.

Buffalo with bird on his back Custer South Dakota

A bird catches a ride on the real thing!

We visited the town of Custer quite a few times, and each time we stopped at Calamity Jane’s for a fancy fluffy latte. This is a great little espresso shop and wine tasting bar that does a brisk business.

For decades the owners, Jim and Deb, ran a camera shop in this location, but with the advent of the cell phone camera age and tourists who love espresso and wine, they’ve switched gears and created a very friendly place to hang out a while!

Calamity Jane Wine Bar and Coffee Shop South Dakota

Mark jokes around with Jim, the owner of the Calamity Jane Wine & Espresso shop.

Calamity Jane Coffee Shop Custer South Dakota

Coffee is up front. The wine is in the back!

A little sign on the floor of Calamity Jane’s says “Go ride a bike!” and we followed that advice and headed out on the Mickelson Trail one day. This is a wonderful rails-to-trails crushed gravel path that goes on for 109 miles. The town of Custer situated near the middle of the trail.

Go Ride a Bike Custer South Dakota

Good advice!

Mickelson Trail Custer South Dakota

The 109 mile long Mickelson Trail is a wonderful rails-to-trails path through the Black Hills.

We did out-and-back bike rides in each direction from town and thoroughly enjoyed the scenery. The Black Hills are filled with fabulous pinnacle rock formations, and we passed a few beauties while riding the Mickelson Trail.

Scenery on the Mickelson Trail Custer South Dakota

One of the signatures of Black Hills landscapes is pinnacle rock formations jutting up out of the earth.

Rock formations Custer South Dakota

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The Black Hills region was one of the last areas to be explored in the 19th century, and in 1874 Lieutenant Colonel George Custer arrived with his expedition to check out the area. This expedition has given us much pause for thought.

In our travels, Mark and I roam around the country in our cozy little fully self-contained luxury fifth wheel trailer. We travel easily at 65 mph, enjoy hot and cold running water, refrigerated meats and fish from every corner of the continent and veggies from all over the world.

Our barbecue, stove, oven and microwave stand ready to cook a meal at a moment’s notice, and our rolling home’s climate control gives us ample heat and air conditioning in all conditions. Most astonishing of all, we have 24/7 instantaneous access to much of the world’s populace via the internet.

Traveling effortlessly in this kind of style makes it very hard for us to fathom such a primitive expedition as Custer’s was, even though it took place less than 150 years ago, not even twice our parents’ age.

Custer undertook this expedition into the Black Hills 70 years after Lewis and Clarke did their cross-country trek to the west coast. Not only were there were well over 1,000 men in Custer’s group, they brought along 2,100 horses, 110 wagons, a herd of cattle for food (most of which returned home with them because the group found plenty of game along the way), plus surveyors, engineers, geologists, a photographer and a media crew of five newspaper reporters.

The whole caravan stretched out for over two miles when they were traveling!

Welcome to Custer South Dakota

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The expedition went from the current location of Bismarck, North Dakota, to the Black Hills and back, and lasted from July 2nd to August 30th, 1874. Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills as well as bountiful wildflowers and animals aplenty.

In 2000, a local photographer went around and took photos that matched the locations of where Custer’s photographer, William Illingworth, took his. There is a comparison photo on a plaque on the Mickelson Trail that brings the expedition to life. The scenery hasn’t changed much, but it was remarkable to stand in the spot where Custer’s photographer stood 143 years ago when the Black Hills were known only to the Indians who called them home.

It didn’t take long for prospectors to head to the Black Hills once they heard about the gold discovery. Just two months after Custer’s expedition was completed, a group set up camp near the modern day town of Custer.

However, it was illegal for them to be there, because the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie gave the region to the Plains Indians and prohibited white settlement. So, they built a stockade for protection but were evicted five months later by the US Cavalry.

The Stockade Custer South Dakota

The Gordon Stockade protected a small band of gold prospectors…but they were there illegally!

This was the wild west, of course, and on another day while we were mountain biking on a trail in the woods, we came across a sign that told of the fate of one murderous Billy Fowler. Yikes!

Frontier Justice sign Custer South Dakota

In the old days folks took matters into their own hands.

Pretty Stockade Lake is right next to the Gordon Stockade, and we wandered along the road that lines the shore taking photos near sunset one day.

Stockade Lake Custer South Dakota

Beautiful Stockade Lake is between the town of Custer and Custer State Park.

It was the new moon, and Mark returned to the lake in the darkest hours of the night to catch the Milky Way reflecting in the water. His photos were sensational and were well worth the near all-nighter that it took for him to get them.

Milky Way at Stockade Lake Custer South Dakota

The Milky Way is mirrored in Stockade Lake.


Milky Way at Stockade Lake Custer South Dakota

It was worth getting up in the dark to capture these images!

I was happily snoozing away under the blankets back at the trailer while Mark was out having fun in the dark that night. As he drove down the main drag in Custer he found it was utterly deserted. So, he set up his tripod right in the middle of the street and got a neat shot of the city lights.

Custer South Dakota at night

The town of Custer is so quiet at night you can do a long exposure on a tripod in the middle of the main drag.

Custer has many charms, and one of the big highlights for us was a stop at the Purple Pie Place. The pies here are out of this world, and we joined the throng of happy customers who were savoring scrumptious slices of blueberry(yum!), strawberry rhubarb (double yum!) and apple pies (all American yum!).

Purple Pie Place Custer South Dakota

The Purple Pie Place makes AWESOME pies!

As we wandered the streets of Custer, I looked down to see an odd collection of painted rocks right by the sidewalk. I looked a little closer and saw a small sign next to them that said, “The Kindness Rock Project.” I picked up a rock and looked it over. Just then a woman came over and said, “Keep it!”

Kindness Rock Project Custer South Dakota

A school counselor’s ingenious idea — a Kindness Rock Project.
Pick up a rock that speaks to you and share it with a friend. Leave one if the spirit moves you.

She went on to explain that she was a school counselor and that this project had been her idea. The kids painted the rocks, and the idea was to spread a little bit of joy with the townsfolk and with the many tourists who came to visit the town.

How cool is that?!

It reminded me of the fantastic walls lined with hand tiles that the students in Maysville, Kentucky, had created in the tunnel through their flood wall. Creative teachers and counselors who dream up these projects give a priceless gift to their communities.

Custer has a wonderful vibe, and we thoroughly enjoyed our 4th of July there. Down at the VFW Hall we got a huge kick out of the American flag mural that decorates the entire front of the building.

Americn flag VFW Hall Custer South Dakota

The entire front wall of the VFW Hall is a vivid American flag!

Inside, we found another clever idea. A small crate filled with little plastic toy soldiers was on a shelf, and a small sign on the crate said, “Please take a soldier home and place it somewhere that will remind you to pray for those who serve our country.”

Love it!

We took one and now have it on one of our window sills.

Toy soldiers to take home VFW Hall Custer South Dakota

Inside the VFW hall we found another clever idea: take a toy soldier home and put it in a place where you’ll be reminded to give thanks for the real ones serving in the war torn parts of the world.

There is a ton to see and do in the Black Hills, and one day we set out to drive the Needles Highway which twists and turns through some of the most dramatic scenery in the area. We had driven this beautiful road on our previous visit to the area ten years prior, and had been able to sneak through all of the very narrow tunnels in our old truck.

We knew our new truck would theoretically make it through the tunnels with an inch or two to spare on either side. After all, tour buses take groups through these tunnels all day every day. But it looked awfully skinny, so we turned around and saved the drive for another time.

Iron Creek Tunnel Custer State Park South Dakota

Threading the needle with a dually at Iron Creek Tunnel on the Needles Highway…or not!

There are many ways to enjoy the Black Hills. We saw kayaks ready to go on a lake and we came across lots of people on horseback too.

Kayaks at a lake in South Dakota

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Horse riders Custer South Dakota

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Zipping around in a Corvette Stingray is an awesome way to enjoy the many scenic drives around Custer, and bringing a side-by-side in a toy hauler is another great way to go.

Corvette Stingray and RV Toyhauler Custer South Dakota

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We saw a ton of RVs cruising through town, and there are both private and state park campgrounds to choose from too.

Travel trailer drives by Custer Historical Museum Custer South Dakota RV trip_

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There are loads of things to do in the Black Hills, and as is so often the case, we didn’t manage to “do it all” before our time in Custer came to a close. Oh well. Now we have a great excuse to go back!

RV trip to Custer South Dakota

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Custer State Park Burros & Bison – Close Encounters of the Animal Kind

July 2017 – Custer State Park in South Dakota is a wonderful place to see wildlife up close, and we ended up driving the Wildlife Loop Road quite a few times during our stay.

Wild burros with RV Custer State Park South Dakota

The “wild” burros in Custer State Park are surprisingly tame!

The “wild” burros are actually feral burros that were “set free” many decades ago. Now they are known as the “begging burros,” and for good reason!

As we drove on the Wildlife Loop Road with pro wildlife photographer, Steve Perry, and his wife Rose, we were astonished when some very bold burros walked right up to our car.

Car with wild burro Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota

Wild burros approached our car.

Wild burro approaches car Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota

Steve reaches out to pet a “wild” burro in Custer State Park.
The burros here rightfully earned the nickname, “begging burros!”

The white burro pressed his nose against a closed car window and made funny faces at us…

Wild burro at the car window Custer State Park South Dakota

A burro presses his big nose against the car window.

The other poked his whole head right in!

Wild burro head in car Custer State Park South Dakota

Another burro sticks his nose right inside the car!

It turns out that these begging burros are the rather lazy descendants of a very hard working group of burros who began taking Custer State Park visitors on rides from Sylvan Lake up to Harney Peak back in 1927.

Little girl with wild burro Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

The wild burros are very accustomed to people, but not all the people are accustomed to the wild burros!

After a few years of providing these fun sounding burro rides, Custer State Park officials decided to end the rides, and they simply let the burros go.

Petting a wild burro Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

“Look what I found. Can I keep him?”

Nowadays, the burros are so accustomed to human visitors — and are so fond of the treats that many humans bring them — that they are quite fearless and are more than happy to mingle with tourists. They even let folks pet them.

Boy and wild burro Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

The burros don’t mind being petted.

Custer State Park encourages people not to feed the burros, but while we were there loads of people got out of their cars with bags of food for them. Keeping the burros’ waistlines in mind, though, most folks showed up with something nutritious like a bag of carrots or romaine lettuce.

Feeding a wild burro Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

Although signs say not to, lots of visitors bring snacks for the burros.

On our first foray into Custer State Park, we had been amazed just to see the wild burros and their foals from a distance, period. But this time we found ourselves standing right next to them.

Wild burro mare and foal Custer State Park South Dakota

We saw several moms and babies.

Wild burro mare stands watch over foal Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

Standing watch.

Wild burros nuzzing Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

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The burros were so darned laid back that one mom suddenly did a barrel roll in the dirt, letting a cloud of dust fly.

Wild burro dust bath Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

Mom takes a dust bath!

I was smitten by the little foals. They had such sweet and innocent faces.

Portrait wild burro foal Custer State Park Wildlife Loop South Dakota

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One foal was particularly mellow. It must have been nap time, and when I knelt down next to her and stroked the soft fur on her head and neck, she leaned her whole weight against my leg and closed her eyes. Naturally, I was thrilled!

Burro foal resting Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota

I could not believe this little foal was so trusting.

Wild burro foal on the Wildlife Loop Custer State Park South Dakota

“Look what I found. Can I keep her?”

Custer State Park’s herd of bison is another big draw for tourists, and the opportunities to see them are plentiful. Custer State Park’s 71,000 acres are fully enclosed by fencing, and there are roughly 1,300 buffalo in the Park’s buffalo herd. The herd is carefully culled and maintained each year.

On the day that we were out photographing prairie dogs with Steve and Rose, we suddenly noticed there was a huge group of bison approaching us from the distance hills. As the leaders drew near, we turned our cameras away from the prairie dogs and focused on the approaching buffalo.

Group of buffalo in Custer State Park South Dakota

A huge herd of bison came down out of the hills towards us.

There were both buffalo cows and bulls in the herd and lots of buffalo calves as well. They came down from the hills in a long, steady stream.

Buffalo herd approaches Custer State Park South Dakota-2

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The herd fanned out and approached us like an approaching army. It was a little unsettling, even though they were walking slowly.

Bison herd approaches in Custer State Park South Dakota

The herd approaches.

Even the prairie dogs stood up on their hind legs to see what was rattling the roofs of their underground compound.

Prairie dog stands up when herd of buffalo approach Custer State Park South Dakota

“Who’s making all that noise?

As they approached us they stirred up the dust with their hooves.

Buffalo herd Custer State Park South Dakota

The dust flies as the herd approaches.

A few even stopped for a dust bath as their comrades marched on.

Buffalo dust bath Custer State Park South Dakota

A buffalo takes a bath.

The herd easily numbered a hundred, and they moved steadily towards us, getting closer and closer. We kept taking photos, but we all began to back up towards the car.

Bison herd Custer State Park South Dakota

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All of a sudden they were within just a few feet of us, and let me tell you, these animals a huge.

It felt like a gang was surrounding us as they walked towards the road and then circled around us and the car. We could hear them breathing, and we could hear the grass rustling as they moved pass. The gravel in the road crunched under their feet. Their huge heads swayed slowly back and forth as they came right towards us.

Photographing buffalo in Custer State Park South Dakota

Steve takes photos of the approaching bison.

It was an incredible opportunity to take some portraits! Each buffalo was completely different. Some had tall horns, or widely spaced horns or sharply curving horns. Some had long faces and others had broad faces.

Approaching buffalo Custer State Park South Dakota

Every buffalo portrait revealed a totally different face.

Bison head Custer State Park South Dakota

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Buffalo head Custer State Park South Dakota

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The bison were big and burly and a little frightening up close, but as we studied them, we could see they lead very hardscrabble lives.

Mark got photos of one that had a big open sore on its side that was bleeding. We weren’t sure if it had been gored by another buffalo or had scraped itself on a tree branch, but it was a surprise to see a bright red oozing wound. Another had a horn that had broken off.

Bison with broken horn Custer State Park South Dakota

A buffalo’s life can be rough and tumble.

As we clicked away with our cameras, all I could think of was the scary statistic from Yellowstone National Park: Each year more people are gored by bison there than are attacked by grisly bears! I backed up to the car and stood in front of the open door for a few last shots and then dove into the car in a panic.

Steve’s wife Rose was already in the car, and she cracked up as I fell all over myself getting in.

I sorted myself out, and then we both watched anxiously as Steve and Mark remained outside the back of the car, madly taking photos as these enormous animals closed in around us.

Buffalo head Custer State Park South Dakota

Watch out for those sharp horns!

Finally the two crazed photographers threw their tripods in the trunk and then jumped inside with us, slamming the doors closed and rolling the windows up.

The bison surrounded us like a big black sea, walking slowly alongside the car within a few feet. Then, like water flowing around an island, they moved on down the road, more interested in finding greener pastures than in bothering with the silly photo crew in the little car.

In the distance, we could see other members of the herd running across the meadow. It was amazing to see the huge creatures nimbly galloping, the calves dutifully scampering right behind.

Buffalo on the run Custer State Park South Dakota

Buffalo on the move…

Buffalo cow and calf runnning in Custer State Park South Dakota

A buffalo cow runs at full speed with her calf following close behind.

And then, as quickly as it started, the show was over.

The entire herd had easily covered a few miles of ground in a very short time, moving from the hills on one horizon to the stream, trees and meadows on the other. What a fabulous experience that was.

Buffalo on dirt road Wind Cave National Park and Custer State Park south Dakota

We’ll always treasure our memories of this unusual buffalo encounter.

Buffalo calf Custer State Park South Dakota

Not quite as sweet as a baby burro, perhaps, but the buffalo calves were still pretty cute!

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