What’s wonderful about the state of South Dakota is the abundance of outdoor activities. Along with the Black Hills and Custer State Park, one place I go to again and again is the Badlands National Park. I can’t even begin to express how much I love this place and it’s safe to say it’s one of my favorite National Parks.
Last summer I was on a two-week work trip through the southwest. My road trip started in Tucson, Arizona, where I lived previously, and I drove to Alamogordo, New Mexico. I was scheduled to attend a class on the medical and psychological aspects of flying remotely piloted aircraft for a week with a follow-on trip to San Antonio, Texas to finalize an aircraft accident investigation.
A three-week work trip to Texas this past month wasn’t complete unless I sampled some of the many food trucks the city of Austin has to offer. Lining the streets of South Congress (aka SoCo) and 1st Street, the trucks and trailers offered a variety of snacks and meals ranging from sweet to savory, tacos to donuts, and ice cream to fresh, cold pressed juice.
The second half of my road trip consisted mostly of driving with very little sight seeing. There wasn’t much to see on the roads I took through Utah and Wyoming without going hours out of the way and I was desperate to reach Rapid City in good time. The night I spent in Salt Lake City was awful; the hotel wasn’t bad, but my neighbors didn’t understand the concept of quiet hours and were yelling at each other every 30 minutes as well as continuously slamming the door. Not the hotel’s fault, but I unfortunately didn’t get a good night’s rest. I had a long drive ahead of me to Casper and I was taking a detour to see the Spiral Jetty on the north side of the Great Salt Lake.
I started my drive north and on the way to the Spiral Jetty, I accidentally ended up at the Golden Spike National Historic Site while looking for directions. It wasn’t part of my planned trip, but I decided to stay a little while since the site did have some unique history behind it. Golden Spike NHS was the place where, in 1869, the Union and Pacific Railroads were joined and the last spike was driven into the rails. During the summer, reenactments of the event are held during the summers on the weekends and steam demonstrations of the locomotives No. 119 and Jupiter are held daily. The locomotives are replicas of the original but are almost exactly the same size, shape, coloring and fully functional like the originals. More information on the site can be found at the Golden Spike NHS website.
I followed the directions to the Spiral Jetty which was easier than what I expected on the mostly dirt roads. The art piece is by Robert Smithson and used over six thousand tons of basalt rocks from the site. I was hoping for the coiled art piece to be slightly submerged in water but the lake was pretty dry and I was able to walk out on the dried salt bed and among the many rocks. Either way, it was pretty cool to see.
The drive from the Spiral Jetty to Casper was 8 hours long and I didn’t have any other planned stops. I spent the night there and got a restful night’s sleep before waking up for an early start to Rapid City. I’ll be honest, I started hating the flat-ness of the plains since I was used to seeing mountains, but I had heard so many wonderful things about the Black Hills and the Badlands that I was looking forward to exploring the outdoors in a part of the country I’ve barely visited.
I have lived in South Dakota for four months and so far it’s been fantastic. The food, the people, and the sites are amazing and I’ve definitely got more road trips planned out for this new year.
Day two of my road trip was an especially long day. I drove a lot longer than I really needed, but the sites and park visits were totally worth it. I will say that Utah has some of the best scenic roads that I had seen in a long time, the different shades of red and brown painting the roads less travelled. The fresh-air smell of the wilderness was like a rush, filling my lungs.
The first thing on the agenda was the tour of Antelope Canyon, which I had seen so many pictures of but never had visited. It would have been lovely to have gone on my own, but the only way to see the canyon is though a guided tour since access to the canyon was limited. I wish that our guide had shared more history and the spiritual significance of the canyon, instead of the best places to take photos, but it is unfortunately a very touristy spot. From my understanding, older generations of the Natives were bitter on how commercialized the canyon had become with tours offered daily by different tour groups.
Regardless, the canyon is an absolutely beautiful sight. The best times to go are in the mid-late morning and early afternoon, when the sun beams are shining down through the canyon. Because of my long-planned day, I went to one of the earlier tours, and although the canyon was pretty dark, our guide was kind enough to help me find the right adjustment for my camera, resulting in some beautiful photos.
Because it was so close-by, I decided to make a quick stop to Horseshoe Bend, just a few miles south of Page. The name comes from the horseshoe-like bend of the Colorado river on the bottom of the canyon. An easy three-quarters of a mile hike from the parking lot leads you right to the rim of the canyon and it was a site to see.
I continued to drive east on Arizona State Route 98 and US Route 163 to get to Monument Valley. It had been years since I first saw it while on a family road trip, taking the 17-mile dirt road through the buttes, the dust, red from iron oxide, blanketing the car in a thin layer of dust. I didn’t spend as much time as I wanted to this time around since I still had to drive to Goblin Valley and finally to Salt Lake City, but I made sure to drive through a few miles on that same dirt road.
With a car full of stuff being thrown around everywhere, I was glad to have a vehicle that better fit the rugged terrain of the trail as opposed to some of the other vehicles there. Becasue it was a holiday weekend, the trail and visitors center was jam packed with people, all waiting their turn to see the amazing sites.
Finally, I started my drive toward Goblin Valley State Park. To be honest, the only reason I know about this place (nerd alert) is because of the movie “Galaxy Quest.” What looked like a made-up place was an actual park with unique rock formations called hoodoos, or the infamous goblins. After braving treachurous one-way roads going five miles an hour, seeing maybe one or two other cars in a period of a few hours, I finally found the park. Well…some road that was blocked off. Of course, I started cursing the fact that I may have spent hours on these back roads looking for this park that I had wanted to see for a very long time. But I persisted, continuing my drive, hoping to find another entarance or road that’ll let me enter the park.
And I found it! Passing through a herd of antelope, I drove up to the park entrance, paid for a pass, and excitedly drove to one of the main hiking and viewing areas of the park. I was greeted by a formation of hoodoos right at the start, called The Three Sisters, prominately displayed by main road. With only a couple hours of sunlight (and still another five hours until I reached Salt Lake City), I parked the Jeep and took in the view, enjoying these unique rock formations and the sheer oddity of them. Grabbing my camera and a bottle of water, along with the map I picked up from the visitor’s center, I attempted hike one of the established ‘trails’ and ended up getting a bit lost among the many hoodoos. As long as I kept a visual on the parking lot, I was fine and continued my way.
It was quiet. So quiet. The dirt untouched with the exception of a couple footprints by hikers and animals and I didn’t see another soul for at least half an hour. He was heading toward the far end of the park, insisting on seeing a beautiful and perfect sunset. I would have joined him if it wasn’t for my long drive to Salt Lake and wished him on his way.
After hiking for about an hour, I finally decided it was time to finish my drive for the day. The sun was setting and I had lost an hour when I crossed state lines. Other than getting lost about an hour south of Salt Lake City, the drive was relatively uneventful. I was ready for a good night’s rest for the long drive to Casper, WY the next day.
I’ve now spent about two months living in Rapid City and while I am not overly crazy about it, the scenery and the people have proved it to be a pleasant experience so far. The weather finally hit below freezing a few mornings in a row, a huge relief from the continuous string of triple digit temperatures while living in Tucson, and the first snow of the season is expected shortly.
My road trip from Tucson to the Black Hills took a couple days to plan. I had four days to get to my destination and decided to do some sight seeing on the way. Because I couldn’t travel with my dog due to my Jeep being involved in the most elaborate game of Tetris imaginable, I had much more flexibility with taking side trips and which would otherwise be difficult to do with a very curious husky. The trip took four whole days and I traveled over 2,000 miles, checking off items from by travel bucket list along the way.
I left Tucson early on a Tuesday morning. It was a rough three years living and working in that town and I couldn’t leave fast enough. With monsoon season in full swing, the ground was wet with recent rain as I packed some final few items in my Jeep. The sun was still below the horizon when I checked out of my hotel and hopped on Interstate 10, heading north towards Phoenix. Leaving Tucson was bittersweet. I wasn’t going to miss it. The location, the sights, the food…those things were great. There are some wonderful people who I am going to miss as well. Being in the desert never bothered me, but the work environment made me want to leave and never go back. But I was mentally prepared to leave and to start a new chapter in my life in South Dakota.
It took around two hours to get to Phoenix, one of my favorite cities. I wasn’t planning on staying long but I had to take a quick stop at Ground Control, a coffee and wine bar in Litchfield Park near Luke Air Force Base. Established about seven years ago, Ground Control is owned by an F-16 pilot and his wife and was meant to be a good after-work hang out. With locally roasted coffee and beer and wine from around the world, it’s one of the few locally owned coffee shops frequently visited. Naturally I had to make one final stop and order a Viennese iced coffee. Somehow, I also walked away with six pounds of roasted coffee. Not sure how that happened, but it did make my car smell delicious and I now have enough coffee to last me a while.
I continued my drive north on Interstate 17 and instead of stopping in Flagstaff like I had origianlly planned, I made a quick stop in Seligman, the birthplace of Historic Route 66. The town, while small and a bit touristy, is full of life. I had to grab lunch at Delgadillo’s Snow Cap, well prepared for the shenanigans that took place in the small eatery. Originally a drive-in, it was built in the 1950’s by Juan Delgadillo, a local. The eatery is still run by the family and was a delight to visit.
It was a warm day in Arizona, which was expected in the summer, and I waited in line after futilely attempting to open the door using the dummy door knob. Joke was on me, right? The woman in front of me asked for two cones, and was presented with two small orange traffic cones. She looked at them quizzically before being ‘squirted’ with mustard and ketchup, initially mortified before realizing they were all silly gags. The owners continue to have a sense of humor, offering the woman a tiny sample sized ice-cream when she asked for a small. The jokes were endless…and the line had gotten long quick. Worth the visit and the wait for that hot dog I had ordered (I’m sure the rest of the menu was good as well).
An Arizona road trip isn’t complete without seeing the magnificent Grand Canyon. I had been there 20 years ago with my family on our first family road trip. Memories fade and I don’t think as a kid you really appreciate how large and beautiful the Grand Canyon really is. I mean, just look at it!
The easiest way to see the Grand Canyon was by going through the South Rim. It’s open all year round, where as the North Rim is typically open during the summer. I would have loved to have hiked the Grand Canyon, but I unfortunately didn’t take advantage of it while living in Arizona for three years. Driving through the National Park was a treat, with thick lush trees lining the sides of the road, a stark difference from the desert in Tucson and Phoenix. I was able to find a place to enjoy the scenery by myself in less popular spots without the overbearing crowds. After driving through the National Park, I finally started heading toward Page. It was tempting to take the road that would have led me to the North Rim, but it was getting late and I still had a long drive ahead of me. While it was a beautiful day with clear blue skies, the skies opened and there was a torrential downpour as I continued to drive north, stopping momentarily to peruse some Native American art and jewelry on the side of the road crafted by local artisans.
Finally, after a long day of driving, I had made it to Page. After checking into the hotel, I decided to grab a quick bite at a small local wine bar. A bit difficult to find since the restaurant blended in with the rest of the stores lining a large parking lot, the Blue Wine Bar was a perfect way to end the first day of my road trip with unique alcoholic drinks and a wide variety of tapas. I settled for a dirty tomato martini and the calamari and avocado tacos, beautifully presented and surprisingly filling. Let’s not forget the salted caramel cheesecake, which was amazing!
Stay tuned for Part 2, with a tour of Antelope Canyon, driving through Monument Valley, and viewing the unique rock formations in Goblin Valley.