Great American Eclipse Adventure: Day One

August 20-21, 2017 We had not planned on going anywhere for the Great American Eclipse, but the more I learned about the eclipse, the more it seemed like something we would need to see from the path of totality. An article I read explained that viewing an eclipse from one hundred percent totality vs. 95% totality as the difference between watching a football game in the stadium on the fifty-yard line vs. watching on tv, and even 99% was said to be like watching the game from the parking lot instead of being in the stadium. Now, I’ve been to a couple Nebraska Cornhusker games and knew EXACTLY what they meant by being IN the stadium vs out in the parking lot vs watching on tv…there’s nothing like it. I knew we had to see the eclipse in totality…but where to go? I thought about just stopping in the Nebraska Sandhills until I learned that the kids could add to their Junior Ranger badge collection by going to the Agate Fossil Beds National Park in western Nebraska for a special Solar Eclipse Junior Ranger badge. So with that destination in mind, we loaded up the truck on Saturday night, departed early Sunday morning, and took off for the Black Hills.

Our two-day itinerary:

August 20, 2017

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center

Badlands National Park

Buffalo Gap National Grasslands Visitor Center

SD Air and Space Museum Base Tour

Wind Cave National Park

Oreville Campground

August 21, 2017

Agate Fossil Beds National Park

The Great American Solar Eclipse

Carhenge

Day One: August 20, 2017

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

Our first stop was the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site to do Junior Rangers. We’ve been to the DELTA-01 site for a tour several years ago, but the visitor center was new since we had been there. It was very nicely done, both inside and out, with many informative displays, including a retro living space similar to what they would’ve had on location. We spent around twenty minutes looking things over and doing the Junior Ranger activities before moving on to our next stop. Entrance to the visitor center is free.

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center

Working on Junior Rangers while enjoying the comfort of one of the display pieces

Taking the Junior Ranger oath and receiving their badges

Badlands National Park

After the Minuteman Missile Visitor Center, we headed south into the Badlands. I had purchased the America the Beautiful Pass during our summer road trip so our entry was free. Many of our most previous trips had us going through the Badlands in the evening on the way home so I wanted to make a daytime stop this trip. The Badlands never fails to delight when it comes to wildlife viewings and this trip was no exception. On our way to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, we spotted these fellas along the side of the road.

Then we continued on to the visitor center to find out what hike would be good for a quick, late morning hike in August and decided on the half-mile Cliff Shelf Nature Trail.┬áIt has more trees than rock formations, which was great for the time of day. We enjoyed the trail because it was different than any of the others in the Badlands, but we all agreed that the Badlands are MUCH more fun to visit in the evening when not so many people are there, and it’s not blazing hot.

The view from the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail

More critters, just off to the side of the road!

The view from the last overlook on the way out of the west side

The Badlands are one of my favorite National Parks to visit. I don’t know what it is about the rock formations…they are beautiful. It’s hard to capture the beauty in pictures, especially around late morning time. Someday, we’d like to camp in the Badlands and hike one of the longer trails. We’ve been through the Badlands more times than I can count and still have not seen all there is to see. For this trip though, there was only time for a short trail because we wanted to add a quick stop at the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands Visitor Center in Wall, SD before our 1pm tour at the air base…so the rest of the Badlands was enjoyed while riding in the air conditioning. We spent around an hour and a half total with the hike and driving the loop road. If you wanted to visit the park properly, checking out all of the overlooks and the visitor center, plus a short hike, you would want at least three hours here. The drive all on its’ own is about an hour.

Buffalo Gap National Grasslands Visitor Center

Working on the Junior Ranger book at the Buffalo Gap National Grassland Visitor Center

I’ll admit, our only reason for a stop at the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands Visitor center was to do Junior Rangers, but doing Junior Rangers is as good a reason as any when the kids can learn something along the way. It was a very nice visitor center with a variety of preserved animals on display, as well as various rocks and plants found on the grasslands. The Junior Ranger books were pretty quick to do, and we were on our way in about twenty minutes.

Taking the Junior Ranger oath

South Dakota Air and Space Museum Base Tour

Earlier in the summer, we visited the SD Air and Space Museum but had not arrived in time for a base tour so since we had enjoyed our museum tour so much, we wanted to catch the base tour also. We arrived at 12:30 or so and were able to sign up for the 1pm tour of Ellsworth Air Force Base. We were required to hand over our ID’s and then we boarded a small tour bus promptly at 1pm. First stop was at the base visitor center where they had to “run our ID’s”. Apparently, we all checked out because it didn’t take long before a soldier came out and personally handed each of our ID’s back to us. Once that was done, she handed our driver a barcode for the gate attendant and we were on our way. On our way in, our driver explained that no photos were allowed if an airplane happened to be taking off or landing while we were there. Luckily, we did not see any airplanes because it would’ve been disappointing NOT to take pictures! On the other hand, we had not realized that this tour would not include any aircraft whatsoever. Instead, it was a base tour pointing out all of the various services on the base, as well as a tour of their underground bunker for a Minuteman Missile site that was used for training purposes. Luckily, it all tied together nicely with our earlier visit to the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center. Our first stop on the bunker tour was this sign depicting the locations of all of the former underground missile sites. It’s crazy to think how many there were all over western South Dakota.

Tour guide Bob gives us information on the locations of 100 missile sites in SD

Once we were all the way down in the bunker, we could see this missile. I had to hold my camera out over the side of a drop down gate door to grab this photo. We were told it was a long way down so not to drop anything because we would not get it back. I can see why!

When we went back outside, we learned about this truck that was used to haul the missiles around. I personally don’t like driving around with five gallons of diesel for my garden tractor, so I can’t imagine having the job of hauling around a nuclear missile! This truck can lift up and basically, the missile is able to slide right out and into the missile site hole. It’s pretty amazing what they could do back in the 50’s.

The tour was very informative and really added to what we had learned previously at the DELTA-01 tour and the Minuteman Missile Visitor Center. If you’re interested in Cold War history or maybe you’re like me and enjoy anything involving a “behind the scenes” look, you could easily make a day of touring all of the locations. For us, having visited it in parts on three separate trips kept it interesting. I also really enjoyed the vintage industrial look of all of it.

Once we were back to the SD Air and Space Museum, we stopped for the pressed pennies we had also missed on our last trip. We also had to stop for a photo op with this missile that was just installed this summer. This stop was about an hour and a half by the time we were all done. I’m glad we ended up with it separated it into two stops because earlier in the summer when we toured the museum, our walking tour was about an hour long, plus the time we had looked around inside. You could easily spend three or four hours here if you did it all on one stop.

Black Hills National Forest: Oreville Campground

Here’s where our lack of planning for this trip gets interesting. My original plan was to camp at the Elk Mountain Campground in Wind Cave National Park. It’s a “walkup” campground and I was told when I called the day before that it was not at all full yet, which was what prompted me to think we could actually pull this crazy trip off. I filled up with gas in Ellsworth and decided I better call to make sure it was still open…and it wasn’t. UGH! Now what?? I started driving toward the Hills and Joey was on the iPhone looking for campgrounds, all of which had NO tent sites. Since I knew from experience that National Forest Service campgrounds were less obvious online, I headed toward a couple I knew about and hoped for the best. We lucked out and found a campsite in the Black Hills National Forest at the Oreville Campground. There were two sites left when I arrived and the last one filled right behind me. I have to chuckle at the three grown men setting up their tent in the background. They started before we did and were still working on it after ours was all done. I’d say the kids and I have tent setup down to a science.

Wind Cave National Park

Since it was still early, we quickly left the campground and headed down to Wind Cave National Park, where we hoped to at least do Junior Rangers, since we have already done a cave tour there on a previous trip. Unfortunately, we arrived just in time to only get the books, but there was not enough time to complete them while we were there so we’ll have to mail them in for the badges. We did take the time to check out the natural entrance trail, which lead us to this hole in the ground. Would you believe cold air blows out of this hole? That’s how they discovered the cave system below. It’s pretty amazing to think someone happened across WIND blowing from a hole in the ground…but that’s how the park got its’ name.

After our hike, I decided to take a quick look at the Elk Mountain Campground, for future camping reference, and low and behold…it wasn’t full after all. Had we not set up the tent north of Custer, I would’ve stayed at Wind Cave instead, as it was further south and we could’ve slept an extra half hour, enjoyed our supper in daylight, and most likely we could’ve had those Junior Ranger books done before the visitor center closed, but sometimes you just don’t know. The ranger on the phone thought it was full and it was too far out of the way to stop there first to make sure. It was a toss-up as to which campground would’ve been better. Elk Mountain was VERY quiet and out of the way vs. Oreville’s location next to a major Black Hills highway, however, Elk Mountain’s spaces were very close together, where Oreville’s had quite a lot of space between us and our neighbors. Overall, I think either one would’ve been good for the night we had planned, but if given the choice, I would be likely to choose Oreville again for the scenery. As it was, we made it back to our campsite by 7:30, grilled some brats, loaded all of our sleeping stuff into the tent and were tucked in by 9pm…with the alarm set for 4am.

Stay tuned for Day Two of the Great American Eclipse Adventure. We’ll be up early, driving to Nebraska.

Please tell me in the comments below what you think of our road trip so far. Are there any stops you’d like to know more about in an in-depth post of its’ own? Have you been to South Dakota and visited any of these locations? Leave your comments below!

 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Anna

    Sounds like a fantastic road trip! I don’t know what Junior Rangers is, but it appears to be a wonderful program to engage youth in educational opportunities. Your kids are lucky to have such an adventurous mom!

    1. roadtripthree

      Thank you for commenting! Junior Rangers is a National Park program for kids to learn about the parks. After they complete a booklet of activities and questions, chat with a ranger and take the pledge, they earn a Junior Ranger badge making them a Junior Park Ranger for whatever park they are in. It’s a great program! I have a more in-depth post planned to talk about it. Thanks for stopping by!

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