Thursday, February 2nd, 2023
Thursday, February 2nd, 2023

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Sportsmen Since 1967

Summer road-tripping to the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota

As mentioned in my last blog, it’s summer vacation season, so my family of six cruised to southwestern South Dakota for a few days over the Fourth of July holiday weekend. I’m still surprised when I meet Minnesotans who’ve never visited the region with its incredible topography, flora and fauna, monuments, and rich history. From the southwest Twin Cities suburbs, I can make the Badlands of South Dakota in 71/2 hours, an easy day’s drive.
The vacation highlight was one evening in Badlands National Park when a buffalo herd crossed the road around us, then swept down into a vast valley. Cows and calves bellowed and mewed, and several huge bulls, mastodon-like in their scale and dominance, lagged behind the herd, occasionally stopping for dust baths. As they meandered away in the distance, we snapped photographs like crazy.
“Dad, I saw six new animals!” my youngest son said as we drove away that evening.
Indeed, the Badlands of South Dakota offer a glimpse into a whole new ecosystem just a day’s drive from the Twin Cities. What were the species that young Jameson Drieslein proudly added to his critter lifelist following a short drive and hike through the Badlands that Thursday evening? Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, white pelican, prairie dog, buffalo, burrowing owl, and golden eagle.  The golden eagle, by the way, was beyond huge – like straight out of Middle Earth.
We took several hikes in the Badlands and Black Hills National Forest  and – during arguably the busiest weekend of the year – saw no one else on the trails. OK, one group of millennials was trailside and heading out when we arrived back at the parking lot, but no others. En route home, my sons told me that hiking among the formations of the Badlands was their highlight of the trip.
The author’s sons and daughter wait for dinner among the impressive artwork of Wall Drug in western South Dakota.Tim Lesmeister has written before how a growing percentage of citizens in this country is scared of the out-of-doors. Ticks, snakes, hypothermia, plague (in prairie dog country), dangerous weather… the list of hazards from land managers and the media goes on, so maybe it’s not surprising so few people are willing to brave even relatively tame elements anymore.
Walking through some tall grass to photograph bison in the valley below, a fellow tourist asked, “We wouldn’t go out there. Aren’t you afraid of snakes?”
No, I just watch where I walk. Backyard and Beyond columnist Stan Tekiela tells me he’s seen hundreds of prairie rattlesnakes in the Badlands, so I’ll certainly respect the terrain. But if I listened to every sign or person who told me to beware rattlesnakes, I never would’ve enjoyed hundreds of hikes and hunts in the timber rattler country of western Wisconsin and southeast Minnesota. You know how many snakes I’ve seen in the region over the past 35 years? Two, and one of those was from a car.
In Yellowstone National Park two years ago, I watched busloads of international tourists buy gallons of pepper spray before tromping around the park’s ever-so-wild-and-dangerous geyser and hot spring boardwalks. Those containers aren’t cheap, and if the Park Service can make a few bucks on them, more power to them. But we’re creating a vision of the outdoors so dangerous that people are afraid to leave parking lots anymore. Long-term, being afraid to step off concrete can’t be good for people or the parks. 
No trip to western South Dakota is complete without a stop (or three) at Wall Drug  Now, anyone who knows Rob Drieslein probably would expect me to hate the classic Western tourist-trap.  With its kitschy knick-knacks, ancient, borderline creepy animatronic singing cowboys, ubiquitous jackalopes, and incessant billboards – not to mention hordes of people – I too would expect Rob Drieslein to hate Wall Drug.
The author believes Americans spend too much time worrying about dangers beyond their backyards. His son, Jameson, isn’t so sure…But I don’t. In fact, I love Wall Drug. My kids have been there several times and don’t understand it’s the drugstore in the South Dakota community of Wall. To them it’s one word, “Walldrug,” a city and destination unto itself.
My parents first brought me to Wall Drug in 1981, and sharing the experience with my kids has been highly gratifying during my parental years. The operation serves a tasty and well-priced buffalo burger, great donuts and carmel rolls in the morning, and I could (and have) spent hours admiring the fantastic Western and American Indian artwork in the restaurant dining rooms. Any family-friendly business that carved out success in the harsh Badlands country garners my respect, plus I like chatting up the international college kids working there during the summers. 
Anyone cruising past on Interstate 90 should swing in for a cup of coffee and a donut, then spend a half-hour admiring the artwork. And if you have little kids with you, make sure the animatronic T-Rex gives them a good scare. It’s a Drieslein family tradition.

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