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  • Writer's pictureAl S.

Snakes on a Plain - White River, SD to Rapid City, SD

Updated: Jan 24, 2023

Badlands National Park, Wall Drug, mechanical problems, and an introduction to the slithery inhabitants of South Dakota. There was no lack of dramatic scenery, open landscapes, and one heart-stopping moment crossing the plains of South Dakota.



 

Jun 16

Mileage: 89.0 miles

Odometer Start: 4047.8

Odometer End: 4127.8

Avg Speed: 9.6 mph

Max Speed: 30.2 mph

Riding Time: 8 hrs, 19 mins

White River, SD to Cedar Pass Campground at Badlands National Park


The forecast called for temperatures in the upper 90s to low 100s. I knew it was going to be very hot and I had a long way to go, so I was on the road right at sunrise. Fortunately, there was very little traffic in this area of South Dakota, so I was not too concerned about waiting for full daylight. In fact, I left so early that the local convenience store had not even opened yet. However, their donut delivery was arriving as I rode up and the employee was nice enough to sell me some breakfast before I got on the road.


Stop!!! Mountain Time.

I crossed off another timezone this morning. I passed from Central into Mountain time before 9 am... or 8 am, depending on which side of the line you are standing. Once the sun was fully up, I started getting a really strong headwind. It was absolutely brutal and probably one of the strongest and most consistent winds that I experienced on the entire trip across the country. It felt like I was just crawling and this is reflected in the average speed for the day.


I started the morning just east of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. I entered the reservation about 20 miles from where I started and it stretches all the way to Interior, SD just outside of the national park. This land belongs to the Oglala Lakota tribe and you cannot camp on their lands without express permission. Therefore, I had no choice but to push forward and reach the other side of the reservation.


As I crossed into the reservation, there was a checkpoint set up to control entry due to the pandemic. The tribal government was only allowing traffic onto the reservation if the driver was a resident or if the vehicle was just transiting through the land. The checkpoint was there to prevent visitors with plans to stop on the reservation. I was allowed to proceed since I was traveling straight through to Badlands National Park.


Scenic, downtown Wanblee, SD on The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Over the last week, I had begun to see signs posted in parks and other spaces warning them to pay attention for rattlesnakes. These signs really caught my attention because this is not something I need to worry about in my everyday life in Baltimore. I had noticed multiple rattlesnakes dead on the side of the road over the last couple of days, so I knew they were out there. I had definitely started paying attention to where I put my feet when I was off of the pavement.


As I rode across the Pine Ridge Reservation, I was struggling against the headwind and was focused on keeping the legs moving. (Do you see where this is going?) Suddenly, in my peripheral vision I see something that triggered the "Danger!" center of my brain. On the edge of the pavement, coiled up and laying in the morning sun was a rattlesnake. My initial guesstimate was that it was about 15 feet long with a head the size of a small house. If there had been a car coming up behind me, I would have been road pizza. My primal instincts took over and I swerved out into the lane in order to give the snake as much room as possible. The snake never even moved. Once my heart left my throat, I re-calibrated my estimate of the size of the snake. I would say it was about 2' to 3' in length... probably not particularly big as rattlesnakes go. Needless to say, I did not stop and get a selfie with the snake.


The Pine Ridge Reservation on Hwy 14 in the middle of nowhere, South Dakota.

As I approached the town of Wanblee, SD, a guy in a pickup truck pulled up next to me, rolled down his window and started asking me questions while I was still riding. I stopped and had a quick conversation with him. I told him where I started, where I was headed, and some other details. As we were wrapping up our quick conversation, I commented how much I liked this part of the country. He made a point of stating "Yes. This is all our land... including where you come from". We said our goodbyes and he left with a "Good Spirit upon you" as he drove off.


I stopped at the only convenience store in the small town of Wanblee. In fact, I think this place also served as the only gas station and the grocery store. It had been 45 miles since I started in the morning and this was the first town that I had encountered. I took the opportunity to re-hydrate and get some lunch. Normally, I would have a single Gatorade, but it had been so hot during the morning that I bought 2 and downed them both with no problem.


Entering Badlands National Park

As I was leaving town, I stopped by the city park to refill my water. There was no water fountain at the park, but some people doing a park clean-up directed me to ask at a community building next door. There were a couple of older gentlemen standing out front, I believe they were distributing boxes of food to the residents. I asked them if I could get some water and they were happy to oblige. However, they did make a point of commenting that "First, the white man took our land, now they want our water... do you want to take our women, too?". Obviously, there are some serious issues and history underlying these comments, but these guys were very friendly about it. My response was "I really doubt your wife would enjoy riding on the back of my bike".


I covered another 40+ miles and finally got a glimpse of the Badlands. The headwind did not let up the entire day and I was wiped out. I was in excellent riding condition by this point in the trip, but riding 89 miles in a strong headwind is equivalent to well over 100 miles in more favorable conditions. I was ready to get into a campsite.



My "unusable" campsite at Badlands National Park

After getting into the park, I went directly to the campground office. There were only 2 spaces left... but the staff warned me that both sites were unusable. According to them, the sites were covered in standing water. I didn't have much of a choice, so I rode down to take a look. There was a marshy spot at the front of the site, but otherwise, it was flat, dry, and very inviting. I went back to the office and booked myself in. They were even nice enough to give me the site for 1/2 price since it was "unusable". Score!


The park puts on an astronomy presentation every evening during the summer. I walked up to the amphitheater after dark and really enjoyed the show. The amateur astronomers bring several telescopes and provide a lot of interesting information on the night skies. We had cloudless skies on this evening, but I was not able to see the Milky Way stretching across the sky due to the bright moon. It turns out the amateur astronomer appeared in the Oscar-winning movie Nomadland and basically gave a similar presentation in the movie.


It had definitely been an eventful day.



 

Jun 17

Mileage: 20.2 miles

Odometer End: 4148.0

Avg Speed: 12.3 mph

Max Speed: 33.8 mph

Riding Time: 1 hrs, 38 mins

Cedar Pass Campground at Badlands National Park


I had a full day planned for my visit to Badlands National Park. I started the morning by riding north and actually leaving the park. I wanted to visit the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site that is located about 10 miles north immediately adjacent to I-90. I left all of my camping gear at the campground and only loaded the bike with my walking shoes, bike lock, some water, and my handlebar bag. It had been 2000 miles since I had ridden the bike without all of the gear weighing it down. The difference was dramatic and it felt very light and easy to pedal.


The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site near Badlands National Park.

The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site is a museum that contains exhibits about the nuclear arsenal from the bad-old-days of the Cold War. The museum is located in South Dakota because many (but not all) of the missile silos were located in South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana. I was at the front door just as the museum opened and spent the entire morning visiting the site. The displays include information about home bomb shelters, the structure of the command and control of the missiles, and the process that was followed to decide to launch the missiles. There was also a brief history showing the size of the arsenals in the US and Soviet Union. It was a worthwhile, if sobering, visit.


This is probably the result of the radiation from the nearby nuclear missiles.

Nearby, there is a decommissioned underground launch control facility that can be toured. It sounds really interesting, but unfortunately you need to reserve a spot on the tour in advance. It was not possible for me to make a reservation since I could not accurately predict when I would arrive in the area.


As I rode back to the park, I stopped at a convenience store for some late-morning snacks. I also took a moment to visit the adjacent prairie dog town. The convenience store had a really tacky giant prairie dog statue out front with a viewing area overlooking the prairie dog burrows. The prairie dogs were so accustomed to people that they would not flee even with people standing right next to them. Also, the store sold peanuts that could be fed to the prairie dogs and it was obvious the dogs were looking for handouts. I had no interest in feeding prairie dogs since a) they are supposed to be wild, and b) the fleas on prairie dogs are known to carry Bubonic Plague. I got a couple of pictures, ate my snacks, and then carried on with my day.


Yes. You have my attention.

There are several interesting hiking trails on the eastern side of Badlands National Park. They are reasonably short and can be covered in less than 30 minutes each. However, all of the trails take you to overlooks with excellent views looking out over the Badlands.


The visitors center for Badlands National Park has some very compelling exhibits. Apparently, the Badlands are well known for their fossil beds. There are a lot of fossils from animals that came after the dinosaurs. You can visit the lab where these fossils are prepared and actually watch the process as fossils are conserved and prepared for display.


After touring the visitors center, I stopped by the park restaurant & store and had a nice big lunch and picked up a couple of items for dinner. Even though I was on the bike for a bit, this was basically a day off. I only rode 20 miles and was feeling reasonably well rested by the time that I settled in for the evening.


The Badlands... truly stunning.

Bighorn Sheep supervising the tourists.


 

Jun 18

Mileage: 31.4 miles

Odometer End: 4180.5

Avg Speed: 10.2 mph

Max Speed: 36.5 mph

Riding Time: 3 hrs, 03 mins

Cedar Pass Campground at Badlands National Park to Wall, SD


The next morning, I followed the Badlands Loop road toward the Pinnacles entrance on the western edge of the park. One thing that is very noticeable as you travel through the park is how the colors change as the sun moves across the sky. At times, the reds are vibrant and the striations in the rocks are dramatic. At other times, the colors are muted and almost blend together. The colors change constantly over the course of the day. Regardless, the park is a stunning piece of landscape that was totally worth the visit.


The Badlands in the early morning before the traffic in the park begins to pick up.

The road leading west through the park has several short, but very steep hills that climb from the lower prairie to the upper prairie. As I was huffing and puffing up one of these hills, a passing car slowed down and the passenger stuck her head out the window and started encouraging me with "Go! Go! Go!" and then as it pulled away she added "Nice bike!". I believe this was the first time in the entire trip that someone drove past and yelled something positive at me.



That's as close as I plan to get to this very large animal.

As I crested the hill, there was an overlook with a large parking area. There were 2 women standing next to the entrance to the parking area waiting for me. This was Chris and her adult daughter Rebecca that had passed me on the hill. They greeted me with snacks, a banana, and some cold water. It turned out that Rebecca had ridden cross-country in 2020 and recognized a coast-to-coast cyclist when she saw one. Chris & Rebecca were from Spokane, WA. We had a very nice conversation and they invited me to stop by for a visit if I was going to be passing through Spokane.


There was an actual, honest-to-god, working phone booth at the campground in Wall, SD.

I continued riding and made stops at many of the overlooks and informational displays. As I reached the Pinnacles entrance to the park, I saw a couple of black dots in the distance not far from the road. As I drew nearer, it became clear that these black dots were buffalo. These were the first buffalo that I had seen on this trip.


I continued riding north and reached the town of Wall, SD. This is the home of the world famous Wall Drug. I grabbed a site at the local campground near the center of town and did laundry and then walked over to the grocery store and resupplied my food. I also paid a visit to Wall Drug... it almost felt like an obligation. I had been there once when I was 10 years old and I don't remember much about the experience. However, the 2nd time was definitely a letdown. I had a big lunch in the restaurant and walked around the myriad shops that are inside. The facility takes up an entire city block, but as far as I could tell, it is full of nothing but trash and trinkets. I quickly had my fill and moved on a bit disappointed.



 

Jun 19

Mileage: 72.2 miles

Odometer End: 4252.7

Avg Speed: 11.1 mph

Max Speed: 28.8 mph

Riding Time: 6 hrs, 29 mins

Wall, SD to Rapid City, SD



As I headed NW out of Wall early in the morning, I could see some serious storm clouds up ahead with frequent lighting. The terrain was sufficiently flat that I could see the rain falling in the distance. I was going to get very wet if I continued riding in that direction. Fortunately, I could tell which direction the clouds were headed, and I could also see that I could probably avoid the entire storm if I went due west for a couple miles. I turned left at the next intersection and successfully avoided all of the bad weather.


So much gravel... The Great Plains of South Dakota seem to stretch forever.

Staying dry and making good progress had me in a pretty good mood. My route was going to intersect with I-90 again in a few miles and I could then follow a rural road parallel to the interstate all the way into Rapid City. I had not originally planned to stop in Rapid City, but I had punctured a few tubes over the last week and needed to find a bike shop to get some replacements. Rapid City was the first bike shop that was near my route since I had left Norfolk, NE almost 500 miles behind me.


I reached the I-90 intersection and was disappointed to learn there was no convenience store in town (nor was there a grocery store). The gas station was completely automated and only had a couple of vending machines that sold Coke and Pepsi products. I was looking for Gatorade and food. This was more of an inconvenience than a crisis, so I just kept riding.


The road I was planning to follow was just past the exit ramp for I-90 in Wasta, SD. I reached the intersection... but the only "road" had a huge gate barring entry. I checked my map and confirmed that the GPS was showing me in the correct location. I rechecked my navigation app and Google Maps... both showed me that I should be at an intersection with a road running parallel to I-90. There was nothing here but the gate and a poorly maintained dirt road. The road was bad, but I only needed to get to a point about 5 miles away. However, I was not willing to risk jumping the gate and running afoul of a land owner. I went back to the map and started looking for alternative routes.


Google Maps and my navigation app (Komoot) had really failed me on this one. My only option was to continue riding south toward Rt 44. Unfortunately, there was about 25 miles of gravel road between me and Rt 44. There was nothing to be done because Rt 44 seemed to be the only east-west road in the area aside from the interstate. On the upside, Google Maps showed the Country Corner convenience store located at the corner of Rt 44 and the road I was currently on. At least I would be able to get some Gatorade at the end of this gravel road.


I spent the rest of the morning riding the 25 miles down to Rt 44. Gravel is slow and grueling. I had learned in Iowa that it should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. Around noon, I pulled up to the front of the Country Corner convenience store looking forward to a cold drink and some greasy food. Of course, they were closed for the week while they were away on vacation. This was really turning into a great day.


I got back on the road and not 1/2 a mile from the convenience store, I went to change gears and nothing happened. I started fiddling with my shifter, but there was no response. I stopped, took a closer look at it, but didn't see anything obviously wrong. However, when I shifted the rear derailleur, it felt like the cable was not attached. I did not have a spare cable (or the skills to fix that problem, even if I did have a spare). The only thing I could do was continue riding toward Rapid City using only 2 gears. I could either shift into the high gear or the low gear using the front derailleur. That is not a great option, but at least South Dakota is incredibly flat in this area.


I made it to Rapid City by mid-afternoon and made my way over to Black Hills Bicycles in the middle of the city. I explained my problem, told them how I was in the middle of a cross country tour and asked if there was any way they could take a look at the bike today. Those guys really came through for me. (I believe the guy that helped we was named Riis based on the receipt they gave me). They had my bike up on a rack and had identified the problem within 20 minutes. The cable to the rear derailleur was totally frayed and had basically come apart inside the shift controller on the handlebar. They had me all fixed and on my way less than an hour later. I can't express how appreciative I was for their help.


By this point, it was late in the day so I needed to find a place to camp. The Rapid City RV Park and Campground was at the top of the hill overlooking the town. It was on the road headed to Mt. Rushmore, so it was perfect for my needs. They still had a couple of sites available when I arrived. I set up my tent, had a nice shower, fixed myself dinner and then got a good night of sleep.





 







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