Black Hills Campground Review: Spokane Creek

Our home in the Black Hills was at the Spokane Creek campground. It’s definitely a place we’d recommend! Here’s our review:

Price: $22/night, off-season rate.
Location: A bit difficult to find, so believe what they say on their website. It’s easier to call and get directions from them or get it straight from the website than it is to find it with a gps. But otherwise a great location, right on Iron Mountain Road, which is the scenic route to Mount Rushmore.
Facilities: Bathrooms and showers all fine. Coin operated laundry in the men’s room and the women’s room (which is a little awkward – once I started the laundry, Staffan couldn’t help because it was in the women’s bathroom). Great playground that Emelie loved. Outdoor dish washing area by the swimming pool (which was closed for the season). Free wifi – which is especially helpful since almost no one seems to have cell reception there.
Site description: Grass/dirt. Plenty of trees (oak trees that dropped acorns on the trailer roof all night!) and right by the would-be creek (if there was any water). Fire ring (but a fire ban in place) and picnic table.
Neighborhood: Lots of families, including one that had 5 kids in a pop up a little smaller than ours! There was also a big school group of 5th and 6th graders that came and tent camped in the group camping area, which added some noise and a long line for a shower, but I doubt that’s a regular occurrence.
Comments: Every morning we opened the door to wildlife – deer and turkeys mostly. We weren’t sure when we came if we were staying 2 nights or 3, but we liked the campground enough to decide to stay 3.

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Black Hills and White Men

Continuing west from the Badlands, we came to the Black Hills region of South Dakota. Starkly different from the arid, rocky landscape of the Badlands, the Black Hills have lush forests and plenty of opportunities to see wildlife.

We started our visit with a tour of Bear Country, a drive-through zoo where the animals roam relatively freely and are often just outside your car window. The tour ends with a more traditional zoo area where the smaller animals and the baby bears are housed.

So that she could see, Emelie got to sit on Mamma’s lap in the car and share a seat belt. 

Mountaingoatenous: adj. having properties or characteristics of a mountain goat.

This guy was pacing back and forth across the entrance to the bear area. The sign says, “Drive slowly but keep moving. The bear will move.”

Ok last zoo animal picture for today, I promise. We watched this little cub climb all the way to the top of this tall skinny tree. I wonder how he got down!

We all enjoyed it, particularly Emelie, but we may have chosen not to go if we had known how many animals we’d encounter for free in the wild, but equally close to our car, during our time in the Black Hills. Deer, buffalo, prairie dogs, and lots and lots of turkeys all crossed our path as we drove.

The buffalo cross the street wherever and whenever they like

After a picnic lunch at the Bear Country zoo, we went to Mount Rushmore. It was somehow fitting to be in such a patriotic location on September 11. It’s an unusual feeling to go to such an iconic place – a landmark seen in pictures and movies for so long, then suddenly there it is before your eyes. We happened to be just in time for a guided tour along the Presidential Trail and it was fascinating to learn the history and to see the carvings from different angles.

Quick pose with George, Tom, Ted and Abe

One of the things we learned is about how the pupils of their eyes are carved to capture the light at just the right angle to give the impression that the presidents are looking at you.

Who cares about the tour? It’s nap time!

As an aside, I have been so impressed by the park rangers of the National Park Service along our journeys. They are so knowledgeable and genuinely passionate about sharing what they know and helping others love the national parks as much as they do.

On our second day in the Black Hills, we decided to check out one more national park, namely Wind Cave. There are a lot of unique things about Wind Cave, but it gets its name from the wind created as it strives to balance the pressure within with the external pressure conditions. Depending on whether there’s a high or low pressure system in the area, there’s either wind blowing into the cave or out of it. The cave is also filled with a unique geological structure called “box work” that’s only found in Wind Cave and another cave in the Czech Republic somewhere.

Emelie was very excited about going down into a cave until she understood that it was going to be somewhat dark. She was very uncertain as we first descended into the cave, and asked to be carried “like a baby” – not an easy feat through narrow cave passages. She adjusted, though, and the rest of the people in our tour group of 40 were so great to keep encouraging her. In the end, we all had a great time! Wind Cave is far from the most popular attraction to see in western South Dakota, but we would highly recommend it.Inside the Wind Cave

Starting to feel a little more comfortable (i.e. willing to be put down!) Emelie wanted her picture taken with this light. 

Family photo… plus that guy. 

We decided to skip the Crazy Horse monument. It’s expensive for what it is – $10 per person to see an unfinished carving similar to Mount Rushmore that will one day depict the Native American leader Crazy Horse. We appreciate that admissions revenues are how they’re able to fund their project, but we were all pretty tired after a long day, so we only drove by and got a glimpse from the road.

Good luck, Crazy Horse! Hope you get a body some day!

Choosing a different way back to our campsite, we found ourselves driving on the Needles Highway, which was a fun and beautiful drive, but perhaps not worth the $15 park pass we needed to get to drive through Custer State Park for those 20 minutes. Oh well. The most exciting part of the Needles Highway drive was not the unique rock formations, but rather this one narrow pass, carved out of the mountain and only wide enough for one vehicle. As we had come about ¾ of the way through it, the driver of a large van apparently decided he was tired of waiting for traffic coming from our direction and he was just going to force his way through. We had no choice but to back out through the narrow passageway (glad I wasn’t driving!) and try to get out of the way. This drew a small crowd of spectators and in the end, a few members of a motorcycle gang started directing traffic. If they hadn’t we would have been stuck there for a long time. It was quite a sight, but I guess they were intimidating enough that people did what they said!

Cool tunnel. Wouldn’t want to meet oncoming traffic!

Oh, Hello Mr. Impatient Van Driver

After three nights in the Black Hills, we packed up our camper and left South Dakota behind us. The state that wasn’t even on our original itinerary had so much to offer that we spent a wonderful week exploring it.

There is this Silence in the Badlands…

Any Rich Mullins fans out there that recognize this title as a line from his song “Calling out your Name”? I must confess that other than this song lyric, I’d never even really heard of the Badlands. They weren’t along our original planned route, mostly because we didn’t know they were there.

But we’re so glad we changed our route to include this beautiful area! After days and days of driving through seemingly endless prairies, the Badlands rise up out of the horizon like an impenetrable fortress, and we often discussed how they must have felt back in the pioneer days as they approached this sudden change of landscape in covered wagons. It was surely a different sense of awe from the one we felt, sitting in an air conditioned minivan driving on a paved road.

We spent two nights at the Badlands Interior Campground just outside of the national park, including one extremely windy night when we feared our camper might just blow over. During the days, we explored the national park and went to church in Interior (which we wrote about previously). We drove around a loop of the park, and took a few short hikes out to better viewpoints.

Peter LOVES riding in the backpack when we take hikes!

And Emelie is our little navigator, finding the trail marker numbers in the right order

Glad they told us so we didn’t just keep walking right off the cliff!

Look where we climbed!
For a little girl who likes to climb rocks, the Badlands are like heaven.

Watch out for rattlesnakes!

Impressive views

Dressed to match the sky that day!

Look at those beautiful kids!

Family photo with the help of the tripod

Fossil walk – a loop trail with different kinds of fossils encased along the way.
Emelie was fascinated and loved pointing out features (head, tail, eye holes, etc)

I don’t know if there is a “silence in the Badlands” since, if there is, our kids filled it with sound, but they certainly are a majestic sight. Badlands National Park was definitely worth spending a few days exploring along our route west!

Campground Review: Badlands Interior Campground

Price: At $21/night, this was one of the more inexpensive places we stayed, but still with really reasonable quality.
Location: Perfect. It’s hard to stay closer without actually staying inside the National Park, but the NP campgrounds have fewer amenities for about the same price.
Facilities: Bathrooms/showers were clean and functional. The playground left a bit to be desired. They promise free wifi, but the signal didn’t actually reach out to our campsite (which was not all that far away). We had a slow but working connection if we sat outside the office at a picnic table.
Site description: Gravel and the brownish substance that passes for grass in South Dakota. The picnic tables had sun shields on one side, but it was too windy to eat outside anyway. Only a few small trees, but no more or less than other places in the area. It’s just not a good area for shade. Beautiful views of the Badlands on the horizon, and lots of stars visible at night.
Neighborhood: The hosts were very friendly. We never really met any of our “neighbors” but it seemed like a mixed demographic, from small tents to giant RVs.
Comments: We would definitely recommend this campground to anyone traveling in the Badlands area. There is also a motel adjacent to the campground for those who aren’t campers. It’s a really good location and a really reasonable price.

Campsite photo

Sunset in the Badlands… not a bad view from the campground!

Al’s Oasis

We are not much for tourist traps. The more billboards I see placed along the highway, the less I want to stop at whatever is advertised. It provokes in me the opposite reaction to the one intended.

So when we were looking for someplace to stay on our way between Minnesota and the Badlands in South Dakota, Al’s Oasis was at the bottom of my list. You can kinda tell by the name what kind of place it is, right? And the abundant and frequent billboards weren’t helping any. So we chose a different campground that was east of Oacoma (where Al’s Oasis is) and headed for that. But when we arrived, the campground was little more than an empty gravel lot with a hand-painted sign. It was too close to the road to let Emelie run around and gave us altogether bad vibes. I wish I remembered what it was called so I could warn others.

Anyway, with kids growing cranky and the hour growing late, we realized we had to go to Al’s Oasis. We didn’t know of anyplace else and Al had done a great job of letting us know he was in the area. So the billboards actually worked this time and we spent the night at Al’s Oasis.

The stores and stuff were definitely trying to mimic some kind of cartoon image of the west. But the campground, though a little close to the interstate, was perfectly adequate for a one night stop. Here’s a campground review:

Price: About $30/night after AAA discount
Location: Kind of in the middle of no where SD, but apparently a good place to stop for tourists headed to the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, and other South Dakota landmarks.
Facilities: Nice bathrooms and showers. Laundry room worked fine (coin operated). Playground small and basic, but made Emelie happy.
Site description: Grass. Or rather, what would have been grass if it had rained at all in South Dakota. Not really any shade to be had, though a few small trees are scattered throughout the campground. We used a small pavillion to eat meals to keep the kids out of the sun.
Neighborhood: Most of the other guests were older RVers, but all were very nice. We didn’t see any other families.
Comments: The campground is across the street and down the road a bit from the “Oasis” stores, restaurant, etc. So while Al’s is a bit of tourist trap, the campground was really no different than many others we’ve stayed in. It was a much better choice than the vacant lot that we’d looked at first. 

Experiencing the Body of Christ

I think I can safely say, without exaggerating, that we have recently experienced one of the starkest contrasts between churches available in the U.S. today.

We have committed to attend church on Sundays during our time on the road. This is important to us for many reasons, but we also feel it will add to our overall experience to meet and worship with our brothers and sisters in Christ across regions, backgrounds, and denominations. This has already proven to be true!

Last Sunday, during Labor Day weekend, we were in the Chicago area and took the opportunity to visit Willow Creek, one of the largest “mega-churches” in the country. We’ve known of Willow Creek for years, read books written by their pastors, attended their Global Leadership Summit in Stockholm, and were generally pretty excited to visit there. It was on a scale that is hard to understand and appreciate in just one visit. We registered our kids for their children’s ministry, and took Emelie to the age 3 room – a large room where all the 3-year-olds gather in a large group led by the (full-time) Age 3 Pastor and the (full-time) Age 3 Teacher. (These were, by the way, not the same people as the Age 2 pastor and teacher, or the Age 4-5 pastor and teacher, and so on.) Then they broke up into smaller groups (of 3 year olds!) after the main lesson. Peter was well taken care of in the crawler room (divided from the infant room and the toddler room of course), where they even took them for a walk in double strollers. All of this to say, it was big. But amazingly well organized, thought through, completely age appropriate in every respect and we were very impressed.

We went chose to attend the service in the main auditorium (from among an overwhelming list of options they gave us at the guest services area) and were disappointed – though not surprised – to learn that the usual teaching pastors and worship leaders were given the weekend off for Labor Day. Pulpit supply. But we would’ve run into that almost anywhere – it was Labor Day weekend after all. Imagine our surprise when “pulpit supply” turned out to be Steven Curtis Chapman (a well-known and award winning Christian musician, for those who don’t know). He led music and spoke and did both very well. After picking up the kids and having lunch in the food court, we headed on our way. (Yes, the church has a food court. This is not the same place as the cafe.)

We were impressed by the ways they made an effort to make “big church small” on all levels, and by the ways we were met, received, welcomed and helped at every turn, from the parking lot coordinators (helpful when we pulled in towing a trailer) to the guest services to the children’s ministry staff.

Today, we are in the Badlands town of Interior, population 67. We decided to attend the Community Church (one of three churches in town). It was an equally wonderful experience in a completely different way. The four of us brought the total attendance up to about 20. They have neither pastor nor musician, except this week when Staffan volunteered to hop in on the piano. They also had their own version of “pulpit supply” in the form of a DVD teaching. Emelie was one of 5 kids in their Sunday School. Willow Creek it was not.

Just in case you thought I was exaggerating how small it is…

The Interior Community Church

Going over songs with Charlie about 5 minutes before the service started. 

But we were so warmly welcomed, and the worship wasn’t any less genuine for being led by a cowboy and a walk-in Swede than it was when led by a world renown recording artist for a crowd of thousands. After church we were invited by Charlie and Beth back to their ranch for lunch, and we enjoyed grilled hamburgers made from black angus beef they’d raised themselves. Served with vegetables and cantaloupe that were also fresh from their garden. Amazing. Great food and fellowship with new friends. We are so excited to have met “real people” on a genuine South Dakota cattle ranch in the Badlands.

Sign at the road for Charlie and Beth’s ranch

Ok, I burst out laughing as we drove in toward their house and just have to share this. There is literally a fork in the road.

Their lovely home, on over 2,000 acres with amazing views of the Badlands. Charlie built this house himself together with his family.

I know that people reading this are probably from a variety of beliefs and backgrounds, and in general I don’t plan to be “preachy” with this blog, but the only way to share these experiences is to reflect on how amazing God is to be simultaneously at work in Chicago in a mega-church of thousands and in the tiny town of Interior SD in a Community Church of a couple dozen. We have a deepening understanding of the body of Christ being alive and active everywhere, and we’re so blessed to have the opportunity to experience its diversity.

Thanks again, Charlie and Beth – if you decided to check out our blog – for your hospitality and fellowship, and for giving us an unexpectedly wonderful afternoon.