When the Badlands Aren’t So Bad

Thunder in BadlandsIf you were driving a stagecoach or on horseback and came across this expanse of arid rock, you might call it a “miserable gully,” but if you’re interested in geological features and you have plenty of water, this 244,000-acre national park in South Dakota is worth exploring.


I’ve been to Badlands National Park several times in my life, but the most interesting and rewarding experiences have been the times I’ve stayed in the park. Last summer, we stayed in brand new cabins with AC.

Cabin IMG_1963

When the sun’s rays are not quite as intense, the light colored formations are not as blinding. I no longer have to squint.

And when the sun sets (as late as 8:30 p.m. in the summer), the spires take on their own personality. There is an evening program every night at 9 p.m. followed by night sky viewing through large telescopes. Every morning, just before it gets really hot, there is a ranger-led walk at 8:30.


Be sure to check out the Ben Reifel Visitor Center where, besides learning about the rock formations and nearby floral and fauna, you can see real paleontologists working on fossils.

Badlands Visitor Center

The gift store at the Cedar Pass Lodge is one of the best in the area for finding unique and quality South Dakota items, everything from books to jewelry to herbal tea.

If you’re hungry, check out the Cedar Pass Restaurant. In addition to the Sioux Indian Fry Bread and Taco, the restaurant includes South Dakota steak and fish and many gluten-free items.

Trip taken July 2013.

Faces We Know and Love

Setting the table as a kid meant using the laminated photograph placemats. Linens were kept for holidays and special occasions when the look was worth the risk of spills, but during the week, I ate my spaghetti while gazing at the steeple of Old North Church, the paintings of Charles Russell, or (my favorite) at the faces of Mount Rushmore.

The chiseled gray faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln poked through the Needles Highway tunnel on our way to Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Needles highway

We hurried to get there, parking in the giant parking lot, and following the streams of people to the front entrance. This trip we arrived at dusk. It wasn’t our first visit, and we were squeezing it in. Despite visiting many times during our childhood, it was a priority not for only me, but for my brother, my sister, and their families as well.

One of the most popular tourist attractions in the U.S., Mount Rushmore National Memorial is visited by 3 million people a year. What attracts us? Is it the immensity of the faces? The beauty of the area? The evidence of man’s dominance over nature? The appreciation of the artist?


Although the Black Hills are a sacred place for the Lakota Nation, the lure of gold brought thousands of men into the hills in the late 1800s.

In 1923, Doane Robinson had a vision to create a national monument to bring people to his state of South Dakota, and Gutzon Borglum knew where to sculpt it. When confronted with the massive granite outcrop of the Black Hills, he saw beyond its natural beauty and the potential for a monument to the men who “best represented the foundation, expansion, and preservation of the U.S.” The sculptor continued blasting and carving from 1927 until his death in 1941 when his son took over, finishing the project a year later.

The Faces

Today, Mount Rushmore is one of South Dakota’s biggest tourist attractions. There are museum exhibits, a trail, ranger walks, and an evening lighting ceremony held nightly during the summer. Mount Rushmore is located in Keystone, in the southwestern corner of South Dakota, just a short drive from Crazy Horse Memorial and Custer State Park.

Trip taken July 2013.



4th of July in South Dakota

I’ve experienced the 4th of July in many places across the country. I’ve seen small town parades in Duxbury, Massachusetts, and far away fireworks in San Francisco. I’ve heard the Declaration of Independence read from the Old State House in Boston and seen George Washington ride by in Williamsburg, Virginia. But of all the places I’ve been, I think Fort Pierre, South Dakota’s 4th of July celebrations is still one of my favorites.

Located across the Missouri River from South Dakota’s capital city of Pierre, Fort Pierre is a tiny town still largely untouched by time. Locals shop at the small grocery, and real cowboys check in at the Silver Spur. Traffic means more than a couple of cars, and bad parking means you might have to park a block away. Beyond the town, the grasses grow tall and far.

At 11 a.m. on the morning of the 4th, the parade begins. Kids line the route ready with plastic bags to gather the candy thrown by the people in the parade from the antique cars and tractors, horses and floats, politicians and trucks. Water hoses and water balloons cool the spectators in this hour plus parade.

Fort Pierre Parade 2 Fort Pierre Parade 1

Fort Pierre Parade 5 Fort Pierre Parade 4

At 7 p.m., the rodeo begins at the Stanley County Fairgrounds in Fort Pierre. Unless you really want to look like a city slicker, you might want to dress in your best western attire. Jeans, boots, big belt buckles and cowboy hats are a norm at the Fort Pierre Rodeo.

Fort Pierre Rodeo

After the calf roping, barrel racing, and bronco bucking events, there is a fireworks show for the spectators.

Trip taken July 2013.

10 Reasons to Visit South Dakota

Growing up in California, my friends could never understand why I wanted to go to South Dakota. As far as they were concerned, it was in the middle of the country where there was nothing to do. But I knew they were wrong. Besides the fact that my grandparents lived there, I loved it. South Dakota offered things my hometown and home state didn’t: prairies of undulating grasses, buffalo, real cowboys, Native Americans, and lots of space.

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In South Dakota, I could ride horseback on my uncle’s horses, pick choke cherries along the Missouri River, go swimming in the Oahe Dam, eat buffalo burgers, go to a rodeo, and visit a palace made of corn.

So, here’s a list of 10 places to go and things to do in South Dakota, listed from east to west across the state. Written by someone who’s got roots in South Dakota. Stay tuned for more details in future blog posts.

  • The Corn Palace: Over 275,000 ears of corn are used each year to create a mural on the exterior of the Corn Palace located in Mitchell. The palace is open year round and is free to visit.
  • Pierre and Fort Pierre: With its two lakes, the Missouri River, and over 2,200 miles of shoreline, the area offers plenty of swimming, boating, fishing. Learn about South Dakota’s history at the South Dakota Heritage Museum or the Casey Tibbs Museum and be sure to visit the Fort Pierre Rodeo on the 4th of July.Pierre
  • Wall Drug Store: Originally just a drug store, this rambling place now sells everything from laminated placemats to cowboy boots. If you’re hungry, you can get a buffalo burger or ice cream along with a free glass of water and a 5 cent cup of coffee.
  • Badlands National Park: Visit this expanse of mixed grass prairie and geologic deposits, where ancient animals once roamed. Here you can see buffalo and prairie dogs. You might even see archaelogists at work in one of the world’s richest fossil beds.
  • Mount Rushmore National Memorial: One of the more famous sculptures in the world, Mount Rushmore includes the faces of four American presidents in its granite face.IMG_0110
  • Crazy Horse Memorial: In addition, to the actual sculpture of Crazy Horse, the memorial includes museums and collections of Native American art and artifacts.
  • Deadwood: In this national historic landmark, you can see a reenactment of the shooting of Wild Bill Hickok, visit the grave of Calamity Jane, gamble in its gaming halls, and visit Tatanka, Kevin Costner’s tribute to the buffalo.
  • Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument: If you like spelunking, South Dakota has two easily accessible caves worth a visit. Both offer a variety of ranger led tours, some more adventurous and more strenuous than others.Jewel Cave
  • Custer State Park: Located in the Black Hills near Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park has 1,300 buffalo on its 71,000 acres. You can camp or stay at a lodge, swim in Sylvan Lake, drive the twisty Needles Highway, or hike the state’s highest peak (Harney Peak).
  • The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, SD: The Mammoth Site is an active paleontological dig site and includes the largest concentration of mammoth remains in the world. On your visit, you can see real paleontologists at work, dig for fossil replicas, learn proper excavation techniques, or learn an ancient paleo Native American hunting technique.

Enjoy your trip to South Dakota!

Multiple trips taken, most recently in 2013.

When Traveling, Remember the Moscow Rule

While traveling in Paris many years ago, my American friends introduced me to the Moscow Rule. Not to be confused with the Moscow Rules, this rule has to do with shopping and souvenirs and is fairly simple. If you see something, buy it, because you may never see it again.

My friends told me that this rule originates from people standing in line in Moscow. If you lived in Moscow under Communist rule and saw people standing in line, you joined them, because whatever they were waiting for you most likely needed or would need and you may not have the opportunity to buy it another time.

Although I try to remember this rule when I travel, the times I forget are the times I regret. Like the time I didn’t buy the metal toy truck in Cape Town because I knew we’d see several more during our trip (we didn’t).


Or when I didn’t buy a drum and then had to resort to the airport gift shop. Or when I passed up a pretty necklace at a price I saw quadrupled in future stores.


Sometimes it’s easy to remember, like buying Lindt chocolates in Zurich, wool scarves with the family clan in Edinburgh, or maple syrup in Vermont. I find it more difficult to remember when I see something different. Is it something I truly want? Is the price a good one? Will I see it again?

Maple Syrup

To prevent those post traveling blues, remember the Moscow Rule: if you see something unique, something you’re unlikely to find online or anywhere else, snatch it up, because you may never see it again. Most likely, you won’t regret the purchase, and the memories it holds will bring smiles for a lifetime.


Weekly Photo Challenge: Horizon

Horizon. The space or line where the sky meets the earth. 

On the road near Royal Natal National Park, South Africa.

On the road near Royal Natal National Park, South Africa.

According to Franklin Roosevelt, “We have always held to the hope, the belief, the conviction that there is a better life, a better world, beyond the horizon.”

Cahoon Hollow Beach, Wellfleet, Massachusetts.

Cahoon Hollow Beach, Wellfleet, Massachusetts.

Emigrant Wilderness, near Yosemite National Park, California.

Emigrant Wilderness, near Yosemite National Park, California.

Perhaps that’s why I love to travel. To see beyond my own boundaries, to meet new people and encounter new places, to experience life from a different angle.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota.

Upper West Side, New York City.

Upper West Side, New York City.