RAFTER J BAR RANCH CAMPGROUND — HILL CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA

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Wide open spaces

This gorgeous campground sits on a 160-acre tract of land nestled in the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota. From what I can gather, the original owners acquired the land through the Homestead Act, which encouraged Western migration by providing any adult citizen who headed a family with 160 acres of public land in exchange for a small registeraton fee. The act also required that the homesteader live on the land continuiously for five years. The first settlers on the land the campground lies on apparently raised cattle, using Rafter J Bar as their cattle brand.

In July of 1874, the 7th Calvary, led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, was ordered to travel to the Black Hills to scout a suitable location for a fort, find a route to the southwest, and to investigate the possibility of mining for gold, in what was known as the Black Hills Expedition. Custer and his men purportedly passed through the Rafter J Bar Ranch one night that July.

During the Gold Rush that followed Custer’s expedition, the ranch became one of the stagecoach stops along the Cheyenne to Deadwood trail. Three buildings were built for the stagecoach stop: a barn and stable, which included a saloon; a log cabin; and the owner’s cabin. The barn and stable still stand on the grounds of the old ranch.

In 1886, the land became known as the Walker Placer Mining Claim. Mining tunnels and shafts still exist around the perimeter of the property, which borders the national forest. The stagecoach stop came to an end when the railroad came to Hill City.

The Rafter J Bar Ranch continued in operation until 1964, when the land was sold and developed into a campground.

Facility: 4.5/5

The campground is divided into seven sections: Base Camp; Cabin Camp; the Island; Line Camp; Main Camp; Ranch Camp; and the Lower Ranch Camp. The Ranch Camp is bordered by the Black Hill’s National Forest. Each section offers different amenities. The sites are spacious, and the campground has expansive green space. Only the main road is paved. The roads leading to the different sections of the park are gravel, as are all the sites. You can unhook your toad in front of the office or on the road in front of your campsite. We stayed at the last site in the Line Camp, which overlooked a meadow. Every evening at dusk, without fail, about twenty-five mule deer showed up to forage and frolic in the grazing land.

Restrooms: 5/5

There are three bathhouses at the campground, and all of them were very clean.

Amenities: 3.5/5

The park features a basketball court, a volleyball court, a pool, and a playground. Each bathhouse has a laundry mat with coin operated washers and dryers, folding tables, and a laundry cart. The only downside to this campground is that the only place where you could get free WIFI is at the office. There is no cable TV in the campground. However, the Base Camp offers free satellite TV. Beginning Memorial Day, the campground serves a complimentary pancake breakfast each weekday morning.

Location: 5/5

The campground is conveniently located close to Mt. Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer State Park, the 1880 train, and the Mickelson Trail. 

Pet Friendly: 5/5

The campground is pet friendly, and dog poop bags are located in several areas of the campground. Dogs must be kept on a leash at all times, but there are plenty of wide open spaces to exercise your fur baby.

Overall Rating: 4.6

Summary: Rafter J. Bar Ranch has pretty much everything you could ask for in a campground with the exception of WIFI and cable. The sites are nice and long, and we were able to park our Jeep in front of our motorhome. The RV Sites are a little pricey—$63.95 per night for 50 Amp service during the regular summer season, but they do offer a 10% Good Sam Discount.

Cell Phone Signal: We were only able to get two bars with both AT&T and Verizon.

Conclusion: Would we stay at Rafter J Bar Ranch again? Absolutely. Despite the price and the lack of WIFI and cable, this is an idyllic location. And after all, isn’t the whole idea of camping to get away from it all?

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Our campsite

 

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Some of the mule deer who came to graze ever evening
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The barn built for the stagecoach stop

WALKING AND RIDING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF HISTORY

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Mount Rushmore

Wednesday May 16, 2018

The weather in the Black Hills is fickle; it can be sunny one minute and hailing the next. The latter is what greeted us Monday afternoon on our return to the campground from Custer State Park. Luckily, the hailstorm passed quickly, with no noticeable drop in temperatures.

The unpredictable weather took a turn for the better yesterday, and we returned to Mount Rushmore for a better view of the monument. The longer you stare at it, the more details you’ll notice about this incredible carving.

Interestingly enough, Gutzon Borglum longed to build a secret room within the mountain, which was intended to hold some of America’s treasured documents. The space was to be drilled into the north wall of a small canyon behind the faces. Construction of the hall began in July 1938. Over the course of the next year, Borglum and his men blasted a 70-foot tunnel into the mountain. Work on the Great Hall ceased when Congress decreed that work should be confined to the faces on the mountain.

The original plans for the carving called for the sculpture to depict the four presidents from head to waist, but the project was cut short when the allocated funds ran out. If you look closely at Washington’s likeness, you can see the lapels of his jacket.

Although Borglum’s vision for the Hall of Records had to be abandoned, the idea remained. Borglum died on March 6, 1941, and work on the memorial came to a close seven months later. On August 9, 1988, Borglum’s dream was recognized when a repository of records was placed in the floor of the rough-cut hall entrance. This storehouse consists of a teakwood box inside a titanium vault, covered by a granite capstone. Etched on the capstone is the following quote by Gutzon Borglum:

“Let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and rain alone shall wear them away.”

The repository contains sixteen porcelain enamel panels, inscribed with the story of Mount Rushmore’s history. The vault is not accessible to visitors, but rather is left as a record for people eons from now who may wonder how and why Mount Rushmore was carved.

After leaving Mount Rushmore for the second time, we returned to the campground and set out on our bikes to ride on the George S. Mickelson Trail. Part of the trail parallels the campground that has been our home for the past six days. You may recall from one of my previous post that Mickelson was the South Dakota governor who died in a plane crash in 1993.

The 109-mile Mickelson Trail is the first rails-to-trails trail built in South Dakota. It follows the historic Deadwood to Edgemont Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (the CB&Q, or simply, “the Burlington”) line that was abandoned in 1983. The trail was built thanks to the determination of a great many advocates, among them the late Governor George S. Mickelson, who played a vital role in the trail’s early success. In 1991, he dedicated the first six miles of the trail, which was originally called the Black Hills Burlington Northern Heritage Trail. Following Mickelson’s tragic death, the trail was biffittingly renamed in his honor.

Harry and I have only ridden our bikes once in the past eighteen months, but that did not dissuade us from strapping on our helmets and hitting the trail. The trail is primarily gravel and crushed limestone, fairly easy to navigate with our cruiser bikes. We passed over eight or nine bridges, traveled along creeks, peddled past cow pastures and biked past private homes. We rode about four miles before we decided we should turn back. Most of the trail has a four percent or less grade, which is great if you’re riding downhill, not so great if you’re going uphill, which is what we had to do to return to the campground. But we took it slow and easy, the same way we like to travel, and made it back home in one piece.

Several of our destinations in South Dakota will intersect with the Mickelson Trail. We hope to ride a short section of the trail at each one. I cannot explain why I am so drawn to this trail. Maybe it is because trains have fascinated me since I was a little girl. If you listen closely enough as you bike across the historic railbed, you can almost hear the clatter of wheels on the tracks.

Avenue of Flags
Avenue of Flags at Mt. Rushmore
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Hall of Records at Mt. Rushmore
Mickelson Trail
One of the more than 100 bridges on the Mickelson Trail
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Sign posted along the trail

FOUR PRESIDENTS, A LIEUTENANT COLONIAL, AND AN INDIAN CHIEF

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A gloomy day at Mt. Rushmore

Monday, May 14, 2018

Winter-like weather greeted us when we rolled into Hill City, South Dakota, Friday afternoon. Hill City is known as the “Heart of the Hills,” due to its close proximity to both the geographical center of the Black Hills, and the local tourist attractions.

It rained off and on the first two days we were here, and the temperatures hovered in the forties. On Saturday, we decided to brave the rain and cold and visit Mount Rushmore. It is after all, the inspiration for our trip.

South Dakota historian Doane Robinson is credited for conceiving the idea to carve the likenesses of famous people on a mountain in the Black Hills to promote tourism in the region. Had Robinson had his way, we would be looking at Lewis and Clark, Red Cloud, and Buffalo Bill Cody atop Mount Rushmore instead of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. It was the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, who selected the four presidents for the monument. Borglum felt the quartet represented the most important events in the history of the United States: Washington was the father of the new country and laid the foundation for democracy; Jefferson represented growth; Roosevelt represented development; and Lincoln represented preservation.

The mountain was shrouded in fog when we arrived. Undeterred, we waited out the low-hanging clouds and our persistence finally paid off. As if it had been orchestrated, the fog begin to shift, moving slowly from left to right, as one by one, it unveiled the faces of the four presidents. It was still overcast, but at least the “mountain was out,” as they say. We decided to take the Presidential Trail for a closer look at the iconic carving. Part of the trail is closed for renovations, but the path we took was open to the base of Mt. Rushmore, where I was able to get some halfway decent shots of the sculpture.

Sunday morning’s weather was a repeat of Saturdays, but we decided to take a chance and visit the Crazy Horse Memorial. Thunderhead Mountain was blanketed in fog when we arrived, so we went to the welcome center and watched a film on the making of the sculpture. Afterward, we toured the museum, which has countless pieces of American Indian art and artifacts from tribes across North America. Nearly all of the relics on display were donated.

Crazy Horse was a leader of the Oglala Lakota tribe. He was born circa 1840, and was originally named Curly, because of his wavy hair. In his mid-teens he was already a full-fledged warrior. After Curly reached maturity and strength, his father, also named Crazy Horse, gave his son his name and took a new name, Worm, for himself. On June 25, 1876, Crazy Horse led a band of Lakota warriors against Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s Seventh U.S. Calvary, at what would later be called the Battle of Little Big Horn or Custer’s Last Stand. Two hundred and sixty-eight officers, soldiers, Indian scouts and civilians perished at Little Big Horn, including Custer, his two brothers, and his brother-in-law.

It is a misconception that Custer was a general at the time of his death. Custer was initially commissioned a second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Calvary Regiment. In June of 1862, he was promoted to the rank of captain. By the age of 23, he was brevetted (temporarily appointed) to brigadier general. In 1864, Custer was brevetted to major general, a position he would hold until after the war was over and the volunteer troops had mustered out. At that point, he reverted to his permanent rank of captain. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in July 1866, a position he would hold until he died.

On January 8, 1877, Crazy Horse’s warriors fought their last major battle against the U.S. Calvary at Wolf Mountain, in the Montana territory. His people struggled through the winter, weakened by hunger and cold. Crazy Horse ultimately decided to surrender with his band to protect them. Under a flag of truce, Crazy Horse went to Fort Robinson in Northwest Nebraska. Four months later, a bayonet-wielding military guard fatally wounded Crazy Horse. He died either that night or the following day.

There are no known photographs of Crazy Horse. He believed that having his picture taken would take a part of his soul and shorten his life. Consequently, Zorczak Ziolkowski, the sculptor in charge of the project, created Crazy Horse’s likiness for the sculpture based on descriptions from survivors of the Battle of Little Big Horn, and other contemporaries of Crazy Horse.

The Crazy Horse sculpture is a work in progress. If and when it is finished, it will depict the Lakota warrior riding a horse and pointing into the distance. Since the fog never lifted during our visit, we were unable to view the monument, so we decided to try our luck again today.

We awoke to sunshine and warmer temperatures this morning, and returned to the Crazy Horse Memorial to view the carving. The monument is located a mile from the welcome center, accessible only by bus. During the short ride, our tour guide told us some interesting facts about the carving: Crazy Horse’s face is 87’6” high. In comparison, the heads of each of the four presidents on Mount Rushmore are each 60’ high. This year mark’s the 70th anniversary of the Crazy Horse Memorial. There is no estimated date for the carving’s completion. Ziolkowski began work on the monument in 1948. He died in 1982. After his death, his wife, Ruth, took charge of the sculpture, opting to complete Crazy Horse’s face instead of his horse, as Zorczak originally planned. Four of Zorczak’s children and several of his grandchildren now work for the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation. The foundation does not accept any federal of state funding. The project is financed only by admissions and contributions.

After viewing the carving, we drove to nearby Custer State Park, named for Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer. I suppose it is a paradox to go from the memorial of the man ultimately responsible for Custer’s death to the park named in Custer’s honor, but we cannot simply eliminate the portions of our nation’s history we find distasteful. It is these vignettes of America’s past, stitched together like pieces of cloth on an infinite quilt, that make our country what it is today.

Custer State Park is huge, covering over 71,000 acres of hilly terrain. The park was founded in 1912, and is home to numerous wild animals, including nearly 1,300 bison. The park features an annual bison roundup and auction on the last Friday in September, drawing more than 10,000 people. Several hundred bison are sold at auction each year. The park began the annual roundup back in the 1960s in order to eradicate brucellosis, a bacterial infection that spreads from animals to people. The herd was certified brucellosis free in 1965, allowing for the sale of live animals. The annual roundup is used in conjunction with the fall sale as a way to manage the size of the herd, and to provide an opportunity to brand and vaccinate the calves. On average, the park’s grasslands can support about 1,400 head of bison.

After driving on the Wildlife Loop—the only things we saw were bison—we made our way over to the Needles Highway. It is a nearly 38-mile state highway that snakes its way through the Black Hills. It was named for the region of eroded high granite pillars, pinnacles and spires located within Custer State Park. The highlight of the highway is the Needles Eye Tunnel, the narrowest tunnel in South Dakota. Only one car can go through the tunnel at a time, and according to what I’ve read, huge charter buses manage to squeeze through the tunnel on a daily basis.

Now, that is something I would love to see.

The Happy Campers
This is how you dress for mid-May in the Black Hills
Crazy Horse
Crazy Horse Monument
Bison
Bison grazing at Custer State Park
The Needles
“Needles” in Custer State Park

 

Needles Eye Tunnel
Needles Eye Tunnel

 

 

BOONDOCKING 101

Boondocking on the bluff
Parked on the bluffs overlooking the Badlands

Thursday May 10, 2018

The last few days have been a bit crazy. We left Oacoma around 10:00 am Monday and pointed Moho’s nose toward Wall, home of Wall Drug, and not much else. We were about thirty miles from Wall when a trucker pulled up beside us, honked his horn and pointed at our motorhome. It’s the universal signal for “you have a flat tire or some other problem with your vehicle.”

We have a tire pressure monitoring system in our motorhome, so we thought the problem was with our toad. It turned out that one of the bay doors on the passenger side of our motorhome was open. We always double-check the bay doors to make certain they are locked before we leave, so even though the door was locked, it managed to swing open. About that time a pickup truck pulled in behind us. Harry walked over to let the driver know he had the situation under control, when the man handed Harry a pair of shoes that had fallen out of the bay when the door opened. Harry thanked the man for his kindness, closed and relocked the bay door, and we went on our merry way. About fifteen minutes later, a woman pulled up beside us in her car and blew the horn and pointed at our motorhome. By now Harry knew the routine, so he pulled off the road again, and sure enough, the bay door had opened up once more. To make matters worse, we were parked on a slope, and water was pouring out of our fresh water tank via the overflow hoses. Harry examined the lock, and discovered it was not making good contact with the latch. He “Harry-rigged” it as best he could, and we drove on toward Wall. I was assigned the task of staring at the side view mirror for the next twenty-five miles to make certain the bay door hadn’t opened again. Boy, was that ever fun.

We reached Wall without further incident, and parked behind Wall Drug Store. We had heard mixed reviews about this roadside attraction, so we decided to see it for ourselves. It was a waste of time. What started out as a small town drugstore has grown into an indoor shopping mall, with one difference: all of the shops operate under a single entity. It was basically one souvenir shop after another, and I am not a fan of souvenir shops.

The Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, where we planned to boondock for three nights, was about seven miles from Wall Drug, on South Dakota Highway 240. We unhooked our Jeep, left the motorhome in Wall Drug’s rear parking lot, and drove to scout out the location. We had the GPS coordinates for the spot, including landmarks, and easily found the turnoff for the area approved for overnight parking. It proved to be way better than I expected. It is basically a large pasture with a dirt road that has been packed down, no doubt by heavy rigs. The grassy area along the bluff had also been packed down, and even though it was supposed to rain that night, we had no qualms about camping there.

Our only problem was that we had lost about fifty gallons of water from the time we left Oacoma until we reached Wall. We knew we’d lost a good bit of water when we pulled over on the side of the interstate the second time, but Harry reasoned that we’d probably also lost a lot of water going up and down the hills on I-90, what with the water sloshing around in the tank. In hindsight, we discovered it doesn’t pay to fill your fresh water tank to the brim before your departure.

We drove back to town to get our motorhome. I’d heard that some campgrounds allow RVers to dump their tanks and fill up their fresh water tank for a fee, so I called a local campground to see if they offered that service. I was told we could fill up our fresh water tank for five bucks. It sounded like a bargain. The campground was only two blocks from Wall Drug, so we tooled over there and added about 35 gallons of water to our fresh water tank.

Then off to boondock we went. We found a level spot along the bluff, and were able to lower our jacks and push out the slides, something I had not expected. There were only two other RVs there when we arrived, and both vehicles were well over 100 yards away for us. We’d only been there about an hour when we received a wind advisory warning for our area with gusts of 50-55 miles per hour expected.

The wind seemed to come from out of nowhere, and it was relentless. Harry retracted the slides to prevent damage to the slide awnings, and we hunkered down and waited out the first wave. That may sound crazy to some of you, but driving a high profile vehicle during a windstorm is more dangerous than sitting still. When the winds finally slowed down to somewhere around 25 miles per hour, we were hit with a deluge. Between the rain pounding on the roof and the wind howling, it sounded like a freight train bearing down on us.

The rain moved out the next morning, but the wind never let up the entire time we were there. I’ve read about windstorms on the prairie, but to experience one is hard to put into words. At times, the wind was so strong I had to use both hands to close the door on our motorhome. The grasslands were beautiful, as were the views looking down on the Badlands, but I’m not sure I’d want to boondock there again.

Yesterday we visited Badlands National Park. There are three entrances to the park, all located in South Dakota. We were less than a mile from the Pinnacles Entrance. In fact, when we looked off to our left as we were leaving the park, we could see our motorhome sitting on the bluff.

I was curious who dubbed this area the Badlands, so I did some research. It seems the Lakota People were the first to call the area “mako sica” or “land bad.” French Canadian fur trappers also called it “les mauvais terres pour traverse,” or “bad lands to travel through.” One look at this vast area of gullies, ridges, jagged peaks, and spires, and you will understand how the Badlands got its name.

To be honest, the park wasn’t all that exciting. Probably because I’d spent the last two days staring down into the valley we were now driving through. While the colors of the rocks varied in different areas of the park, there really wasn’t much to see other than rocks, prairie grass, and a few animals: one antelope, two bison, and a passel of prairie dogs. I think maybe Yellowstone and Yosemite have spoiled me. What with the myriad of waterfalls and wildlife those two national parks have to offer, Badlands National Park was a bit of a letdown for me. Still, I’m glad we went, if for no other reason than to mark it off my list of national parks in the west we’ve visited.

No elk or bison paid us a call during our stay at Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, but last evening a small flock of longhorn sheep came to graze near our motorhome. They were obviously accustomed to humans, as they completely ignored us when we went outside for a closer look. While we watched the sheep enjoy their evening meal, we spotted a herd of Bison in the valley below us. They were too far away to get a decent picture, but we could see them clearly with our binoculars.

Like the old proverb goes, all good things must come to an end, so we got up early this morning, took our Navy showers, and had a quick bit to eat. As we were packing up to leave, we found ourselves in a bind. Our generator was running when we suddenly lost power in the motorhome. Without power, the slides will not retract. We had no idea what to do. Luckily, the problem happened during the week, so Harry called Thor Motor Coach, the manufacturer of our motorhome. They have a great tech support team, and after Harry explained the problem we’d incurred to the tech, the tech told Harry it sounded like the breaker on either the generator or the inverter had tripped. He told Harry to check both the breakers, and if that wasn’t the probably, to check the 30 Amp fuse that controls the slides. The guys said if that didn’t fix our problem to call him back.

The breaker on our generator had indeed tripped. Harry turned the breaker back on, and the power came back on in the motorhome. Then we tried to retract the slides, but they still didn’t work. Next Harry checked the fuse box. We only have one 30 Amp fuse, so Harry removed it and inspected it. It did not look like it had blown, so he reinserted the fuse and the slides started working again. We were extremely relieved.

With our latest quandary behind us, we left the Badlands and headed to Hill City, near Mount Rushmore. Thankfully, our trip to the Black Hills was uneventful.

Note: If you are interested in boondocking in the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, the GPS coordinates are: 43.890031, -102.226789. The location is easy to spot. Head south out of Wall on South Dakota 240, and drive about 6.5 miles. Watch for two microwave towers on your left. There are two entrances to the grasslands, both on them on the left. The first gate is marked 7170, which has better roads than the second entrance, marked 7150. If the gate is closed when you arrive, just open it and make sure to close it behind you. This is a very popular boondocking spot, and according to what I’ve read, you are allowed to camp here for up to 14 days.

Prime boondocking spot
All alone

 

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Our “front yard”
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More views from the top
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Captain Nemo at Badlands National Park

 

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Say Cheese
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Our visitors Wednesday evening

ARROWWOOD CEDAR SHORES CAMPGROUND — OACOMA, SOUTH DAKOTA

Our view

The campground sits on the western bank of the Missouri river. It is pretty nondescript as far as campgrounds go, but the view of the river is gorgeous. The campground is a popular spot for fisherman and boaters. Many of the RVers had boats, and the ones that weren’t in the water were parallel parked beside their RVs. It was not unusual to see part of a boat sticking out on the road, despite the fact the campground rules clearly stated that boats must be on the RV pad or on the gravel alongside the roadway.

Facility: 3/5

The campground has forty-four back in sites with full hookups, seven of which are riverfront sites. We were fortunate enough to have one of the riverfront sites. There are also seven tiny riverfront cabins available to rent. The roads are paved, but rather narrow, and it is hard to squeeze by campsites with large boats jutting out onto the roadway. The sites are also paved, and they all appeared to be level. Each campsite includes a picnic table, a fire ring, and a garbage can. There is no designated place for unhooking a toad, but you can easily hook/unhook on the street, or next door in the hotel parking lot next door.

Restrooms: 3/5

There is only one bathhouse in the park. The bathrooms and showers were clean, but they definitely showed some age. 

Amenities: 3/5

The park features a picnic shelter, a basketball court, and a playground. The campground is part of the Arrowwood Cedar Shore Resort, which includes the campground and a hotel next door. Campers are allowed to use the hotel’s pool. There are two washers and two dryers located in the campground’s office, but there was no folding table. The setup seemed a bit awkward to me. Arrowwood offers free WIFI and cable, but the WIFI was down the entire time we were there. We ended up using our MIFI during most of our stay. Harry finally went to the office to inquire about the WIFI. He was told it had been down for several days, but that we were welcome to use the hotel’s WIFI. You would have thought the person who checked us in would have mentioned that little tidbit. 

Location: 5/5

The campground is  located about five miles from I-90. There is a grocery store and a restaurant within a few miles of the campground, or you can drive across the river to Chamberlain, where you’ll find several fast food restaurants.

Pet Friendly: 5/5

Arrowwood is a pet friendly campground. Mutt Mitts are available at the north end of the campground near the picnic shelter, and also at the south end of the campground. 

Overall Rating: 3.3

Summary: This is a relatively small campground, but they still allowed for some greenspace in the park. The campground’s main attraction is the river. The sites are fine for smaller RV’s, but not large enough to accommodate a toad if you have a big rig. We had to park our Jeep on the gravel parallel to the road. The RV sites are $45.00 per night plus tax. The only discount offered is 10% for AARP members.

Cell Phone Signal: We were able to get three bars with both AT&T and Verizon.

Conclusion: Would we stay at Arrowwood again? Not likely. If we do stop at Oacoma on our way home, it will mostly likely be for one night only. There are three boondocking spots places near the campground, one not far from the interstate. Why spend $45.00 when you can sleep somewhere for free?

 

Playground
Playground
Greenspace
Greenspace
Bike Path
Stock photo of Roland L. Dolly Memorial Bike Trail
Site at campground
Nearby campsite

DIGNITY OF THE EARTH AND SKY

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Dignity: Sculpture near Chamberlain, South Dakota

Saturday, May 3, 2018

The last thing you would expect to find at a rest area is a stunning 12-ton, 50-foot-tall stainless steel sculpture of a Native American girl. And yet, there she was, a magnificent statute designed by sculptor Dale Lamphere to honor the Lakota and Dakota people who are indigenous to South Dakota. She stood upon a bluff overlooking the Missouri River near Chamberlain, South Dakota, regal and proud in her two-hide Native dress and moccasins, her star shawl open to the wind. The shawl is a work of art unto itself, 128 4-foot tall blue glass diamonds that twinkle in the sunlight and dance in the South Dakota wind. Her name is Dignity, the perfect moniker for one who represents the local native culture. At sunset Dignity appears more bronze than silver, and when darkness falls, LED lights installed inside the sculpture illuminate the mesmerizing work of art.

I could have gazed at her for hours, but we were anxious to get settled in our new temporary digs, so we reluctantly left Dignity behind and drove across the river to Arrowwood Cedar Shores Campground in Oacoma, on the western bank of the Missouri River.

Our campsite is right on the water, and you cannot beat the views. After getting set up, and snapping a few photos of the campground, we unloaded our bikes and took a ride on the Roland L. Dolly Memorial Bike Trail, which runs along the beautiful Missouri River.

Roland Dolly was the commissioner of South Dakota Governor George S. Mickelson’s Office of Economic Development. Dolly, along with Governor Mickelson and six other men, perished in a plane crash on April 19, 1993. The plane was returning to Sioux Falls from a trip to Ohio in an attempt to save a packing plant in Sioux Falls that was headquartered in Cincinnati, when the plane struck a silo near Dubuque, Iowa. It went down shortly before 4 p.m. Dolly was only 37 at the time of his death. It was said of Dolly that he was a “genuine man who wanted to help others.”

I do not remember hearing about the plane crash, probably because the tragedy was overshadowed by the news that the 51-day siege of a religious compound in Waco, Texas, had ended with an FBI assault that resulted in the deaths of 76 people.

What a shame that the deaths of Roland Dolly and seven other men were eclipsed by another disastrous event that could have been avoided.

There isn’t a lot to see or do in Oacoma, other than boating and fishing, which gave us the perfect excuse to kick back and take it easy for a couple of days. On Sunday evening, we decided to go see Dignity one more time. After making a quick stop for ice cream at Al’s Oasis, the “premier resting stop for travelers along Interstate 90,” (read: tourist trap), we drove back to the rest stop at MM 264, to wait for nightfall.

While we enjoyed our frozen treats, we chatted with a man who had spotted Dignity from the interstate, and stopped to “see what the heck that thing standing on the hill was.”

As the sun rode low in the sky, Dignity’s face and shoulders seemed to magically turn bronze. Minutes later, the fiery orange ball slipped beneath the horizon and disappeared from view. As the heavens grew dark, a series of spotlights lite up behind the sculpture. It wasn’t long before we began to see a strip of color across Dignity’s chest. Shortly afterward, the glass panels in her shawl began to glow.

It was a sight to behold.

Of all the beautiful places and things we’ve seen thus far on our journey, Dignity ranks near the top of my list.

Dignity's Shawl
Dignity’s shawl
River
The bluff overlooking the Missouri River where Dignity stands
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Dignity near sunset
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Dignity’s shawl near sunset
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Sunset on the Missouri River
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Dignity at twilight

 

BIG SIOUX RECREATION AREA — BANDON, SOUTH DAKOTA

Bike Trails
Bike Trails at Big Sioux Recreation Area

Big Sioux is a state park located in Brandon, South Dakota, a suburb of Sioux Falls. The park lies on the banks of the Big Sioux River. It is located near a school and a subdivision, yet it feels as if you are out in the middle of nowhere.

Facility: 3.5/5

Big Sioux is an electric only campground. There are 49 campsites, three of which are reserved for tent camping. There are also three cabins for rent. The RV sites are all back in sites. The roads are all paved, but the sites are gravel. Most of the sites appeared to be level. Each campsite includes a picnic table and a fire ring. There is no designated place for unhooking, but you can easily unhook on the street. There is a dump station in the campground. When I called the campground to inquire about potable water, I was told it was available beside the dump station. Call me crazy, but I would not fill up my fresh water tank from a spigot sitting beside a septic tank.

Restrooms: 3/5

There is only one bathhouse in the park, with two showers and a dressing area in both the men’s and women’s restrooms. There are two toilets in each restroom, along with a urinal on the men’s side. The bathrooms and showers were fairly clean, but the water was not consistently hot. 

Amenities: 5/5

The park features an array of activities: archery range; biking; bird watching; canoeing/kayaking; disk golf, hiking; fishing; horseshoes; snowmobiling, snowshoeing; and volleyball. Paved bike trails wind through the park and snake along the Big Sioux River. There is also a picnic shelter and warming shelter at Big Sioux.

Location: 5/5

Big Sioux is conveniently located four miles south of Brandon off I-90 Exit 406. Downtown Sioux Falls is about twenty minutes away by car. 

Pet Friendly: 4/5

Big Sioux is a pet friendly park, but pets must be kept on a leash. There is no designated area for walking dogs, not did the park provide dog waste bags. However, there is plenty of greenspace in the park to exercise your fur babies.

Overall Rating: 4.1

Summary: Big Sioux Recreation Area was once the homestead of Ole Bergeson. Ole and his brother, Soren, built a hand-hewn cottonwood cabin around 1869, that still stands  within the confines of the park. Big Sioux is a great place to camp. I would have given the park a much higher mark if the sites had water. Big Sioux’s rates were affordable: $21.00 per night. However, we were also hit with $7.70 nonrefundable non-resident fee. A word to the wise: if you wish to weekend in a state park in South Dakota, book early. The locals apparently reserve sites for the weekends as soon as the reservation window opens. I made our reservation on April 1, and there were only two sites available for Friday, May 2. When we arrived at the campground on Thursday, there were only a handful of RVs there. But by Friday evening the place was packed. About 95% of the vehicles bore South Dakota tags. I imagine this problem is not unique to South Dakota. However, it seems to me that if South Dakota as well as other states wish to entice tourists to visit them, they would set aside a few weekend sites at each of their state campgrounds for out-of-state visitors.

Cell Phone Signal: We were able to get three bars with Verizon, and four bars with AT&T.

Conclusion: Would we stay at Big Sioux again? Probably, assuming we could get a site.

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Our camp site at Big Sioux
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Nearby campsite at Big Sioux
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Greenspace at Big Sioux
House
Ole Bergeson’s Cabin