The Black Hills, June 2019, Days 1-2: the drive up

In June of 2019, I took an long-planned, epic 11-day road trip from Texas all the way up to the Dakotas. My aim was to see the Badlands, the Black Hills (including Mount Rushmore), Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, and Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. I had seen the Badlands and Black Hills years before as a child, but had never seen Devil’s Tower and had never even been to North Dakota before. Spending a night in all 50 states is a bucket list item for me, so seeing Teddy Roosevelt NP was definitely the right way to check that box.

In order to keep to blog posts from being painfully long, I’ve broken the trip up into days and will release one post per day or so. This covers my two days traveling up to the Black Hills area.

I headed north on I-35 across Oklahoma and into Kansas. It took about four hours to cross Oklahoma from south to north.

In Hutchinson, KS, I made a planned stop at the Cosmosphere, a quite large museum of space artifacts. There is a lot of stuff here, so much so that it’s almost information overload, but it’s cool to see nonetheless. Among the featured exhibits are an SR-71 Blackbird and the actual Apollo 13 command module. Unfortunately most pictures I took in there don’t show up particularly well, but here are some of them anyway:

What happened next is an example of why I plan my trips so meticulously, even though it feels too rigid or anal-retentive sometimes. I wanted to visit Strataca, an underground salt mine. It sounds very cool, and I was looking forward to it… and then I pulled up to the entrance and found out it was closed on Mondays (when I was there). If I had known, would I have planned my whole trip differently so I could tour it? Maybe, maybe not… but I should have researched more carefully so I could have made that a conscious choice.

Anyway, I plowed on northwest from Hutchinson, making my way to Great Bend, KS (so named because that’s where the Arkansas River reaches its northernmost point and bends back southwest), where I was spending the first night. Along the way I caught some photos of classic Kansas “amber waves of grain,” and, unexpectedly… marshes.

After arriving at my Airbnb on a farm outside of Great Bend (which was very cute and a very peaceful place to spend the night), I had some extra time to kill due to the Strataca debacle, so I made an impromptu jaunt out to Pawnee Rock a little ways to the southwest. It’s a decent-sized rock that just out of the plains and, as the most prominent point around for some ways, was an important landmark on the Santa Fe Trail. It provides great views of the surrounding countryside.

I ate dinner at a pretty generic Mexican restaurant, but did indulge in a very decadent and tasty dessert from Smallcakes Cupcakery (apparently now closed).

Some shots from downtown Great Bend:

The next day, I headed north. One thing that’s not very well known about central Kansas is that it was settled by Catholic Volga Germans (ethnic Germans from the former Russian Empire), who built beautiful churches in their small towns.

One of these, the Basilica of St. Fidelis in Victoria, KS, is truly stunning and definitely worthy of a stop if you’re passing by on I-40.

The Volga Germans were also known for their unique iron-cross cemeteries.

On a recommendation from my buddy Tory, I stopped for an early lunch at Gella’s in Hays, KS, and had my first taste of grebble – sweet Kansas frybread.

A few shots from downtown Hays:

Continued north. Into Nebraska!

…not sure why I was wearing my glasses that day, since I normally only wear them in the evening.

As I traveled north, it got noticeably drier. By mid-June, oppressive summer heat has already set in in Texas, but up here it was far more pleasant. Upon reaching I-80 I headed west on it for about an hour, some of the only interstate driving I did on the entire trip. The Platte River was extremely swollen from recent rains.

Buffalo Bill Cody‘s house in North Platte, NE:

Immediately upon driving north from North Platte, I entered one of the most mysterious and sublime landscapes of the entire trip, the Nebraska Sandhills. Though little-known and unheralded, it is vast – more than 2 hours of gently-rolling hills covered with short white grasses, dotted with small lakes, virtually no trees, and hardly another soul anywhere to be found. I found a subtle beauty in it: silent, lonely, desolate but not forbidding, austere but not harsh, and made all the more dramatic by the fact that I was dodging thunderstorms most of the way across it. I don’t really think my pictures do justice, but they give a bit of an idea.

I would have loved to take more pictures, but there were hardly any spots to pull off, although in retrospect there were so few other cars I could have just stopped in the middle of the road. Once I had to drive through water completely covering the road, which was a little nerve-wracking since I couldn’t see how deep it was and I didn’t fancy stuck in the middle of nowhere. But I made it through just fine.

On the north side of the Sandhills, just short of the South Dakota state line, you cross the Niobrara River. This is the first place it really starts to look like the pine-and-rock country of South Dakota and Wyoming that the Black Hills so exemplify.

South Dakota state line after a long day of driving!

And the scenery just kept getting prettier:

Far off on the western horizon, just under the setting sun, I could catch my first glimpse of the Black Hills themselves.

And as I pulled into the tiny hamlet of Interior, SD, I got my first view of the Badlands:

I went to bed excited for the adventures that awaited in the coming days!

Tomorrow: the Badlands!

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