Sunday, June 25, 2017

Post #108 - South Dakota - Landscapes, birds, wildlife, and loads of roadside fun!

Quick, what's the first thing that you think of when I say 'South Dakota'? It's kind of tough, right? Yes, the state has Mount Rushmore, but South Dakota doesn't elicit the strong and stereotypical images that states like California, New York, or Texas instantly do. South Dakota instead flies a bit off radar as a sparsely populated, unspoiled, and beautiful part of the Upper Midwest. My recent and inaugural visit to South Dakota was made as part of a weeklong road trip from Minnesota to California. We generally followed I-90 west, but we made some really fun detours along the way. This post will therefore be a mix of birding, more general wildlife, landscapes, and entertaining roadside fun.

Our route from Minnesota to California.
We flew for a wedding and drove back over 6 days.

Our South Dakota leg, in a bit more detail.

Our first day took us from Minneapolis to Chamberlain. The eastern portion of South Dakota is incredibly flat, all of the land being used for agriculture or ranching. We didn't make any birding stops along that easternmost stretch, but we did make a brief detour to experience the world famous Corn Palace in Mitchell. It was super fun, a must-do for anyone in the area. The palace is a giant commemoration to the region's corn industry, the highlight being the huge corn murals that adorn the inside and outside of the building. During the summer months, 'corny' tours of are offered, and a pop-up gift shop attracts all sorts of visitors. Once the tourist season ends, the facility converts back to the town's recreation hall and basketball arena. Our visit was made extra interesting by a passing storm front and associated tornado warning that kept us hunkered down for over an hour. It was the true Midwest experience, quite exciting for us Californians! Since the weather was so bad, I pulled a couple shot from online to give you an idea of the palace.

Corn Palace, Mitchell, SD 
Corn Willie Nelson and Corn Elvis murals visible

Bison mural made of corn

Summer gift shop

Recreation hall and basketball arena rest of year

Angry skies during our visit

Radar during our Corn Palace visit.
The storm dropped gold ball-sized hail in places,
thankfully not on us.

Nervous moments as the town's tornado sirens sounded!

Killing time while waiting for the storm to pass

The storm front passed early enough for us to camp at the American Creek Campground on the Missouri River at Chamberlain that night. It was really pretty and held quite a few birds, notably both Eastern and Western Kingbirds. We packed up early the next day and made miles towards Badlands National Park, but before we reached that point, we made 2 roadside stops. The first was at the 1880 Town between Stamford and Belvidere. Basically, someone has salvaged a whole bunch of vintage buildings from around the American West and reassembled them into a complete town right off of I-90. Many of the buildings are filled with period furniture, decor, and possessions, and together they really give a sense of what frontier life might have felt like. There is also a fairly extensive homage to the Oscar-winning movie "Dances with Wolves", a beautiful epic filmed entirely within South Dakota.

Locked up in the 1880 town

Our second stop was at a The Ranch Store on Highway 240 as one heads into the Badlands from I-90. This is another roadside tourist trap, albeit of the best sort. Adjacent to the gift shop one finds a colony of very tame White-tailed prairie dogs. For $1, a back of peanuts can be purchased to feed these animals, and, let me tell you, its worth every penny! If you're patient, they'll even eat right out of your hand. The sun was a bit steep compared to how I usually like it, but I squeezed out a few fun shots despite the harsh light and admittedly manipulated conditions.

Sonia feeding prairie dogs

After the prairie dog nonsense, we made it into the Badlands National Park. I had no idea what to expect but was thoroughly impressed with the scenery. There is an extensive auto tour, and we drove the whole thing as we made miles west.

Badlands National Park

Bighorn Sheep at Badlands National Park

This one with a radio transmitter ran right in front of our car

From the Badlands we continued west where we made the obligatory stop at Mount Rushmore. Some people think it's kind of cheesy. I personally though it was really cool, particularly from a design and engineering standpoint. Gutzon and Lincoln Borglum only got one shot at it, right? It wasn't as though they could glue Washington's nose back on if they made some critical mistake.

Clowning it up at Mount Rushmore

We spent that night, our second in the state, at Sylvan Lake Campground in Custer State Park in the same Black Hills where Mount Rushmore is located. There the birding was very good, feeling as much like Colorado as anywhere else. Around our campground I found Hairy Woodpecker, Swainson's Thrush, Gray Jay, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Red Crossbill, and Pine Siskin. Hikes on trails in other parts of the huge park further yielded Northern Flicker, Western Wood-Pewee, Plumbeous Vireo, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, and Mountain Bluebird. Beyond birds, Yellow-bellied Marmots and American Bison showed nicely. The State Park was an amazing place, a place where we could have easily spent a few more days just exploring hiking and exploring.

Sylvan Lake in nice morning light

Black Hills vista

View of Black Hills formations

A quiet horse trail that we hiked - no one else on it

Yellow-bellied Marmot

Roadside American Bison (in terribly midday light!)

Bison calf, chillaxin'

Adult bison with curious calf

Roody staying warm at the campsite.
And, yes, we are totally ridiculous with our dog, I know.

What I hope you can see is that there is lots of cool stuff to see and do in South Dakota. It might not have quite the number of specialty birds as other, more peripheral areas of the US, but the birding experience is absolutely fantastic. At many places we were the only people for miles, a nice break from our familiar but admittedly overcrowded Bay Area surrounds. So, if your travels take you to the center of the country for any reason, please do think about either a pass through or an extended stay in South Dakota. It really is a fun place! 


  1. I like the virtual tour of South Dakota, but I must disagree... it is not part of the Midwest!

    1. Probably a fair critique! As I have not spent much time in what I often call that "upper midwest" I really don't have an idea of where to place SD from a semantic standpoint!

    2. As a resident, (also lived in MN WI and IA) the state is both west and midwest, it is split west and east river, very different (culturally and landscape)......generally though, the people think more like westerners....'Ranch mentality' as in all change is BAD, even if it makes some sense. They didn't leave the capital in Pierre for nothing, they wanted to make the government in a place no one wanted to stay too long. It is economically/ culturally tied to Minneapolis much more than Denver, though, but the state is contradicting on many levels. The state is the most prolife state in the nation YET on a referendum to out law abortion, it went down. The state spends no money on anything, and the state has been at full employment for 20 years, hard to hire help, but we don't pay hardly any unemployment. The issue causing problems in the state right now is access to non-meandered lakes, who owns the water, the DNR, Ranchers, whom....has affected birding, too

  2. My expectations of Mt. Rushmore were way off base. It really struck me once I actually got there. Loved SD, except for the incessant wind which made our RV travels very interesting at times.

    1. Yeah, the wind really pounded across SD. The same for Southern Wyoming - straight from the west every day. SO SO So glad I decided to not to bicycle west across Wyoming on my bicycle Big Year. Would have been a nightmare!

  3. Very much enjoyed this, pleasing trip photos.
    It seems that you and Sonia had a good time, while Roody seems a little embarrassed. :)

    1. Glad to hear the report/account hit the spot. We had lots of fun wherever we went; Our only regret was that we had to cover so much ground in so little time. Roody is a certainly ham, so we give him what he wants!

  4. Sigh....Nobody ever comes and visits me...the second birder I know visits the state and doesn't stop by......At least you didn't put an eBird checklist from "my patch" like a certain St Paul Island birder did.....LOL. Tornado warnings are like the wind....they come.... they go. That storm, took my oriole feeder for a 200 foot ride, the top of my seed feeder is still missing, I left my weather vane on my deck out and it bent it

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