Dakotas part 2 – Mitchell, SD to Spearfish, SD

Dakotas part 2 – Mitchell, SD to Spearfish, SD

It was a peaceful night next to Lake Mitchell. At this time of year in South Dakota nighttime temperatures were nice and cool, ideal for camping. After packing up the site, we drove back out to the Mitchell airport and returned the crew car with a full tank of gas. It really is a great service that so many airports offer, a loaner car to get around after you’ve arrived!

Our flight today would take us 200 miles west across South Dakota to the town of Wall. Juvy and I had stopped here the previous year to visit the famous Wall Drug Store, and there was so much to see there that we were keen to return and have another look. Juvy had also been in touch with the airport manager again, who we’d met the year before, and he had been kind enough to offer us use of his truck in order to go and check out the South Dakota Badlands.

Cloud was fairly low, but in this part of the country there aren’t many obstacles around. With careful review of the charts to make sure we knew about any towers or other obstructions, we set off below the cloud along interstate 90. At regular intervals we passed the enormous American freight trains that roll constantly back and forth across the country, with the rail lines often following the same corridors as the interstates and also making good routes for flying along.

The route across South Dakota

We touched down at Wall, where the fantastic airport manager (and mayor), Marty, was waiting for us. He showed us around the airport a little, including the impressive snow clearance equipment, before giving us the keys to his truck and sending us off towards Wall Drug. The truck had a little fold-out seat behind the front seats, and we managed to squeeze Juvy and quite a lot of the gear back there, the rest going in the bed. It was only a moment’s drive to the Wall Drug complex, which had plenty of parking, and we went inside for a meal.

From Wall Drug, we headed south into Badlands National Park for the afternoon. This park covers more than 240,000 acres of eroded buttes, spires, and mixed grass prairie. In the early 20th century the area was advertised by the US Government as the “Wonderlands”, in an effort to encourage homesteaders to settle here on initially 160, and subsequently 640 acres homesteads. However, the dust bowl events of the 1930s and plagues of grasshoppers led to the area being effectively abandoned.

We spent the afternoon touring the Badlands National Park, travelling along the length of state route 240 to the east. Juvy had determined that the back seat of the pickup truck was not a good place to be, either for photography or for travel sickness, and had relocated to the bed of the pickup truck. Here she could enjoy fresh air and unrestricted views for taking pictures! The occasional wildlife could be seen, such as Bighorn sheep, who seemed unafraid of humans and would come up close to have their picture taken.

We continued out the southeastern end of the national park, and found a camp site a little outside the boundaries of the park itself. It was desolate and windswept, just as the rest of the area was. Just the kind of remote camping that I enjoy. That evening we headed into the local small town, with the unusual name of Interior.

This was a classic little Badlands town, with just a couple of streets and a few scattered buildings. We found one bar and grill, offering drinks and what seemed like good pizzas, so we settled in for the evening. I asked for the wine options and was told “red or white”, and they came in individual portions with a foil top. I’m not sure what I was expecting. The white wine ended up being fine, and the pizza very good!


After a cozy night on the plains near Interior, we packed everything up into Marty’s truck ready to make the trip back to Wall. We continued along the same highway, stopping to take in a few more of the views along the way as we passed through another section of the park. The landscape was just as dramatic in the morning light.


Leaving the park to the north, we drove towards I-90 for the return to Wall. Before we reached the interstate, though, we encountered a gift shop by the side of the road that was marked by a giant statue of a prairie dog. Naturally we had no choice but to stop and check it out.

It turned out to be the “Ranch Gift Shop”, and their main feature was an enormous colony of prairie dogs living in the field right next to the store. One could buy peanuts in the shop to feed to them, and they were incredibly calm and friendly, coming right up to us to take the peanuts out of our hands.

We dropped Marty’s truck back off with him, thanked him, and said our goodbyes. Our first flight took us from Wall, just a short distance southwest to Hot Springs. The weather was poor again with low cloud, and we carefully picked our way across the countryside at caution speed and low level. Juvy and I had also stopped at Hot Springs the year before, for a night stop. We were returning this time to visit Wind Cave National Park. Mike spent the flight reciting a poem that he’d spotted on the wall of the Wall Drug diner and had been particularly taken by.

I was born in the Badlands of South Dakota, in a little town called Wall. And of the finer things in life, there weren’t none at all.

We managed to squeak our way into Hot Springs VFR under the overcast, and borrowed the crew car to head to the Wind Cave National Park. The first documented discovery of the cave by white Americans was in 1881, when the brothers Tom and Jesse Bingham heard wind rushing out from a 10-inch by 14-inch hole in the ground. According to the story, when Tom looked into the hole, the “wind” (exiting cave air) blew his hat off of his head. This was the seventh national park in the nation, established in 1903 by Theodore Roosevelt, and the first cave in the world to be designated a national park. The cave itself is recognised as the densest cave system in the world (volume of tunnels compared to volume of rock), and contains 95% of the world’s known boxwork formations. Regrettably, we lost the photos taken of this visit!

Flights across southwestern South Dakota

After returning to Hot Springs, we filed an IFR flight plan, as the cloud base was about 200 feet. We’d be heading to Spearfish, South Dakota, for the night. This had been chosen as they had some camping available near the airport, a crew car, and a good instrument approach. Our planned sightseeing flight over Mt Rushmore would have to be cancelled as the thick, low cloud was present over the whole area. Instead, we climbed all the way up to 10,000 feet to get on top of the cloud, and cruised in the sunshine while eating a pizza that we’d picked up before takeoff.

Dinner at 10,000 feet

It turns out that the town of Spearfish was just about done with shutting down for the season. The first camp site we found was closed, and we ended up at a second slightly further out of town. The nights were getting colder as we went along!

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