We had planned to take our time covering the 200 miles from the campground at Badlands to our next stop, Devils Tower National Monument. First there was a leisurely putter through about 20 miles of the Badlands Loop Road with several stops at the scenic pullouts. Then we paused in Wall, SD for the obligatory visit to Wall Drug, where we browsed the bric-a-brac and took in some milkshakes and ice cream. (Try the pumpkin flavor, it’s great.)
Next stop was for lunch and groceries in Spearfish SD, and because we didn’t rush it was about two hours later that we were finally back on I-90. By this point it was past five o’clock, and I realized we’d pushed our leisurely day a little too much. Our arrival at Devils Tower was projected as 6:45, just about sunset this time of year.
There are several reasons I don’t like to arrive that late in the day. First, it was Friday night of a weekend with absolutely fantastic weather in the forecast, and we thought there was a risk that the national park campground would be full. (Turns out that’s not a concern at Devils Tower — the campground offers no hookups and no dump station, which encourages people to stay at the nearby KOA. More on that in a moment.)
Second, trying to get into a campground before dark encourages speeding, which is never a good idea with a big trailer behind you. This risk is complicated by the fact that a dusk the deer are out. We spotted many mule deer in the last 20 minutes of our tow, and had to slow down to about 20 MPH at one point to avoid a group that was crossing the road.
Third, if something goes wrong, you’re solving the problem in the dark. I mean problems like a flat tire, a full campground, taking a wrong turn, or backing into a tricky campsite.
And finally, it’s not fun to arrive at a campsite exhausted and grumpy after a long drive. Fortunately we arrived in a good mood. The drive across western South Dakota and into Wyoming was relaxing, with beautiful Black Hills scenery, late-afternoon sun lighting up the red outcrops, and the Airstream chasing us along the gently twisting roads. The campground here was unexpectedly nice, and we pulled in with 20 minutes to spare before the evening ranger talk in the amphitheater.
It’s hard to believe this is the last weekend for ranger talks in this park. Conditions are just perfect: sunshine, cool nights, warm dry days. The old aspen trees that give the campground partial shade are just starting to turn yellow. The campground features big pull-through sites that are well-spaced in two loops, neatly kept and a bargain at $12 per night. We can see the Tower from our site, and even hike right from the campground up to the trails that circumscribe it. Best of all, it is peacefully quiet most of the time. We had budgeted two nights but I could easily be persuaded to spend three, even at the price of skipping Wind Cave on Monday.
We are in “full boondock” mode, meaning that the refrigerator is running on propane rather than electricity, we get our heat from the catalytic heater rather than the inefficient and power-hungry furnace, the stove and oven take over jobs that would have been done by the microwave, and we rely on solar energy to replenish our batteries. We haven’t plugged into power since we left Mitchell SD on Wednesday morning, and may not see a power outlet for several more days.
Power is no problem as long as the sun shines (and it looks likely to for a while), but we do need regular replenishment of liquified propane gas. In this mode of camping, propane becomes a mandatory supply like fresh water. Without propane we would lose our refrigeration, heat, hot water, and cooking capability all at once. I normally check the propane before each tow as a matter of routine, but this time of year I’ll check it daily because we can use up a tank (7 gallons) every week if the nights are freezing.
Our first freezing night may be as soon as Sunday. We are at 4,400 feet, and from here on in we are going to be at higher altitudes until we get to southern Arizona. It’s hard to be bothered by freezing nights when the days are so spectacular. Fall in the west can be even better than summer. Scenic places are less crowded, daytimes are not scorching hot, summer thunderstorms are generally ending, and the hiking can be fantastic. I wish it could last longer.