Before I set out on this trip I mentioned to a colleague who lives in Minneapolis that I was coming over to SD to visit DT. He was amazed that a Brit was coming all that way to the Midwest as it was a long haul even by US tourist standards, let alone just to see a mountain in remote Wyoming. He told me all about Deadwood, Mt Rushmore, and Terry Peak etc. and was very knowledgeable on things to do and where to stay that were close to Devils Tower. In fact it’s safe to say that most of what I achieved on my trip was based around his suggestions and real life examples around distances, drive times, safety, hotel suggestions etc.
I already had an itinerary on what to do and what I wanted to fit in but as with all best laid plans, something comes along out of the blue, that screw them up ha-ha.
I had already swapped my week around to cater for the weather warnings about Wyoming when I landed in Rapid City on the Saturday night. This meant moving my visit to the Minuteman II Visitor Centre and ICBM Launch Facility to the Monday 1s May. What I didn’t know until I got to Rapid was that my online ticket had failed to be authorised and I couldn’t join the 10:00 tour. I got this email when I stopped for gas just outside Rapid en-route. Cut a long story short, no dice, I couldn’t get my card to work from the hotel to book again, or do it over the phone as they were shut and I was already half way there.
The location of the ICBM Visitors Centre was about 120 miles from my hotel in Spearfish so I figured maybe I could jump on the 14:00 tour. The ICBM nuclear missile silo tour would have to wait for a few years!
So I’m driving past Rapid City just looking for somewhere to get some breakfast and I remembered that there was a Space and Air Museum close by and figured I had enough time to stop off and have a quick look and snap some planes. As luck would have it I was on the right side of Rapid (east) and saw signs for Ellsworth Air force base and pulled over to see where the museum was.
It’s literally right next door to the entrance of Ellsworth AFB. To get there you literally drive through suburbia on Liberty Boulevard. You’re thinking you’ve taken a wrong turn as it’s plonked in the middle of Box Elder, a small city tagged onto Rapid. The AFB is at the end of the road and the Museum is right next to it. You can’t miss it as there are old planes in open view next to the car park. The car park was empty aside from a large 4x4 and a guy standing on his runner with a massive zoom pointed up in the sky. I was a little wary of leaving my own 4x4 alone in a massive car park with no one else around so I sat and watched him for a bit to make sure he was cool.
His (as it turned out) wife got out and started pointing excitedly up in the sky and he swung his camera up and got to it.
I wound my window down to see what the heck she was flustered about at 09:00 on a very cold grey morning.
Circling very low above me was a smooth, sleek, massive jet. But no ordinary jet. It was a ‘Bone’ - A baddassed Rockwell Lancer ‘B-1B’ Long range Bomber.
To see one of these mighty planes in the UK is rare but not impossible. So to see one practicing low level flying over its home field is bloody awesome.
I’m not a huge plane fan but I’ll make an exception for anything that can essentially poof me out of existence ha-ha.
The guy across the car park was high-fiving his wife and giving me the thumbs up at the impromptu display with a massive grin.
After a bitterly cold introduction it turns out he and his wife were Dutch and their road trip had gone bad when their RV had broken down outside Rapid. So they were wasting time, ( like me ), waiting for it to be fixed and rented a 4x4 to mooch about in and ended up here.
What are the chances eh? Ellsworth AFB in remote Dakota, freezing cold morning, not a soul around and here is a lone Brit and a stranded Dutch couple. You can’t make this shit up folks.
So we spent the next hour snapping museum planes and waiting for the Bone to take off again.
It was about ¼ mile away on the tarmac so we could see it being prepped for another take off. We hung around under the wing of the B52 Stratofortess, zoom lenses lock and loaded and eventually it taxied and took off. Bloody hell, what a roar, afterburners on and cruising down the run way. What a beautiful sight. Shame it was so far away as my zoom was on full tilt, but still, what an amazing thing to see so unexpectedly.
I popped into the museum to see what it was all about and was amazed to see it was like the Tardis, It was massive! Hangar after hangar of South Dakotan flying history from year dot to modern day. Loads of exhibits, missiles, planes, artefacts etc. Really cool stuff. I won’t spoil it for folks wanting to go but I can say it was very thorough and really interesting. Some amazing displays such as cruise missiles, planes, simulators and such like. It was a cold May morning so the place wasn’t busy but I can imagine it being crazy in summer months.
So off I went and re-joined the I90 heading east to tour the ICBM sites and take a trip through Badlands before u-turning and heading back to Spearfish in the evening.
I stopped off at Wall Drug, an apparently famous little town on I90 which turned out to be a small tourist trap with a bunch of shops off a main street. I grabbed lunch and bought a few souvenirs. It’s probably heaving in summer months as you can buy ever type of tourist gift from Sturgis Bike Rally tees to Blackhills mugs and everything in between. The prices were pretty good too. It’s right by the rail lines and some massive grain silos which make for an interesting backdrop for photographers and as it was quiet I went for a solitary walk around the silos and rail tracks. Probably illegal but no one said anything.
There was not much else to do there as I was saving my cash for a truly memorable souvenir of this amazing trip so I grabbed some hay fever meds, kicked the Japanese mule and hit the road east again.
My destination was the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site about 100 miles out of Rapid City. As I was driving east I recalled that I’d heard stories from my mum as a kid. Tales of secret silos in the middle of fields containing massive nuclear missiles ready to take off at a minutes warning and poof the Russians out of existence. She told me they could be at the bottom of the garden or in the farm behind our house: the ground would open up and an almighty rocket would lift off and we’d have about 3 minutes until we saw a Russian one heading back! Of course as a kid I figure she was just kidding, but for years I had an uneasy sensation that she might be right and at any moment a missile would launch out of the corn fields surrounding our house ad we all be ducking and covering. Ha-ha, little did I know she was telling the truth. Albeit it perhaps not in the UK.
In fact, I didn’t know she was dead accurate until 2016 when I was planning this road trip. My colleague from work told me about the NMHS and suggested it would be a great place to see en route to Badlands which were literally close by.
Finding out that there really were secret missile silos containing 80ft high ICMBs dotted around the farmlands and villages of South Dakota was a real surprise so I absolutely put them on my hit list of destinations. A quick Google showed me that they were indeed on the route to Badlands National Park so I figured I could kill two birds with one stone and whip them both out in a day.
What I didn’t factor in was how shit I was feeling that morning and the need to stop at Wall Drug to get some meds. This delayed my drive to the main visitor centre which was a shame as it was the one where you could go underground and sit exactly where the guy with the key sat every day, every night, waiting for that call for him / her to insert that key and launch nuclear destruction on Russia. COOL! Yes sir! Sign me up for THAT tour!
Alas it was obvious I was not going to make it as I was way behind schedule what with the stop-off at Ellsworth as well.
As I was thinking of those tales from long ago I caught, literally out the corner of my eye a tiny sign saying what I thought was Delta9.
I knew that Delta 9 was the name of the silo that had the missile inside and you could visit as part of the tour but I couldn’t understand why there was a sign in the road saying Delta 9 when the GPS said I had 15 miles to go. But curiosity killed my cat and I hit the next junction, (121) turned around and kept my eyes peeled for this imaginary signpost some 5 miles back along the 90.
And there it was, on Jct 116, a small sign saying Delta 9 with an arrow pointing south. So I figured what the hell, it’s a small detour on a road trip, how bad can it be?
So turned left onto 239th Street and then left onto 195th Avenue. Now when I say ‘avenue’ I do not mean 5th or Shaftesbury…I mean a dirt track. There were no trees lining this ‘avenue’ no sir. This was a dirt track heading off to god knows where.
Sure enough, about half a mile down the dirt track was indeed Delta 9 Missile Silo.
By pure luck I’d seen the one small sign on the interstate for another place I’d always wanted to see in real life!
aaaaaaaand...... it was closed.
I pulled the mule onto a verge behind one other solitary car and pondered what to do next. There were two ladies from Sweden or Denmark standing by the gate to the silo and they were equally disappointed in finding this place locked and closed.
I sat in the car planning the GPS route to Badlands when another car pulled up at the gate and a tourist guy got out. Then a guy in NP uniform got out too and walked up to the gate and started explaining to the guy what was beyond the gate.
He asked if we were interested in going in with him and seeing the silo and missile as he was giving this guy a tour of the facility?
Are you shitting me? Does a bear ………ah you know the drill.
So we tagged along and the NP guide gave us the 411 on the whole set up, the history, the missile, the silo, the launch facility further down the road. He was great, 100% enthusiastic and totally into the whole thing which made for an enthralling half an hour. Which was good because it was bloody freezing. Snow was on its way.
The first thing that hits you as you enter the gates to the compound, which is about the size of half a UK football pitch, perhaps smaller, is the simplicity of the whole thing. There were over 1000 of these silos dotted around the Dakotas and in each one sat a 60ft rocket with a nuclear warhead strapped to the hood, patiently waiting for some guy to push a button a few miles away and then wham, the cover of the silo would blow off in 1/3 second and up it went delivering ELE destruction. And here it was, sitting in a quiet field off a dirt track in the middle of nowhere. You’d never know it was here. Literally hidden in plain view. The setup is very simple, launch tube, blast doors, maintenance room and manhole for the engineers to maintain and prep the missile.
The NP guide gave us a very detailed explanation of the three or four ‘objects’ we could see and answered a lot of questions about what it was like to live next to one of these and how come no one knew they were here. Turned out everyone in the area knew about them for years but came to live with them being there and thankfully never seeing one launch, so they were pretty much ignored for 30 years by farmers and landowners. When the Gov. signed the SALT agreement in 1990, the silos were emptied, missiles decommissioned and removed and the patch of land including the silo was returned to the farmers. They used them for storage, housing, dumping grounds, water butts, all sorts really. I mean what you do with an 80ft concrete shaft in the middle of nowhere. 1000 of them?
Video: Delta 9
So we took a bunch of snaps of this eerie and silent throwback to days of imminent worldwide nuclear destruction and left the silo to stand sentinel across the vast cold, windy plains of South Dakota. The sun was at an annoying angle and the cloud cover was low and grey so even with a polarised lens I couldn’t get a decent shot of the missile sitting in the launch tube below us through the blue safety glass. But it was still cool leaning over the glass peering down at the top of a Minute Man II nuclear weapon (obviously not a working one!) as these were the stuff of myth and legend and of my childhood. It’s not every day you get close to a truly iconic bit of American defence machinery and one so intimately linked to worldwide global destruction. Awesome!
Note: there are 103 of these bad boys still on active duty dotted around Dakota as part of the SAG out of Ellsworth. If North Korea tried to pull a fast one on US territory, I think they’d be screwed!
I had no idea that these silos were all around me and I’d been driving past them for days without a clue. The locations of the silos can be seen on this map. Roxanne, the manager of the hotel told me there was one 1.5 miles away from my hotel on East Colorado Boulevard. I stopped off en route the next day and sure enough, there was another long since derelict missile silo not 100 meters from a well-established farm.
Unbelievable, My Mum was right. They really were hidden in plain sight right next to houses and farms.
So a dusty departure back out to I90 and eastward to Badlands about 20 miles ahead.
Now, I’ve been to a good many countries in my 50 years and seen a lot of weird places, but nothing prepared me for the next three hours’ drive. I’d heard of the Badlands NP growing up as I, like a lot of kids, fell in love with dinosaurs and read that a lot of them, oceanic ones anyway, had been discovered in Badlands in South Dakota and Montana . What I didn’t know was what it looked like. I deliberately stayed away from Google maps and street view as part of my preparation for this trip, except to locate the hotels so I had no idea what to expect as I hacked across the CanAm to jct 131and right onto the 240 southbound.
First thing you come up to is the North-eastern Park entrance about 3 miles down the road. $15 gets you entrance to the park and it’s worth every cent, trust me.
So I paid the fee, chatted a while to the lady in the kiosk who was interested in my accent and why I was out there on my own, took her advice on the route to take and where NOT to walk and of I went on a magical mystery tour. I still had no idea what or who lay ahead.
The ‘who’ was easy. No one. It was May 2nd and off season so I saw about 6 cars in the next three hours and about the same amount of people. The weather was not good, still grey and overcast and only the occasional shaft of sunlight slanting randomly across the vista as the sun began to descend in the west.
Just inside the park there is a parking area for hikers with info on trailheads to take so I took this opportunity to survey the first bizarre view in front of me.
It was kind of cross between a giant termite hill and a lunar landscape. It was difficult to judge the height and distance of these great big mounds of white chalk? Limestone? Ancient seabed sediment at any rate. This was because they were all the same colour: a washed out grey that surrounded me and towered above me. It literally must be what some of the moon is like. I whipped out the tripod and did some selfie work just to try to capture the scale against a human as there was nothing nearby that would help a viewer understand the sizes and scope of the rocks and cliffs around me. I can’t say I did a good job but you get the picture.
Because of the weather (cold, imminent rain) I was sceptical about going in to the Badlands alone with no phone signal and no one knowing where I was and then it dawned on me why the NP guide was asking me questions. I guess the make a note of solo travellers just in case they go AWOL. But still, it was perhaps a wise choice to pass the trailheads up and just enjoy the drive through these hillocks for a few miles before turning north and heading across to Belle Fourche, some 130 miles west.
I wound my way into the park and the road takes a decidedly varied turn and so does the view!
Within about ten minutes the road ascends a low hill and then swoops down around a long bend and spread out before you is the true reason why this place has such a famous and unique vibe. The valley drops away for miles and miles and all there is to see is this vast – and I mean that – vast epic landscape of arroyos, creeks, hills, peaks, ditches and valleys, in all sorts of weird configurations and incredible colours. Everything was layered in greys to pinks to yellow to green like some bizarre huge sand sculpture, except this one was 380 square miles in size and sometimes as high as 2645ft! It was without a doubt the weirdest place I have ever seen on this planet, and I’ve been to Hinckley. Twice!
The natives called this place Badlands as nothing grows out here, and they were essentially right. It’s got all the marking of a desolate, lonely, somewhat creepy place and yet it was stunningly beautiful. Crap for making a living in 1876 but awesome if you were a tour guide.
I stopped here and there and took a few dramatic shots, again with either me or the mule in shot to give it some scale. It was simply too big to grasp in a photo. You needed a sense of scale to really bring it home to a photo.
I was lucky on some parts of the road as the sun came out briefly and I just stopped and shot some pics / vids with the sun touching some of the peaks to give the pics a little drama but also to show off some of the amazing and frankly bizarre colours. It truly is an amazing place that a photo on google can’t bring you. You have to go there and see if for yourself.
I drove through the park in about 90 mins because, like the other six or so cars, I kept seeing different views to take in and get out and climb on. It was like another planet but with a cool road to drive on.
It’s about 35 miles to the exit and as you leave the park behind you you’re confronted with a fantastic widescreen vista out of a western movie. Which is good, because this exact location, on your left as you depart Badlands heading north, is one of the prairie locations used in the movie ‘Dances With Wolves’
I came to America to get some space, some peace, some scope and some big, big skies. I found it out here on the prairies of South Dakota. It really was like being on the set of a movie. I highly recommend coming out here and experiencing the place first hand. It’s a heck of a state.
And so, back to Spearfish and a decent meal at Appleby’s just off the freeway – great value restaurant with massive portions of food and a bunch of TV’s to watch. I got to the hotel at 22:30. Checked in with Sue back in the UK and then hit the sack big-time. I was loving this trip!
Join me in the morning for more fun and Calamity!!
Glen - Spearfish, May 2017.
All content and images, copyright Glen Ferris 2018. All Rights Reserved.