Hello, Zimmerman Trail and Riverfront Park in Billings, Montana

After making a stop at Gillette, Wyoming, I was planning on making another stop at Sheridan, Wyoming before entering southern Montana, but because of a forecasted blizzard, I had to make some unexpected changes in my travel schedule. I ended up skipping Sheridan and going straight to Billings, Mon­tana, making it there early enough to dodge the snowstorm in northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana.

The weather wasn’t exactly the best in Billings when I was there, but there were still enough clear days for me to fit in two hikes. The first I did was Zimmerman Trail, starting at Zimmerman Park in northern Billings and stretching across along the Rims. This trail had some nice views of Billings fac­ing south, as well some snow-covered mountaintops in the far distance.

I met a friendly ladybug at the far west side of Zimmerman Park where the path turned into the private property of the homes on Arapaho Lookout.

On my way back, I saw a car wreck on the lower trail, closer to some of the homes on the northern tip of West 37th Street, which reminded me of the car wreck I saw at the Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park in California, and made me curious again about the story behind how the driver lost con­trol of the vehicle, and whether they survived.

Overall, the hike was a little bit over 3 miles and only had an overall elevation change of about a few hundred feet.

The following day, I went to Riverfront Park and took a leisurely walk around Lake Josephine and alongside the Yellowstone River.

This adventure was also a little bit over 3 miles and had nearly no elevation change. The far eastern side of the path I took, near the intersection of Wash­ington Street and South Frontage Road, ended up going through a bit of denser forest, but the rest of the trail was very beginner-friendly, with a lot of it even being paved with asphalt.

With two days spent indoors hiding from the rain, resting up, and playing some newly-released video game content; two days spent outdoors hiking; and the rest of the time in between filled in with work; that wrapped up my relatively short four-and-a-half day stay in Billings. Next up: Bozeman, Montana.

 

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Hello, Campbell County Rockpile Museum in Gillette, Wyoming

As my second tourist activity in Gillette, I visited the Campbell County Rockpile Museum, a museum mainly focused on local Gillette and Wyoming history. It wasn’t quite as impressive as the Frontier Relics & Auto Museum, but I noticed that the Rockpile Museum still made a bit of an effort to make at least half of the museum a lot more immersive and realistic than many other museums I’ve seen.

There were four “sections” to the museum. The first, main area was the main building, which was laid out more like a traditional museum.

While I was there, I also encountered a lot of kids who were dressed up in old attire. When I asked about them to one of the front desk attendants, he told me that one of the local schools likes to do immersive experiences where kids dress up and pretend like they’re living in a certain time period, and part of that experience involves coming to the museum and looking at some of the relics from the time period that they’re studying.

The second section was two smaller buildings that acted as classrooms for the children. Apparently the larger one was in active use at the time, but I got to peek into the smaller one; it resembled a fairly normal classroom, and I didn’t see anything particularly notable about it.

The third section was the newest section, and was the section that had more immersive experiences. This section focused a lot more on Gillette’s ev­o­lu­tion in particular. There were recreations of the various places that used to exist in Gillette, and one section of one of the walls was dedicated to show­ing how much Gillette had grown as a city through maps and satellite imagery.

Finally, the fourth and final section was outdoors and had all the larger exhibits, primarily focused on what appeared to be farming equipment and trains.

I personally think this museum is geared more towards locals to learn about how their city and state came to be what it is today, and less about at­tract­ing and impressing tourists. With that being said, if you’re a general history enthusiast, I think this museum would be a nice stop to check out some of the neat little relics from the past.

 

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Hello, Frontier Relics & Auto Museum in Gillette, Wyoming

The most efficient path from southwest South Dakota to southern Montana was through Wyoming, so I made yet again another trip through Wyoming, mak­ing it my third visit to the state—the first across the south, the second through the southeast corner, and this time through the northeast corner. My first stop was at Gillette, Wyoming.

One of the most recommended tourist attractions in Gillette was the Frontier Relics & Auto Museum, and after visiting, I definitely agree. Although it might seem strange, I’m pretty sure that this museum is actually my all-time favorite museum, even after having visited nearly 40 states at this point and having gone to major museums and tourist hotspots in each one.

The Frontier Relics & Auto Museum is very special in that, on first look, it is very disorganized and chaotic. However, that is precisely why it is such an amazing museum. Stepping inside makes you feel completely immersed in that time period (which I think was somewhere around the 1940s to 1960s—I don’t know for sure because I am not a history enthusiast and know very little about history). Everything around you makes you feel like you’re actually a real person living real life in that era.

Most museums will take relics from the past, organize them in straight rows and columns, lock them behind a glass enclosure, and label them. Instead, this museum spreads them out all over the place out in the open. For example, there is a section that is built like a mechanic’s shop, and it looks like you’re walking through the shop shortly after a mechanic finished working on a car, placed leftover parts back on the counter, put work orders on their desk, and threw their gloves on top of their toolbox.

I feel like this premise would only ever work in a small town like this, because if a major museum in a major city did this, I know for a fact that it would be absolutely destroyed by children (and likely even have a lot of the relics stolen by deviant teens and adults). However, I’ve noticed that the culture out in the “middle of nowhere” places like this is much better than big cities, and I’ve noticed that people have much more kindness, integrity, and respect for each other, so it’s nice that this museum is taking advantage of that to give its visitors an amazing time.

If you ever find yourself passing through Gillette for any reason, I highly recommend that you take a stop to visit this museum. The experience that you’ll get from it is very unique and one-of-a-kind.

(As a disclaimer, even though I share a lot of neat things and positive experiences from my travels, I rarely ever call something the “best,” so I feel the need to clarify here that this actually is my personal honest opinion and that I was not compensated in any way for this review, nor do I plan to accept any compensation or other benefits after-the-fact.)

 

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Goodbye South Dakota

I already have six blog posts dedicated to the most interesting things I did during my time in South Dakota, but I decided to do a final round-up for everything else that didn’t previously make the cut.

 
Throughout my road trip, I’ve been parking my truck at the airport at various major cities with large airports and flying back to Las Vegas to take care of some errands once every few months. When I was planning out my trip, I discovered that, strangely enough, Rapid City had a non-stop flight to Las Vegas out of their small regional airport, so I used it as an opportunity to thread in a trip back home.

I had an issue with the hotel not permitting me to use my guaranteed late check-out elite perk (which I later found out they were technically allowed to not honor, because they had a physical hallway connecting them to a water park, and thus counted as a resort hotel), so I ended up going to the airport in­credibly early. Needless to say, there were not very many flights going out of the very small airport, so for a handful of hours, I was alone in a com­pletely empty airport.

The flight I took was on Allegiant Airlines, and was probably my worst flight ever. It’s not that anything particularly bad happened, but, paired with the fact that I wasn’t able to check out late at my hotel and was just sitting at the airport for hours before my delayed flight, it was draining and ex­haust­ing.

I ordered some food at the airport restaurant and it took around 28 minutes to come out, and they closed the restaurant early (which made sense, be­cause there were no scheduled flights during the evening and nobody at the airport), so I ended up getting extremely dehydrated. When I finally made it on the plane, the seats were the most uncomfortable I’ve ever felt, and I had lower back pain in less than 20 minutes into the flight. Allegiant also ap­parently charges $3 for water, which I declined on principle, so I got even more dehydrated than before.

By the time I finally made it to Las Vegas, I had to stand in line for about 40 minutes, slowly dying, as Avis‘ two employees tried to get through a line of about 8 people with no consideration for speed or efficiency.

Shoutout to the night shift manager at the Residence Inn by Marriott Las Vegas Hughes Center for giving me a few free bottles of water upon my very, very late arrival (and quite possibly literally saving me from collapsing).

After spending just shy of a week in Las Vegas, I flew back to Rapid City (also on Allegiant Airlines on the return non-stop flight), but didn’t have as terrible of a flight experience this time, as I was able to go to a lounge to get some free lunch and beverages before leaving, and upon arriving back in Rap­id City, I was able to just walk outside the small airport and hop straight into my truck. (The seats were still inhuman levels of uncomfortable, though.)

I haven’t been posting too many photographs of hotel rooms lately like I used to at the beginning of my road trip, mainly because a majority of the hotel rooms I go to all look extremely similar, but I have some pictures from the Courtyard by Marriott Rapid City in Box Elder. This is the first Courtyard I’ve been to with this new design.

I personally think it’s great, but it’s definitely not for everyone. I like designs that are very simple and have subdued colors, so this room was nice. It also had floor-to-ceiling windows, as well as a white-and-glass modern bathroom. With that being said, the bed and couch might be a little too simple for some people; I only ever use the couch as a place to set down my belongings, so it doesn’t matter to me, but it doesn’t exactly look like the most plush and comfortable piece of furniture.

The view wasn’t bad either—the building that’s planned to be constructed in the plot of land across the street hasn’t been erected yet, so there’s a nice view of the hills in the background.

A large portion of my stay in South Dakota was very cold and very windy, so I substituted in some indoor activities in place of a few of the hiking trips that I had originally scheduled. One of the places I went to was the Dahl Arts Center, a very small art exhibit and gallery in downtown.

On the day that I drove out of Rapid City, I stopped by Rushmore Crossing to grab some food before driving to my next destination. After going through the drive-thru, I headed across the street and pulled into the back of a larger parking lot so I could eat before departing.

I just found this so funny at the time that I decided to share—while I was eating, I saw a man pull up in his subcompact crossover, without valid vehicle registration, and park diagonally across two parking spots (when other people with SUVs and full-size pickup trucks were easily able to fit into a single spot). He then proceeds to get out of his car with his dog, walks towards Michaels, stops literally right in the middle of the street, bends down, and starts petting his dog. In the middle of the street.

In the photo, you can see me pointing to his incompetent parking job, and if you look closer down the road, you will see him petting his dog.

After Rapid City, my next destination was Deadwood up in the Black Hills and in Lawrence County. I didn’t really head there with any expectations, and only decided to make a stop there because I saw there were some Marriott hotels in the area, and it would bring me closer along my path towards south­ern Montana. Deadwood ended up being a very interesting place—the valet attendant told me that it holds a lot of Western history, has a bunch of casinos, and can be seen sort of as a miniature Las Vegas.

I stayed at the Four Points by Sheraton Deadwood, which was connected to the Tin Lizzie Gaming Resort. This was my first time staying at Four Points, so I decided to snap some photos. (I’ve stayed at a Fairfield Inn in Amarillo, Texas before that was connected to a Four Points, but I was booked on the Fair­field Inn side, so I don’t consider that to count.)

For some reason, the Four Points brand tends to have consistently low reviews on the Marriott website relative to other brands. That’s one of the main rea­sons why I’ve avoided staying at Four Points and have selected other brands instead, but this Four Points in Deadwood, albeit a bit barebones in the rooms, still provided me with a clean, safe place to stay for a few nights.

I didn’t plan this ahead too well, so my stay in Deadwood ended up being on Easter weekend. Because of that, a few of the museums that I wanted to visit were closed.

However, I was able to see the Sanford Lab Homestake Visitor Center in Lead, South Dakota. It had a nice view of the mine (though I couldn’t get close enough to the edge to take a proper photo showing how deep it actually was), as well as a handful of exhibits explaining the mine and showing off some of the equipment used there. Unfortunately, the actual underground research facility was not open to the public, and it was not in-season so I wasn’t able to purchase a tour.

With the South Dakota portion of my trip complete, that brings me to 39 out of 50 states visited.

I thought South Dakota was great, though it might be because I mostly stayed in the southwestern-most tip and didn’t have to experience any of the apparent nothingness that spans the entire rest of the state. Rapid City was one of my favorite cities to visit—it had what felt like the perfect balance of being a small town, but still being populated enough that you’re able to find everything you need. Black Hills National Forest was also great, and if the weather had been better during my stay, I would’ve done much more hiking.

At the beginning of my road trip, I was planning on visiting North Dakota as well, but after doing some calculations, I figured that it’s a little bit too much out of the way and too much driving through nothingness to be able to slot in a stop in North Dakota just to say that I’ve been there before. It’s also not just the drive there—the drive out to get back on track also puts me quite a bit out of the way.

So, instead, I’ll be cutting through the northeastern corner of Wyoming through on Interstate 90, then continuing my journey across southern Montana. As for North Dakota, my current plan is to fly into Fargo at one point for a vacation.

 

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Hello, South Dakota Air and Space Museum at Ellsworth Air Force Base

For my final activity of the Rapid City area in South Dakota, I decided to visit the South Dakota Air and Space Museum, officially in Box Elder, but with an Ellsworth Air Force Base postal address and just outside the Ellsworth AFB secure entrance.

As I’ve mentioned before, I know very little to nothing about aircraft, apart from just general information about commercial planes from major United States airline carriers that I ride to get to different places in the country. Because of this, I can’t really give much specific information about the planes that I saw. To make matters worse, the actual museum was closed on the day I visited due to a private event, so I was only able to look at the planes parked outdoors and had very limited information.

With that being said, one of the more obscure supplementary reasons why I continue to go to air museums is actually because I personally think I am not very good at photographing aircraft, and one of the best ways to get better, apart from doing research and learning from someone who is already good at it, is to keep trying and practicing and analyzing your work to identify ways you can improve.

So, come along on my aircraft-photographing journey where I try out various different angles, perspectives, and crops to experiment with what makes the most visually-appealing capture. I’ve also included a couple photos of the visible innards of a few aircraft, in case you somehow stumbled across this post as an aircraft enthusiast and actually know what you’re looking at, unlike me.

 

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Hello, Badlands National Park in South Dakota

Approximately 60 miles (or around 100 kilometers) east of Rapid City, South Dakota is Badlands National Park, a rugged and sprawling area under the National Park Service. Continuing on my journey to get as much value as possible out of my America the Beautiful Annual Pass and visiting as many national parks as reasonable during my road trip, I decided to stop by Badlands.

I mentioned this in a previous blog post, but my stay in Rapid City hasn’t particularly been optimal due to the weather—it has been unmanageably windy (up to the point where a box containing a large pizza—which isn’t exactly the lightest thing ever—literally nearly took flight out of my hand, and would have if I didn’t notice and clamp down on it with my chin), and I also got snowed in for a few of the days… not to mention the overall extremely cold temperatures.

Because of this, I was unsure how many more opportunities I would have to get out and explore, so I decided to assume that I wouldn’t be able to return to Badlands, and planned to be able to see as much as I could in one day.

Like usual, I took a ton of photos. I tried to take pictures of informative signs along the way, but it’s very difficult to remember exactly where each pho­to­graph was taken because my Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II doesn’t have built-in GPS, and I take a ton of stops.

With that being said, I took stops in this order, and the photos below are posted in chronological order: Hay Butte Overlook → Pinnacles Overlook → Ancient Hunters Overlook → Yellow Mounds Overlook → Conata Basin Overlook → Homestead Overlook → Burns Basin Overlook → Prairie Wind Overlook → Panorama Point → Bigfoot Pass Overlook → White River Valley Overlook → Fossil Exhibit Trail.

From there, I arrived at the Saddle Pass Trailhead. Because I had a plan to see as much as possible in a single day, I didn’t really do that many hikes—I would only take quick walks no longer than half a mile at each overlook and viewpoint—but I definitely wanted to hike Saddle Pass Trail because of how allegedly technical and challenging it was. With that in mind, I started climbing and realized that, yes, it was indeed extremely technical and challenging.

Then I arrived at a huge mountain. I had already scrambled up and scaled a bunch of rocks, and even crawled under some small openings in the rocks to get to where I was, and realized there was absolutely no way that it could get even more difficult—up to the point where you’re basically rock climbing now—and still be listed as a “trail.” My realization was correct—when I backtracked and looked around a bit, I discovered that I completely missed the real trail and went the very wrong direction. The real trail was much, much easier, and although it was relatively steep, it was completely manageable.

There was a very nice view from the top.

After Saddle Pass, I made a quick pass through Cliff Shelf Nature Trail, then arrived at my second “main” hike, Notch Trail. Although these trails that I’ve been hiking have been relatively short, I had completed a lot of them by that point, so the fatigue was very slowly building up. Still, Notch Trail was the one I was looking most forward to, as it was one of the top-rated trails on AllTrails for Badlands National Park.

If you look closely at the photograph below, you’ll see a wooden ladder in the middle leading up to the top of the hill. That was the most challenging part of the climb, and this trail is definitely not for people who are afraid of heights or have ankle or knee problems, especially considering that the lad­der was a little wobbly at some areas, but if you’re comfortable with your maneuverability and climb confidently, it’s definitely doable. There was a bit of traffic backed up there as people tried to get up and down, but everyone I saw eventually made it.

I feel like Notch Trail would’ve been fairly leisurely for the remainder of the hike, but the high winds during the day I visited made it a bit more tricky. There are some areas along the middle of the trail that has some pretty steep bluffs, so I had to be careful not to be blown off balance and risk falling. I eventually made it to the summit, which had some amazing views.

For some reason, I don’t really have too many great photos from the top that I find satisfying (either that, or there isn’t really much in the pictures to provide visual scale to see just how high up it was taken), but I think a big “wow” aspect of the hike here is the contrast between the climb and the sum­mit. Throughout the hike, you’re generally surrounded by a lot of rock and have fairly limited forward visibility due to the path winding between rock formations. However, once you reach the top, you suddenly have an explosively wide, vast view of Badlands National Park facing south.

After Notch Trail, I also walked the Window Trail, named as such because the end of the trail has a rock formation that looks like a window. … This photograph below clearly is not that window, but it was on my SD card chronologically during the time that I would’ve been at Window Trail, and it was unique scenery relative to the rest of Badlands, so I decided to share it.

My final hike of the day was Door Trail. From the parking lot, it leads down to an area where you can read about the Badlands’ badness via some in­for­ma­tional signs, and then take some stairs to walk out directly into the badlands. The trail takes you about half a mile out, and is named “door” be­cause it is supposed to be a door to the real badlands—the trailless backcountry badlands of over 300 square miles (or approximately 800 square kil­o­me­ters) surrounded by the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway, Interstate 90, South Dakota Highway 44, and South Dakota Highway 73.

For my final stop before reconnecting onto Interstate 90 and heading back to Rapid City, I took a stop at the Big Badlands Overlook, the location where a lot of the most signature photos of Badlands National Park are taken.

Badlands was very different than the other recent national parks I’ve visited—Grand Canyon, Zion, Canyonlands, Arches, and Wind Cave. Although Bad­lands might not have been as impressive or breathtaking as some of the bigger national parks, Badlands still had its own special charm to it—the charm of something being so rugged, yet still having its own unique kind of beauty.

I don’t have a map with GPS tracking because my walks and hikes were split up across many smaller trails, but according to my fitness tracker, my total distance was right around 9 miles. That ended up being very similar to my hike at the Grand Canyon this past December, but it was a lot less tiring be­cause this was nine miles split up over several hours with many driving breaks in between.

If you choose to make your own trip to Badlands National Park, I think a two-day trip is the minimum you’ll need to see everything there is to see, and still do enough activities to make it feel like you’ve experienced the true Badlands experience. I only took stops along South Dakota Highway 240, but there are many other paths you can take to see other areas of Badlands.

 

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