US-14 Through Some Classic Roadtrip Destinations of the West
Today, Roadtrip-'62 ™ takes a look at highway US-14. Highway US-14 travels from Chicago, Illinois to Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. It is 1,398 miles long today but was an extra 33 miles long back in 1962. It was cut back a bit at the Chicago end, strangely to end once again at exactly the same point it ended at in 1939. Though for much of its length it runs roughly parallel to the I-90 freeway, it has not been replaced by it. We’ve already covered some of the route in Illinois and Wisconsin as it cross-crossed US-12, US-16, and US-18, so I’ll focus on the western states. The western end is shared with both US-16 and the eastern segment of US-20.
Through Minnesota and into South Dakota, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway uses US-14 for part of its route. The Highway is a convenient way to see locations where the Wilder family, made famous by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series of books, lived. The Highway was not established back in 1962, but Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes was founded in 1957, and has worked since to open locations mentioned in the books to the public. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum is located along The Highway in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, which is where the "Little House on the Prairie" television series was set. In 1947, Garth Williams, who illustrated the books, found the location of the sod dugout house site on the banks of Plum Creek. After Mr. Williams pointed out the significance of the site, the current owners erected a marker and opened the site to visitors. Also in Walnut Grove is the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum. It includes a replica of the dugout, a covered wagon display, and more. But De Smet, South Dakota has the most sites, as the family lived there for the longest time. In De Smet you can visit the Ingalls homestead and the Surveyors’ House that were on the shores of the now filled-in Silver Lake, the house where Ma and Pa lived after Laura left, DeSmet Cemetery where most of the family is buried, a replica of the Brewster School where Laura taught, and even the hill where Laura and Almanzo's homestead once stood. The cottonwood trees that Pa planted, one each for Ma, Mary, Laura, Carrie, and Grace, are now 120 years old and enormous.
Farther west in South Dakota, we come to Pierre, the capital. It is one of only five state capitals not on the Interstate Highway System, served by only US-14 and US-83 instead of a freeway. Pierre was almost not the state capital: there were three public votes on whether to keep it there! First, Pierre won the election to be the temporary capital in 1889. It won again in 1890 to become the permanent capital and again in 1904, which finally put an end to attempts to move the capital. If you head out to Montana, you may notice that their capitol looks almost the same as South Dakota’s. That’s because South Dakota hired the same architects and used their previous design for the Montana State Capitol, with some variations, to save money. Construction began in 1905 and was completed by 1910. It boasts a copper dome, Corinthian columns, and walls of local granite, Marquette Raindrop sandstone, and Bedford limestone. The interior rotunda includes two sculptures by Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore. A restoration that took 22 years beginning in 1977 has restored everything in the capitol back to the building’s original colors and shine. Tours are provided by volunteers and take about an hour.
Out beyond the prairie lie the badlands, displayed at their best at Badlands National Park. The park was designated as Badlands National Monument in 1929 and changed to a National Park in 1978. Though US-16 travels through the park, our US-14 meets it just a few miles north, at Wall, South Dakota, so it’s fair game for our roadtrip. The park protects a vast expanse of mixed-grass prairie where bison, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs roam. It is also the primary site for re-introduction of the black-footed ferret, North America’s most endangered land mammal. But of course, the big attraction is the extensive badlands. During a period between 26 and 75 million years ago, layers of tiny grains of sand, silt, and clay lay under an inland sea and cemented together into sedimentary rocks. The rocks were rather weak and have eroded quickly and easily over the past 26 million years, since the sea dried up or receded. Rivers cut down through the rock layers, carving buttes, pinnacles, and spires into what had once been a flat floodplain. The Badlands are still eroding at the rapid rate of about one inch per year! Much of the landscape still appears to be clay, mud, and silt after a good rain. Hikes through the badlands range from flat stretches through the prairie landscape to uphill climbs through the rock formations. Because of the difficult ground and hills, the trails in the park include numerous boardwalks and stairways. Several of the trails are less than a mile long, one way, allowing even the casual tourist some great views of this unusual landscape.
A college student describes her experience at the Fossil Preparation Lab and fossil hunting. (Public domain video from National Park Service.)
Besides the strange landscape, the area is well-known for its fossils and has been since Native American tribes inhabited the area. The Lakota found large fossilized bones, fossilized seashells and turtle shells, leading them to surmise that the area had once been under water. Organized paleontological interest in this area began in the 1840s, as Europeans began exploring. By 1854, when Dr. Joseph Leidy published a series of papers about North American fossils, 84 distinct species had been discovered in North America, including 77 found in these badlands. From 1899 to today, the South Dakota School of Mines has sent people nearly annually and remains one of the most active research institutions working here. There is a a Fossil Preparation Lab in the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. The center was built in 1957–58, so we would have seen a fairly new building in 1962. You can see paleontologists at work and learn more about the scientific discoveries being made. You might even find something important yourself outside! In May 2010, a seven-year old girl found a fossil near the visitor center and reported her find to rangers. It was an exceptionally rare and well-preserved saber tooth cat fossil, which led to the discovery of additional fossil material nearby.
After a visit to Badlands National Park, we come back to US-14 and Wall for a visit to Wall Drug, a sort of cowboy-themed shopping mall that began life as a small town drug store in 1931. Wall proved too small and too poor for pharmacist Ted Hustead to make a good living, until in 1936 his wife Dorothy thought of advertising free ice water to travelers heading to the newly opened Mount Rushmore National Monument. They began selling whatever the tourists wanted and today’s Wall Drug is the result, including a jewelry store, book store, western apparel and hat store, ice cream parlor, restaurant, gift store, rock shop, toy store, and even an art gallery. Wall Drug has over 300 original oil paintings in its Western Art Gallery Dining Rooms. This is one of the best private collections of original Western and Illustration Art in the country, with works by NC Wyeth, Dean Cornwell, and Louis Glanzman. Oh, and don’t forget the jackalopes everywhere in the store and yard, including the giant fiberglass jackalope the kids can pose for photos on. In case you’ve never seen one, the jackalope is a fantasy creature that is some sort of cross between a jack rabbit and antelope. Like other successful tourist destinations that began in the 1930s, Wall Drug was advertised extensively all around the country with billboards. At the peak of their signing in the 1960s, Wall Drug had over 3,000 signs along highways in every corner of the United States! I remember my first approach to the town in the early 1970s, when I noticed Wall Drug signs at ever-decreasing intervals along I-90, beginning back near the Minnesota state line. By the way, the ice water is still free and there still is a real pharmacy inside. As for the restaurant, I think this is the first place I ate a bison burger.
Devils Tower National Monument was designated in 1906: the first National Monument. It was known to some of the Native Americans living in the area as The Bad God’s Tower, and it was that name which was modified by the US Geological Survey when they surveyed the area in 1875. It is still considered sacred by some indigenous peoples. The tower is composed of igneous rock from some ancient volcanic system, eroded over millennia to expose the columns of basalt seen today. Hundreds of parallel cracks divide Devils Tower into hexagonal columns that make it one of the finest traditional rock climbing areas in North America. Besides the tower, there are many trails surrounding it, where you can see broken columns and rocks that have fallen off over the years, along with wildlife such as a large prairie dog colony. There is also a campground along the Belle Fourche River, if you want to make this a stop on your own roadtrip. The closest major highway is conveniently US-14, which is just seven miles from the entrance.
The first western canyon I ever saw was Shell Canyon, along Shell Creek as it tumbles down from the Bighorn Mountains. The small town of Shell, at the bottom of the canyon, has an elevation of only 4210 feet above sea level, whereas some of the mountains are over 10,000 feet tall, making for quite a downhill experience! Make sure you have good brakes and transmission before you try this route. The canyon is beautiful, with many layers of colored stone that reminds one of the Badlands but on a larger scale. The canyon is within the Bighorn National Forest, which was created as a US Forest Reserve in 1897. Highway US-14 is so scenic that it has been designated the Bighorn Scenic Byway within the forest. There is a visitor center at Shell Falls Interpretive Site, located adjacent to Shell Falls about halfway down Shell Canyon. The falls are 120 feet high and tumble over granite. There are interpretive trails, scenic views, and educational displays about natural features at the falls. At the bottom of the canyon, you come into fairly flat, dry, cattle country, which extends west to Yellowstone National Park.
One of my favorite things to do along US-14 is also in Wyoming: the Cody Nite Rodeo at Cody. I saw this the first time I went out to Yellowstone National Park and it was the first rodeo I had ever seen. It was a great evening of watching professionals of the Rodeo Cowboys Association ride, rope, and interact with horses and cattle. There were also kids’ events, special fun announcements and real rodeo clowns to keep the action moving along. And you can watch the sunset from the stands! I’ve been back two more times over the years and recommend it to everyone.
Route US-14 ends at Yellowstone National Park and there is so much to see there that I will leave it for a separate article. We come in at the Lake Yellowstone entrance, after traveling back up into the mountains from Cody. Watch for elk as we enter the park. From here, Roadtrip-'62 ™ can exit the park of any of several highways: US-16, US-20, US-89, US-191, US-212, or US-287. See you soon on one of these!
All photos by the author and Copyright © 2018 - Milne Enterprises, Inc., except as noted.
All other content Copyright © 2018 - Milne Enterprises, Inc.