Minuteman Missile National Historic Site is a piece of history not to be skipped or missed. I honestly didn’t think neither the kids nor I would be interested in a missile, but I was surprisingly wrong. We all REALLY enjoyed it and the kids were eager to share their experience with everyone!
Political Disclaimer – Not to get too political on a family travel site, but the nuclear arms race is a sad thing. This park never paints a pretty picture and gives visitors plenty of opportunities to come to their own conclusions about the US’ involvement with nuclear weapons. We were grateful for the opportunity to use this visit as a chance to discuss this as a family and talk about the good (i.e. ending WWII quickly) and the bad (lots of bad) that comes from wars and nuclear arms races. The good thing about a place like this, it helps our kids to visualize history and to know that this stuff is real. Nuclear weapons aren’t just something from a cool movie or form ink in a textbook. We were able to discuss the importance of being nice to everyone and how our choices in life shouldn’t take away someone else’s ability to choose their own path. We can’t wait until we live in a world where these terrible tools are no longer needed.
Moving on to discuss our experience at the National Historic Site.
During the Cold War, the United States built nuclear missiles in case the Soviet Union launched an assault against us as a nation. As a precaution, they spread out 1,000 missiles across the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, and Missouri. Launch control centers were built to manage a cluster of 10 missiles each.
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site is just outside the Badlands and about 15 minutes from the famous Wall Drug Store in Wall, South Dakota. Depending on the direction of your travel, it’s on the way to Mt Rushmore. Since the missile, the visitor’s center and the launch control facility are at three different interstate exits, the order you visit the sites can vary slightly. Each location is very close and can be seen from the interstate. Check the National Parks Service website or the visitor’s center for more information on directions.
We recommend visiting the sites in the following order if you’re headed east:
1) Visitor’s center (Exit 131 turn North)
2) Launch Control Center (Exit 127 turn North)
3) Badlands (Exit 131 turn South)
4) Back to Wall, SD for lunch (Exit 110)
5) Missile Silo (Exit 116 turn South)
We recommend visiting in that order because it was the best use of our time. Plus this was highly recommended by two National Parks Rangers. When we visit national parks I’ve noticed that some Rangers will be hesitant to recommend a schedule or a place to eat so, when these guys recommended this itinerary I made sure to listen.
Visitor’s Center (Exit 131 turn North)
I spoke to a ranger and they recommend I be in line to get my tickets by 7:30 or 7:45 at the latest. I thought they were crazy. We rolled in around 7:45 and there was already a line. There are lots of stagnant marshes in the area so make sure you wear mosquito spray while waiting in line for the visitor’s center to open.
Once opened, we were able to get in on the second tour of the day. In June of 2015 when we visited, they often sell out of tickets before lunch.
Since we had tickets for the second tour, we just hung around the visitor’s center and helped the kids work on their Jr Ranger badges. You can do most of the program there at the center.
The Jr. Ranger badge is for kids of all ages. It’s educational and takes about 30 minutes. Depending on the age of the kid, there are various activities in a booklet that each child has to do. For example, our youngest had to draw a picture of a missile in order to pass it off but our oldest had to descramble an “intercepted Cold War message from the USSR”. After a certain amount of activities, they earn their badge and are sworn in as Jr Rangers.
The Minuteman Missile Visitor’s Center is newly opened spring of 2015. When we were there they hadn’t paved the parking lot yet. There are several exhibits and a video. There’s also a bookstore that gives visitors the chance to learn a little more history. There are clean restrooms and water fountains to quench your thirst.
Launch Control Center (Exit 127 turn North)
Once you’ve gotten your tickets, you’ll be given directions on how to get to the launch facility. Its four miles northwest of the visitor’s center. The launch control facility tour takes about an hour and is guided only. Your guide will give you the history and tour of the building above the launch facility (31 feet underground). You’ll see the living, dining, and recreational quarters for the eight people stationed there at the launch center. Next, you’ll take an elevator to the launch control center about 31 feet underground. Walk through the 8 ton blast doors to the control room where the officers stationed underground carried out 24-hour shifts and had living quarters. They were trained to deploy minuteman missiles at a moment’s notice. The tours begin every thirty minutes so don’t expect to spend too much time in any one room of the building. The kids loved being underground and seeing all of the military paraphernalia. This was, by far, the coolest part of visiting the Minuteman Missile sites. Be aware, there are some height and health requirements due to safety regulations, so check online or at the visitor’s center for more information. There is no handicap accessibility. Read online for more details.
Badlands (Exit 131 turn South)
We were headed East on Interstate 90 and we wanted to visit the Badlands. It’s only about 15 minutes on the interstate to pass the Badlands but it takes about 1.5 hours to actually drive through the Badlands because of the slow traffic. Add another 0.5 to 1 hours for getting out, taking pictures, and walking along a trail or two.
Once you exit the West side of the Badlands you exit the park at Wall, SD. We recommend grabbing some lunch and heading a few miles down the road to the Missile Silo.
If you timed it right, you’re back at Wall around lunch time. On the road to Wall, SD you’ll find hundreds (and we really mean hundreds) of signs advertising Wall Drugstore. It’s more of a souvenir mall and tourist stop (I didn’t use the words “tourist trap”). On Trip Advisor some people complained about Wall Drug but our family enjoyed it and were surprised to spend well over an hour looking at all of the different departments. On a separate trip, Grandma and Grandpa Wesley have enjoyed stopping at Wall Drug and recommend the food.
Missile Silo (Exit 116 turn South)
Now that you’ve had lunch and are headed east; you can stop at the missile silo. The silo is a self-guided tour and doesn’t require any reservations. You park outside the gate and let yourself in. There’s a chain on the gate that helps prevent deer from gaining access to the site. They have placards describing some of the items at the site. While you can visit this site before going to the visitor’s center, things will make more sense visiting the silo after the other centers. That’s why we chose to do the silo last (plus it was recommended by a National Parks Ranger). They have placed a large glass door over the missile so you can look down into the missile silo from above.
For more information about Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, visit them online at http://www.nps.gov/mimi/index.htm.
The Minuteman line of missiles are powered by a solid rocket fuel and need little maintenance. Wesley Adventures has also visited southern Arizona’s Titan missile facility where older, liquid-fueled missiles stood guard over the USA. These facilities are much larger. Take a look at that article.