Mt. Rushmore, Needles Highway, Custer State Park, the Stratobowl. The what?
Yep, the Stratobowl. A trip to South Dakota’s Black Hills is not complete without a trip to the Stratobowl – at least for me. This is where my husband’s eyes roll and he goes, “oh, that place again.” Located right off of US-16 as you enter Black Hills National Forest, most tourists drive right by, not knowing the historic spot they’ve just missed (just past Putz & Glow Indoor Mini Golf – I had to add that…).
The Stratobowl was home to a dozen manned research balloon launches from 1934 through 1959. The large depression was selected to help with the launches, shielding the balloon from wind gusts as it was prepared for lift-off. If you look at a Google Map of the area, you’ll know when you’re near: Strato Bowl Drive, Stratosphere Lane, Gondola Road. The bowl itself is private property, but there is a gravel public road that will take you to the bottom.
The best view of the Stratobowl isn’t in the bowl itself, but from the ridge above. There is a national forest gravel trail that will take you to the same overlook constructed in the 1930s for balloon launch viewers. If you go, there isn’t a parking lot. Look for a gate and possibly some vehicles parked off of the side of the road (we had 2-3 dog walkers and other hikers when we visited). It’s a beautiful view and you’ll also see a National Geographic plaque and granite stones for each of the launches from the bowl. From the lookout, you’ll also see the trout stream that pilot Maj. William Kepner noted would be ideal for a launch site.
On your way there, visit the South Dakota Air & Space Museum at Ellsworth AFB in Rapid City. In addition to having a great museum, check out their Stratobowl exhibit.
There is a series of granite slabs, each with the story behind each launch at the Stratobowl.
Sadly, they’re all behind a fence, making them hard to read.
National Geographic Society Plack for 1935 Explorer II launch