When I was a kid, growing up in northern Illinois, most of my friends went on vacation to the Wisconsin Dells (a water park just a few hours north) or to more exotic places like Disneyworld in Florida. For me, family vacation was always South Dakota: the Black Hills and Badlands on the western side of the state, specifically. I remember feeling like the odd one out when my friends would show me their Minnie Mouse ears or talk about the craziest new waterslide at the Dells (a childhood fear of mine that I still haven’t outgrown), but as soon as we hopped in the car to begin our 13 hour road trip to South Dakota, I couldn’t wait to get back to the trees, rocks, and lakes that I had come to know so well.

I remember planning out our daily activities weeks before vacation. On Monday, we’d hike Black Elk Peak (then called Harney Peak, the highest point between the Rocky Mountains and the Pyrenees in France); on Tuesday, we’d ride bikes on the Mickelson Trail and take paddle boats out on Sylvan Lake; Wednesday would be a trip to historic downtown Keystone, where we’d watch old western reenactments in the street; and so forth for our weeklong trip. 

Our itinerary might not have included roller coasters or terrifying waterslides, but I found plenty of ways to get an adrenaline rush out in nature. During our family hikes in Badlands National Park, I would climb up the sandstone formations, traversing this way and that, always in search of the highest point I could get to. My little sister, Anna, remembers being terrified once when my love of scrambling led to me getting cliffed out on a high point in the Badlands. Unable to downclimb the way I had gone up, I had to make my way down a steep gully by myself before finding my way back to my family. Anna was apparently near tears, but I was invigorated by that little taste of danger. Years later, when I was in high school, Anna and I took our first outdoor climbing lesson in the Black Hills. I instantly fell in love, flying up the rock wall, confidently finding one hold after another until I triumphantly reached the top.

These trips to South Dakota, a true wilderness compared to the small Midwest suburb we lived in, sparked a sense of adventure, exploration, and love for the great outdoors in me at a young age, which has only grown over time. These early experiences in nature shaped decisions I made and interests I developed later in life, from working in Yellowstone one summer during college to taking up rock climbing and summiting 30 peaks in the Grand Canyon to landing my dream job at Wilderness Volunteers. I don’t think I would be who I am today without those childhood trips to South Dakota. 

Growing up, the Black Hills was the furthest west I had traveled; actually, it was one of the only places I had traveled. Since then, I’ve hiked, run, and climbed all across the west, seeing and experiencing things I never could have dreamed of as a kid. But, there will always be something nostalgic, something very close to my heart, about South Dakota. It feels like home to me almost as much as the house I grew up in. So, I couldn’t be more excited to have the opportunity to lead Wilderness Volunteers’ first-ever project in Black Hills National Forest this summer! The project is already full, and I can’t wait to share this special place with our ten volunteers who have signed up. (If you’re still interested, though, be sure to sign up for the waitlist or check out our Devils Tower project, adjacent to the Black Hills and also an incredibly special place!). 

It has been so much fun to look back at family photos, reminisce about our time together in South Dakota, and reflect on the impact those trips have had on me. But now, what I really want to know is:

What was your first experience in the wilderness? What special place sparked a love of the outdoors in you? 

We would love to share your stories (and photos if you have them!) with our WV community! If you’d like to share, please email us at carrie@wildernessvolunteers.org

Please include any of the following:

  • Where did you grow up?
  • Where/how did you get introduced to the outdoors? 
  • What were some of your first memories in the outdoors?
  • What was the impact of these experiences?
  • Photos then and now: if you have photos as a kid/teenager/young adult, please share them, as well as a current photo of you – perhaps on a WV project!

We can’t wait to hear your stories!