Cold War History: Visiting the Minuteman Missile Site in South Dakota

This post is a part of my Black Hills Road Trip Series 

Most people visit South Dakota for Mount Rushmore, but there is so much more to do in the area! One of my unexpected favorites was to explore the Minuteman Missile Site along Interstate 90 in Western South Dakota.

Minuteman Missile Site

It’s actually pretty easy to get there.

As you can see, the park is nestled near Badlands National Park, so combining the two of them into one action-packed day is very doable.

5 Reasons To Visit the Minuteman Missile Site in South Dakota

Depending on your pre-booked tour time for Delta-01, you might have to do a little backtracking along the perfect loop created by Route 240. Plan to spend an entire day between the two parks, paying attention to the more time-sensitive nature of the activities at the Minuteman Missile Sites.

Minuteman Missile Site South Dakota

Outside the visitor center.

Here’s what you need to know about visiting (or why you should if you haven’t considered it yet!)

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You’ll Gain Some Useful Trivia

Minuteman Missile Site South Dakota

Freezing, but impressed.

Before I added the Minuteman Missile Site to my South Dakota itinerary, I honestly thought that the Feds kept all of America’s nukes in a vault somewhere near DC. Kind of like a Fort Knox situation, but with weapons of mass destruction instead of gold.

The nice thing is that this is the first time I’m letting anyone else know this, so while I was touring the former bunker and missile silo locations, noone was looking at me like, “Wow. This girl is a Class A IDIOT.”

For all they knew, I’d always been in the loop about Uncle Sam stashing his nukes in the ground throughout the Midwest. Because putting things that have the potential to end the word on regular ole’ farmers’ land is a totally rational and normal thing to do.

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It’s like Taking a Free Cold War History Class

Minuteman Missile Site South Dakota

My sister taking in the exhibits, under construction at the time.

You should start your visit to the Minuteman Missile Site with a stop by the visitor center, where you can take in the exhibits, films, and bathrooms.

There is a 30-minute film called Beneath the Plains which introduces you to the Minuteman Missile Site’s context within the Cold War, as well as the system’s continued role as a nuclear deterrent…because yes, as mentioned, there are still top secret sites somewhere out there in the Midwest with active missiles in them.

You can also go through exhibits on the Cold War as a whole through the lens of the Air Force and Defense Departments.

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You’ll Get To Explore Launch Control Facility Delta-01

Minuteman Missile Site South Dakota

“Topside” at the launch site.

This was one of the coolest parts of visiting the Minuteman Missile Site.

Delta-01 is a real-life decommissioned missile launch facility. From 1963 until the early 1990’s, rotating sets of two Americans would spend hours of pure boredom punctuated by moments of acute panic locked down in this bunker.  If the Soviets launched, this team was our first line of defense…or the people pushing us once step closer to M.A.D. 

Also, fun fact: my sister and I learned that the launch codes changed with each new pair of personnel that went down for a shift, and the old ones had to be incinerated.

Minuteman Missile Site South Dakota

The white barrel is where they burned the launch codes after each shift.

Obviously, since this was top-secret stuff, it was important that every shred of paper be completely destroyed, and if a sliver the size of a dime blew away, the workers had to scour the South Dakotan wasteland to recover it…or else.

You start the tour up top and see what it was like to live day-to-day above a launch control facility, then take the elevator 31 feet down into the “launch room” itself.

Minuteman Missile Site South Dakota

The toilet down in the launch bunker.

The tour typically lasts about 30 minutes and because of limited space, accommodates six people and one Park Ranger. You should reserve your spot ASAP, up to three months in advance, here.

Unfortunately, no same day reservations are allowed. You don’t want to miss out, so book now!

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You Can See a Real Nuclear Missile Silo, like Delta-09

Minuteman Missile Site South Dakota

A reconstruction of the warhead.

During the height of the Cold War, there were approximately 150 missiles spread out across the western portion of South Dakota. Most of these missiles have now been decommissioned, but if you’d like to get a look at what one looked at during the height of America’s pissing contest with the Soviets, then you should check out Delta-09.

Delta-09 was once home to a  fully operational Minuteman Missile, bearing a 1.2 megaton nuclear warhead. Casual.

There is a cell-phone tour available because there are typically no Park Rangers onsite, so you can call in to get the deets.

It was so windy when my sister and I visited that we just peeked down into the silo and quickly left, but if the weather is nice, I recommend staying for the tour.

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You Might Even Meet a Veteran

Minuteman Missile Site South Dakota

I took this for my dad, a USAF veteran.

A few days after our tour of the Minuteman Missile Site, my sister and I were eating lunch at a creepy little café near Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. The place the local Park Ranger recommended was closed, but we were too hungry to wait to eat until we got back to Rapid City, South Dakota, so we found ourselves in a dimly lit hovel with three tables that smelled a little too musty to be serving food.

Two older men walked in, wearing flannels and trucker hats, but sporting sweet smiles. They greeted us as soon as they entered with a “Howdy, ladies!” and asked for pie and ice cream. The woman at the counter, who was barely pushing five feet tall and had nails nearly longer than her fingers, was out of ice cream, so she quickly scurried to buy some from the podunk grocery next door.

Minuteman Missile Site South Dakota

Two locks with two keys, so no one person could launch. They had to work as a team.

Alone in the creepy café, the gentlemen struck up a conversation with my sister and me, as it became very obvious that we weren’t from around these here parts. This might sound like the beginning of a Criminal Minds episode, but if you had seen these men in person, you’d know that they gave off a sweet grandpa vibe and not a murderous one.

When we mentioned we had toured the Minuteman Missile Site, one of the gentlemen beamed, “I worked in those! Back in the ’60s. I was just a kid with Nuclear Codes in my hands.”

“Wait, what?” my head has never swiveled around so quickly (okay, except for when I met Eddie Redmayne, but that’s another story.)

He paused, the color slowly leaving his face.

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Minuteman Missile Site South Dakota

Interesting info graphic about the power of modern weapons.

“Wow, the wood paneling in here is awfully well done, isn’t it?” Suddenly, he was out of his chair and very, very interested in the obviously fake “wood” peeling off the walls. His buddy was shoveling ice cream-less pie into his mouth at a pace too quick not to be suspicious.

The bell above the door jingled as the waitress lumbered in with the ice cream. Another local family showed up for lunch. I never got a further explanation.

Still mad about it, tbh.

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2 Comments

  1. Kerry
    March 3, 2018 / 8:51 PM

    that was seriously one of the most intriguing, yet confusing conversations ever.

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