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Missile Silo National Park?! The Scoop on Minuteman Missile NHS!

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Words like “unique” and “exceptional” are to be expected at National Park sites. Minuteman Missile National Historic Site takes these two words to an entirely new calibre. Yes, there actually is a missile silo national park, and it’s right off Interstate 90.

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Missile Silo National Park? Minuteman Missile NHS preserves a Cold-War Era ICBM launch base. Image from NPS.
Missile Silo National Park? Minuteman Missile NHS preserves a Cold-War Era ICBM launch base. Image from NPS.

A Park Like No Other

Minuteman Missile NHS is the first national park dedicated to telling the story of the Cold War Era. More than that, the park actually features a complete Nuclear alert facility. The park’s three units include an outstanding visitor center, a high-tech missile launch facility, and a complete underground missile silo. 

Our family peers though the glass roof into the missile silo housing a Minuteman Missile.
Want a glimpse at a Nuke? You can do that at this missile silo national park.

Here’s a quick take on this remarkable “missile silo national park” and the geopolitical events that built it.

Front Line of the Cold War

A view of beautiful South Dakota prairie and badlands.
The peaceful plains of South Dakota housed 150 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles.

The Great Plains have long been known as America’s heartland, a place of quiet farms and simple living. However, this same area was the front-line of  the Cold War for over thirty years. An arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles stood at constant alert in underground silos located throughout the Great Plains. 

Gated entrance to the Delta-09 facility at the Minuteman Missile NHS, aka "missile silo national park".
A Minuteman Missile Launch Site could easily be mistaken for reservour or utility site.

The M.A.D. World

An image of the first nuclear test, a large mushroom cloud rises from New Mexico in 1945.

“The Cold War” is the name given for a fifty-year struggle between the United States and The Soviet Union. The two countries had radically different views on government and human rights, and tensions began almost immediately after WWII ended. 

The US began the Cold War with a nuclear advantage, being the first nation to invent the atomic bomb. It wasn’t long, however, until the USSR successfully created its own atomic weaponry and surpassed the United States in space technology. 

Military regalia at Missile Silo National Park.

What is M. A. D.?

The United States lacked the means of detecting and intercepting an incoming nuclear warhead. Therefore, the US government adopted a strategy known as M.A.D., “Mutually Assured Destruction”. 

Informational sign: "MAD to START". Located at the Minuteman NHS, aka missile silo national park.

The United States committed to never initiate a nuclear attack on the USSR, but remained armed and ready to retaliate to any act of nuclear aggression. The hope was that the certainty of nuclear devastation would prevent a nuclear attack from happening in the first place. 

Girl looking at engraving inscribed with Cold War imagery and a Sun Tzu quote from the Art of War. Missile Silo National Park.
This sounds too much like Star Trek, especially given current events.

The Minuteman Missile Program was the ultimate result of the MAD policy of nuclear deterrence. 1000 Minuteman missiles stood ready in their silos, prepared to launch at a moment’s notice. Each missile carried a nuclear payload equal to eighty atomic bombs.

Delta Wing: The Context for Minuteman Missile NHS

The gated entrance of the Delta-01 Launch Control Center.
Image from NPS.

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site gives a window into the American nuclear arsenal and the chilling significance of the Cold War. The Park preserves a segment of the Delta wing, one of six Minuteman Missile bases.

The Delta Wing supervised 3 squadrons totaling 150 nuclear missiles. The Park’s Delta-01 launch control facility controlled ten of those missiles, one of which is preserved in the Park’s Delta-09 Silo.

Another view of the D-01 Launch Center.
Image from NPS.

Today visitors can explore the visitor center, tour the Delta-01 Launch Facility, and visit the Delta-09 Missile Silo to get an inside view of Cold War History.

Where to Go:

Three separate locations comprise Minuteman Missile NHS. All three sites are located in South Dakota along a short stretch of Interstate 90, near Badlands National Park.

Minuteman Missile NHS Interpretive Center

Exterior shot of the Minuteman Missile National Historic site, aka missile silo national park.

Ok, so there are parks where you can afford to skip the visitor center. This park is not one of those parks. The Cold War is a sophisticated (and scary) subject.

Thankfully, the Minuteman Missile Visitor Center has a power-packed exhibit that guides you through the ins and outs of the Iron Curtain, the arms race, MAD, and disarmament treaties. 

An exhibit detailing the construction and transportation of ICBMs at missile silo national park.

The center also provides insights into what it was to work with or live beside nuclear warheads on a regular basis. You get a personal side to this history when you listen to the stories of the Missilleers who tended the warheads, and the farmers who had them in their fields!

Educational resources

Our boys watching a 60's era public announcement of Nuclear preparedness.
One visitor center exhibit allowed our children to step back into the 60’s.

The Visitor Center is an ideal way to see a park. Our brief visit not only gave our children the introduction they needed, but also furnished them with Junior Ranger resources that they could use while visiting the park.

Two of our daughters add a Minuteman NHS bumper sticker to our growing collection.
Burro and Appaloosa were excited (really, they were!) to do the bumper sticker.

We’ve even found that souvenirs have a place in amplifying the educational experience. We couldn’t spend a day at the park this time. We could provide our children with an informational booklet that they could read and explore over the course of the road trip. Our Minuteman Missile NHS mug and bumper sticker provide additional reminders and opportunities to discuss the park and its history.

Delta-01 Launch Control Facility

The big draw at “Missile Silo National Park” isn’t the missile silo, but the advanced Launch Control Facility. The Delta-01 compound was one of fifteen Delta Wing launch control facilities, each of which supervised 10 Minutemen Missiles. A nondescript support building guarded the entrance to a sophisticated, underground communications center. 

The Delta-01 Compound doesn't look like much from the I-90.
The Delta-01 Launch Compound as seen from the I-90. Image from NPS.

The state-of-the-art launch facility could detect an incoming ICBM ten minutes before it arrived in the US mainland. Air Force personnel were prepared to launch a counteroffensive of Minuteman Missiles before the Soviet warheads arrived. The computer guided Minuteman missiles could devastate Soviet cities within thirty minutes or less.

A glimpse inside the underground capsule at Delta-01 at Missile Silo National Park.
A glimpse inside the underground capsule at Delta-01. Image from NPS.

The Delta-01 compound consisted of a launch control capsule. The complex, pill-shaped communications center was designed to withstand a nuclear attack. A massive blast door protected the facility both from wartime explosions or the ever-present threat of sabotage. 

Domino's pizza themed door at the Visitor Center for Minuteman Missile NHS.
The enormous blast took 45 minutes to open to prevent sabotage attempts. Image from NPS.

Delta-01 designers created a host of precautions to prevent an accidental launch. The Minuteman Missiles could not disengage or self-destruct once the launch process began. 

Text says: "No Lone Zone Two Man Concept Mandatory". Extreme care was taken to ensure that human error wouldn't result in catastrophe. Image from NPS.
Extreme care was taken to ensure that human error wouldn’t result in catastrophe. Image from NPS.

These are the kind of intricacies that make the Delta-01 underground tour unlike any other tour in the United States. Little wonder that this place has become such a hot-ticket NPS location.

Delta-09 Launch Site

family walking towards the Missile silo  national park Delta-09 site.

The Delta-09 Silo is the place to see the Cold War’s iconic weapon. The underground silo is the last of ten that were supervised by the Delta-01 underground launch control center.

Family studying informational signs at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.

A visit to the Delta-09 Missile Silo truly brings home what an achievement it was to build the Minuteman sites. The secret, effective armament of 1,000 nuclear missiles hidden in plain sight is one of the engineering marvels of the 20th century.

Outside the gate at the D-9 site.

We enjoyed entering the gated facilities and exploring all around the surface of the Delta-09 Silo site.

Glass roof over blast door opening at D-9. Minuteman Missile NHS.

The silo’s 90-ton blast door has been partly opened and covered with a glass roof. You can peer down the long silo and see the missile for yourself. 

Missile silo interior.
My wife had the presence of mind to get a shot of the star attraction. LOL

The Cold War came to a close when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. The United States, Russia, and the International Community took diplomatic steps to substantially reduce Nuclear arms. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and those treaties that followed it brought closure to the Cold War Era policy of MAD. 

Exterior of the D-9 missile silo.

The US Government decommissioned and destroyed most of the Minuteman sites. Intercontinental ballistic missiles continue to play a strategic role in the defense of the United States. However, they are no longer the primary means of maintaining world peace.

What to Know about Visiting the Missile Silo National Park

Roadside sign for the Minuteman Missile Launch Facility Delta-09.

Check Your Spelling

Be careful not to confuse Minuteman Missile National Historic Site with Minute Man National Historical Park! The former is a Cold War Era site located in South Dakota, while the later is a Revolutionary War site in Massachusetts. Make sure to set your GPS to the right park!

You Won’t Get Close to the Nuke

The Minuteman Missile ICBM is the superstar of this National Park. So it’s probably surprising to learn that the missile silo national park tour doesn’t include a walk inside the missile silo. You can peer down at the silo and its occupant at the Delta-09 launch site, but that’s it.

Underground ladder inside the Delta-01 facility.
You can’t tour the Missile Silo in person. However, you can take a virtual tour. Image courtesy of NPS.

Advanced Reservations

Tours of the Delta-01 launch control facility are hard to come by. Access is provided through ranger led tours of six people or less. The nuclear-war facility was not built for group gatherings. Delta-01 is located around 35 feet underground and can only be reached through a small elevator, so tour groups are kept small to ensure visitor safety.

Intercontinental ballistic missiles draw a lot of attention, so these tours are popular. The park does not accept same-day tour reservations, but permits you to reserve a date within three months of your visit. 

Limited Accessibility

This underground Cold War-era missile station wasn’t designed to be accessible to all ages and abilities. Unfortunately this means that some people are not able to visit Delta-01. NPS describes the 45 minute tour of the Delta-01 Compound as “moderately strenuous”. Tour participants must have the ability to climb two 15-foot ladders unassisted.

You’ll also need to be relatively comfortable with heights. The basic elevator has an open grate door. That means that you will be aware of the fact that you’re descending 35 feet underground. 

Launch key slot. Image courtesy of NPS.
Image courtesy of NPS.

Any children on tour must be at least 40’’ tall, be at least six years of age, and be accompanied by an adult.

The Delta-01 Facility does include surface-level buildings but these buildings aren’t yet ready for public display. 

Go Audio

Minuteman Missile NHS does provide a tour that doesn’t require a reservation. The park’s cell phone tour provides information on both the Delta-01 Compound and the Delta-09 silo. You can access the audio tour by dialing a phone number provided at the visitor center. 

We found the audio tour to be super useful in making the most of our quick stop-in. The children followed the posted signs at Delta-09 and responded to the prompts to learn more about what they were seeing. We could even listen in as we drove in the car. 

Limited Parking

Minuteman Missile NHS isn’t a huge park. The parking areas are on the smaller side and could fill up fast in the summer season. 

Watch Your Feet

Rattlesnakes live on the South Dakota prairie. We also saw some big, bad cow pies. Poison and poop are reason enough to stay out of grass at Delta-09!

Plan Your Route Carefully

Minuteman Missile NHS is located in the famous Black Hills. The name “The Black Hills” is somewhat misleading. We tend to think of hills as being bunched together, in close proximity.

In reality, “the Black Hills” is a region that covers Southwest South Dakota and Northwest Wyoming. Devil’s Tower National Monument, Mouth Rushmore, Rapid City, Wind Cave National Park, and a number of state parks and national parks are grouped into this name.

Think of The Black Hills as if you’re going to another popular region: “Southern California.” Both regions are popular, both are full of attractions, and both are larger than you think they are.

A drive from Minuteman NHS to Mount Rushmore will be at least an hour and 19 minutes if you’re only going there. It will take another two hours and 16 minutes of ideal family driving to get from Mount Rushmore to Devil’s Tower National Monument.  

The Black Hills are full of good stuff- so much good stuff that it can be overwhelming. Get everyone together to look at the options before you arrive, so that you can get the most out of your experience.

Gated exterior of the D-1 facility. Image courtesy of NPS.
Image courtesy of NPS.

Stay Tuned

Minuteman Missile NHS is still a developing park. The park anticipates that more of the Delta-01 facility will become public through continuing renovation work. Additional Cold War Era sites will likely become national historic sites over the coming years. 

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© Copyright Brian A. Warren 2022

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About the author

Brian Warren is a native of California and has traveled extensively throughout the United States, Canada, and several other countries. He's husband to Jennifer, Dad of six children, and taught middle school history for several years. His special interests include craft beers, the American Old West, and geology. Brian is also an online marketing specialist and cofounder of Dinkum Tribe, a website dedicated to healthy, happy families. Feel free to send Brian a message at [email protected].


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