Badlands: Good Memories

Last July, we spent a day at Badlands National Park en route to Windcave, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone from Rocky Mountain Park. All of the guidebooks and reviews I’d read suggested one day would be enough.

One day?!

Don’t get me wrong: if a single day is all you can spare, a day at Badlands would be a day very well spent indeed. But trust me when I say that one day will only be long enough to whet your appetite and leave you clamoring for more!

Initially, we’d planned to camp inside the park but wound up instead at Badlands/White River KOA so the kids could have access to a pool–a last-minute decision I was later glad for given the 94 degree heat! We had fun glamping in a tipi and were relieved not to have to worry about bears, having just experience a bear in camp in Colorado a day earlier.

Glamping at Badlands/White River KOA

We got an early start the next morning, beginning our Badlands visit with a stop at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to watch the park movie and pick up the kids’ Junior Ranger packets. Since the only requirement for badges at Badlands was to attend a Junior Ranger program (no packets to complete), we decided to spend a few hours hiking. We loved the Door Trail and Window Trail! With nobody on the trail besides us, it felt like we had the park to ourselves. The kids loved scrambling over the rock formations, and the views were unlike anything we’d seen before.

Hiking the Door Trail, Badlands National Park


Door Trail overlook, Badlands National Park

From there, we backtracked to the Visitor Center to attend the Junior Ranger talk, which was a fun and interactive mock fossil dig in a sandbox. It simulated the steps visitors are supposed to take if they discover fossils in the park. Interesting side note: the ranger said that almost all of the fossils found to date in the park have been discovered by visitors. In fact, their most famous find, a museum quality saber tooth tiger fossil, was found by a little girl who’d insisted on documenting the fossil after attending a similar Junior Ranger talk!

Uncovering mammal “fossils”
Junior Ranger swearing-in ceremony; Badlands National Park

Psyched about the possibility of discovering the next museum-quality fossil, we walked the Fossil Trail. We didn’t find anything promising, but the boardwalk was a nice place to enjoy our packed lunches. From there, we hiked Saddle Pass Trail, a short but strenuous climb straight to the top–no switchbacks.

“How hard can it be?” Famous last words!


Sliding down Saddle Pass Trail
Those little specks are people. No switchbacking; Saddle Pass Trail goes straight up!

Along the way, we saw an elderly couple and their rambunctious grandsons attempting the trail. Kudos to those grandparents for giving their grandkids an amazing experience, but whew, watching them climb the slippery gravel sure made me nervous!

Driving along Badlands Loop Road, we stopped at Pinnacles and Yellow Mounds Overlook. My oldest and I scrambled up the mounds to an amazing technicolor view of the surrounding area.

Beautiful Yellow Mounds, Badlands National Park
As far as the eye can see, Badlands National Park
Beautiful and scenic Badlands Loop Road

Before exiting the park, we detoured 5 miles along a bumpy single-lane gravel road to Robert’s Prairie Dog Town. To be sure, there are prairie dogs within the park’s boundaries, but to see such a huge concentration of prairie dogs in a single location and to be able to walk out to their burrows was an incredible experience. We sat quietly for close to an hour, just watching and exchanging smiles over their antics.

Robert’s Prairie Dog Town, SD

Of course, no trip to Badlands would be complete without a stop at Wall Drug. The ice cream was particularly delicious, and there’s nothing better than free ice cold water after a long, hot day spent hiking and exploring.

Ice Cream and Soda Fountain, Wall Drug, SD
Ice cream–yum!

The kids were simultaneously overwhelmed and enthralled with the kitschy wonder that is Wall Drug.

New friends, Wall Drug, SD
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The infamous jackalope, Wall Drug, SD

From Wall Drug, we drove 90 minutes to Rapid City, SD, where we made one final sunset stop at Dinosaur Park before settling in for the night at the Mount Rushmore KOA.

Dinosaur Park, Rapid City, SD
Riding an apatosaurus tail, Dinosaur Park, SD

It was a full and fantastic day at Badlands. If I had the good fortune of living anywhere near South Dakota, Badlands National Park would be the kind of place that would beckon my return time and again. The land has a stark, quiet beauty to it that gets under your skin and a rare accessibility that allows you to connect intimately with your surroundings and experiences. Tell me: have you ever been to Badlands National Park? What’s your favorite memory there?