Badlands National Park – Cedar Pass Campground
Bug Bites: 0
Beautiful Sunsets: 4
We didn’t have high hopes. Badlands National Park promised more bison, more prairie dogs and more badlands views. Haven’t we had enough of that? Plus the campground wasn’t highly rated. But we were so close we figured we ought to check it off our list. So back up to Rapid City we went to head east on I-90.
The park runs east-west with two access points off the freeway. The “loop” road goes directly from one side to the other and the only way to make a loop is to exit the park and drive 20+ miles back on I-90. We decided to drive past the first exit and enter at the eastern entrance since it was closer to the campground and towing a trailer down a scenic drive is usually not a good thing.
Entering from this direction gave us a great view of the mass of rock rising suddenly out of the prairie. This “wall” is the main feature of the park and namesake of Wall, SD and the famous Wall Drug. While Theodore Roosevelt North had badlands formations that looked like pyramids, and the South unit had more rounded ones, these were different still. They had sharp edges and looked like sand castles that had started to blow away and there was no vegetation on their steep sides. As we sat in our campsite each night watching their layers take on a pinkish glow from the sunset, I was glad we decided to come this way!
It turned out that the campground wasn’t all that bad, thanks mostly to those great sunset views. True the sites were little more than roadside parking so we got headlights coming in our windows whenever someone drove through, but we had grass, space and that awesome view so I couldn’t complain. However, the registration process left much to be desired. This campground is run by an outside concessionaire and all sites are reservable. That’s fine, but usually you can pull in and they have tags on the site posts telling you which sites are open and you can stick your payment in an envelope and be done. Not so here. We drove into the campground and after reading all the conflicting signs on the closed booth figured out we actually had to go back to the cafe/gift shop to get a site. There we stood in line at the cabin rental counter waiting 15 minutes for someone to help us and then waited another 10 minutes for them to figure out which sites were available and register us. It was a pain, but luckily I had written down a couple of possible sites and we got a great one!
It was slated to get hotter each day so we decided to go hiking our first morning. From one parking lot there are several short walks to breaks in the wall. We went to “window” first, a small gap in the wall, and it gave you a nice view. Next was more impressive “door” which is a big opening in the wall. Walking through you see endless rock ahead.
You can follow yellow numbered posts to pick a path across the rock. It was cool and this rock looked different from what we had seen up north.
Last we went to “notch” the toughest of the three. It warned of sharp drop offs and a ladder, but we were not deterred and boy were we rewarded with awesome views. If you ever go make sure that when you are at the end you climb the rock to the left for a second notch with even more awesome views!
The next day we enjoyed the AC as we drove the loop road and got different views of the park, including the weirdly yellow-colored mounds. Interestingly this is the only park where we did not see a single bison, but we saw a big herd of pronghorn.
This park had the best visitor’s center we’ve seen yet. From the outside it looks like a 60s office building, but inside are great displays about the formation of the badlands, fossils found here, information about the animals and plants, and more. And we could ride our bikes there from the campground so that was a bonus.
We visited several other sites in the area. The Minuteman Missile Site was an interesting look at the cold war and the 450 missile silos that used to dot the South Dakota countryside. While there are no active missile silos in SD today, I was surprised to learn that there are still about 500 in the midwest.
An obligatory visit to Wall Drug was a given. We had enjoyed their signs as we crossed the endless fields of SD. It is now much more than a drug store, although amazingly you can still get a prescription filled. Now it’s a building full of little shops with western wear, home decor, souvenirs, toys, and the like. There are lots of old photos and historical artifacts too, plus a huge cafe. The lunch wasn’t bad and we enjoyed a slice of cherry pie as we read the story of how it all started with free ice water signs to lure motorists off the road. There were some awesome looking donuts coming out of their onsite donut factory so if we’re ever in the area again I think we’ll be stopping again to get some of those.
Also in Wall is the National Grasslands Visitor’s Center with displays and information about American’s grasslands. This is kinda like the midwest’s version of national forests, land set aside to be managed for multiple uses from cattle grazing to recreation. We drove out to a nearby spot in the grasslands that you can camp for free with awesome views and if we ever return that is where we will stay.
So that wraps up national park number 5 for us. It will be a while before we hit another one. We’re headed toward Kansas for an extended visit with family. Sadly there are no national parks in Nebraska, Kansas or the other center states. Guess flat farmland doesn’t make for the most scenic spots. 🙂