After traveling a few hours from Mitchell, SD, we finally arrived at Badlands National Park. I had driven through the park 15 years before, got out and grabbed a quick picture and then continued on our way to the Black Hills. This tends to be what most people do, drive through on the Badlands Loop Road because you can enter in off of I-90 and it loops back up to I-90 farther down the road. Which is a great idea if you are short on time. And some people make a trip to the Badlands as a day trip from their stay in the Black Hills. But let me just say, if you have time this park definitely warrants at least one overnight. I think we could have easily made this a two or three night destination for sure.
It is amazing how quickly the landscape changes as you begin to approach the park. What was once wide open prairies where you could see what looked like forever with nothing on the landscape now up popped spires and buttes of the White River Badlands. It was fun to hear Elsie’s excitement change as we mad our way into the park.
Upon arrival we made our way to the Cedar Pass Campground where we had reservations for the night. We set up at the camp and then headed out to explore this new area. We hadn’t had lunch yet and the Indian Tacos at the Lodge came highly recommended so we made our way there and enjoyed lunch while enjoying the beautiful view.
After lunch we hit up the Ben Reiffel Visitor’s Center. The visitor’s center or ranger station is almost always the first place we stop when we enter a park. I like to talk to a ranger about the best trails for our family and about any programs that are being offered during our stay. One of the things I specifically wanted to know was if we would be able to do the Notch trail which requires the use of a ladder to climb up. I had no doubts that Elsie, John and myself could make it up but we weren’t sure how it would work with Evie in the backpack carrier. Unfortunately, the ranger said she would not recommend it with a carrier. Boo! But she did give a few other recommendations that would fit our families interests. Such as Door Trail, Widow Trail, Cliff Shelf Trail, Saddle Pass, and if we had more time, Castle Trail and we could do as much of that as we wanted before turning around. We didn’t get to all of them but to quite a few.
Before setting out the trails we explored the visitor’s center for a little bit. This particular visitor’s center My girls enjoyed going through there a few times during our two day stay. There is also a really great map behind the ranger desk that the rangers moved animals around on depending where they have been reported to be seen in the park (you can see this map in the background all the way at the end of this post in a picture of Elsie being sworn is as a Badlands NP Junior Ranger). We did see quite a bit of wildlife in the park. We saw prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, mule deer, pronghorns, rabbits, and a variety of birds.
The park rangers had available a very helpful handout that lists out the hikes in the park which includes distances and descriptions and a map. On the other side it lists the Ranger Programs offered through the week. The park maintains the same program schedule throughout the whole summer but offers different programs each day. They also offer an evening program at the campground amphitheater and the topic changes throughout the week. Following the program there is a night sky program offered where a telescope is provided to look at the night sky. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to attend that one because it got too late for the girls.
One of our favorite things about the Badlands and that you are encouraged to explore all over-no need to stay on designated trails. It really allows a sense of adventure to both young and old. One of the only things they warn of on the trails is rattlesnakes.
This is a boardwalk trail that is only .25 miles in length. It is easy and leads to a natural window through the wall of the Badlands. It was short and sweet and most of the time on this short trail was spent exploring off the boardwalk.
Another short trail that starts out on a boardwalk. It is .75 miles round trip on the boardwalk. But once you get to the end of the boardwalk the trail doesn’t end. There are yellow numbered fence posts that designate the trail since there really isn’t a trail. Elsie really loved this part. She could take any route she wanted. We did have to remind her to be careful, go slow, and to watch where she steps. It was hard to rein in her sense of adventure and wanted to encourage it but keep her safe. It was definite a fine line in that regards.
Sunset and Sunrise Locations
Another question I had for the rangers was the best location for sunrise and sunset. I had heard that during these times of the day the Badlands are transformed into wonders of beauty (I think they are beautiful all times of day) and I wanted to see for myself. The ranger said Pinnacles Overlook is the best place for the sunset (Door Trail is the best for sunrise) but if it is too crowded there continue to make you way to the Hay Butte Overlook located down Sage Creek Road. She informed us that we could have the place to ourselves there and essentially see the same thing as what those at Pinnacles Overlook were seeing.
We don’t normally search out sunset views due to the fact that we have young children and it is normally past bedtime but we were willing to stay out late this night. Well we made a huge error when deciding when we should leave to go to the overlook. Since we are sunset novices we did not leave enough time to travel the 20 miles through the park and we thought since sunset was at 8:36 that night, we just needed to be there by then, which we really should have been there well before sunset to really see the show. Well you live and learn and we did still end up seeing some beautiful sights. We only made it to Pinnacles overlook and there were quite a few people there but the parking lot wasn’t full. However, right as we were leaving a big tour bus pulled in and the overlook filled with so many people. Besides the beauty of the sunset the highlight for the girls was all the pronghorns that were hanging out at the overlook-espeically the baby ones.
The next day we got up early in an attempt to make it to the fossile hike. We arrived a minute before 8:30am when the hike was to begin but there was no ranger in sight. We hung out for awile and explored a bit on our own and no one showed up which was too bad. Elsie has such an interest in fossils right now and I think she would have enjoyed hearing more about them. After exploring the area we headed off on another hike to Cliff Shelf Trail
Cliff Shelf Trail
The parking lot here was definitely more busy than it was over the fossil exhibit area. The trail, like the ones the day before was mainly boardwalks with a few other side trails with dirt paths. It provided some beautiful views of the pinnacles and floor of the badlads. In this area there is also a small depression where water gathers and wildlife will come into that area. We did in fact see a mule deer at this location.
After hiking around Cliff Shelf trail we made our way back to the campground where we packed up, hitched up and drove the short distance to the visitor center. There was plenty of RV parking in the back. We had to be out of the campground by 11AM but we wanted to stay for the Junior Ranger program at 11:00 as well. This worked out great!
Elsie had already completed the actvities to earn her junior ranger badge but they were also offering a program where kids can earn a junior ranger patch just by participating in the hour long program.
Both girls really enjoyed the program. It focused on fossils and tools that are used to uncover fossils. After the program they were all sworn in as junior rangers.
After the program we did one last walk through of the visitor center and then made our way out of the park. I know many, many people think this makes a great daytrip from the Black Hills but let me say, this national park deserves way more of your time than a quick drive through on the loop road. There is so much to explore and it is just an amazing, unique area. We packed a lot into the 24 hours we spent there and I am already dreaming of when we can head back. It is definitely a highlight of 2017.
Dates of Travel: June 30th-July 1st, 2017