Badlands National Park, SD

We were so inspired by Bert Gildart’s article in the latest Airstream Life (Fall 2009) that we decided on this trip we finally had to make a visit to Badlands National Park.   That’s a big part of why we chose to go west across South Dakota rather than dipping south first. And it has been worth it.

Every fall we come back west and the first taste of the west we usually get is when we drop in on a national park.   It puts us right back into the western mood, and that gets me thinking of desert camping, rodeo events, prickly pear cactus, Rocky Mountains, and brilliant sunny days where you can see to the horizon.   Badlands has had that effect.   Suddenly we’re talking about extending the trip and not returning to Tucson until “later.”   No decisions yet, but now that we’re out here in the crisp fall weather, it seems a shame to head back to home base already.

In the Badlands campground we met up with a couple from the United Kingdom who just bought a 1966 Caravel at P&S Travel Trailer Service and are traveling for six months across the United States with it.   Rather bravely, or insanely, depending on how you look at it, they are doing this with a three-year-old and a four-month old child.   That’s a lot of people in a 17-foot vintage trailer with no gray tank, but they seem to be doing just fine and I applaud their effort. We joined them last night for some tea and then a look at the sunset over the Badlands, which is spectacular.

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A note about the campground options here.   Just north of the park by I-90, and south of the park in the tiny village of Interior, are several RV parks with hookups.   These are very convenient to the park itself, so if you want amenities they are the way to go.   We chose the park’s Cedar Pass campground, which has no hookups but does have bathrooms, water, and a dump station for $10 per night plus $1 per dump.   Amazingly, Verizon cell phones work here sometimes, although they don’t in other parts of the park. I’ve chosen to pretend I can’t get online or make phone calls for a couple of days, so we can all relax.   (Posting the blog tonight is the sole exception — because I know a few people are wondering where we are!)

dsc_2379.jpgBadlands National Park is long and narrow, with only one paved road through the park and a handful of short trails.   We were able to hike most of them in half a day, starting with an 8:30 a.m. ranger talk. Most are easy, with no major elevation changes.   The only significant hazard is the unevenness of the terrain.   Even the local prairie rattlesnake is very timid and nearly impossible to spot before it slithers away.

Despite looking rather forbidding, the park is actually full of living creatures.   Once upon a time there were grizzly bears here, but not any more.   There remain: mule deer, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets (nocturnal), ground squirrels, cliff swallows (and many other birds), lots of insects, and other things.   It’s not desolate at all, although it lacks potable water for humans.

The big story of this park is fossils — lots and lots of fossils, and more appearing with every heavy rain.   The Visitor Center has a great exhibit about the geological history of the park, and the rangers hold daily fossil talks.   No dinosaurs, because this part of South Dakota was part of the ocean in the dinosaur era, but they did have one heck of a giant swimming thing that looks like a cross between a T-Rex and an alligator.

dsc_2415.jpgThe park is rapidly eroding (in geologic terms), and in about half a million years they say it will be gone.   So plan your trip soon, and keep an eye out for bones of some giant titanothere sticking out of the clay. I recommend the hikes, if you want to get a good feel for the place.

Stopping in Mitchell for two nights before coming here was definitely the right move.   We waited out some truly lousy weather (50’s, rain, wind) in full-hookup comfort and got a bunch of work done, then arrived here just in time for spectacular fall weather.   (We also got 14.0 MPG on the drive over, now that the horrible headwind is gone.)   It is perfectly gorgeous now, and in a couple more days things will go downhill again, so the timing was perfect.

The only downside of this is that we can only give Badlands just two nights, which is really not enough time to see everything, because we want to get to Devil’s Tower for the weekend.   This is the end of the season in this area and that means ranger talks, guided tours, and evening campground amphitheater talks are becoming scarce.   Those things add a lot of value to the park experience, so we’re going to try to take in as many as we can before it’s time to start migrating south.


  1. Laurie says

    Enjoy the 8 miles of hiking trails at Devils Tower. Joyner Ridge trail gives great late afternoon photo ops of the tower. Red Beds trail also a great hike. The ranger lead tower trail walk gives an overview of history, geology and Native American connections. On the way into Hullet we paid $17 to fill a 30 pound propane tank. Tell everyone at the Visitor Center Mike and Laurie say Hi.