I have to be honest with everyone: Before our trip, I thought South Dakota was a flyover state. I thought it was a route to Yellowstone National Park, and I wasn’t all that excited about it. I may have feigned excitement for Chris, but honestly, I was not excited. I. WAS. SO. WRONG.
On Day 9 of our trip, we drove from Kansas City, MO to Sioux Falls, SD. It was a long drive, full of cornfields and cows, but Sioux Falls was gorgeous. There is literally a waterfall running through downtown. Then, we headed to a place called Urban Chislic for dinner, because apparently chislic is the state food of South Dakota. It was delicious (though, I’m not sure I could find anything to complain about with grilled beef or lamb). That night, there was a torrential thunderstorm and the temperature dropped from 80 degrees down to 60 degrees. We (and our camper) survived the nasty weather, and the next morning we began our long drive towards Badlands National Park (stopping only for The World’s Only Corn Palace and 1880’s Town)
When we pulled into Badlands National Park, we were able to use our America the Beautiful Parks pass for the first time for free entry! Without the pass, there is a park entry fee of $20 per vehicle. To get to our campground, we actually had to drive through the park. (So, I guess Badlands was Nelly’s first National Park since we normally park the camper first before heading into parks.)
In the light of the day, the rock formations looked space-like. (It didn’t surprise me to learn that they filmed Armageddon and Starship Troopers in Badlands National Park.) They were light grey and rocky. And they didn’t look like they could support much life.
The first evening, after settling into our campsite, we drove to the Notch Trail. It’s only about 1.5-mile trail round trip, but it’s considered strenuous because near the end of the trail there is a log ladder that you have to climb straight up a rock formation. Chris saw pictures and couldn’t imagine a better intro to the Badlands for Calvin… and he was right! The trail was actually pretty flat right up to the ladder, which was more like a really steep staircase, but in a fun way! At the top, we saw a view of more of the space-like Badlands.
That night we went to bed with gorgeous skies but woke up with drizzly, misty, cold rain. But, that couldn’t keep us down. Calvin and I headed to the Ben Reifel Visitor’s Center to do the Junior Ranger program. (Side Note: Pretty much all visitor’s centers at the National Parks have museums in them, and every National Park has a Junior Ranger program.) The Visitor’s Center was small but had a great little museum. It had fossils of prehistoric reptiles and mammals, which Calvin LOVED learning about. Apparently, this area was once under water. So, they have some great Plesiosaurs, Nautiloids, etc but no Dinosaurs (because Dinosaurs didn’t swim, guys.) The museum then went on to describe the wildlife that currently lives in the National Park: Bison, Bighorn Sheep, Prairie Dogs, Coyote, Mountain Goats, Burrowing Owls. Finally, the museum had an exhibit about life in the Badlands for Native Americans and settlers. As Calvin turned in his Junior Ranger booklet and recited the Junior Ranger pledge, I overheard another ranger speaking to a guest. The rain made the rocky, ashy surfaces VERY muddy and slippery. They advised staying on boardwalk trails if you wanted to hike. But, she noted that the rain made the colors on the rocks really pop. Therefore, it was worth it to go take a look.
So, braving the rain and wind and cold, we headed up to the Fossil Exhibit Trail. It’s only .25 miles long. It’s on a boardwalk and has a lot of informational signs about the fossils that kids can touch. I think on any other day, Calvin would have been running from sign to sign excited to learn about new prehistoric life. But, not this day. Not in 50-degree weather in the wind and the rain. I think we were all over it before the .25 loop on the flat boardwalk was over. But, the ranger had been right. You could see some colors and layers in the rocks. It was definitely interesting!
After retreating to our camper to dry off and for lunch, Chris and I looked into other cool activities that we could do in the Badlands. We discovered that there was a Prairie Dog Town (which is what you call the tunnel system that the Prarie Dogs live in) off of Sage Creek Rim Road, which is also where you can view herds of bison. As Chris and Calvin had not seen either of these animals in the wild before, we were sold! We hopped in the car around 3:30 pm for the hour ride drive towards Sage Creek Rim Road.
Upon arriving at Robert’s Prairie Dog Town, it was a ghost town. All of the prairie dogs were underground, hiding out from the weather. I attempted to walk out amongst the tunnel openings, hoping to stir them since they’ll pop up and alarm each other when they sense predators. But, they remained safely underground, and I picked up about 2 inches of mud on the bottoms of my shoes. (Had I gone any farther into the field, I surely would have lost my shoes.) So, the Prairie Dog Town was a bust (We did eventually see 1 lonely Black-Tailed Prairie Dog), and we started the long drive back to the campsite. On our drive home on Sage Creek Rim Road, we saw out in the distance- BISON! Chris was so excited! He hopped out of the car with the camera and started walking towards them to try to get a better shot. (Please note, we were probably about a half a mile from the Bison.) He realized very quickly how very muddy the plains were, how very far away the animals were, and how very dangerous they could be if he got too close. So, we settled for photographs of the majestic animals from a very far distance.
As we turned off of the Sage Creek Rim Road and onto the Badlands Scenic Loop, I spotted something moving off to the side of the road. It turns out it was 2 male bighorn sheep grazing over a cliff. Once again, my darling husband braved the wet and cold to get a photograph (from a safe distance on the other side of a crevasse). It was amazing. But not as amazing as the herd of bighorn sheep grazing to the side of the road that we saw maybe another 100 feet down the road. I had never actually seen Bighorn Sheep in the wild, and I was just stupified.
We continued home on the Badlands Scenic Loop, and the landscaped changed dramatically. Instead of the tall, jagged “moon” formations, there were these rolling rock hills with amazing colors. This area is called the “Yellow Mounds”, and in our photographs, it’s easy to understand why.
I went into Badlands National Park thinking that South Dakota had nothing to offer. I left the following day a changed woman. This park is a can’t miss for it’s fossils, geological formations, wildlife, and history.