Location: Wall, SD
Smashed Penny Machine: We have one that says Badlands National Park but I can’t remember if we got it in the park or in Wall
We arrived at Badlands National Park about 9:00 in the morning. This was a mid-July trip and the weather was warm but enjoyable when we first got into the park. Because of the diverse ages we had in our group we didn’t do much hiking. I would love to come back and hike more of the trails. We entered the park at the entrance closest Wall, SD. From what I could tell from the map most the trails were on the other end of the park.
We chose to drive the Badlands Loop Scenic Byway to see as much of the park as we could with limited time. The loop has several overlooks and many trailheads start directly off the loop parking lots. I would highly suggest arriving at the park early. When we first got there finding parking spots at overlooks was fairly easy. With later stops that was much more difficult. How long the drive will take you depends on how many overlooks you stop at and how long you look. The Badlands look like a completely different planet so give yourself time to truly take in the views. With 6 young kids in the group, they had taken in all they wanted of the views after overlook #2. This is where the JR Ranger program is now your best friend. You can keep them interested in the park by having them work on their booklets.
The one hike we did do was the Fossil Exhibit Trail. This was a very easy trail. It is on a raised walkway and it guides you through how an animal becomes a fossil. The trail was easily accessible for strollers and wheelchairs.
To see wildlife I would suggest getting to the park very early or plan on being there later in the day. We did see lots and lots of prairie dogs. Prairie dogs are a lot of fun to watch from a distance so the kids really enjoyed that. We did see some big idiots (aka tourons: tourist + moron) trying to pet/feed prairie dogs. I’m going to take a moment to remind you that this is a VERY BAD idea. First it’s bad for animals. Human food isn’t good for them and it makes them dependent on handouts (which means when winter comes and the tourist go home, they have a very hard time). Second although prairie dogs look really cute, they are still wild animals. They could bite you. Plus they have parasites that are very happy to hang out on humans too. Prairie dogs carry some really fun diseases that are transferable to humans like the bubonic plague so do everyone a favor and enjoy all wildlife from a distance.
We reached the visitor’s center about 12:00. We explored the museum which also had a paleontologist there talking about fossil preservation. After that the kids turned in their booklets and got their first Jr Ranger badge. There is a small gift shop/bookstore in the visitor’s center that is run by the National Parks Department.
Our original plan had been to have a picnic here; however by this point in the day it was HOT (water and sunscreen; don’t forget them). Everyone agreed it was too hot to eat outside on a picnic table. Next to the visitor’s center there is another gift shop and restaurant. We opted to eat at the restaurant. The restaurant is not very large but they were able to seat us very quickly. The price was moderate which wasn’t surprising given that it is inside the park. The staff was very friendly and helpful. Our server suggested the Sioux Taco and suggested we split it. The taco is a fried bread topped with refried beans, buffalo meat, lettuce, tomato, cheese and black olives. We ordered a side of fries to split with it. This was more than enough food for the two of us and it was probably the best thing I ate all trip.
We left Badlands National Park around 2:00 and drove to Mount Rushmore (about an hour and half drive). The park ranger suggested that we take the state highway instead of the interstates to save time. It was a faster route but there were no services on this route so just a warning.
One thing that is not to be missed is nighttime in Badlands. That evening after Mount Rushmore and dinner, we loaded the kids back in the cars and drove the hour back to the Badlands (Tip: dress the kids in their PJs that way when you get back to the hotel you can just put them to bed). Your admission fee is good for several days and the park is open 24 hours (although rangers are not at entrance points at this time). We arrived back at the park about 7:30 and drove back to one of the overlooks we had decided on early in the day.
We arrived to the parking lot just in time to see the end of the sunset. The park was empty at this time. We literally only saw one other car at the overlook and they never left their vehicle. I grew up in the country and thought I knew what stars look like on a dark night. I was wrong. With almost zero light pollution the views of the stars were amazing. We were able to clearly see the Milky Way, several planets (thanks to an app that helped us identify where to look for them) and several shooting stars. Unfortunately taking good pictures of the night sky is really difficult so I didn’t get any worthwhile pictures. We stayed out till about an hour and half after dark (at which point the kids had seen plenty of stars) and then drove back to Rapid City. On the way back out of the park we did see a few big horn sheep and what might have been the back-end of a badger but he was moving too fast to get a good look. If you do go back out after dark bring a light jacket. After about 20 minutes after sunset, the air got fairly chilly and I ended up sitting on the black top trying to stay warm.
Overall impression: Badlands National Park is a must do. While the 4 or so hours we were in the park gave us a good overview of the park, you could spend much more time there.