Badlands National Park
Don’t scroll down before reading. I don’t want to scare you off with the ridiculous amount of images within the post. But let me tell you – this was one of the best days of my life, and I am sharing less than one-sixth of the images I took. And we were only there 8 hours. So, really, it could be so much worse.
On the last full day of our South Dakota road trip, we stopped by Mount Rushmore and then headed east to Badlands National Park. I had done a bit of research on the National Park Service’s website, so I knew we wouldn’t be able to cover the whole park in one day. What I didn’t know was that we’d love it so much, and we’d have no choice but to return. And besides that – I didn’t know the kids would enjoy themselves in a way I’d never seen before on an adventure. Yes, even the older two.
It was about a two hour trip from our campground to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center which happens to be located at the far eastern end of the park’s boundaries. There are two main sections to the park which are connected by a small sliver that crosses SD-44. There is another Visitor Center in the southern half of the park (also known as the Stronghold Unit which is co-managed by the Oglala Lakota Tribe) that is open seasonally, but we didn’t have a chance to make it down there. In fact, we spent our entire day in the upper section, hence the need to come back.
Because of the route we took, we were able to see the beauty of the “bad lands” well before we reached the entrance to the park. And it only served to pique our excitement about the day. I’ve talked to several people now who have driven through this beautiful place, but I implore you to stop, go into the park, and really see it. It’s incredible.
Okay, enough rambling about how we got there. Let’s get this show on the road!
This is what you see when you’re approaching the gate. Magical, right?
Austin was excited we’d finally made it.
Ta-daaaaaah. Just across from the Visitor Center was this. I walked out, but I watched for rattlesnakes the whole time. I could tell right from this moment that it was going to be a good day.
While we were inside the building, we got a nice little rain shower that cleared up the skies for us.
This place was huge and full of so much information. We learned about the formation of the park (to answer the question below – it was covered by ocean water during the age of the dinosaurs), and we discovered that the lines/layers on the rocks indicate the time period in which each section was deposited. They were created anywhere from 28 – 75 million years ago. You know, just a little while back.
In addition to the displays throughout, we also watched a short movie that talked about the rich Native American history of the Badlands, the western migration of white homesteaders into the area, and the past and present wildlife situation. I think before we go back, we’ll do a homeschool unit on the history of the place because of course, one short visit can’t cover everything. But if you visit the park, definitely take the time to watch that video.
A little carnivore action here. Yum.
Inside the fossil lab, we learned that this place is a hotbed of fossil findings, and they’re still being uncovered. In 2010, a seven year old girl found a well-preserved saber tooth cat’s skull!
These scientists were working on some recent discoveries.
Although they look a little miserable here, the kids had a great time with the Junior Ranger workbook.
After we finished up at the Visitor Center (and Austin picked up his rad new souvenir walking stick), we got back on the road and headed toward Cliff Shelf Nature Trail.
It was mid-day, so we didn’t see much in the way of wildlife, but it was still a nice little walk.
Then we went over to the area next to the parking area to see what was going on over here.
And it seemed like a good spot for a photo op. You’ve never seen a kid so excited about a walking stick.
Then we got back in the van and made our way north toward the few small trails we wanted to check out.
When we arrived at the big parking lot for the Door, Window, Castle, and Notch trailheads, we spotted this gigantic bird perched upon one of the rock formations. I got so excited. I was absolutely totally 100% sure it was an eagle. So I jumped out of the van and ran full speed toward the bird, while simultaneously trying not to spook it. And then…..womp, womp…..it was a vulture. Not that they aren’t cool. They’re massive. But we’ve seen them a ton, so they’ve lost their allure. And if I’m being honest, those little red heads they have are kinda creepy.
Next to the bird though was a spot that had this spectacular view. We thought this was the “window” we’d read about and somehow we’d just ran through the trail without noticing.
But when we headed back toward the van, we spotted this sign and the very clear “boardwalk” heading away from it.
And theeeeeeere was the window.
As I mentioned above, there are four different trailheads at this one spot. Castle Trail is 10 miles round trip, and Notch is just over a mile. But I decided early that I wanted to make this an experience everyone would enjoy, and my love of hiking is not shared by every member of my family. So we decided to stick with Door and Window. And I wasn’t even sure how Aidan and Audra would feel about Door Trail, because I wasn’t quite clear how far it went.
But once we got past the short boardwalk section, the area completely opened up and I saw their faces brighten. There were things to climb on, and I looked everywhere for a sign advising against it. I saw nothing, so I let them go have their fun.
Because there isn’t a clear path, there are little yellow concrete markers numbered one through eleven (I think) that lead the way. And they had the MOST fun with that. They could make their own way to each number.
I couldn’t love this photo more. And there were plenty of people around – I don’t know how I managed to not get a single one of them in the shot. You can really see how there are just a million places to go and explore while not getting lost because all you needed to do is find the next pole!
This was the center canyon-y area. I don’t know how deep it was, but it was super cool to look down into.
Even Aidan – who is generally unimpressed with life and nature and anything unrelated to video games – seemed to be having a great time.
This kid and his stick.
We worked really hard to get a family selfie, but they were not turning out well. A nice guy who had his own fancy camera came over and asked if we wanted some help. Of course I said yes, and look at this amazing family shot he captured! I love kind people.
Audra loved this place and the trail itself. I was the one so excited to visit this national park, and Austin is my adventurer so I knew he’d love it too. But when Audra loved it…when I could see the joy all over her face as she ran around? I knew it was something magical.
We were all kind of sad to reach the end. It wasn’t a very long trail at all, but we weren’t about to go beyond the sign. When I talked to a ranger at the Visitor Center, he indicated we were free to explore any areas of the park – he said there weren’t any off-limit places. So it wasn’t that we weren’t allowed, but I was scared we’d just fall right off an edge never to be heard from again. So we turned around.
But the way back was just as much fun.
Sis took my camera and took sooooo many photos. That’s how I knew she was having a great time.
I was still snapping away with my phone though, because that’s what I do. And look at Aidan’s smile!
Austin is our climber. So it was not a surprise that he found plenty to do.
But I can’t tell you how much this one single mile in one single hour meant to me. To see all five of us exploring and adventuring and not a single eye roll or sigh from them because they were ready to get back to their electronics? I know I can’t convey the feeling here. It’s impossible. But I pretty much have never ever felt this sense of unity before, and I’m thankful I captured it at least in photos. But also in memories. When I mention the Door Trail to the kids weeks later, they still light up.
Once we were done, we got in the van and headed back down south on 240 so we could connect with Badlands Loop Road and see all of the overlooks. We realized in retrospect that we missed the Big Badlands Overlook and we were also super close to the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. But it was already 4pm, and I didn’t want to miss out on the sights along the Loop Road. We’ll just have to hit those next time.
I can’t begin to tell you all of the overlooks we stopped at, so I won’t try. But they’ve done a great job in this park of providing you with ample opportunities to pull over, and we didn’t encounter anyone getting annoyed with our slow pace. Everyone there seemed to be enjoying the sights as much as we were. Sometimes I got out of the van for a quick shot.
Sometimes I switched my lenses 47 times and tried 19 angles before I got what I wanted.
But there was so much to see and I couldn’t figure out how to make sure I captured it all.
We also stopped by the Fossil Exhibit Trail. It was neat – they had replicas of many of the fossils found in the Badlands.
This sign in particular really helped me understand how they date the fossils they find. The layer in which the fossil is found indicates how old it is because they know (roughly) when the formations where deposited. That part was fascinating.
But we’d been so blown away by the Door Trail that I don’t think anything could top that experience.
So we hopped back in the van and kept driving. And stopping. And driving some more. (My husband is a saint, y’all.)
The sun was getting lower and lower which made for some amazing lighting.
Every once in a while the view was so good, it called for a panoramic shot.
Then when we stopped at one of the overlooks, we were told there were some bighorn sheep hanging out to the side. Sure enough!For the most part, they were completely unfazed by all of us staring at them. Then a car horn started blaring and this guy in front looked up. Perfect time for a photo!
Is it just me or does this look like a fake background? I love that Austin is always down for a photo op.
Back in the van and more driving. The overlooks just didn’t seem to end.
The colors at this stop were magnificent.
Austin had been getting out of the van with me at every overlook, and he kept encouraging me to explore farther and farther away from the road. The kid is absolutely incredible at being patient with me because I’m not one to to take risks. But he trusts himself so much more than I trust myself, and when he can make his way down a non-path toward a better view, I believe I can too. So I follow him. I know he’s only ten and it seems like an awful lot to put on a kid, but I trust him. And there’s only one other person in the world who makes me feel safe like that. His dad. So he gets it honestly.
And because I know there will reach a point where hanging out with me is no longer cool, I’m gonna soak it all up right now.
More amazing colors.
When we pulled over here, I started snapping photos before I saw the mule deer down below.
There they are!
Then we kept driving and came along another little girl.
I kept my distance, but I didn’t want to leave her. She was so pretty!
And she had two fawns across the street. I spent very little time snapping their photos because I didn’t want to freak them out when they were separated from their mama.
When I first snapped this photo, I thought the lines were possibly from bighorn sheep hoof prints. But looking closer, it seems to part of the geologic formation. I still know so little about this place. I can’t wait to research more.
One last stop – this appeared to be the last main overlook along the road.
We pulled over before we even got to the mass of cars because this place was prettier.
The sun was setting and I stared all around at the view. But then I looked back and saw the van with James, Aidan and Audra inside. They aren’t obsessed like Austin and I are, but none of them gave me a hard time for the hours we spent driving and stopping. That feels pretty great. (And to be clear, James would totally get out with me at every stop. But we figure an adult should probably stay in the car.) At that moment, I was filled with an immense amount of gratitude.
But then I turned around and took a few more shots. Because I don’t know when to stop.
After the last outlook, we had to decide whether we would continue on Sage Creek Rim Road or head north toward 90 for a shorter trip home. But you know me, right? We had to keep going through the park, even if it added an extra hour to the drive.
Our decision was immediately rewarded with what I think was a white-tailed jackrabbit.
And then, a coyote running through the prairie dog town! (They were all tucked in for the evening.)
The lighting was terrible, so of course the most crisp photo I got was of the coyote relieving himself. I know you’re glad I shared.
And then we saw a whole bison herd. And just like when we’d been in Custer State Park, I immediately got nervous. I was not excited about driving by these guys. (We took our time and they largely ignored us, so it was fine.)
Look at this cute little couple eating together.
And that was it. Well, sort of. We had some excitement on the way out when we almost hit three mule deer running across the tiny country road. And then our tire blew out as I mentioned in our camping post. But man, this was a great day. If you made it this far, I salute you. I tried my very best to narrow down the photos, but I just couldn’t leave any of these out. We’ll see how many I take when we return!