At Yellowstone, everything will kill you; you can’t walk 20 yards without reading a sign about how you’re going to be eaten by a bear or gored by a bison or boiled alive in a mudpot. At Grand Teton, you can admire the majestic, snow capped mountains….but you can’t actually get to the top of them without a lot of equipment and experience and nonchalance about dizzying heights.
But in the Badlands, you can walk and climb and explore anywhere and everywhere, which makes it a particularly kid friendly National Park. We went on a ranger led geology walk, and the ranger explained that the Badlands are already eroding so quickly that letting people climb on them doesn’t wear them down nearly as fast as rain and time is already wearing them down. And while you could certainly get yourself killed in the Badlands, the rattlesnakes are rare and not especially venomous, as far as rattlesnakes go, and there are plenty of places where it’s easy to climb without much risk of plunging to your death (as long as you’re careful).
I should also note that the Badlands is an amazing place for photography. I had a sneaking suspicion before this trip that one of the big secrets to great travel photography is getting out west and away from all the east coast woods. And I was right. Downside is that Ari got his first DSLR right before we left and cut his teeth taking pictures of all the National Parks out west. He’s totally spoiled now.
We were here for two nights (staying at Cedar Pass Campground in the park, which I reviewed the other day), which gave us one full day plus another evening and morning (we pushed our departure all the way to check out time so we could get in a hike), which was enough time to do quite a bit. Another day definitely would not have been overkill, though (we’d have loved to have time to go to the nearby Minuteman Missile site). A lot of people do the Badlands as a drive through. It works well for this, because there’s a loop road that you can easily take without going too far out of your way from the interstate, but if you have the time to stop and linger it’s very much worth it.
Here’s a rundown of what we did in/near the Badlands:
This is probably the most well known trail in the Badlands, owing to the big scary ladder you have to climb up (and down!) on it. All the warnings tell you not to do it if you’re scared of heights. I’m terrified of heights….and I made myself do it anyway!
The hike is a mile and a half round trip, and there’s nothing especially challenging about it aside from the ladder itself. First you walk a little ways through a canyon before reaching the ladder and climbing up to walk along a ledge for spectacular views of the valley below.
The ladder is no joke, especially for people who hate ladders (me):
It’s also fairly iffy with small kids. I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable with a baby or toddler in a carrier going up the ladder. In fact, I wouldn’t even have felt comfortable helping a four year old, since holding it together myself was all I could really handle, but, fortunately, Dave was up to the task of assisting Abe as needed. Abe took a lot of time/encouragement, but he made it both up and down without much trouble:
As did I! Coming down was much worse than coming up, actually, as far as my fear of heights went. The part at the very top is the only vertical part. I was sore for days afterwards, not because climbing the ladder was especially strenuous, but because my paranoia caused me to climb by kind of keeping my calves braced against the wood in a really uncomfortable way the whole time. Try not to do that.
Once you get up to the top and hike out to the end, the views are lovely.
Or so I’ve been told. The two younger kids got nervous and didn’t want to keep going, so I stayed with them at the top of the ladder for FOREVER while Dave and the older kids went ahead.
And then back down and through the canyon:
If you’re there at anything resembling the busy and/or hot season make sure to get an early start. We started by nine and had the trail mostly to ourselves, but there was a steady stream at the ladder by the time we started back.
We did a ranger guided geology walk here and learned all about how the badlands were formed and how they’re changing over time and all that.
The Door trail is just a 1/4 mile boardwalk that ends at an overlook, but you’re welcome to keep hiking beyond that on a rugged marked trail through the formations. And we did. We spent a long time out here climbing all over and exploring and had a grand time.
That’s Milo waaaayyy over there:
Drive the Loop Road:
The 240 loop is about 40 miles long and gives you a chance to stop at countless scenic overlooks and probably spot some wildlife (we saw prairie dogs and bighorn sheep). If you’re just driving through the park, you can get on from one exit off of I-90, drive the loop, and get back on farther along, so that you don’t go too far out of your way. Since we were staying in the park, we drove the road on our way to Wall Drug, then took I-90 back to the main entrance of the park.
Just about anyone who’s ever been on a road trip across South Dakota knows about Wall Drug, thanks to the omnipresent signs urging you to stop by for free ice water and 5 cent coffee. Wall Drug is part actual drug store, part shopping mall, and all incredible spectacle. We found it a little overwhelming, but it’s not really something you can skip if you’re in the area. We even took a free bumper sticker to prove we were there.
There are approximately 800 kitschy souvenir shops in Wall, along with a restaurant and ice cream place, and a “backyard” full of fountains to play in and weird things to climb on. Like a Jacklope:
We checked out the outside area, wandered around inside for as long as we could stand it before the crowds started to get to us, then got some ice cream and headed back.
Fossil Exhibit Trail
This is another very short (1/4 mile) boardwalk trail. We stopped to see it when we were driving the loop trail. Word is, it’s a great place to look for fossils, but I’m pretty sure any fossils that are actually close to the trail have long since been found. But it was another great place to get off the trail and climb, climb, climb.
Ben Reifel Visitor Center
I don’t seem to have any pictures from the visitor center, so here’s one with all of us and the park entrance sign instead:
I’m not sure why I keep clasping my hands together like that in pictures.
There’s a movie in the visitor center and a small museum and a very crowded gift shop. I mean, maybe it won’t be crowded when you’re there.
Junior Ranger Program:
The way the program works is that you can either do Junior Ranger book to earn a badge or attend this Junior Ranger program. We didn’t really realize this, so Abe ended up doing both. The program was cute; the ranger talked about all the different animals that live in the Badlands. There were many stuffed animals involved.
Evening Program: They do this daily May through August (along with a night sky program afterwards Friday-Monday) at the amphitheater by the campground. There’s a slide show and Ranger talk about the park and then, if they’re doing a night sky program, they break out a laser pointer and point out constellations and whatnot. The description on the website mentions binoculars and telescopes, but Dave tells me there were no binoculars and telescopes while we were there. It’s possible that this is because we were there on particularly cloudy/stormy evenings.
Feeding Prairie Dogs at the Ranch Store
There are plenty of prairie dogs inside the National Park. We saw a bunch of them when we drove the loop road, and there’s a prairie dog town you can get to by driving down a dirt road somewhere in the park…but if you want to actually legally throw food at prairie dogs instead of just gawking at them, you can stop just outside the park at the Ranch Store. Inside the store, they sell (surprisingly not overpriced; I think they were a dollar or two a bag) bags of unsalted peanuts, which you take back behind the store and feed to dozens and dozens of prairie dogs. Fun fact: bubonic plague is rampant in prairie dog populations right now, so make sure you don’t touch them, no matter how cute they are.
Ari’s zoom lens served him well at the prairie dog town:
Remember that climbing is allowed anywhere in the park! The kids found places to climb near scenic overlooks, near the trails, and they spent a ton of time exploring right near the campground.