While in the Black Hills we ventured out to three national parks not terribly far from where we were staying.
Badlands National Park
Our first stop in Badlands National Park was to the visitor center to learn more about the Badlands and to pick up Junior Ranger packets. The Badlands are a beautiful mix of grasslands and these cool, colorful rock formations. This is the scenery just down the street from the visitor center. It was pretty incredible.
There is only one visitor center in the Badlands so in addition to the visitor center, completed Junior Ranger packets can also be turned into the rangers at the park entrances or can be mailed in. We turned in our completed packets to the rangers at one of the park entrances on our way out of the park.
After the visitor center we headed to the Window Trail which is a few miles northeast of the visitor center. The Window Trail is only .25 miles roundtrip. It is an easy walk along a boardwalk and takes you to a window (hole) in a formation, hence the name. Several trails can be accessed from this particular parking lot so we also walked the Door Trail which is .75 miles roundtrip. A portion of the trail is along a boardwalk and then you can walk through the badlands, which we did not do.
One thing The Husband and I struggled with in this park is that you can go anywhere and climb anything. That seems to go against the stay on the trail/leave no trace mantra that is practiced in every other national park. I meant to ask a ranger why that is because when people climb the formations they change the formations. This particular area had people climbing all over the formations. Climbing up the sides, standing on the very tops of things. It also seemed rather dangerous but I don’t make the rules. We let our kids climb on a few fairly worn areas but for the most part kept them off.
The Badlands Loop Drive is a must do. The scenic drive takes you through the majority of the park and you get to see a wide variety of the different formations. There are pullouts all along the road so you can take pictures or just admire the scenery. The drive takes about an hour.
We came across a prairie dog town towards the middle of the drive. It was not on the map but we noticed little heads as we were driving through a very grassy area so we stopped. There were prairie dogs everywhere!
Towards the end of the drive we came across a bighorn sheep. She was hard to spot because she blended with the rocks. She stayed there for quite a while so we were able to get some good pictures from our car (stopped on the side of the road, of course).
Badlands is about two hours east of Mount Rushmore. There are two ways to get there – via I-90 or Highway 44. Someone we met several days prior suggested taking Highway 44 as a scenic alternate to I-90. Based upon the suggestion we took Highway 44 on our way to the Badlands. The scenery was nice but I don’t know that it was any better than I-90. By taking Highway 44 you come in the back route to the Badlands so you will get to see some of the formations before you actually enter the park. Going home we took I-90 and I do not recall the scenery being significantly different than Highway 44. If I were to do it again I would take whichever route is faster.
We drove by the campground in the park. It is very open and I have read that it can get rather windy, although it has great views of the badlands and would probably have great sunrise and sunset views. We enjoyed our time in the Badlands but one day in the park seemed to be perfect.
As soon as we entered Wyoming we started seeing signs for Wall Drug in Wall, SD. The town of Wall is not too far from the Badlands, off I-90. During the 30s the store was struggling for business so they posted signs offering free ice water to travelers. To this day they still offer free ice water but now they have up to 20,000 visitors per day. The store takes up an entire city block and is a huge tourist trap but I wanted my picture on the jackelope. Wall Drug is basically a mall now with restaurants, stores, arcades, a chapel and an outdoor picnic area with many picture worthy large animals. There is also a water feature for the kids. It’s one of those where the water shoots out of the ground at different intervals. Even if you don’t spend any money, the backyard area is fun for the kids.
Devils Tower National Monument
Devils Tower National Monument is in eastern Wyoming, about two hours west of Mount Rushmore. Truth be told, I was not terribly excited about visiting Devils Tower but The Husband really wanted to so I obliged. I am so glad we did because I was really impressed with the monument.
I don’t know what it is about this part of the country but the blues are bluer and the greens greener. Oh right…we don’t have green in the desert. That’s why I was so enamored with the green.
Geologists cannot agree on exactly how Devils Tower was formed but they do know that it was formed by magma that cooled underground and was later eroded away by wind and water. Plains Indians have a different story. Each tribe has a slightly different story but they all seem to be fairly similar. Children were out playing and were being chased by a bear. The children ran to a rock for safety and it grew really high to protect the children from the bear. The marks on the side of the tower are claw marks from the bear. In one of the stories there were seven girls and the tower grew so tall that the girls were pushed into the sky. The girls can be seen during the winter months just above the tower and comprise the Pleiades formation.
Wind and water continue to erode the tower and there is a huge pile of rocks at the bottom. You are able to climb on the rocks so if that sounds appealing to your kids they will be in heaven.
There are several trails around/near the monument. We walked the Tower Trail which is 1.3 miles roundtrip and goes all the way around the base of the tower. The trail is paved so you could take a stroller. There is a fairly steep, but short, walk up to the trail but the trail itself is not terribly strenuous. The trail is gorgeous. On one side you have the beauty of the tower and the other side is the valley below. It made for the perfect afternoon.
While we did not stay at the campground within the park, I wish we would have. It was gorgeous. There were huge trees, luscious green grass and wildflowers everywhere. In addition, you can see the tower from the campground. If we are ever in this area again we will definitely stay here. There is also a KOA just outside the park entrance.
Several miles from the park entrance is a pullout on the highway where you can see the tower in the distance and take pictures. We had so much fun trying to figure out how to pose with the tower. Now that we are home we have thought of several more funny poses like pretending it’s a hat or holding on to the top like you are going to pick it up. Little Miss is just too darn cute so I had to share.
Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park is just south of Custer State Park and about 45 minutes from Mount Rushmore. The day we visited Wind Cave was one of the days where it rained all day long. We wanted to get out of the cabin and the cave was probably the only dry place we could go. We were not the only ones with this idea and had to wait an hour and a half for a tour. While we waited for our tour the kids completed their Junior Ranger packets. The park is also home to several hiking trails as well as lots of wildlife.
Wind Cave is different from the caves we are used to seeing. It covers 142 miles but over 1.2 square miles of surface area so it’s very scrunched up inside and they are still finding more tunnels. The main formation in Wind Cave is boxwork. 95% of the world’s known boxwork is within Wind Cave. Pictures do not do it justice but it’s basically fragile, empty squares. Our tour guide used the analogy of using sugar cubes as a building material and then eventually the sugar dissolves leaving on the glue in between the cubes.
Little Mister loved the cave. He seems to love caves in general. He always wants to go on the cave exploration tours where you squeeze through small passages and use a headlamp. No thank you!
We chose the Garden of Eden tour, a 1 hour tour covering 1/4 mile. It is the easiest tour that they have but if I were to do it over again I would probably try the Natural Entrance Tour for several reasons. One, the Garden of Eden tour enters and exits the cave by elevator. I have come to realize that I do not like cave tours where I enter by elevator. I have been on plenty of cave tours and they never bother me. This is the second time I have entered a cave by elevator and I did not like it. It makes me feel totally trapped underground. At least with a natural entrance you know you can walk out. Second, we did not cover a lot of ground. There was more talking than walking on this tour. We had three stops and the rest of the time was filled with stories. Our guide was a young kid who loves exploring. In his free time he explores the cave and was telling us stories of when he found rooms that had not previously been explored.
There are quite a few caves in South Dakota. Two are national parks (Jewel Cave and Wind Cave) and the others are privately owned. There are signs all over the highways for the privately owned caves. They all have fancy names but I don’t know how fancy they are inside. The entire Black Hills area is full of tourist attractions – farms, zoos, caves, water parks, and mini golf. We stuck to the national and state parks but if you want to venture away from those there are plenty of places to visit.
The Black Hills are a beautiful part of the country but after a week of rain, fog and 40 degree temperatures I was happy to head somewhere else. Stay tuned for the final recap of this trip. My favorite national park – the Grand Tetons!