Any trip to the Dakotas would not be complete without a visit to the awe-inspiring Badlands National Park (apparently so called because both native tribes and later French Canadians referred to it in their own languages as “land bad” or “bad lands to travel across”).
It’s understandable that this seemingly barren and endless landscape of sharp rocky formations would have been seen as a hostile area, especially for settlers and native Americans. But for today’s visitors, it offers an incredible experience of beautiful landscapes, fantastic hikes and for me, it’s one of the most peaceful, relaxing and untouched parts of the world that I’ve visited. If you want to escape back to nature for a while.. and experience real quiet.. this is the place.
Getting there and things to see on the way
We base ourselves in Rapid City with a hire car, which is the perfect starting place to explore the most popular Dakota sites (Rapid City is also my favourite airport in the world so far.. clean, welcoming and passenger-friendly :))
The drive out to the Badlands is just over an hour on East Interstate 90. On the way to and from the park, there are a couple of sites we found worth stopping for;
Prairie Homestead, 21070 Sd Highway 240, Philip, SD 57567
An authentically restored sod house, the original home of Mr & Mrs Ed Brown, who arrived in Dakota in 1909 to homestead 160 acres (it makes me exhausted just thinking about it.. I find Homesteading my roof terrace enough)…
When you first go in, it seems like a cosy little cottage. But you soon realise that no running water, spiders running around the walls, living in basically one room with your whole family, not to mention having to walk to the outside “toilet”, would make it pretty miserable! On top of this, factor in a winter of constant snow storms and temperatures of -40°C, and I soon decided that Homesteading wasn’t for me!
There’s a nice visitor’s centre where you can watch films about the harsh life of Homesteading. I found it a really interesting stop on our trip.
Wall Drug Store, 510 Main Street • PO Box 401 • Wall, SD
You literally cannot miss Wall Drug Store on the way to the Badlands, due to the hundreds of roadside billboards advertising it for miles and miles before you get there! By the time you get there, you feel like you already know it.
It has an interesting history, which is detailed on their website, here, and is basically a huge shopping centre and tourist trap. It accounts for half the space in the town, but, sadly for me, I still couldn’t find any chocolate milk, which I had a craving for!
It’s worth a pit stop to have a wander in the souvenir shops, where they have interesting Native American crafted items, as well as authentic cowboy boots, hats and tack.
Minuteman Missile Site
Again, full details are on the National Park website, here
Visiting a missile site wouldn’t normally be first on my list – given that; a) I’m not a boy and, b) I’m not hugely into military history. But it’s actually a very interesting site, and the visitors centre taught me a lot about the Cold War and the dissolution of the USSR which I didn’t actually know. It’s also a very interactive centre (you can get a picture of yourself turning the keys to launch a missile!)
You can then continue onto the missile control centre, and then the actual Missile Silo itself, where you can stand right over the top of the weapon which would have been on alert during the Cold War.
Where to stay
Cedar Pass Lodge, 20681 SD-240, Interior, SD
I’ve been lucky enough to visit the Badlands National Park twice, and we’ve stayed at Cedar Pass both times.
It comprises various log cabins, which have been recently renovated to a high standard. Furnished with handmade log beds, chairs and American quilts, you feel as if you’re in Little House on the Prairie – luxury style! The bathrooms are spotless and well designed, and the cabins have ceiling fans and effective air-conditioning, as well as requisite mosquito screens. I literally sleep like a “log” here!! The only sounds are crickets and the occasional rustling of small creatures outside.
The porches back right onto the Badlands, and sitting in one of the handmade Adirondack chairs with a cold beer, watching the sun go down, has to be one of the most idyllic and relaxing things you can do.
There isn’t a kitchen in the cabins – only a small fridge, coffee maker and microwave, and no utensils. After our first visit, we were better prepared for the next one, stocking up on microwave meals and noodles, as well as coffee and milk (and of course champagne!) on our way.
There is a small grocery area in the main reception centre, which has the basics, as well as first aid items, but I would recommend you bring what you need with you.
If you don’t want to fend for yourself, there is a restaurant next to the reception area. We tried it once for dinner and weren’t overly impressed, but as we’ve only had one meal, it’s maybe not fair to discount it. Be warned though, if you order an Indian Taco, they are huge! I only managed about half of one.
I recommend Cedar Pass for anyone staying overnight in the Badlands National Park. It’s an idyllic log cabin experience not to be missed
Hikes & rattlesnakes!
Of course, one of the main reasons for visiting the Badlands is to see them on foot, just as early settlers and explores would have done. Now, there are well signposted trails to make it easier!
On our last visit, we did two moderate hikes (around 4-4.5 miles each). For your first hike, I’d recommend the Medicine Root Loop, which gives you some really fantastic views of the rock formations, as well as some good elevation for stunning views across the lower valleys and grasslands. The vista spread out below you really looks like something out of a dinosaur or sci-fi movie.. as though humans have never existed on the plains. You’ll also walk through some of the mixed grass prairie, so you’ll really get a feel for the different terrain.
NB the initial climb up the rocks at the start of the hike (and coming back down at the end!) is tricky – even in hiking boots, as the ground is slippery.
I’ve attached a link to the hiking trails here, to give you an idea, but you’ll pick up a map etc when you arrive at the Badlands visitors centre.
Rattlesnakes – You’ll see warnings in the visitors’ centre and signposts all around the trails in the Badlands to be wary of rattlesnakes. At first I was taking the warnings pretty lightly… then I walked off the trail to get a better view for a picture… almost stepping on a sunbathing snake! I changed direction pretty quickly and I’ve been incredibly careful about where I put my feet ever since!
It was bizarre luck, or not, that I came across a rattlesnake as soon as I got to the Badlands.. you probably won’t see one as they try and keep out of our way… but you have been warned!
Snakes aside – the only footwear I would recommend for going to the Badlands are proper hiking shoes or boots!
So I hope this post has given you a bit of an insight into the incredible Badlands area. As Dakota is a very important place for me, expect more posts on recommended activities and where to stay.. including Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial – the very thing that drew me to the Dakotas in the first place.
As always, I’d love to hear your comments if you’ve been to the places I’m blogging about, or any questions you have if you’re intending to visit.
Thanks for reading & travel safe!