Dad and the kids heard it: the mountains are calling. But as Mom, you’re not so sure. Is the vision of mama bear lumbering through your campsite keeping you away from the mountain vacation your family craves? Or is it Dad trying to find low gear while your minivan races down a mountain pass? I’ve got the perfect mountain destination full of inspiring views, quaint cabins and hikes the whole family will enjoy, without mama bear and Dad’s crazy mountain driving.
The Badlands and the Black Hills of South Dakota offer five national park sites. The kids want to camp, so I found an amazing cabin in Badlands National Park that Mom will enjoy too. If animals are on Dad’s vacation list, South Dakota has plenty. The best feature of South Dakota’s mountain escape is everything is an hour away, less time on the road and more time on the trail.
Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park was established as a national monument in 1939 and re-designated a national park in 1978. It encompasses 244,000 acres and has the largest expanse of protected prairie ecosystem in the National Park Service.
Badlands National Park borders the Buffalo Gap National Grassland so it offers habitats for several animal species, like buffalo, fox, bighorn sheep and the black-footed ferret. It also offers some of the richest mammal fossil beds – a Tyranosausus Rex was discovered in the Badlands.
What to do in Half a Day
Badlands National Park can be explored in half a day, though I would concentrate on the north unit of the park. Be on the lookout for animals. During my visit I saw big horn sheep, wild turkeys, a coyote, prairie dogs and a cottontail rabbit.
Stop at the Visitors Center
Check in at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center for Junior Ranger Booklets, NPS passport stamps and maps. The visitor center shows an interpretive movie, has a gift shop and restrooms. Open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. year-round, open 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the summer.
Take a Hike
Several family-friendly hikes originate near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. The Door Trail and the Window Trail are shorter hikes. The Fossil Exhibit Trail is another short interpretive walk that will interest the kids. These trails have restrooms nearby.
Take the Scenic Drive
Enter Badlands Loop Road or Highway 240 from the Northeast Entrance or the Pinnacles Entrance, drive across the park. Be sure and stop at the Pinnacles Overlook, I saw lots of animals at dusk. Picnic tables can be found at Bigfoot Pass Overlook.
Attend a Ranger Program
During the summer season, Badlands National Park offers ranger programs for all ages. Some of the topics are geology, paleontology, fossils, night sky viewing and a couple of special programs for junior rangers. Check in at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center or consult the park newspaper for days and times.
Activities in Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park offers several hiking trails. Biking is also popular in the park. Back country camping is available and permits are not required.
Horses are permitted in Badlands National Park in the Badlands Wilderness Area. A portion of Sage Creek Campground (primitive) is designated for horse use.
Kids in Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park hosts special Junior Ranger Programming at 11 a.m. daily during the summer. Topics vary by day. My kids participated in the Fun in the Sun program to earn the Badlands Junior Ranger badge.
Badlands National Park offers several other Junior Ranger programs. The night sky program is a favorite of kids; they can earn a special patch for completing the Night Explorer Junior Ranger booklet. For the dinosaur-loving kids, check out the Junior Paleontologist badge. The Historic Preservation Junior Ranger badge is also available.
Lodging, Dining and Camping in Badlands National Park
To fully experience Badlands National Park, I stayed in a Cedar Pass Lodge cabin. The quiet rock formations come alive as the sun breaks and a symphony of birds celebrate the arrival of another day. From my cabin’s back porch, I watched cottontail rabbits nibble on prairie grass as I enjoyed my morning ritual of coffee in my favorite flannel shirt.
The Cedar Pass Lodge cabins were built in 2013 to resemble the original 1928 cabins. Open seasonally from April 15 until October 15, Cedar Pass Lodge features 26 free-standing and duplex cabin units.
The Cedar Pass Restaurant, located in front of the Cedar Pass Lodge cabins, is open from April 15 until October 15 from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m. Serving local favorites, like fry bread, Indian tacos and buffalo burgers, along side locally-sourced fish and beef; South Dakota beer and wine is also available.
Cedar Pass Campground has 96 sites ($22-$37) with running water, flush toilets and covered picnic tables. Sage Creek Campground (free) is a primitive campground on the west side of Badlands National Park.
Getting to the Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park is located 75 miles east of Rapid City, South Dakota, the nearest regional airport. Its Northeast Entrance is located 8 miles south of Interstate 90 and its Pinnacles Entrance is 8 miles south of Wall, South Dakota.
Badlands National Park is divided into two units, the North Unit and the Stronghold Unit. It’s partially located in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and borders the Buffalo Gap National Grassland.
Getting Around the Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park is open 365-days a year and 24-hours a day. Admission is $15 per vehicle for a 7-day pass or you can use an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80).
Tips from a Traveling Mom:
- Watch out for South Dakota’s poisonous snake, the Prairie Rattlesnake.
- Give large animals, like buffalo and bighorn sheep, 25 yards for your safety.
- Bring water bottles, visitor centers have bottle fillers.
- Cell service is limited in Badlands National Park.
- Ground fires aren’t allowed in Badlands National Park.
- Camp stoves are allowed in campgrounds and picnic sites.