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  • Donna

Trip Report: Badlands National Park

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

September 28 – October 3, 2017

Cedar Pass Campground, Site #70

What do you get when more than 20 years of friendship descend on a national park? A trip to Wall Drug to mount a Jackalope, ride a bronco, and sit on the tail of a Brontosaurus. Forty-five minutes of sheer glee feeding unsalted peanuts to prairie dogs. Dressing our kids in overalls and a frock, and donning similar gear for ourselves while touring an old homestead. Several hikes—two of which Wendy and I couldn’t have done otherwise. Chicken gizzards. And a toddler seated in a South Dakota bar, so tired from the morning’s activities that he kept trying to dip a french fry in a french fry.

We started the first day at Wall Drug, which survived the Great Depression due to its great marketing and free ice water, and is now a tourist attraction with juuuuust enough kitsch to keep it entertaining. In addition to souvenir shops, there’s a giant Jackalope and bucking bronco with stairs on the side so they’re easy to sit on, a little covered wagon you can climb in, and a mechanical T-Rex that threatens to eat people every 12 minutes. We stood near it for a while so the kids could get the full effect; bad idea. They both cried, and even more so as our friend Deanne got really close to it in an effort to relay it was just a big toy.

On the way back from Wall Drug, we visited an old missile silo, then stopped at the “Ranch Store,” where pudgy little prairie dogs roam and are so accustomed to people they’ll take food right from your hand. I think Deanne may want to move there when she retires; she enjoyed it at least as much as the kids, and they loved it. Deanne bought them peanuts and they each managed to settle themselves enough to crouch and hold the nut at arm’s length, where they were rewarded by a prairie dog gently taking it from their hand. But it was fun for them even when the prairie dogs ran away and hid in their little tunnels. Even though a couple of days have passed, Darwin’s obviously still thinking about it. She occasionally exclaims, out of the blue, “Back in hole!”

Less than half a mile down the road from the Ranch Store is a place called the Sod House. For me, it was the House of Pure Joy. So many things I like in one place: an old homestead, chickens, goats, and pioneer clothing. After paying for the self-guided tour, it was a pioneer-clothing-optional affair. But for us there was no question: it was on.

Wendy, Deanne, and our friend Michelle all adorned skirts and frocks. I chose a pair of overalls for myself and Emerson, and Darwin wore a dress that was way too long for her. Then we headed out to the homestead, periodically doubling over with laughter at the sight of ourselves. Darwin had to hold her dress up when she walked and Wendy’s get-up made her want to dance to the narration piping through the dirt-floored house we temporarily took on as our own. The place was a ghost town so we were able to take our time and a lot of pictures. My favorite is a shot of all six of us with our “it’s been a hard winter” expressions. That was the intent, anyway. As Michelle aptly pointed out, we look like serial killers.

That night at the cabin, we took hot showers, sat on comfy beds, and laughed as we played with the kids and talked about the day.

Our last couple of days with Michelle and Deanne were focused on exploring the park. We checked out several short boardwalk views and did what I would consider three hikes: the Notch, Door, and Saddle Pass trails.

We tackled the Notch and Door trails on our second day. The Notch Trail was by far my favorite, in part because we had to climb a steep ladder made of braided cable and wooden rungs. The hike itself is only a little more than a mile long, and the terrain is unlike anything we’d seen. Walking amid the Badlands, knowing it used to be covered by water, is something I’ll never forget. After carrying the kids in our backpacks on the Notch Trail, we let them walk the mile-long Door Trail themselves. With Deanne and Michelle’s help, it was pretty easy to do. The kids stayed motivated and Emerson loved scrambling up and down the rocks.

Tired and hungry, we drove a couple of miles to the town of Interior, South Dakota and ate lunch at the Wagon Wheel Bar and Grill. This is where I couldn’t resist ordering “the local favorite.” The wiser people in our party chose more predictable cuisine and weren’t disappointed. While I tried to power through the chewy, gristled deep-fried chicken gizzards, Emerson sat across the table, his eyes drifting closed as he dipped a fry in ketchup and placed it in his mouth, then repeated the process, speechless, expressionless, like a pint-sized stoner. Like any good parents, we took a video as he continued eating in this fashion, eventually choosing to dip each french fry in a fry that had fallen on the table.

Darwin has a different reaction to being tired—being wired. She interacted with everyone as she sat at the table and didn’t miss a beat. When Deanne conspicuously announced her intention to eat the last cheese ball, Darwin quickly plucked it from the greasy red-and-white paper tray with her thumb and forefinger, tilted her head back while looking Deanne in the eye, placed it in her mouth, and began chewing, slowly, eyeballing Deanne the whole time.

The next day we went on our last big hike—Saddle Pass Trail. We started off with the kids walking but soon learned that wouldn’t work. Since CeCe was in the car and the day was warming up, Wendy went ahead of us to finish the trail faster so she could get back to the car. As I was ushering Darwin up the steep trail, telling her she wasn’t tired (as if that would make it true); and Michelle and Deanne were each holding one of Emerson’s hands, hoisting him up the loose gravel since he couldn’t get his footing; Wendy returned and said she thought maybe this wasn’t actually a trail. There were no markers and she’d reached a place that was too treacherous for the kids to traverse, even if this was a trail.

After doing some research and scouting, we decided I’d take the kids back down to the car, and Wendy, Deanne, and Michelle would complete the hike. After scooting the kids back down the way we’d come, I let them play outside for a while. But the strong wind kept sweeping dust and rock bits in their faces, so we ended up hanging out in the back of the van with the hatch open. They actually had a really good time playing back there though and the time passed quickly. When everyone returned, Wendy told me how cool the hike had been and Michelle offered to do it again with me. So I had a chance to scramble up into the Badlands, slipping on the path, grabbing rocks to steady myself and climb. It was so – much – fun.

That’s really the best word to describe what Deanne and Michelle brought to this leg of our journey: Fun. Sure, there was comfort—the warmth close friends bring when they visit. There was support—figuratively and literally; Wendy and I wouldn’t have climbed the ladder at the Notch Trail if Michelle and Deanne hadn’t been there to spot us, and we probably would’ve turned back shortly after starting the Saddle Pass Trail because it would’ve been too much with the kids. There was love—I love those two women like family. There was hilarity—side-splitting laughter from unpredictable things, like a huge bee’s pursuit of Michelle along the Notch Trail, and suddenly finding ourselves exploring a homestead in frocks and overalls.

Taking this journey with my family is already better than I’d imagined. Wendy and I have grown even closer and I feel really fortunate to spend so much concentrated time with our kids. Each park has its own highlight. I’ll likely forget the details over time, but I expect I’ll always remember what a good time we had here in the Badlands.

Read the next trip report: Rocky Mountain and Great Sand Dunes National Parks


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