July 16 – 17, 2016: En route to Badlands National Park we stopped at Wall Drug: an old pharmacy turned tourist attraction. Wall Drug opened its doors in 1931 and had a rocky first couple of years. Their fortune started to turn around during the summer of 1936 due to clever advertising and free ice water offered to weary road travelers. Today Wall Drug occupies more than a city block, is filled with South Dakota souvenirs, cafes, and various attractions, and can attract over twenty thousand visitors per day! Stop by for homemade donuts and a free bumper sticker.
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After our fix of Americana kitsch, we entered Badlands National Park to find a place to rest our heads for the night.
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Unfortunately, we found the Cedar Pass Campground full and the Sage Creek Campground, a free primitive campground on the west side of the park, is about 1.5 hours away from the Cedar Pass Campground and Visitor Center. Although we were interested in the primitive sites at Sage Creek, we were not interested in the drive. We were hot and tired and just wanted to relax so we tried to nab a site at the nearby Badlands / White River KOA but they were also fully booked. In researching our options, we found that we could boondock in Buffalo Gap National Grassland adjacent to the park. The motor vehicle use map pointed us to a location just outside a park entrance and we hurried to find the spot as a storm rolled in. We watched, from our private field of grass, the sky turn from clear to dark and stormy and back again; illuminating the badlands. A spectacular experience from our free, secluded, and scenic spot.
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The next morning we set-out for Launch Facility (Missile Silo) Delta-09, one of the three locations that comprise the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. To get there, we entered Badlands National Park from the southern Contana Road entrance and made our way through the park, stopping at a few overlooks, to exit via the northern entrance station. I recommend listening to the audio tour (available via a cell phone call) whilst at the silo for a history lesson. I had no idea that the United States still had missiles ready to be launched up until 1990! It was also interesting to learn about Looking Glass, the orbiting command post that would take over in the event that the launch facility was destroyed.
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TIP: The other two locations that comprise the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site are a Visitor Center and Launch Control Center Delta-01. The facilities are not on the same grounds so plan accordingly.
After re-entering Badlands National Park, we headed down the unpaved road that leads to the primitive Sage Creek Campground that we didn’t stay at last night. The views were fantastic and I would suggest at least going to the first two overlooks.
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We then drove the length of Badlands Loop Road stopping at almost every overlook and pull out. The scenery was similar, but not as colorful, to some landscapes within Death Valley National Park. Badlands occur when water erodes softer rock (here, in South Dakota, the softer rock was hardened volcanic ash) and the colored bands within the rock represent different eras in history. One of the prettier features, IMHO, were the yellow mounds. The yellow coloration is the result of decayed plant life.
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In addition to interesting landscapes, we saw wildlife whilst driving on Badland Loop Road. Prairie dogs (they have the plague!) and bighorn sheep!
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In terms of hiking, Badlands National Park offers a number of accessible boardwalks. We completed Fossil Bed Trail, Window Trail, and Door Trail. Unfortunately we didn’t have the time to complete Notch Trail which involves some cliffs and ladder climbing.
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TIP: Walk to the end of the Door Trail boardwalk. There are a number of markers that can be followed for an off-trail type of experience, walking amongst the badlands. We did this and it was worth it.
In closing, Badlands National Park offered interesting scenery but Death Valley National Park, in my opinion, will take the prize for its more varied and colorful landscape.
- boondocking in Buffalo Gap National Grassland
TIP: If you’d prefer to book in advance or don’t want to end up boondocking in a dispersed site in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, check out these accommodation options in Wall, South Dakota.