After our wonderful stay in Wisconsin, we said goodbye to family and—clean, rested, with the car neatly packed and a cooler full of cheese—started our journey west.
Fast-forward nearly 400 miles of incredibly boring southern Minnesota interstate…and we finally crossed into South Dakota! We ended up camping in Palisades State Park for the night—juuuust over the border to the east of Sioux Falls. After a good night’s sleep, we decided to do a little exploring before getting back in the car. And it was the coolest place! Originally an old mining town, the park featured a winding river with crazy rock formations and trails all along the shores.
We went for a short hour-long hike, and at 9:30 a.m. on a weekday, didn’t see another soul. It ended up being one of those unexpected road trip surprises: a hidden gem just outside of Sioux Falls. If you’re ever in the area, you should definitely check it out.
After that, it was onward to our next destination: Badlands National Park, the first national park of our trip! It was just a few more hours of boring interstate (and about 8 million tourist trap billboards) away, about an hour east of Rapid City. After we took photos with the sign (obviously) and purchased our pass (we’re official card-carrying NPS annual pass holders now, NBD) we headed into the park.
And about two minutes later, we felt like we were on another planet.
Coming in on the eastern entrance on Highway 240, the first overlook you reach is, in my opinion, the best on the whole scenic drive. Miles and miles of sandy-colored rock formations stretch out below you in all different shapes and sizes—from rounded mounds to pointy spires to towering canyons. It feels kind of like you’ve been plucked off of the highway and dropped into a giant’s sandbox.
From there, we drove the length of Highway 240, stopping at each turnout to gaze in awe at the landscape. The road descends from the first overlook until you’re driving among the rock formations, gently swerving along the base of the peaks. Chris and I agreed that it made us want to go play the COOLEST game of King of the Mountain.
All in all, I have never seen anything like this place in my life—and the pictures, of course, don’t begin to do it justice. We didn’t do any hiking in the park…but, to be honest, I didn’t feel like we really missed out. You can see SO much from the road in this park, it’s an easy one to do just in an afternoon.
With that said, we actually ended up spending the night in the park. The website freecampsites.net (a super useful resource for us on this trip) led us to Sage Creek Campground: a campground within the Badlands that was not only free, but also dog-friendly!
When we turned off the main route to head toward the campground, I thought the sight-seeing portion of the day was over. But BOY I was wrong about that! Apparently we had just turned off of the landscape part and into the drive-through wildlife viewing area. In the 20-minute drive to our campsite, we saw the following:
All of these photos were taken straight from the windows of our car. It was like all the wildlife came out just to put on a show for us!
Our campground for the night was a big, sandy field surrounded by a circular drive and equipped with trash containers, vault toilets, and a few picnic tables. No campsite numbers or sign-in or registration required—just roll up and find a place to pitch your tent. I loved how simple and easy it was.
There is one thing to note about this site if you ever visit, though—arachnophobes, here’s your warning to look away now. As we set up camp and cooked dinner, we noticed the whole site was sprinkled with tiny little holes. They were too small for prairie dogs, so we kept wondering what they were for….snakes? Are there scorpions in the Badlands, I wondered?
And then Chris’s headlamp caught sight of this, and the mystery was solved:
Luckily they were very afraid of us and wouldn’t come out of their holes if we were near….but let’s just say we definitely kept our stuff off of the ground from that point on.
We also noted lots of bison tracks throughout the site, but fortunately no herds wandered through while we were there. I’m not sure how much Callie would have liked that. As it was, she did a great job—and was tired enough to sleep through the yips and howls of some very vocal coyotes throughout the night.
It was overall very cool to be able to sleep in the park. And now that we’ve been to a couple of other parks, I REALLY appreciate how generally laid-back and simple the Badlands were. If you can get past the grassy fields and tourist traps along I-90, South Dakota has some beautiful places to visit.