From Mount Rushmore to Badlands National Park; a place I was desperately curious about myself and couldn’t wait to see. Here’s a photo-fueled account of our unforgettable family RV road trip through the Badlands of South Dakota; the very same place Kevin Costner filmed the Oscar-winning Dances With Wolves.
I’ve never seen an image of it before our arrival. I’m not sure about B, but I had no expectations of the Badlands, so it was a big surprise to me and I’m sure it will be for you too. After all, what can you expect of a place called The Badlands!
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Dances With Wolves: Background and Relevance
- Day 17: Keystone to Badlands
- Diary Excerpt
- Badlands Motel & RV Park, Interior: Review
- Camping In The Badlands
- Entry Fees
- Day 18: Into The Badlands
- Like A Well-Oiled Machine. Not The RV. Us.
- Ben Reifel Visitor Centre
- A Little History: The 1930s Dustbowl Drought
- Breathe: She’s Only Two
- Badlands Loop Road – West
- To Valentine
Dances With Wolves
Remember the movie? If you’ve seen it, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll forget it. Not only because it’s three hours long and filmed with an interval halfway through, but because – for a movie released in 1990 – even by today’s standards, it’s a great movie.
In 2007, Dances with Wolves was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”
Needless to say, we recently watched it. It drags a bit at times so we watched it over two nights. However, it’s such an accurate depiction of the tension between Indians and pioneers of that time, that lovers of history, as we are, will especially enjoy it. Kevin Costner directed, produced and starred in Dances With Wolves, which won seven out of ten Oscar nominations.
Now we’ll show you the stunning stage that formed the backdrop to the movie!
Day 17, Fri 5 Oct: Keystone to Badlands
Direct Diary Excerpt
Drive Keystone to Badlands NP via Rapid City. Booked campsite with full hookups but no sewer at RV park in Interior. Arrived early afternoon. Cold and raining. Decided to stay in the RV, played Cluedo and watched movies.
Beautiful views of mountains at sunset and a great spot for stargazing. B was lucky to see a few shooting stars. Freezing cold.
Quiet In fall, dark at night with clear skies and the absence of light pollution makes the Badlands great for stargazing. I couldn’t stay outside long enough to see a shooting star because of the cold and I wanted to keep the kids inside, but B’s determination paid off. He tried to see a shooting star whenever he could, and I think he managed to add more than a few to his stargazing repertoire on this road trip.
Badlands Motel & RV Park, Interior
The RV Park was empty apart from one other campervan, which meant we had the place to ourselves and an almost uninterrupted view of the Badlands mountains.
Outdoor play areas are always a welcome sight for parents of young children, and this campground has two. We love places that have fire pits; we prefer them and seek them out because camping is just not camping without a campfire! Ours were lit and burned bright in the dark, not to ‘braai’ a chop and ‘wors’ but only to warm B’s legs as he scanned the sky for shooting stars; alone – I’m ashamed to say. It was too cold outside for the kids and me even with a fire going.
I didn’t appreciate the small rubbish bins that seem to be shared between a few sites and wondered how they cope when it gets busy. I hope they have a better system for rubbish removal then.
We played board games with the kids, enjoyed a quiet sunset and later managed to watch Netflix as the campgrounds’ wi-fi was sufficient.
The restrooms and showers were acceptable and clean from what the boys told me. Us girls showered inside the RV because it was too cold to use the campground showers. Water is a valuable commodity in a motorhome; rationed, to be used sparingly. I didn’t need to use the laundry or any of the facilities either because we were there for one night only. The booking and check-in process was seamless, the welcome was warm and friendly, and we enjoyed our stay.
Do We Recommend Badlands Interior Campground?
Yes, we can recommend this campground to RV’ers just for its location 2,4 miles from the Badlands visitor centre, to get closer to nature, for stargazing, beautiful sunsets and full hookups, apart from a sewer.
It’s well-appointed as an overnight spot for an early start to explore Badlands National Park the next day.
We rate Badlands Interior Campground 4 / 5
- Overnight: Badlands Motel & RV park, Interior $31
- Distance Traveled: 91 miles (2hrs)
Camping In The Badlands
There’s Cedar Pass Campground, located closest to the visitor centre and shut from the 1st of November for winter. I think it cost just over $20 p/n to camp at Cedar Pass Campground.
Sage Creek Campground, the gateway to the Wilderness area, is a favourite campsite, but RV’s and motorhomes greater than 18ft in length are prohibited, and the unpaved Sage Creek road is closed from time to time. Camping is free, basic and available on a first come first serve basis at Sage Creek Campground.
Backpackers are allowed to wild camp anywhere in Badlands National Park, and the Wilderness area is perfect for backcountry camping.
Oh, in another life, how B and I would love to backpack and wild camp through the Badlands. However, I think that the backpacking ship has now sailed for us. We won’t backpack while the kids are young and I can’t see us backpacking when we’re sixty either. Maybe; if we keep up the fitness and our adventurous no-frills spirits stay intact, just maybe.
Judging by the icy weather we experienced in October, I would highly advise camping and backpacking in summer only. We were grateful for the furnace and warm beds of the motorhome during the one night we were there.
Park Entry Fees
- Private Vehicle: $25 – Valid for 7 days
- Motorcycle: $15 – Valid for 7 days
- Individual (hike, bicycle, etc…): $12 per person 16 and older – Valid for 7 days
Once again, we did not have to pay the entry fees because we had the America The Beautiful parks pass, which costs a one-off $80 and allows a vehicle entrance to all U.S state and national parks for a year!
Day 18, Sat 6 Oct: Into The Badlands
Fresh as daisies after our early night in, we were ready to leave the campsite at a decent hour to see Badlands National Park.
It doesn’t take long to get the RV ready to move. Once everyone’s clean, dressed and fed, I wash up and pack away, the kids tidy up what they can and make their beds, while B unhooks the RV from the electric, water and sewer if needed. Usually, by the time he gets behind the wheel, the kids are buckled up and I’m packing away the last bits and bops securely inside cupboards.
Like A Well-Oiled Machine. Not The RV. Us.
I’m pleased to say that that’s how we worked together less than 18 days after we set off from San Francisco. You have to work together, and everyone must do their share to make a road trip in a motorhome work, especially for a family of five doing it for a more extended period of three months. It isn’t all roses and unicorn cupcakes all the time during any long trip, but it can get especially gruesome if families or bigger groups don’t gel and pull together.
Tip: Don’t forget the kettle on the stove! We lost two glass coffee makers in the first week, leaving us with only instant coffee for the rest of the trip because we refused to buy a third one out of principal. I love instant coffee, but nothing beats a freshly brewed pot of coffee at a morning campfire.
At The Ben Reifel Visitor Centre (VC)
We spent a good two hours at the VC from 9 to 11 am, where the kids earned their Badlands Junior Ranger badges. They usually have to complete specific tasks in the park before they must return to the rangers to take the oath and get their badges.
After we explained to the park rangers that we were leaving the park and would not return for their badges, they agreed to let the children complete the workbooks in the centre. They had to promise to observe and take note of as much as they could on the way out and they did. Helpful rangers as always!
There are no ranger-led programs in fall and winter at Badlands NP.
Some of the things you learn are how the Lakota or Sioux Indians and other native tribes lived and hunted in the Badlands. They were eventually stripped of the land and forced to live on reservations by the US Government.
Learn how homesteaders tried to make a living in the Badlands and failed, about the formation of the Badlands, how it keeps changing all the time, the conservation effort, and about some of the best fossil finds the world has ever seen.
The Lakota first called the place ‘land bad’ because of extreme temperatures, the cruel open rugged terrain and lack of water.
Dustbowl photo source: Public Domain
A Little History For You: 1930s Dustbowl Drought
When the U.S Department of Agriculture advertised to get homesteaders to move to the Badlands, they described it as ‘The Wonderlands’. It worked. Farmers moved there, but were soon driven away, not only by the harsh conditions but by the devastating Dustbowl Drought that ravished the Great Plains in the 1930s and constant swarms of grasshoppers on top of that!
The Dustbowl Drought was a natural disaster caused by human intervention. When prairie grass was removed for agricultural purposes, the result was dangerous dust storms that made life unbearable. People got ill, many died and most had to flee from their farms. Tens of thousands fled to California to find that the depression caused the same desperate situation as the Dustbowl Drought.
Count And Breathe: She’s Only Two
Back to our reality check and little Kate being a pickle. They have quite a few exhibits with real fossilized bones and artefacts at the VC, and while they were displayed openly so that children and adults alike can interact with the pieces, I believe that what little Kate was trying to do with them was not what the archaeologists had in mind.
She was just on, over and under everything, and as the centre gradually got busier I struggled to keep up with her running up and down through tourist’s legs. It didn’t take long before I gave up trying to read anything of interest or the hope of seeing the movie, so I took her outside for a walk.
B helped the older two work on their Junior Ranger books inside the visitor centre and took them to see a movie about the Badlands, while Kate and I explored outside and then went to the RV to make omelettes and pancakes for brunch.
The Loop Road – West
The Loop Road is a 23-mile road that runs from the Pinnacle Entrance Station to the Ben Reifel Visitor Centre and the only paved road in the park.
We got a map of the park at the VC and spoke to the rangers about which route would be best in the RV. Good thing we did, because they made it clear that the best way is to stick to the paved Loop Road west to Wall because RV’s are prohibited on gravel roads, including the Sage Creek road into the Wilderness area.
Bad news for us! The Wilderness Area is where the buffalo herds roam on the largest undistributed mixed-grass prairie in the U.S. We saw a few buffalo, but it would’ve been great to see thousands of buffalo together here in the wild.
The White River Badlands is one of the most fossil-rich areas in the world. Archaeologists have found and put on display in the VC fossils of the strangest and rarest animals that lived a very long time ago, most of which were found in the White River Badlands.
There are a number of lookout points on the Loop Road with parking and restrooms, that lead to scenic boardwalks and hiking trails. Some of the great viewpoints worth stopping at that’s easy enough with a large RV, are the White River lookout, Homestead Overlook, Yellow Mounds Overlook at Dillon Pass, Ancient Hunters Overlook, Pinnacles Overlook and the Fossil Beds Trail.
Wildlife is plentiful. Prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, pronghorn and bison made an appearance and made our day. Some were visible from the Loop Road and others we saw from the lookout points. You may also see porcupine, badgers, bobcats, skunk, mule deer and some of the over two hundred birds species that live in the Badlands.
If you want to see prairie dogs, the Badlands is the place to find them. You don’t have to find them actually. They are everywhere. On the move all the time and easy to spot on the grass prairie.
I asked a park ranger about where to see prairie dogs, and his reply was,
“If you don’t see a prairie dog in the Badlands, something is seriously wrong.”Badlands Park Ranger
From the Badlands Loop Road, we drove north to Wall and the I90, then east to Murdo to fill up the propane tank.
We left the Badlands at about 1 pm, eager to get further south to warmer weather. If it gets that cold early in October, I wonder what it’s like in the heart of winter. I’m not curious enough to stick around and find out myself – just wondering – but it must be severe!
About 20mi before Murdo is 1880 Town, an authentic old west town, which was used in the filming of Dances With Wolves. We saw many more prairie dogs and a camel next to the road. Not sure if camels are part of South Dakota’s wildlife, but we thought it was pretty random.
It’s worth mentioning that the stretch of I90 we drove from the Badlands to Murdo, is not in the best condition and almost as bad as most of the road we drove crossing Nebraska.
We reached Valentine, located just over the SD/Nebraska border, at 5 pm and boondocked in a large gravel parking lot to the back of the Bunkhouse Restaurant. There was enough time left in the day to walk to the shop and get dinner before settling in for the night.
- Miles Travelled: 190mi
- Driving Time: 5hrs
- Overnight: $0 Boondock – Bunkhouse Restaurant
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