It hasn’t been the most efficient way of exploring the Rapid City area of South Dakota, what with having to insert a run south to Nebraska in order to see the eclipse, but one does what one has to do if you want to see all the National Parks. Having spent time in Custer State Park and a quick drive by of Mount Rushmore during our first two days in SD, our priorities for this second trip would be Wind Cave and Badlands National Parks.
Fortunately for us, Wind Cave was generally along our route back north so, we pulled the full rig into the national park lot, and after getting a bit of guidance from the ranger who objected to our initial spot selection, we found large RV sites a quarter mile down the road beyond the visitor center.
Wind Cave was experiencing a massive boom in visitors largely due to people like us: Nebraska eclipse watchers taking advantage of the parks proximity. As a result they had extended their peak cave tour schedule by a few weeks, and we were thus able to secure the medium distance “Natural Entrance” tour starting a bit over an hour after our arrival. We spent the intervening time enjoying the traditional park movie and exploring the gift shop before joining our ranger guide and 38 strangers for the 75 minute exploration.
Wind Cave is our third cave-oriented national park, and while it can’t compete in awesome beauty with Carlsbad, we found it significantly more enjoyable and interesting than Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Wind Cave has an interesting and contentious legal history, unique “boxwork” calcite and “frostwork” aragonite formations, and incredible complexity: the 140 miles of explored passages are a three dimensional maze work taking place mostly within one square mile of surface area.
One final comment about Wind Cave: the surface is worth seeing as well. The 10 square mile park has 30 miles of hiking trails, free ranging buffalo, and a rather beautiful open prairie environment. One could make the case that if you only had time to see one park between Theodore Roosevelt, Custer, and Wind Cave, the latter might be your best choice. They have similar features and wildlife above ground, but only Wind Cave has, you know, the cave.
After our great afternoon exploring Wind Cave, we turned west towards Badlands National Park. We found a reasonably priced private park a couple of miles from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center on the eastern end of the property. Badlands Interior Campground is nothing to write home about in terms of amenities and beauty, but at less than $28 a night with the military discount we had (30 amp) full hook ups, friendly staff, and an ideal location for our three day stay.
The basics of Badlands are easily explored by car along the park’s “loop road” which is, in reality, not a loop unless you count leaving the park at one end and taking the interstate back to the other rather than simply turning around and retracing your route. A one way trip along SD 240, the state toad that runs the length of the park east to west, is 40 miles, and takes about an hour to do with no stops.
We made the right decision to explore the park at different times of the day, experiencing the raw rock formations and wildlife during peak sun in the afternoon, and also later during sunset. Early morning is pretty much a non-starter for us, so the sunset dusk period turned out to be the best of our drives.
The place is a marked contrast from TR, Custer, and Wind Cave: the geology is much harsher and desolate in appearance, though beautiful in its own right. As I alluded to in an earlier paragraph: given limited time, seeing all of those three parks might be a bit duplicative, experience wise, whereas Badlands National Park is so vastly different as to deserve its own visit.
Aside from a distantly-spotted possible Golden Eagle or two, the primary wildlife we encountered were Bighorn Sheep, often grazing right beside the road only a bit wary of the handful of tourists slowing down to take their picture. Given more time we would have enjoyed day hiking on the many trails accessible right from the loop road, but I came down with a minor bit of something on day two that limited our willingness to give that a go.
The Dakotas have been great for us. If we get back to the region again, I am confident we will spend more time in Badlands and, because of the wonderful national grasslands campground, Theodore Roosevelt NP as well. Since we have now visited 31 national parks, I think a future post will involve us classifying them into three groups: parks we will eagerly visit again, those we might if it is convenient, and those we will probably pass on in favor of new experiences.
For now though, its time to move on. Next post: our revised plan for the remainder of 2017.