We arrived at our campground by mid-afternoon. We checked in, found our site and set up. The campground was nothing more than a gravel parking lot with maybe ten to fifteen feet between campers, but we were glad to have full hook ups and the location near Badlands National Park was desirable. We were just three miles from the Northeast Entrance Station. Besides, we were only planning to stay a couple of nights anyway.
After driving more than five hours to get here, we were a little reluctant to climb back in the truck for a drive to the national park. But hey, what else was there to do? At the very least, we might as well go to the visitor center and get a map. Right? We always recommend stopping at the visitor center whenever you visit a national park. It is the best place to learn about the park and get the latest up to date information to help plan your visit.
No sooner did we get inside the park that we saw to our left a couple of bighorn sheep standing on the cliffs. On the right were three more. I wondered what they were thinking as they looked down at us. Was this the welcoming committee or the sentry guard? Regardless of their purpose, they were magnificent animals and stood proudly as we took their picture.
We picked up a map at the visitor center and we talked to a ranger and got the scoop on the best places to see and the must things to do. We stamped our National Park Passport Book with the date-stamp found at all national park units. They look like passport stamps you get when traveling abroad. Each park unit has a unique stamp. This is one of the ways we commemorate our visit to the parks we’ve been to. The other way we keep track of the parks we’ve been is to buy a souvenir magnet and stick it to the refrigerator in the camper. We are starting to get quite the collection.
There was still time enough in the day for us to drive further into the park and check out some of the overlooks. Wow! It was a stunning view of the landscape. A distant grassland merging to undulating hills that collide with the craggy walls of the badlands. A vibrant mixture of red, orange and yellow earth tones glowing in the afternoon sunlight contrasted with the muted blues and gray tones in the the cast shadows. It was a natural work of art, and an uplifting sight to see. But for a weary pioneer moving westward years ago, it was a sight that caused aguish and despair. The menacing wall separating the lower and upper prairies was a formidable obstacle. After all, this area didn’t come to be called the badlands for nothing.
Inspired by what we were seeing, we continued our drive, stopping at pullouts to see other perspectives. We saw more bighorn sheep and when we got to the Pinnacles Entrance Station on the other side of the park, we spotted a herd of bison grazing on the grasslands. It was at this point we turned around and went back toward our campsite, not sure if we were going to make it back before nightfall.
The next morning we went to The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center located at exit 131 on Interstate 90 in South Dakota. Actually is was less than a mile away from where we were camping. I felt it was something we had to see since we were so close.
During the cold-war with the Soviet Union, missile silos were dug into the ground in remote areas of the high plains states. Displays and a documentary film at the visitor center show the history of that era and how the military personnel lived and prepared for a potential nuclear war. While watching the movie, I got chills when it described how close we came on occasion to an accidental holocaust. It was a scary time.
At the visitor center, we were given directions to a decommissioned missile silo. Driving further west on I-90 for a couple of exits, we followed a small inconspicuous sign pointing in the direction of the site. An area about the size of half a football field was enclosed by a chain-linked fence.
We were only given access to above ground and I wondered what was below the hatch. A glass cover over the silo allowed us to peer down at a Minuteman missile. I felt a sick feeling in my gut when I looked into the silo. The destruction from this one missile, when armed, is mind-boggling. Like so many of us of a certain age, I remember the duck and cover drills in school. We lived with the constant threat of a nuclear war.
We continued west on I-90 to the small community of Wall where the famous Wall Drug Store is located. We started seeing signs for the drug store miles in advance of the exit.
It was signs like these that turned the once struggling drug store in Wall into a roadside attraction. In the 1930’s, Wall Drug Store started attracting motorist by spacing roadside signs along the highways advertising Free Ice Water and 5-cent Coffee. The little jingles posted on signs obviously worked. Today it attracts thousands of customers. They still offer free ice-water and nickel cups of coffee. We sat down and enjoyed one of their cups of coffee along with a freshly made donut. This is a must-see stop whenever visiting the Badlands in South Dakota.
That afternoon, we entered the park again. This time at the Pinnacles Entrance Station. The entrance fee for the national park is $30.00 for a seven days pass, but we entered at no charge using our America The Beautiful Senior Pass. If you are 62 years or older, you definitely need to buy this lifetime pass for $80.00. It gets you in all the national parks. It has saved us a ton of money.
We drove the Sage Creek Rim Road. It’s an unpaved dirt and gravel road through the Sage Creek Wilderness Area in the national park that provides access to many more overlooks. We saw more bison and we stopped at a prairie dog town to watch the cute furry critters scurry around. There was always at least one prairie dog standing upright keeping a look-out for danger. Whenever a perceived danger appeared (a slam of the truck door or a shout and clap of the hands) a squeaky bark alerted the others and they would all disappeared down into their burrows. They were fun to watch.
We drove through the Sage Creek Campground. It’s a free first-come first-serve primitive campground offering 22 sites on a small gravel loop road. It’s in a beautiful but remote area of the park. You might see a bison wander through your campsite. We saw mostly tent campers and a few small bumper-pull campers like the tear-drop style. The size limit for campers is 18 feet long. There are pit toilets and covered picnic tables but there is no water source. Water is available at the visitor center forty-eight miles away. Another campground option in the park is the Cedar Pass Campground. Near the visitor center, it provides flush toilets, pay showers and potable water and will accommodate larger RV’s.
The next morning, we gave up our campsite with full hook ups and moved to a primitive campsite located on USDA National Forest Grasslands. We were still near the Badlands National Park a mile from the Pinnacles Entrance Station. There were no hook ups, but what we got instead was a spot on the edge of the badlands wall with the most beautiful views we have ever had from our camper’s window. It is a free campsite giving credence to the phase that the best things in life are free. However, it’s a place known for its high gusty winds. We read some horror stories from people who camped here in the past. A look at the weather forecast for the next couple of days showed no rain, winds 10 – 15 mph with 30 mph gusts. I think that is as good as it gets. We were thrilled to find a perfect spot.
The next morning, I sat outside and watched an amazing sunrise. It was sweatshirt weather. The temperature was in the 40’s, but I didn’t care. A mother bighorn and lamb walked passed our camper and disappeared over the edge. It amazes me how they can get around with ease on the steep cliffs. We spent the entire day at our campsite relaxing and taking in all the glorious views. We sat in chairs gazing down into the crevices of the cliffs spotting bighorn sheep. In the distant grassland, bison could be seen grazing. We couldn’t help but think, this is what camper life should always be.
The weather stayed good, though those 30 mph gust would rattle the camper at times. Over the next couple of days, we finally ventured back to the national park to explore and do a couple of hikes. We went back into Wall to fill our propane and couldn’t resist walking through the drugstore one more time. The place is really big and has a lot to offer, so we didn’t browse through the same things twice.
We saw a ewe and five cute little lambs grazing on the cliffs. Grammi would have a panic attack if her lambs were climbing on the cliffs, but it didn’t seem to bother this mother bighorn sheep. They learn at an early age how to survive on the edge.
When the time came, it was hard to leave. I hated to give up the site. I don’t know off the top of my head how many nights we have camped over the past three years, but I’m guessing more than four hundred. This place has to be the most beautiful campsite we have every had. But it was time to move on. More adventure awaits. Hopefully, someday we will be just as impressed with another campsite down the road.
So until next time…happy days and safe travels.