United States Forums

Start a new topic Change Forum
Advanced search

Trip Report Badlands / Black Hills Trip Report (Warning: Long)

Jump to last reply

My apologies as I tend to be long-winded when writing trip reports. It is my way of reliving the fun we had during the trip. Hopefully, some of what I post may be useful for others planning a trip. This trip was just my DH and myself and we had a fantastic time!!

Day 1 - Arrival Day
I was amazed at how small the Rapid City airport is, coming from Providence we are pretty used to small but 7 gates was even smaller than we are used to. Everything went smoothly and we arrived on time, picking up a rental car was a breeze and we were on our way. With the time change and all we were pretty hungry so we stopped at Denny's for a quick bite while scoping out where our first hotel (Cambria Suites) was located. It was still kind of early due to the time change but we had already been traveling for 6-7 hours.

We then checked out the Cabela's store which is right next to the hotel and then went back to check in. We then went to downtown Rapid City and found the Family Thrift Center grocery store right where the front desk clerk told us it would be. Having done a lot of research - we wanted to pick up a styrofoam cooler for drinks and snacks but also some food as I had read there wasn't much food service in our next stop - the Badlands. After that we walked around downtown and the corner statues of many of the Presidents. Then we had a great dinner at the Dakotah steakhouse which was near our hotel. (The 3 Sisters Soup was as good as all the reviews said!)

Day 2 - We started with breakfast at the hotel. It was OK but nothing special. Then we drove to Wall Drug to take a look around and for some photo ops. Took a quick peek in the National Grasslands Visitor Center which is right in that area but pretty small and then left for the Badlands. We drove most of the Badlands Loop Road (which remains a mystery why the call a road that isn't a loop a "loop road" - maybe Badlands Park Road instead?? Just a thought. We saw many Bighorn Sheep in the Pinnacles area with lots of babies!!! A great start to things as I really enjoy spotting wildlife. We joked with another man in line - "Sheep - Check!" he said and that became our mantra as we saw other wildlife.

We stopped and did the Fossil Exhibit Trail and a young boy of maybe 4 or 5 standing with his Dad looking over the edge of the boardwalk very excitedly showed me a baby rabbit that was in the grass right next to the boardwalk. Baby rabbit - check! I continue to be amazed at the awesome formations and landscape.

We reached the Cedar Pass Lodge and they are pretty strict about not checking in until 4pm so we decided to give lunch at CPL a try knowing that all of the reviews complained about it but still said the Indian Fry Bread was good. The reviews were exactly on target, we waited in line for at least 15 minutes without anyone saying a word although several of the servers passed by us many times and others looked at us from the kitchen area. Once we were seated, the server was young and friendly but everything seemed to be disorganized and it didn't really appear that anyone was "in charge" - I blame the poor service there on poor management. One older gentleman came in from the office area, went in the back (yelled at the staff) and then walked right past the waiting line of people to be seated and others waiting to pay without any assistance - what about pitching in, helping out, training the team what service is about. Sorry - just another thought. However, the Indian Fry Bread was as good as the reviews said and we tried to overlook the poor service so as not to start things on a bad foot.

We decided to go in and look around the Visitor Center and then we drove the remainder of the "loop" road. By this time, it was 4pm and we could check into our cabin. We were in Cabin 124 and it really was very nice. I loved all of the wood and the furnishings. However, I was a bit disappointed as the cabins on that side of the road only had a front porch with 3 adirondack style chairs so our view was of the other cabins with the Badlands Wall in the distance. I had thought that both sides had front/back porches with unobstructed views. Maybe it was because we had a King bed setup - the others with both front/back porches appeared to all be 2 Queens. I was slightly disappointed with the view but still happy with our cabin. Dinner was sandwiches from the cooler.

We went to the night ranger program after viewing a beautiful sunset. We had seen storm clouds off/on all day but never had a storm. We went to the evening ranger program and as the evening progressed the skies cleared enough for some night sky viewing. On certain evenings, they set up a telescope and do an additional presentation on the viewable stars and pick something to show in the telescope - tonight it was Saturn and you could even see the rings. Awesome!

Day 3 - We got up early and, as folks here on the forum advised, went to the Minuteman Missile site to get tickets to tour the Launch Control Facility. We briefly looked around but it was pretty crowded in the very small visitor center which appears (and may be) a trailer from the outside. We got tickets for 11am so decided to try to scare up some breakfast.

We didn’t see anything near the Visitor Center except a few items in the Country Store that shares the same parking lot, we decided to attempt the CPL hoping they were just having a rough day yesterday as one of the servers said they were short-staffed but it took us 1 1/2 hours and DH only ordered a bagel and I got a breakfast wrap. Unbelievable!

So we drove back to the Minuteman Delta-1 Launch Facility to wait for our tour. This was an amazing tour!! Our guide was Jim Boensch a retired Air Force Major who was actually a missileer during a portion of his service. He gave a very informative tour with first hand knowledge that made it even more interesting. We then drove out to the Delta-9 missile silo to take a look around. While looking around, I did see one form of wildlife that I was hoping not to encounter. There was a prairie rattlesnake curled up on the back side of the missile silo but luckily I saw him from a distance and zoom lens on the camera took me closer than I wanted to be. Rattlesnake - check! Ick!

We decided to head back toward Wall Drug to get lunch there as we were low on supplies in our cooler and we still have to have sandwiches for dinner. So we had lunch in the cafe and did some shopping. We had a brief storm while we were in Wall which was the only one we encountered while in the Badlands - although we saw clouds from many others off in the distance.

On our way back to the park - just after the Badlands National Park sign we saw our first Pronghorn Antelope - check! - running through the prairie/grasslands. What an awesome sight - he was just kind of jogging but still very cool to see.

We then opted to head out the gravel Sage Creek Road in search of more wildlife. First up was the Roberts Prairie Dog Town - prairie dogs - check! How cute they are but I had no idea they have/carry the plague. Certainly adorable to view from a distance but there were warning signs not to get too close.

As we drove further down Sage Creek Road there was a really big bull buffalo/bison grazing fairly close to the road. Stopped for the photo opportunity - buffalo - check! We drove as far as the road where it splits to go off to the campground and turned around. Wow - that campground is really out in the middle of nowhere.

On the way back to our cabin, when passing through one of the prairie dog areas, we saw a coyote moving away from the road. Many of the prairie dogs were “barking” their alarms and there was quite a ruckus.

At this point, we wanted to get out of the car for a bit, so we went back to the cabin to freshen up real quick and then headed to the Window/Door/Notch trailhead area. We had our hiking shoes so decided to give Notch Trail a go. I had read about and seen pictures of the log ladder which we made it to the top of - at about the last 3 rungs I decided some upper body work would have been helpful. However, what I was not prepared for was the steep drop-offs at the side of the trail. I am not usually afraid of heights but this set off a panic attack and I was glued to the wall for a bit and then we had to turn around as I couldn’t get my mind settled enough to continue forward so back down the path (and the ladder!!!) we went. My DH was a really good sport about the whole thing.

Since we didn’t spend as much time on the Notch Trail as we planned, we decided to do the Door Trail too. Much better!! The first part is boardwalk and then you scramble over the rocks to a gorgeous overlook. We spent quite a bit of time here with many photos taken.

This night was supposed to be even clearer than last night so we went back for another ranger program which was also very good - a photographic journey through the National Parks - with all of the photos taken by the ranger himself. Then they set up for the evening sky program. Many more stars viewable in the clear sky - and with the two telescopes Saturn (which we had already seen) and two stars (one blue / one green) that I forget the names of. The only other time I have seen a sky so full of stars was one evening in Acadia National Park while we were camping there.

Day 4 - Today was our last day in the Badlands so I decided to get up for sunrise while DH slept in. I went to the Door trail and the only other folks around where a young couple with a tripod set up taking photos. During the sunrise, one other gentleman joined us but for the most part it was totally quiet and we had enough room to spread out without disturbing each other’s peace and quiet. Sunrise is really as beautiful as everyone says with the fabulous pinks and oranges reflecting on the rocks. What a great way to start the day! Driving back to CPL I saw a mule deer - check!

We were going to just have cereal in the room from the store but they were out of milk so we endured one more breakfast in CPL although knowing what we were in for made us a bit more patient and it was the service continued to be so bad that it was almost comical.

We decided to walk the very short Window Trail and then take one last drive on the “loop” road before leaving the Badlands for the Black Hills. More prairie dogs, another mule deer, pronghorn and bighorn sheep before we left. I really don’t think I could ever tire of looking at this amazing (and so very different from the New England area) landscape - simply gorgeous.

We drove to Custer State Park as we are checking into the Creekside Lodge which is located on the grounds of the State Game Lodge. We got there around 2pm so we decided to eat lunch before checking into the hotel. We had heard good things about the buffalo stew so decided to get the buffet which included the stew. It was certainly very good, but some of the other items looked like that had been out for a while and we weren’t very impressed with the rest of the selections.

Our room was available so we checked into the Creekside room which was to be home for the next 4 nights. The room had a big king bed, a sitting area with a couch and two chairs near the window that looked out to the creek. Very clean and comfortable.

After a short rest, we decided to head out to the Wildlife Loop Road. But first we needed to stop at the campground store which was very close to see if they had something to bring in case we encountered the begging burros. After buying an overpriced bag of carrots, we began the Wildlife Loop Road - which really is a loop!

It is amazing how quickly some people drive this road - these are probably the folks that say “I didn’t see any wildlife at all” as we were passed many times as we were slowly driving and looking for wildlife. First up, a pronghorn on a grassy hill taking a rest. Next up, a small group (about 10 or so) buffalo quite a bit away but using our binoculars we could see a couple of babies with them. Baby buffalo - check! After the corral area, we came upon the begging burros. It really is a bit crazy there were many folks stopped and all kinds of people petting, feeding and taking photos with them. I must admit that I added to this craziness and a momma with a baby came to me for some carrots. I was surprised that she was not as protective as I expected and walked off to some other people (maybe they had better snacks) but I fed the baby for a while and took many photos. Burros - check! And, as we turned around to leave the pullout, there was a small group of 5-6 pronghorn on the hill across the way and looking up a rainbow in the sky!

From there on, a few more pronghorn and some buffalo but storm clouds were rolling in and we were starting to get hungry. The initial plan was to drive Iron Mtn. Rd to Mt. Rushmore for the lighting ceremony but the sky really looked pretty ominous so we decided instead to just head back to our hotel and eat dinner at the State Game Lodge. We were seated in the original dining area and the hostess provided a lot of information about the history of the lodge and this portion of the dining room. My husband had the buffalo tenderloin which he really enjoyed and I tried to be adventurous and got the wild boar chops as that was something I have never had before. I don’t know if it was the preparation or what but I did not enjoy my meal very much at all. But the bites I took from DH’s plate were really quite good.

Thunderstorm rolled in but we made it back to our room before the rain started. We listened to it from our room and made it an early night.

More to come but I need to get a few other things done tonight.

  • Report Abuse

    Nice TR so far. We went to Black Hills area about a month ago. Fun to hear your version. Pretty much like ours though. We did do Notch Trail-I didn't think the drop-offs were to bad, but we do a lot of hiking.

  • Report Abuse

    @emalloy - haven't posted pics yet - still going through them all as I took so many!

    Thanks livetoroam!

    Spirobulldog - We looked at your trip report (and fabulous pics) for some ideas. I think we ended up having a lot of similar experiences. I know the Notch Trail is mind over matter but just couldn't do it that day. Oh well - another time.

  • Report Abuse

    Day 5 - We went to the State Game Lodge dining room to have breakfast but the buffet didn’t really interest us so we ordered off the menu. It was good but nothing outstanding.

    We then drove the Needles Highway out to Sylvan Lake. We stopped at many pull-outs along that drive. It is so beautiful! When we got to Sylvan Lake there were very few spots left in the parking area but we found one so we decided to do the trail around the lake. It is so scenic there and a lot of families were out enjoying the beautiful morning weather. We enjoyed ourselves too and took our time walking around the lake and stopping for lots of photos.

    We had lunch at the Sylvan Lake Lodge - I had the buffalo burger patty melt and it was great! DH had a sandwich too that he enjoyed but I don’t remember what it was.

    After lunch, we decided to go to Jewel Cave National Monument. There is some pretty major construction near there and we had to wait about 20 minutes for the pilot car to get back to lead us through. I had read that there was construction but didn’t realize it was one lane only and led by pilot car so you should plan for some extra time in case you don’t hit it right and will spend some time waiting. While we were waiting, we chatted with the woman flagging and she said there were some big storms that were supposed to come through and if they came while driving in the construction to just take it slow and we’d be fine. Thankfully that didn’t happen.

    When we got to the visitor center they had a few tickets left for the last Scenic Tour of the day. It was set to begin in about a half hour so we walked around the visitor center and looked at the various exhibits that were quite interesting. Then Ranger Shannon took us on the tour - she was another fantastic guide. She loves what she does and her enthusiasm is infectious. We saw the various formations including the “cave snot” - I’m sure that isn’t the official term but I can’t remember what it is and the “cave bacon” as well as many other formations. Very interesting. She also talked about how it is a barometric cave and sure enough it was blowing out indicating a low pressure system and likely a storm coming - that is about as good as all of the other weather predictions we have heard.

    Sure enough, when we got back above ground, there were very dark clouds around but it hadn’t started raining just yet. Off and on during the drive back, we would see flashes of lightning in the distance. This became a pattern during our week in South Dakota, warm and sunny during the morning through the early afternoon with thunderstorms in the evening.

    We stopped for some roadside pictures of Crazy Horse but we weren’t really interested in doing the actual tour so that was good enough for us. I have read varying opinions about Crazy Horse and we probably would have enjoyed it but since we don’t know any better we didn’t feel that we missed anything.

    We decided to try Blue Bell Lodge for dinner tonight and I had the buffalo meatloaf which I enjoyed very much and DH had the roast beef dinner which he also enjoyed. It was a much more casual atmosphere then the State Game Lodge was the prior evening and we actually preferred it. The thunderstorm started with greater intensity while we were eating with the rain, some thunder and the lights even flickered at one point. We took it slow getting back to Creekside as there were many deer out and about the roadside - you definitely need to heed the warnings about driving slow at dusk and after dark as I lost track after I counted 11 or 12 and one ran across the road in front of us but luckily we saw him first.

    Day 6 - Although my initial plans had us doing Mt. Rushmore later in the day and staying for the lighting ceremony. The evening thunderstorms had put a crimp in those plans so we opted to go during the day as the forecast was the same for the whole week. We decided we’d rather be there when we could see well and weren’t fighting bad weather.

    But to get things started, we decided to have breakfast at Legion Lake Lodge since we aren’t big fans of buffets and wanted to try something different from the SGL. It is a pretty small place but the breakfast was very good. We saw many deer on the short ride between the SGL and LLL. Since we have a lot of white-tailed deer at home (in our backyard even) I’m not sure whether to count them or not but White Tail Deer - Check! However, when we got a little further on our ride back, we caught a glimpse of a small group of elk going up the hill in the woods. We saw a lot of trees and some elk butts - but Elk - Check! Very exciting as I have almost completed my list of wildlife that I was aware that were in the area and wanted to see. Hoping for some mountain goat sightings while we are in the area around Mt. Rushmore since we didn’t see any yesterday while in the Needles area.

    We drove the Iron Mountain Road from Custer up to Mount Rushmore. This is an absolutely incredible drive with the tunnels framing the view of Mt. Rushmore and the switchbacks and pigtail turns and bridges. Fantastic!

    This was one of the hottest days that we’ve had so far while in South Dakota and Mount Rushmore was definitely the most crowded place that we’ve been to as well. But if you walk the President’s Trail around the base to the Sculptor’s Studio the crowds do thin out a bit. I wonder how many people just go to the Grand Viewpoint and the gift shop and then leave. Not us! We took our time and did the trail, visited the Sculptor’s Studio (although it was really hot in there!) and made our way back to the Visitor Center. The sign in front said that President Jefferson was the author not only of the Declaration of Independence but also the first ice cream recipe so we decided to follow his lead and got ice cream for lunch! Also, much to my dismay - no glimpses of mountain goats.

    We then decided to visit Wind Cave National Park in the afternoon. We didn’t really want to do an extensive tour as we had just been to Jewel Cave yesterday so we signed up for the Garden of Eden tour which was supposed to take about an hour and provide a good overview of the cave and its formations. Ranger Kim was good but not nearly as enthusiastic as Ranger Shannon was yesterday but she still provided some good information and an enjoyable tour. The boxwork at Wind Cave was very interesting and different from Jewel Cave and the cave itself was very different although I am not exactly sure how to describe the difference. Anyway, we debated doing both of them and in the end are glad that we did.

    Although we heard that quite often there was a good amount of wildlife at Wind Cave, we really didn’t see to much other than a small group of pronghorn. But it was a nice scenic drive to get there and maybe if we had gone earlier in the day and done some of the trails it would have been different but by the time we finished our tour it was getting very late in the afternoon and, as usual, some pretty nasty clouds were rolling in.

    We decided to go to Blue Bell Lodge again for dinner and enjoyed our meals once again. This is becoming a favorite of ours.

    Day 7 - Since DH has really been doing all of the driving (I think around 1500 miles at this point) we decided to see if there was availability on a jeep tour today so someone else could do the driving and he could just sit and enjoy himself. There was and pretty soon Tim came in and picked up our group of 6 for an excursion around the Wildlife Loop. He was a great guide too - we really lucked out in this area and having once had a very poor guide at the USS Missouri while visiting Hawaii are very appreciative of that fact.

    He told us a lot about Custer State Park and also a bit about himself - he and his wife are work camping at Custer for the season (something I would love to do someday!) and she works in the gift shop at SGL. He was in radio contact with some of the other guides that were already out on tours and they clued him in to where the big buffalo herd was. We were able to drive right down to and almost in the middle of the herd of buffalo. It was unbelievable to see so many of them - and lots of babies too! We also took in some beautiful scenery (Custer State Park is one of the most beautiful places that I have visited), saw more prairie dogs, several more pronghorn, a pair of mule deer, the begging burros from a distance (they were sheltered in the shade under some trees) and then as we were heading back having had a very fun-filled experience encountered another herd of buffalo that was smaller but right along the road. There were several males and they really are HUGE! with one of them coming up to our jeep and walking right alongside it for a bit. It was an up close and personal visit with him! We all had a great time including the couple from France that didn’t even speak much English.

    We had initially wanted to drive into Custer and try the Black Hills Burger & Bun restaurant that I had read many positive things about but by the time the jeep tour ended it was almost 2pm so we opted for a quick lunch at the Legion Lake Lodge and decided to go into Custer for dinner instead.

    We didn’t really want to head too far afield so we decided to go and see if the road up to the Mt. Coolidge Fire Tower was open. We saw it on our way to the Blue Bell Lodge for our dinners but I think they must close it around dusk as it was never open then. However, it was open in the mid-afternoon and we drove up and the view was spectacular! It really is amazing how far you can see. On the way back done we came upon a mule deer who decided she was going to walk in front of us for a bit before finding a good spot to graze.

    We decided to continue on and connect to the Wildlife Loop Road as we had some time to kill before heading to Custer. As we were driving through, over in the hills we saw a very large herd of buffalo. It is amazing how they all move together. As we were watching and then drove a bit further, I thought I saw another herd and it was a herd all right - but a herd of Elk!! We have seen elk before in Seattle area and in Yellowstone but usually only about 20 or so together in the herd. There had to be 50-60 elk moving together in this herd! It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen and it actually brought tears to my eyes. They moved over a hill and out of sight so we drove forward a bit and tried to guess where we could spot them again. We found a pull out and waited a bit and sure enough they came over the hill. They never came close to the road but we watched through our binoculars - such an awesome sight! We had just been talking in the morning on the jeep tour that the elk were pretty elusive and not often seen so I counted us as incredibly lucky!!

    During our drive to Custer it started to rain and storm and at one point we saw hail. We got to Black Hills Burger & Bun but there was a river flowing down the road and up over the sidewalk leaving us no way to get from our car to their front door. We waited for 1/2 hour or so while the storm raged on and eventually when there was a lull we decided to loop around back behind the restaurant so we didn’t have to cross the flooding in front. I couldn’t believe how much water there was - my guess it that it had to be 6 inches or so as it truly went up over the sidewalk and down the street that way. Crazy! We made it in and the rain finally subsided a bit and the flooding went down. We ordered our burgers and fries - I got the special that had a green chili sauce on it and my DH went for the good ol’ cheeseburger. We enjoyed the meal but didn’t really “get” what all the fuss was about. It was an enjoyable enough meal but I am not sure I would make a special trip there or that it was the “best burger ever” - but still very good and locally sourced which I like so overall a good experience.

    We went to the Purple Pie Place for dessert. I had the bumbleberry pie ala mode which was excellent. I think DH opted just for ice cream as he isn’t a huge pie fan. We had planned to take a walk around but since it was still steadily raining, we decided to just head back and call it a night. Again, seeing many deer in and along the roadways as we headed back into Custer State Park to the Creekside.

    Day 8 - This was to be our day in the Northern Hills. We originally thought we would also do Devils Tower but according to the forecast this may actually be a wash-out day and frankly, I think DH was tired of driving. So we decided to drive up to Spearfish Canyon on the scenic by-way and also see Lead, Deadwood and Sturgis. It rained the whole time and really was not very enjoyable. We didn’t really stop except for some quick pull-outs and photo ops. We decided to just head straight to Rapid City as we planned to spend our last night in Rapid City.

    Now having been there, I probably would have spent my last day elsewhere as we had already spent a half-day toward the beginning of the trip and didn’t find that there was a whole lot to do there. We walked all around, found some more presidents and sat for a bit at the square where there was a band playing.

    DH decided that he wanted to go back to the Dakotah Steakhouse for his last dinner in South Dakota and I was happy to oblige as we enjoyed it earlier in the trip. I had the 3 Sisters soup (again) and the elk ravioli which were delicious. And, since it was our last night, decided to splurge for dessert and got the berry kuchen which we were told is the S. Dakota state dessert. Another excellent meal here!

    Day 9 - Departure Day

    Since our flight doesn’t leave until 4pm and our pass was good for a year but tied to our rental car, we decided to head to Mt. Rushmore to see it again rather than poke around Rapid City. It was a pretty quick trip when taking the highway rather than Iron Mountain Road. We did the President’s Trail again and I was on the lookout for those elusive mountain goats which were the only remaining animal on my wildlife list except for mountain lions which I was pretty sure we weren’t going to see anyway.

    Clear blue sky with some puffy white clouds provided some excellent photo opportunities for Mt. Rushmore. We also watched the film in the visitor center this time which we did not to last time. On a whim, decided to turn left out of the parking area to see if there was anything to see around Horsethief Lake. Lots of cars pulled over - could it be? Mountain goats (and even a baby) - finally - Check!! Some folks were really getting much to close to them for my comfort level so we snapped some pics and watched them for a bit and then headed onward.

    We went back to Rapid City and went to the Firehouse Brewery for a late lunch before heading off to the airport and saying “So Long to South Dakota” - not goodbye as I really think we will be back. We had an absolutely wonderful time and I was sad to see our vacation time come to an end.

    If anyone has any questions, I am happy to answer as best I can. I really find that these travel forums make my trip planning so much easier and provide first-hand advice that is invaluable. Thanks again everyone! Hope you enjoyed this report and I hope to have pics up soon - when I do I will post the link.

7 Replies |Back to top

| Add a Reply

Sign in to comment.

Recent Activity

View all United States activity »
  1. 1 San Diego Girl's Trip in December
  2. 2 What do you do when your VRBO rental is a nightmare in Lake Geneva?
  3. 3 Relocation: Where Do We Fit In
  4. 4 Washington DC in Spring?
  5. 5 Weather in Hawaii in January
  6. 6 Looking for good moonstone beach hotels in cambria
  7. 7 Quick advice needed for 1st visit to HNL & Kauai
  8. 8 montana vs ft nelson bc area
  9. 9 Trip Report I am "The Prince of Tides"
  10. 10 Pet Friendly places in Myrtle Beach
  11. 11 Richmond highlights?
  12. 12 New York accommodation - apartment for family needed (winter)
  13. 13 Must Eats
  14. 14 NYC becoming a battleground for Air BnB apartment rentals
  15. 15 Need condo suggestions in Destin
  16. 16 Restaurants in and around Asheville, NC
  17. 17 Florida St George's Island
  18. 18 Central Park Fall Foliage
  19. 19 Union Square area restaurant
  20. 20 Three or Four Nights in Moab?
  21. 21 4 week family trip ideas
  22. 22 Driving around Grand Canyon NP?
  23. 23 Breckenridge in October
  24. 24 Good area to stay in for young (20-something) married couple?
  25. 25 Need good hotel for couple with teen daughter for 2 nights: shopping, plays, not over $600. Which???
View next 25 » Back to the top