Mt. Rushmore and the Black Hills Feature
Badlands in One Day
With a packed lunch and plenty of water, arrive at the park via the northeast entrance (off I-90 at Exit 131), and follow Route 240 (Badlands Loop Road) southwest toward the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. You can pick up park maps and information here, and also pay the park entrance fee (if the booth at the entrance is closed).
Next, stop at the Big Badlands Overlook, just south of the northeast entrance, to get a good feel for the landscape. As you head toward the visitor center, hike any one of several trails you'll pass, or if you prefer guided walks, arrive at the visitor center in time to look at the exhibits and talk with rangers before heading down to the Fossil Exhibit Trail, where you can join the Fossil Talk at 10:30 am (with repeats at 1:30 and 3:30 pm), usually available from early June to mid-August. Even if you miss the talk, hike this ¼-mi trail before your morning is over. The Badlands are one of the richest fossil fields in the world, and along the trail are examples of six extinct creatures, now protected under clear plastic domes. After your walk, drive a couple of miles to the Journey Overlook, up on the right. Here you can enjoy a packed lunch amid grassy prairies, with the sharp, rocky badland formations all around you.
After lunch, continue driving along Badlands Loop Road, stopping at the various overlooks for views and a hike or two. Near the Conata Picnic Area, you'll find the Big Pig Dig, a fossil site still being excavated by paleontologists. When you reach the junction with Sage Creek Rim Road, turn left and follow it along the northern border of the 100-square-mi Badlands Wilderness Area, which is home to hundreds of bison. Provided the road is dry, take a side trip 5 mi down Sage Creek Rim Road to Roberts Prairie Dog Town, inhabited by a huge colony of the chattering critters. Children will love to watch these small rodents, which bark warning calls and dive underground if you get too close to their colony. The animals built burrow networks that once covered the Great Plains, but since European settlers established ranches in the region during the late 19th century, prairie dogs have become a far rarer sight. The park is less developed the farther you travel on Sage Creek Rim Road, allowing you to admire the sheer isolation and untouched beauty of Badlands country. Hold out for a glorious sunset over the shadows of the nearby Black Hills, and keep your eyes open for animals stirring about.
With More Time. If you're feeling adventurous, take a second day to explore the southern units of the park. Start at the White River Visitor Center to talk with park rangers about your hiking options. Then, head into the Stronghold Unit, or make a 2-mi trek across private land (you must obtain permission; park rangers can point you in the right direction) to the Palmer Creek Unit. Bring maps and plenty of water.
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