You can let you mind kind of wander as you pass the time on I-90 in South Dakota. The ribbon of highway can blend right into the horizon, so during our trek the challenge was to keep ourselves and our son entertained. Finding those little stops can be key to a successful journey. Even planned bathroom breaks needed to be a little bit more. We were lucky in the fact there were no meltdowns – miracles do happen! We kept him in the conversation, let him point out things, be a navigator, decide where to stop and in our experience, the long stretches of highway went whole lot smoother.
Once we did make our anchor point of Rapid City, South Dakota and rested, our first day was all about Badlands National Park. I mean…THIS WAS IT! We decided on taking the Badlands Loop Road which is a must for any first-time visitor to the park. It gives you a nice overview and plenty of spots to pull off and be in awe. Some of the vistas are magical. “This is AWESOME!” was the common phrase throughout the day.
The cliché “a picture doesn’t do it justice” is completely accurate. You need to stand on the top of one of the peaks, feel the scorching sun on your face, dust hitting your skin and realize the uniqueness and the vastness of the whole area.
We made two very deliberate stops during our driving tour of the loop. These were to allow our son to get out his toy dinosaurs and play like any nine-year-old would. I mean this was one of the goals of the entire trip! Over the small mounds of earth, his clothes dusty and dirty he made his own story in the shadow of the plains. We sat back and watched his mind run wild. Dinosaurs once roamed in this place and now his did too.
In addition to several “mini-hikes” throughout the park, we spent several hours in the Ben Reifel Visitor center. A great place to fill up with water, cool down and learn about the area. Our son was totally entranced by the fossil preparations that were happening in the lab area. I do believe he would have stayed the entire day/week/year watching the paleontologists working away.
Such an amazing place to visit, and yes, with children. This happened to be his first National Park and he’s proud to say it’s his favorite.
By contrast the Black Hills within Custer State Park offer tall spires of stone, wooded areas and a wealth of hiking trails. We decided on the Cathedral Spires Trail as our first – listed as “strenuous” on the official website and located within the Black Elk area of the park. What could go wrong with taking a nine-year-old right? Answering my own question, absolutely nothing. He scampered up the trail, looking, observing, hiking – there was zero complaining. HE LOVED IT! If anything, his parents struggled to keep up with his enthusiastic gait.
We reached the end of the trail – this was not a loop – and he was actually disappointed. The “end” proved to be magnificent, amongst the spires of rock. Once again, gratifying to see and foster his curiosity and enthusiasm for the outdoors.
As far as “the first” park experience for our son, we were not disappointed – both Badlands National Park and Custer State Park offered a great contrast for us to enjoy while in the area. Granted we did not camp on this first excursion, but as a family we got outside and explored to fullest with the time we had. I would recommend this trek for anyone looking for something a little off the beaten track. There is plenty of variety to keep you busy and enjoyment to be had by everyone.
We did work in trips to Mount Rushmore National Park, Wind Cave National Park and the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site while in the area. Suffice to say, every single one is worth your time for a variety of reasons. There is no right or wrong way to visit – go with what drives your interests.
The big take away – this is nothing new – these trips are what you make of them. If you get excited by the destination, chances are your children will as well. Badlands National Park will always hold a special place for our family. What holds the same for you and yours? I’d love to hear about it.
Thanks to our Hashtag 59 community for reading and sharing everyone’s stories and articles! We can’t do this with you.
Because Adventure Travel Feeds the Soul,
Jason M and the Hashtag 59 Team