BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK, S.D. — Where much of the drive from St. Louis to the Badlands is filled with billboards for kitschy tourist attractions, from the corny Corn Palace to the 1880 Town, the Badlands feel like they haven't been spoiled by human hands.
Rather, they've been shaped by years of geological events. Ebbing and flowing of waters and harsh winds have created these towers, ridges and pinnacles of rock and mud, streaked with shades of gold, pink and red and softened by grasslands filled with prairie dogs.
Just after passing through the entrance to the Badlands, you are greeted with a giant crater of peaks and valleys.
The formations are so incredible they led Theodore Roosevelt to say the Badlands "seem hardly properly to belong to this Earth." Indeed, much of it seems otherworldly.
Though many roadside stops offer vast views of deep canyons and many scary moments for moms and dads of little ones who want to look over the edge, other areas are like nature's largest playground. Many of the formations rise up from areas near parking lots and don't go too high.
The Badlands National Park has several hikes, mostly small ones on boardwalks, but the Castle Trail runs 5 miles through the middle of the park. I knew my 6-year-old couldn't do 10 miles round-trip, so we set out to hike for an hour and a half and then turn around.
At one point we ventured off the trail to check out what looked like caves. As we were heading back to the trail, my 8-year-old son saw a rock that caught his eye. "This is heavier than a rock," he told me. "What if it's a fossil?" We had just come from a ranger talk about fossils in the park. Turns out, according to Ranger Alison Shoup, the Badlands area was established to protect the plethora of fossils there. The region was actually a sea during the time of the dinosaurs, so the oldest fossils you find are those of sea creatures. Over time, the area dried up, becoming more like a tropical forest. By this time, the dinosaurs had left the Earth, so the bulk of the fossils in the Badlands are from prehistoric mammals.
During our talk, she showed us real fossils vs. casts. The real fossils had a certain feel to them. Hmmm, I thought: What if this rock my son discovered is a real fossil? Turns out, it was. We took it to the fossil lab at the visitors center (it's illegal to keep fossils), where rangers there told us it was quite a find. They also told us we should have left it there for paleontologists to examine. Park officials later confirmed that it was the base of a skull and vertebra of a prehistoric mammal, but that's really all they could tell.
Though there were reports of bison, we never saw them. What we did see were deer, bighorn sheep and prairie dogs, lots and lots of chirping prairie dogs. Their prairie dog towns sit right next to the road, and they don't seem to be a bit afraid of cars.
Besides hiking and stopping to gawk at the animals, the park offers several other activities.
Like most national parks, the Badlands provide a Junior Ranger program in which kids complete activities and a workbook to earn their Junior Ranger badge. The park rangers also offer guided hikes, talks, activities and evening programs. We especially loved the night-sky viewing. The sky in the Badlands isn't polluted with man-made lights, so you have darkness. Real, complete darkness. On this moonless night, the only illumination came from millions of miles away: stars and a few planets. Wrapped up under blankets, we watched as the rangers gave us a quick tutorial of the stars, using a special green light to point to them. It's much like the Science Center's Planetarium show, only this is the real thing. After, we used two high-powered telescopes to look at star clusters and Jupiter. And then I had to pry my husband away.
Right next to the visitors center, you'll find Cedar Pass Lodge and campground, operated by Forever Resorts. The lodge offers rental cabins, a restaurant and a surprisingly good gift shop with locally made items including Northern Plains Native American crafts.