Whether you're a local to the area who has company with small children coming for a visit, or you're taking a family vacay out here from somewhere else, you're probably guilty. We've all done it. We're busy making our big vacation/entertaining plans: Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Sylvan Lake, a hike in the Needles, Reptile Gardens, the taffy shop in Keystone...all the Black Hills family vacation rock stars. We fit them all into the schedule with some extra room for fishing and hammocking and trail-riding and a campfire or two, and then we sit back, satisfied, thinking we've covered all our bases. But we are mistaken.
Sitting over here modestly in the corner, while the trees, lakes, and granite take center stage, is Badlands National Park. She waits quietly, just out of site of the thousands of people that pass by everyday on I-90. But she keeps good secrets, and she's worth the trip.
Okay, maybe that's a little melodramatic, but all we're saying is that if you miss a trip to the Badlands when you're in the area, you're missing out on some beautiful landscape and culture, totally distinct from the natural beauty of the Black Hills.
We know the Badlands probably aren't the main reason why you've chosen to spend 22 hours in a mini-van with your four kids under five, listening to Trolls on repeat since the Iowa state line, so we're not going to tell you to do all the things. We're just going to hit the highlights; specifically the things that your four-kids-under-five will consider highlights, and that you can reasonably pack into one day without losing your mind, or someone having a complete meltdown all the way back to your pop-up camper in Custer State Park.
- 8:00am-ish: Head 'em up and move 'em out...east on I-90 from Rapid City.
- 8:45am: Breakfast at the world-famous Wall Drug. Yes, the one you saw a trillion billboards for on the way here. The donuts are homemade, the coffee is $.05, and there's a giant jack-a-lope (among other things) you can have your picture take on. Let the kiddos run off some steam before you tell them to get back into the car; you're not actually "there" yet.
- 10:00am: Load up and hop back on the interstate (east again) for the 25-mile trip to the park entrance. (21 miles east on I-90 to Exit 121, Cactus Flats. Then take HWY 240 another 3 miles south to the North East park entrance.)
- 10:30am: You've arrived! If you're lucky enough to be a fourth-grader, or have one with you, you don't have to pay the park entrance fee...check it out here! If you need to borrow a fourth grader, I know some that will loan you theirs. Just kidding. (From here, all you need to remember as far as directions go, is to stay on HWY 240. It will eventually loop you all the way back to I-90.) Spend the rest of your morning hiking the Door & Window trails. Both are short (less than a mile) & easy, and the Door Trail takes you right out into the middle of the funky landscape. Little ones will enjoy following the "dot-to-dot" -style numbered signs that mark the trail.
- Noon: Lunch at Cedar Pass Lodge. Fill up on Indian Tacos and Kuchen, the SD state dessert.
- 12:45pm: Walk over to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. Here you can watch the film "Land of Stone & Light" in the air-conditioned theater (the film is great, the AC is even better). Check out the interactive exhibits to learn about the history of the land, and the plants, animals, rock-formations and fossils you might see while you're out exploring. Kiddos can also participate in the rad Junior Ranger Program, completing a workbook and earning a badge.
- 2:00: Jump back on 240 and spend the afternoon enjoying the extraterrestrial landscape as you make your way west. There are plenty of places to pull over, climb, explore, and take plenty of gorgeous pictures for the ol' Instagram feed. Every time you think you've seen the coolest part of this park, you round another corner and BAM - another killer view. Don't miss the Fossil Exhibit Trail (another easy, boad-walk accessible trail) where kids can see fossil replicas of animals that once roamed these prairies.
- 3:00 or 4:00ish: Back at Wall, SD! Pit stop at Wall Drug for potty break and free ice water, and then head back to Rapid City in time for dinner.