Where Are America’s Best Kept Secrets? Think Dakotas!

As the most popular national parks get more crowded, where do you go to escape?

In this post, we’ll explore two such parks in the Dakotas.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The attraction: Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota (2.4 million visits)

The alternative: Badlands National Park, South Dakota (868,000 visitors)

Location: About 85 miles east of Mount Rushmore National Memorial; 60 miles east of Rapid City, South Dakota

Best place to stay: Cedar Pass Campground, Badlands National Park

Best hike: Door Trail (0.75 miles round trip)

Easy. An accessible ¼ mile boardwalk leads through a break in the Badlands Wall known as “the Door” and to a view of the Badlands.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At first blush, Badlands National Park doesn’t sound like the best place to go. After all, it’s called Badlands! For centuries humans have viewed South Dakota’s celebrated Badlands with a mix of dread and fascination.

But these 244,000 acres of otherworldly landscape are gorgeous, with deep canyons, towering pinnacles and spires, buttes, and banded red-and-gray rock formations that transform into a veritable rainbow at the magic hour shortly after sunrise or before sunset. Some describe it as otherworldly, lunar-like, some say desert, the Lakota (Sioux) were the first to call it “bad lands,” or “mako sica.”

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Badlands provide considerable opportunities for discovery and exploration. From camping and hiking to bird watching and auto-touring, visitors to Badlands National Park can enjoy countless outdoor adventurers.

The Highway 240 Badlands Loop Road, accessed from Interstate 90, is a two-lane, paved surface that takes you through the park.

Badlands National Park offers a variety of designated hiking trails that allow you to experience the beauty of the park up close and personal. Hikes range from flat stretches through the prairie landscape to uphill climbs through the Badlands formations.

Cedar Pass Campground, Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Pass Campground, Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another alternative: Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota (559,000 visits)

Location: About 135 miles west of Bismarck, North Dakota

Best place to stay: Red Trail Campground, Medora

Best hike: The Wind Canyon trail

If you travel to the Black Hills of South Dakota, skip the Mount Rushmore come-ons and cruise an extra 260 miles straight north, to bask in the majesty of No Dak’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is where the 26th president spent his wilderness years as a rancher, hunter, and naturalist, and this desolate stretch of ridges and bluffs is beyond ethereal.

Buffalo and pronghorn antelope graze throughout the park giving meaning to the song Home on the Range. The prairie dog villages are among the most impressive anywhere. If you venture off the uncrowded two-lane road that winds through the park you’ll find hoodoos and contoured rocks of the weirdest shapes; these surreal hills reminded Roosevelt of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales and poems. On hikes these jagged buttes and towering sandstone pinnacles change shades by the hour, from heliotrope red to nickel gray.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And perhaps best of all is the shortage of human beings. This relatively isolated park is hardly ever crowded, so you can experience the gorgeous loneliness of the badlands much the way Roosevelt did more than a hundred years ago.

The gateway hamlet to the national park is Medora. This Little Missouri River community has happily eschewed fast-food franchises and strip-malls: there are Old West saloons that stay open until 2 a.m. for whiskey drinkers, wooded-plank sidewalks, and mini-golf for kids. The local specialty is ribeye dipped in cheese (steak fondue).

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the summer, Burning Hills amphitheater hosts a kitschy, Lawrence Welk-esque variety show, and there are folksingers strumming six-strings performing Gene Autry and Ian Tyson standards in cozy venues.

Worth Pondering…

Oh, give me a home where the Buffalo roam
Where the Deer and the Antelope play;
Where never is heard a discouraging word,
And the sky is not clouded all day.

—Dr. Brewster Higley (1876)

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