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The Dakotas Scenic Road Trip

With plenty to do and see, you’ll love exploring North and South Dakota’s vast and rugged landscapes that will leave you breathless. This Dakotas Scenic Road Trip will offer you the chance to explore the Badlands, Wind Cave, Theodore Roosevelt, and other National Park Service sites in North and South Dakota.

Where to Go

Minuteman Missile

The first stop on your journey transports you to back in time to the Cold War and one of the more eerie places it produced. For decades, the Minuteman Missile site stored upwards of 1,000 nuclear missiles ready for launch. U.S. Air Force personnel who maintained the facility had to be on high alert in case of a nuclear attack. Visitors who lived during the Cold War will likely remember the nerve-wracking times of the nuclear arms race, fallout shelters, and the Red Scare. At Delta-01 and Delta-09, you’ll have the rare chance to relive the anxiety of the era by viewing a missile silo and an underground control center.

Badlands National Park

The next stop on your road trip is Badlands National Park. Here you’ll delve into America’s geologic history by exploring one of the richest fossil beds on the planet. Millions of years ago, the Badlands resembled a lush rainforest instead of the grasslands and sedimentary rock that exist today. This ancient landscape was once home to prehistoric creatures such as saber-toothed cats, three-toed horses, and hornless rhinoceroses. Despite the dramatic change, wildlife still abound inside the park’s 244,000 acres. The Badlands Loop Scenic Byway will pique your interest with images of striking buttes, canyons, spires, and other geologic shapes. Fossilized soils reveal colorful bands featuring shades of red, orange, yellow, gray, and white that make for mesmerizing pictures.

Wind Cave National Park

Your road trip continues at Wind Cave National Park. Rolling prairies and pine forests adorn the landscape at this park, but the real treasure hides below the surface. Nearly 150 miles of passageways crisscross underground to make Wind Cave one of the world’s most complex cave systems. Boxwork formations decorate the caves, and these calcite deposits are rarely found anywhere else in the world. Ranger-guided tours of the cave network also reveal frostwork and cave popcorn. Above ground, Wind Cave nurtures a versatile ecosystem that’s inhabited by a variety of wildlife species. Its 30+ miles of hiking trails often lead to sightings of bison, elk, bobcats, pronghorn, mountain lions, and more.

Jewel Cave National Monument

Jewel Cave National Monument is the next stop along your way. With more than 200 miles of mapped passageways, Jewel Cave is the third-longest cave on the planet. Jewel Cave National Monument draws cavers and natural explorers to discover its underground wonders. Calcite crystals run along the cave walls, and other rock formations reveal striking colors. Cavers can continue to delve deeper into Jewel Cave, and guided tours let visitors explore the cave system. The Wild Caving Tour challenges you to a vigorous 2/3 of a mile trek through tight spaces, cave walls, and narrow passages. Once you’ve completed your underground expedition, nature trails allow you to discover the abundance of wildlife species in the forest. 

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Next along your drive is the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Carved into the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore pays tribute to four presidents who represent the birth, growth, and preservation of the United States. The massive sculpture includes the 60-foot heads of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt, respectively. Often called the “Shrine to Democracy,” Mount Rushmore has an elevation over 5,700 ft and rests on the mountain known by the Lakota Sioux as “The Six Grandfathers.” Unfortunately, controversy shrouds the Black Hills encompassing the landscape around Mount Rushmore due to the violation of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. The agreement granted the Black Hills to the Lakota people, but the U.S. seized the area upon the discovery of gold.

Black Hills National Forest

From Mount Rushmore, continue on to the Black Hills National Forest. Rising high above the prairies of the Great Plains, the Black Hills foster a diverse ecosystem and have a rich heritage. Held sacred by Native American tribes, this spiritual oasis remains a hub for recreational activity today. Within its 1.2 million acres of wilderness, the Black Hills feature granite spires, ponderosa pine forests, trickling streams, and sparkling reservoirs. Around 400 miles of trails, dozens of campgrounds, and two scenic byways lead to incredible adventures. The Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway passes tumbling waterfalls, free-range bison roam the grasslands, and the stargazing here is incredible.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Your road trip continues at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. President Theodore Roosevelt’s ventures into North Dakota forever shaped his passion for conserving the untamed landscapes of the West. Hunting trips to his ranches provided solace, and he documented his accounts of his active lifestyle. Today, the preserved prairies and Badlands where Roosevelt hunted bison inspire future generations of nature lovers. Three distinct units make up the park, and the 144-mile Maah Daah Hey Trail connects each of them. Medora is the ideal launching pad to explore the colorful Badlands of the South Unit. Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch is tricky to find, but you’ll see bison, deer, horses, and prairie dogs along the way. Take the 14-mile Theodore Roosevelt North Unit Scenic Byway for an astonishing view of the bending Little Missouri River.

Fort Union Trading Post

The next stop on your road trip is the Fort Union Trading Post. During the 19th century, western pioneers and Native American tribes gathered at this strategic site to barter valuable commodities. Constructed in 1828 along the Upper Missouri River, the fort sparked the fur trade and spurred economic activity in growing western settlements. North Plains Tribes such as the Assiniboine, Blackfoot, Cree, Crow, and Lakota traded beaver pelts and buffalo robes for blankets, guns, clothing, and other valuable goods. The recreation of the historic trading post gives you a glimpse of life on the Western Frontier. Visit during the Indian Arts Showcase to celebrate Native American culture, hear traditional music, and meet tribal elders.

Knife River Indian Villages

The last stop on your road trip will take you to the Knife River Indian Villages. The Knife River Indian Villages delve into the history and culture of the Hidatsa people which offer visitors the opportunity to learn more about Northern Plains Native Americans. Traditional handicrafts and unique artifacts adorn the museum, and the Village Trail explores the preserved earthlodge villages. Wander the North Forest Trail for a peaceful hike that leads to the Missouri River. Several beautiful bird species frequent the area, and anglers can cast their lines along Knife River.

When to Go

North and South Dakota are both highly underrated states, and its national parks receive much fewer visitors than others. The exception would be Mount Rushmore, which sees roughly three million visitors per year. Fortunately, anywhere from late spring to early fall is a fantastic time to hit the road. September-October and April-May offer cooler weather, and Mount Rushmore’s peak crowds have faded. You may face extremely hot temperatures during the summer, and winter isn’t ideal due to limited facilities, road closures, and brutal weather.

Staying Safe at Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park is made up of fascinating and colorful rock formations situated in the heart of grassy prairie land. This rugged wilderness can be dangerous to navigate if you aren’t aware of the safety precautions you should be taking for your visit.

Wildlife

The Badlands are brimming with wildlife and there are no shortage of animal viewing opportunities! However, it’s important to keep a safe distance whenever you encounter any of the park’s animals. Bison are common in the area, so be sure to keep a wide berth when viewing them. Rattlesnakes also pose a significant threat in the Badlands, often hiding in the prairie grasses or under boardwalks and stairs. Be wary of stepping in or putting your hands into areas you can’t see. If you hear the snake’s warning rattle, back away slowly.

Weather

Weather conditions in the Badlands are unpredictable and can change rapidly without warning. If there are signs of lightning or flash flooding, seek shelter on higher ground and avoid tall trees and wide open spaces. The terrain at the Badlands is very slippery when wet. 

The summer sun in this park is intense, so you’ll need to take the necessary precautions. Bring plenty of water, wear sunscreen, and wear a wide brim hat during your visit. 

Other Concerns

There is very little cell phone coverage in the park, so be prepared with a physical map and compass. Make sure you familiarize yourself with your route before you head out. 

Additionally, be sure to bring the proper hiking gear for your visit to the park and wear closed-toe shoes to avoid unpleasant encounters with cacti, rattlesnakes, prairie dogs, or uneven terrain.

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Points of Interest in Badlands National Park

Situated in southwestern South Dakota, Badlands National Park is characterized by a rugged landscape marked by otherworldly rock formations. This fascinating scenery is located in the heart of vast grass prairie land, resulting in shocking and lovely views.

Badlands Loop Road

Take a ride on this iconic 31-mile road which runs straight through the park. Experience the highlights of Badlands National Park by pulling off to the various scenic overlook points throughout your journey.

Notch Trail

A 1.5-mile, moderately strenuous hike, the Notch Trail is one of the park’s most famous hikes, but it’s not for the faint of heart! If you’re afraid of heights or traveling with children, this is not the hike for you. The Notch Trail will have you climbing a steep ladder, peeking over cliff edges, and taking in breathtaking views of the park. If you’re up for the challenge, you’re in for a treat!

Robert’s Prairie Dog Town

Badlands National Park is known for its abundance of prairie dogs! Keep your eyes peeled for mounds and burrows throughout the park, and especially at Robert’s Prairie Dog Town, as you’re likely to catch a glimpse of these cute animals popping out. Do not feed the prairie dogs! 

Yellow Mounds Overlook

This historic part of the park features vibrantly-colored rock formations that will leave you in awe. These bright yellow mounds began as an ancient sea which dried up, and the resulting rock layer turned yellow when exposed to air. Today these mounds encompass the oldest rock layers in the entire park. 

Panorama Point

As the name suggests, panorama point offers phenomenal panoramic views over the park’s unique landscape. This is a great place to watch a sunrise or sunset, so don’t forget to bring your camera!

Ben Reifel Visitor Center 

Head to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center any time of year for everything you want and need to know about Badlands National Park. There you’ll be able to chat with park rangers to hash out your trip and you’ll definitely want to stop at the gift shop, too!

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Watching Wildlife in Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park is home to resilient animals that are able to withstand some seriously harsh winter conditions. Also home to many endangered species in North America, the park is characterized by its bitter winters and searing summers as part of the Great Plains. From winds and drought to blizzards, heat, and storms, any animal that survives in this habitat is surely one to appreciate.

One of the most famous residents of the park is the American bison, once abundant in the American landscape. Their natural habitat began in Mexico and extended all the way to Canada, and from New York to Oregon. There were estimated to be 30 million bison roaming the country before the European settlements of the 1600s and 1700s. Settlers quickly cut down the bison population with significant hunting that nearly caused the species to go extinct. Thanks to conservationists that intervened in 1884, there are now 20,000 bison protected on public lands today. One of their homes is the Badlands National Park.

Additionally, the Badlands National Park is known for its abundance of butterfly species thanks to its location in the Great Plains. Visitors can view 177 different butterfly species in the greater region.

The Badlands National Park’s Top Animals

  • American bison
    • The plains bison subspecies are found in the Badlands National Park, a genus of Bison, of the species bison. Still, they are often called buffalo, derived from the French word for beef when they began trapping the bison in the 1600s. Bison are about 6.5 feet tall and weigh up to 2,000 pounds. Their thick coats are designed in such a way that snow sits on top of their fur without ever making contact with their skin in the wintertime.
  • Ferrets
    • Nocturnal in nature, the black-footed ferret calls the Badlands its home as it crawls out of its burrow in the wee hours of the morning. Ferrets are known for sleeping up to 21-hours per day, waking up to hunt and eat before they go back to sleep.
  • Bighorn sheep
    • Found throughout the park, bighorn sheep live in small, separate groups that migrate constantly. For that reason, they can be hard to spot during your travels.
  • Pronghorn
    • Often mistaken for deer at a distance, pronghorn are much smaller, at only three feet high at the shoulder. Found in the open prairies of western North America, pronghorn are defined by their speed (they can run up to 55 miles per hour for half a mile). They are the most abundant mammal in the badlands region.
  • Prairie Rattlesnake
    • Able to grow up to 5-feet in length, this subspecies of snake has a triangular head and body defined by dark blotches. The snake will use its tail to make noise if it senses it is in danger. They often do this when a human is approaching since they are not an aggressive species. The snake preys on chipmunks, rabbits, ferrets, and mice.
  • Butterflies
    • Look out for sulphurs, whites, coppers, hairstreaks, blues, frittilaries, and skippers during your time in the park.

Fun fact: There are no bears of any kind in the Badlands National Park!

Viewing Locations

Medicine Root Trail: If you’re on a mission to catch some of the Badlands’ natural butterfly species, this hike is a great one.

Wind Cave National Park: Located near the Badlands, Wind Cave National Park is praised for its views of pronghorn in their natural habitat. Consider adding this park to your travels.

Mount Rushmore: Should you decide to make a great American historic stop, the collared mountain goat can be found around Mount Rushmore.

Castle Trail: This 10-mile hiking trail provides some of the best wildlife viewing along your journey. Be sure to bring binoculars.

Sage Creek Rim Road: For your best chance at seeing bison in the park, drive along Sage Creek Rim Road. Herds can be glimpsed by drivers, as well as those who hike along the road.

Pinnacles and Cedar Pass: Check out white-tailed deer, bighorn sheep, and American antelope in these areas. You can also see American badgers, swift foxes, bobcats, black-footed ferrets, and mountain lions.

When Should You Go?

The Badlands National Park is impressive year round. However, it comes with a brutal winter most tourists want to avoid. It’s recommended to visit the park from April through October, like many other U.S. parks. The good news is that the bison can be spotted in the park year round – they never migrate.

Although it’s nearly impossible to catch a ferret in action since they eat and mate at night, the ferrets in the park are most active March to May when they can be found mating.

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