Welcome to the Dakotas! Here, Badlands National Park in South Dakota gets most of the glory. But Teddy Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota is equally impressive. Each park has great camping options in and around the park as well as unique sites nearby to visit. Best of all, these are wilderness, dark-sky parks that will quiet your mind. Having it all outside the door of your RV is an amazing experience.
South Dakota Badlands National Park
The Badlands’ unique appearance of striated red and creme rocky peaks is instantly recognizable. Start your journey into the park on a two-lane road. It has blind curves and some ups and downs, all within sight of the steep dropoffs and deep canyons that make up the park. The campground is not far from the entrance. Park, set up camp, and then explore.
The only way to see the entire park is to drive through it on the Badland Loop Road and the Sage Creek Rim road. If you drive a big rig without a car, then this park is not a great stop off for you. As you drive on the Loop Road, you’ll find many stopping points with overlooks and picnic areas. The drive is about 20 miles with twists and turns and a 20 mile per hour speed limit. It takes at least an hour without stopping, one way. But you will want to stop everywhere as the scenery changes.
Hiking, Driving, And Wildlife In The Badlands
Hiking is primarily in the main section of the park in the east and southeast areas. There are several levels of hikes and walks to take. The easy access Door Trail is a three-quarter mile boardwalk that takes you to a point where you can see the expanse of the Badlands. You may leave the boardwalk to hike further, but steep dropoffs require caution. The view is immense and beautiful. There also is an easy access boardwalk of a quarter-mile to see fossil exhibits. Other hikes are more strenuous and range up to 10 miles in length.
Bighorn sheep and deer are the most obvious wildlife, but prairie dogs and chipmunks dot the ground in many places. Roberts Prairie Dog Town is a must-see in the park. You will be delighted by these cartoon-like creatures. There is little if any shade in most of the park. In the summer you definitely need to bring a hat and lots of water with you, even for short hikes.
For me, the greatest attraction besides the views are the buffalo. One place they can be found close enough to see is south of the park in the adjoining Buffalo Gap National Grasslands on the road marked 509. There is a vast prairie there and the herd can be seen. Cars line up on either side of the road to witness them.
If you’re an intrepid explorer, take the Sage Creek Rim Road on the northwest side of the park. It’s not paved, but it is worth at least a few miles of your effort to see parts of the park most people don’t make it to. It’s a step back into prehistoric time. You expect to see a dinosaur over the next hill.
I drove the 13 miles of the Rim Road in my truck and saw the buffalo herd up close as they crossed the road. To the southwest of the park is the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation where there is park access at Sheep Mountain Table. There is a paved road to the overlook, but after that, you will need a 4-wheel-drive vehicle. You may hike the dirt road, two and a half miles to its dead-end for amazing views.
Camping In And Near Badlands National Park
The Cedar Pass campground at the Badlands is seasonal and has 96 electric-only sites. Each site has a shaded picnic table. No open fires are allowed in the park. There is a dumping station with a fee of $1. Water is available in the campground, which is run by a third-party vendor. The price is $38/night. This campground is situated next to the only restaurant in the park and the visitors center.
On the western side of the park is the Sage Creek campground. The 22 sites are free, do not have hookups, and are first-come, first-served. There are no amenities here except for pit toilets. No generators or open fires are allowed, and rigs must be 18 feet in length or less.
There are a couple of private campgrounds just outside the south entrance of the park at the town of Interior. You may drive through the park from Interstate 90 to get to them.
Other Sites Of Interest Near The Badlands
No visit to the Badlands is complete without stopping to see the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site and Wall Drug Store. The Missile site is just off I-90 on the north perimeter of the National Park. It is an actual retired missile and silo where you can see the inner workings of this now-defunct defense apparatus. Tour cost is $12. Wall Drug Store is in the town of Wall, South Dakota about 30 miles northwest of the national park. The store serves food and sells souvenirs to over a million tourists each year. The place is wall-to-wall kitsch. It opened in the 1930s, has been serving travelers ever since, and has made all of the following lists and itineraries:
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Theodore Roosevelt National Park In North Dakota
Five hours to the north of the Badlands is Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP). It is centered around the town of Medora, where you will find the only supplies, eateries, and gas station for miles. The park sits on both sides of Interstate 94. Preview the park at the welcome station and overlook point on the north side of the highway. It’s free to enter and has ample parking for RVs. When you look out you realize just how vast the landscape is. Another unique feature of this area is its small, grassy mounds. I could imagine Teddy himself or Native Americans riding the land.
Hiking In This Wilderness
There are many trails for you to choose from. The park identifies these trails as easy, easy to moderate, and moderate to strenuous. Easy trails are paved and about a half-mile, while the moderate to strenuous trails range from two hours to 12 hours and up to 18 miles. Should you want to go back-country hiking, you will have to have a permit and pay a fee. Hats, lots of water, and supplies are highly recommended for all hikers in the summer when temperatures can reach 100 degrees. TRNP is an equestrian park, so hikers must give way to horses they may encounter on the trails. Rattlesnakes are known to be in the area.
Wildlife In The Park
The most obvious wildlife are the bison. If you drive through the park you will likely see them, and they may be on the roads. Other notable wildlife you can see from the road or while hiking are elk, deer, pronghorns (similar to gazelles), and feral horses. Smaller wildlife includes prairie dogs and beavers. At night you will hear coyotes. Don’t forget to scan the skies. Eagles are plentiful. If you are near the Little Missouri River you will see waterfowl as well as canoers and kayakers.
Camping In And Around The National Park
TRNP has two campgrounds that are full every day in the summer. The most popular is Cottonwood, which has 76 primitive campsites (no hookups, but there is water on-site). For 2021, all sites are first-come, first-served only. Juniper campground has 50 first-come, first-served primitive sites useable for RVs. There is a dump station at this location, and there is potable water on site. Both of these campgrounds are $14/night. There are some sites in both campgrounds facing the Little Missouri River. You’ll feel like Lewis and Clark are camping with you.
Another option is the Buffalo Gap campground managed by the U.S. Forest Service nestled within the Little Missouri National Grasslands. It’s two miles away from Medora. There are 36 first-come, first-served primitive sites. Some sites are short and may only work for RVs under 20 feet. There is a dump station and potable water on site. Rates are $20/night. There is hiking access from this campground on the Buffalo Gap Loop and the Spur that connects to other trails.
Pro Tip: The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally runs for two weeks in August. Campgrounds and the parks will be filled with bikes and bikers. They clog the roads, gas stations, and campgrounds. If you tow a toy hauler, this is your kind of camping.
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