The Badlands and the Black Hills

I usually do a separate post for each destination we’ve traveled to, but I felt that Badlands National Park area, Custer State Park area, and Devils Tower area could all be combined into one post about the places to stay and things to see in the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming.

First up…

The Badlands

We spent two nights at the Badlands Interior Campground, which is 1 mile south of the Badlands Interior Entrance. There are a handful of RV parks outside the various entrances of the park and they all looked to be about the same quality. Our campground was nothing amazing, but it was a pull through site with full hookups. I popped my head in the restroom at one point to see what it was like and it was old but seemed clean; otherwise, we didn’t use any of the amenities. The one thing we really did not like about this place was that it flooded easily. I know they can’t control the weather, and the weather in June in this part of South Dakota can be pretty crazy, but they seemed to have a real drainage issue. When we moved on to our next city two days later, even though there was still a lot of rain, there was no where near the same amount of standing water. It was so bad that one motorhome needed to be towed while trying to park in their site. There are also two campgrounds within the national park — both first come, first served, though one is undeveloped. I usually take pictures of everywhere we stay, but forgot to here. I’d say this campground, and any of them in the area, really, are decent for a 1-2 night stay.

Address: 900 SD Hwy 377, Interior, SD 57750

Phone: (605) 433-5335

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull Throughs
  • Tent Sites
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Swimming Pool
  • Hotel on Site
  • Picnic Table and Fire Ring
  • Dump Station

The very first thing we did after getting set up at the campground was drive to Wall, SD so we could get something to eat. We ate at Wall Drug, because there’s not a lot to choose from, but we also wanted to check out the place we had been seeing signs for for the last 300 miles. (Seriously, they advertise from one end of South Dakota to the other). We grabbed some burgers that were surprisingly decent and meandered through building after building of souvenirs. Satisfied that we’d seen enough, we headed over to the grocery store to pick up a few things, as the only place to get food in Interior looks like a meth lab fronting as a grocery store.

On our way back to the campground, we stopped at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center. The park consists of three sites along I-90 between Badlands and Wall: the Visitor Center, the Delta-01 Launch Control Facility, and the Delta-09 Missile Silo. The launch facility and missile silo are deactivated remnants of the cold war that are representative of the nuclear arms race. Tours are available of the Delta-01 Launch Control Facility, but they book days in advance and we hadn’t planned accordingly. The Delta-09 Missile Silo is open from  8am-3pm. It consists of a Minutemann II (unarmed) missile positioned in the underground silo with a glass window covering it, allowing you to view inside.

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center
Delta 09 Missile Silo – We showed up at 3:30, not realizing it closed at 3, so this is as close as we got.

The major draw of the area is, of course, Badlands National Park. Whenever we visit a national park, we like to visit the visitor center and take a drive through the park with our dog Max. We’ll stop at overlooks and take some pics, but the main reasons for doing this are so Max gets some fresh air and we’re able to see what we want to focus on in the park. This isn’t always possible due to size and time constraints, but the size of Badlands allows for it. The best overlooks along the Badlands Loop Road are probably Conata Basin Overlook and Yellow Mounds Overlook. Also during our first day of exploring, we drove the Sage Creek Rim Road, which is an often overlooked road due to it being gravel and long — it took about 45 minutes to drive it and then another 45 minutes to get back to our campground. However, if you want to see wildlife, this is the place to do it! We were lucky enough to see oodles of bison, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, turkeys, and a snapping turtle.

Most national parks aren’t very pet friendly, and Badlands is no different. However, we always like to include Max as much as we can, so we’ll bring him along for a ride through the park.

Yellow Mounds Overlook

Bison along the Sage Creek Rim Road
Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep along the Sage Creek Rim Road

During our second day, we hiked the 1.5-mile Notch Trail, which the trail guide rated as moderate to strenuous. We’d personally rate it somewhere between easy and moderate, with the log ladder being the most difficult part. It was a nice trail with some great views. After the Notch Trail, we did the Cliff Shelf Trail, rated moderate, which I would agree with due to the number of stairs you need to climb to get to the viewing platform. It’s a nice little half-mile, paved loop trail through junipers in which we saw a beautiful white-tailed doe kicked back and relaxing, chomping on some leaves.

Notch Trail – The ladder was the only difficult part of the trail and it’s more difficult going down than it is going up.
Notch Trail

 

The Cliff Shelf Trail involves a lot of stairs.
White-tailed doe along the Cliff Shelf Trail

It’s important to note that June is the rainiest month in the Badlands. And we’re not just talking rain, but thunder, lightning, and hail as well. Always keep an eye on the weather as there was a flash flood warning the entire time we were there.

Custer State Park

We originally had planned to be in the Badlands for five nights instead of the two we ended up spending. About a week prior, we decided to change our plans and spend the other three nights in the Custer State Park area — and we’re so glad we did! While we weren’t able to get a spot at a campground within Custer, we found a nice place right outside. Southern Hills RV Park & Campground in Hermosa is a good home base to explore the area. It’s a very well kept park and our site was a nice, level pull through with full hookups. Bonus: When it poured rain, it seemed to drain well and dry up fairly quickly. If we had our choice of campgrounds within the park (which can be reserved up to a year in advance), we would choose Game Lodge Campground due to its great location and layout. I guess we’ll have to plan ahead next time!

Address: 24549 Highway 79, Hermosa, SD 57744

Phone: (605) 939-7609

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull Throughs
  • Level Sites
  • Bathrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Picnic Table
Site 2 at Southern Hills was very spacious and level!
These three giant presidential busts sit at the entrance to Southern Hills. I don’t know why they’re there, but I do know they make finding the driveway to the RV park easier.

After we got settled in to Southern Hills, we drove into Custer SP to Legion Lake Lodge for a late lunch. While the service was a bit slow, the food was good and the view from the outdoor seating is phenomenal. After lunch, we walked the trail around Legion Lake, which has a swimming beach and canoes and kayaks for rent. After the walk, we had to get back to the Airstream to do some work, but returned to the park after dinner with Max in tow to drive the Wildlife Loop Road. Custer SP is home to all sorts of wildlife, including elk, coyotes, burros, mountain goats, and even a few mountain lions, as well as the animals we saw on our drive which were bison, white-tailed deer, prairie dogs, and pronghorns (antelope).

Legion Lake
A white-tailed deer and her babe along the Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park
A bison (with a tiny hitchhiker on its back) along the Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park
A male pronghorn along the Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park
Even without the wildlife, the views along Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park are pretty nice

On our second day near Custer State Park, as it was a rainy morning, we chose to visit Wind Cave National Park. Wind Cave lies at the southern border of Custer SP in Hot Springs. It is the third longest cave system in the United States behind Mammoth Cave and nearby Jewel Cave. There are various cave tours available, but they are all first come, first served, so arrive early to beat the crowds. We took the Natural Entrance Cave Tour, which lasted about 1.25 hours. I’m not sure if any of the other tours are more exciting, as this one was just okay. As I mentioned, it was raining, so we didn’t explore anything above ground in the park. Instead, we headed into Hot Springs to get some lunch (nothing to write home about) and then headed over to The Mammoth Site, which is also in Hot Springs. The Mammoth Site is an active paleontological excavation site with the greatest concentration of mammoth remains in the world. We waited in a line that was out the door and seemed to be making no progress until we decided to opt out and return home. Some days you’re feelin’ it, and some days you’re not — and we just weren’t feeling it that day. One thing to note about The Mammoth Site is that dogs are allowed inside as long as they are being held or in carriers. We returned to Custer SP before dinner so that Travis could get a run in on one of the trails. I explored the Visitor Center and the State Game Lodge and then meandered along one of the trails until meeting up with Travis to return home for the evening.

A Map of the Wind Cave Cave System
The ranger is standing next to the cave’s only known natural opening. In order to equalize the atmospheric pressure inside the cave, sometimes air blows out of this opening and sometimes it’s sucked in. Either way, it can reach speeds of up to 70mph, which is how the cave got its name.
Interior of the Cave
It’s very difficult to get good pictures inside a cave, but this photo is of the boxwork formations that are found throughout Wind Cave. Wind Cave is home to about 95% of the world’s discovered boxwork formations.
The Visitor Center is beautiful and informative, though no gift shop. Gift shops can be found in each of the lodges.
The State Game Lodge was the ‘Summer White House’ of President Calvin Cooldige
Grace Coolidge Creek

On our third and last full day in the area, we once more headed into Custer SP to the Sylvan Lake area in order to do the hike up to Black Elk Peak, which is South Dakota’s highest point at 7242 feet. We hiked trail #9, which is a 6.6-mile roundtrip trail that’s rated moderate to strenuous. We both felt it was the hardest trail we had ever hiked and thought it leaned more towards the strenuous end of the spectrum. There’s a gain of 1470 feet and you can definitely feel it. Black Elk Peak is actually located in the Black Hills National Forest, and there’s a sign on the trail that indicates when you cross into the forest. A stone fire tower at the peak provides excellent views of the surrounding landscape. When reading reviews of the trail, some people noted it took up to six hours to complete the roundtrip hike, but we needed to get back to work as soon as possible, so we booked it to the top and back in just under three. Before leaving the park, we stopped at Sylvan Lake Lodge for lunch. We ended up getting our food to go, as we really needed to get back to the trailer for work. I had an excellent burger and Travis had an equally excellent chicken sandwich. Once back at the trailer, Travis got to work while I drove into Box Elder to Americas Mailbox (our mail forwarding service) where I picked up our mail and packages that had been collecting for a few weeks. On my back to Southern Hills, I gassed up the truck and drove it through a car wash in preparation for our morning departure to Devils Tower.

If the 6.6-mile roundtrip hike isn’t your thing, there are views like this along Trail 9 that aren’t too far from the trailhead in Sylvan Lake.
There’s a good mix of sun and shade along the hike, but be prepared with sunscreen and water as the most difficult part of the hike (towards the peak) is out of the woods and in direct sun.
Black Elk Peak is actually in the Black Hills National Forest, not Custer State Park, and there’s a sign marking where you cross into the Forest. You also must register, so they know who’s out there and where you went.
Views!
More views!
There’s the fire tower signifying we made it to the top!
But you have to climb a lot of uneven stone stairs to get there — my calves were definitely burning!
Handkerchiefs from Previous Hikers

There are more sites to see that we didn’t get around to this trip. We didn’t drive the infamous Needles Highway in Custer SP, which I’m bummed about, but we just never found the time. If we had known what Wind Cave NP was going to be like, we probably would have used that time to do the drive instead. Of course, there’s also Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Crazy Horse Memorial. We visited Mount Rushmore last September when we were in Rapid City/Box Elder getting our drivers licenses and things set up with Americas Mailbox. Crazy Horse, along with Jewel Cave National Monument, will have to wait until our next trip. And we never made it into Rapid City (except to get groceries at Safeway), which was another small disappointment as we had really enjoyed downtown Rapid City on our previous visit. We will definitely return to Custer State Park!

Devils Tower

Devils Tower was declared the first National Monument in 1906 by Theodore Roosevelt. It’s 867 feet tall from summit to base. If you want to stay at Devils Tower for a night or two, there are basically two options. The Belle Fourche Campground is a first come, first served campground within the boundaries of the park. There are no hookups, but water is available as well as bathrooms. The second option is the Devils Tower KOA, which sits right outside the entrance to the monument. We chose the latter, because everywhere we’ve been so far this summer has been super hot and we didn’t want to have to worry about generator restrictions in order to use our A/C — we wanted hookups! As far as KOAs go, this one is pretty nice. We didn’t use their restrooms or laundry, but did take a dip in the pool (it was freezing) and got some ice cream from the onsite store. There’s also another store across the street that sells similar items, and both stores have prepared food available for purchase. The Devils Tower post office is basically right in the KOA’s parking lot and every night at 8pm, the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind is played at the campground.

Address: 60 Highway 110, Devils Tower, WY 82714

Phone: (307) 467-5395

Amenities:

  • Full Hookups
  • Pull Throughs
  • Cabins
  • Tent Sites
  • Restrooms with Showers
  • Laundry
  • Swimming Pool
  • Playground
  • Community Fire Ring
  • Propane Fill
  • Cafe/Gift Shop/Store
While most sites at the Devils Tower KOA have tower views, our site (51) didn’t because of a tree — a tree that we were very thankful for later as it was extremely hot and the shade if provided was helpful.

The Visitor Center is open from 8am-7pm, but Devils Tower itself is accessible 24 hours a day. Being right at the entrance afforded me the opportunity to get up to the monument at 7:45am before crowds started rolling in. I walked the 1.3-mile paved Tower Trail and only saw three other parties. This trail, which circles the base of the tower, is the most popular trail and gets quite busy for most of the day. Travis ran it at about 5:45pm and it was still pretty populated. Climbing the tower is allowed; though climbers must register with a ranger before and after their climb.

Dog aren’t allow anywhere except the parking lot and one gravel road, which is where we took this picture.

Besides Devils Tower, there is nothing else in this area. Most visitors seem to make it a day trip, but if you want to or need to spend the night, one night is plenty. There is a gas station about a 10-minute drive up the road in Hulett.

All in all, we really enjoyed our time in the Badlands and Black Hills. We will definitely return Custer State Park, but one visit to Badlands National Park and Devils Tower National Monument is enough.

4 thoughts on “The Badlands and the Black Hills

  • Thank you for keeping your blog ad free. It is so hard to read some of these full-timer’s blogs due to the ads and affiliate links. We’re looking to do the full time life starting next year and I appreciate your concise guide to getting SD residency. Have you lived anywhere for more than a week? We will be spending about 12-16 weeks at a time in each place due to my husband’s job and I am trying to get a sense for what it’s like to be mobile and staying put.

    • We’ve stayed 5 weeks at one place and 4 weeks at another, otherwise it’s usually less than a week. When you stay put for long periods of time you’ll probably find yourself at an RV resort as opposed to a campground or state park. RV resorts usually offer daily, weekly, and monthly pricing, and the monthly pricing is where you can really save some money. I guess my advice for your situation would to be to choose an RV resort based on location, not necessarily on amenities or 5-star reviews. It’s better to be closer to restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, Walmart, etc. than have a pool and free breakfast. As long as you have full hookups and it’s safe, you’re good. And if you’re in a bigger city or an area with multiple options, hop around between the different places. Spend a month at one resort and then move on to the next. That way you can figure out which ones you would want to return to in the future and you won’t get bored with one place.

  • I really enjoyed this post. You did a great job of seeing most of the vet places in the Black Hills. If you get a chance to return to the area put Needles Highway and iron Mountain Road at the top of your list. We loved camping in Custer SP but we had made reservations way ahead of time because it was on our bucket lust. Wishing you safe travels and happy trails!

    • Thank you! We definitely will be back and make sure to check out the things we missed. And hopefully we’ll be staying IN Custer SP.

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