Onward to the Badlands. Our epic #vanlife road trip out west continues with a stop at a famous national park and an encounter with a real buffalo

Watch the video on our YouTube channel. https://youtu.be/nzxIoFDJC_s

As you may recall, after a less-than-restful first night trying to sleep at a South Dakota rest stop. We were ready to get back in the van and on the road to continue our journey westward.

If you have ever driven Interstate 90 in either direction you will know there’s not a lot of jaw-dropping scenic views to look at. And before we get an email from the “South Dakota Department of Tourism and Roadside Wall Drug Signs,” there are some scenic exceptions to capture the eye, but you’ll have to pull off the Interstate to reach some of them.

 Roadside attractions. Exit next right

In Mitchell, SD resides the world-famous Corn Palace. It’s a neat stop to see the corncob artwork adorning the exterior of the building. Inside is a small basketball arena and some historic photographs. That’s about it. But again, it’s free to tour, so no harm, no foul there.

There are a few good places to eat while in Mitchell. One place we enjoyed during another trip through South Dakota was The Depot Pub and Grill along the railroad tracks at 201 Main Street. The stunning vintage brick structure was at one time the Mitchell train station. The restaurant as you would imagine, features a railroad theme.

Our favorite spot while driving on I-90 is the view of the mighty Missouri River at Chamberlain, SD. The highway drops downhill grade and crosses over the wide river. Traveling over the causeway you see two long bridges to each side, used by the railroads to span the river.

Everyone knows Al, right?

Al’s Oasis is another longtime favorite stop along I-90 just west of the Missouri River bridge in Oacoma, SD. Their famous claim to fame is the Old West themed shops and the buffalo burgers served in the restaurant. Not to be outdone by the famous Wall Drug in Wall, SD, Al’s Oasis also attracts customers with a five-cent cup of coffee.

Since Al’s welcomes tour buses, there is plenty of room to park your large motorhome, RV, or big rig. Just a few hundred yards down the frontage road alongside the Interstate, Al’s has a small RV park to camp.

Cold War-era nukes

A short departure from the Interstate, between Cottonwood and Kadoka, SD, is the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. During Cold War-era tensions between the United States and Soviet Union, the U.S. military housed hundreds of nuclear missiles there for more than 30 years, ready to launch at a moment’s notice. The base was deactivated during the first Bush Administration.

Photo Courtesy U.S. National Parks Service

This National Historic Site features three facilities including a large visitor center, a launch control center, and a missile silo and launch facility. A deactivated missile and warhead at the Delta-09 launch site can be seen posed in its 80-foot-deep underground launch silo.

We’ll have to catch that on another trip through South Dakota, and during cooler weather.

We dropped down off the Interstate at the Cotton Wood Road/County Highway 240 exit to join the Badlands Loop Scenic Byway. Right off the Interstate on Hwy 240 is the adjacent Minute Man RV Park. There are several other campgrounds in the area as well.

At the Badlands National Park’s northeast gate, we used JK’s National Parks Lifetime Senior Pass to get us in without paying the $30 vehicle park entrance fee. A nice perk for traveling with someone old! Lol!

We’ve only visited a few national parks since we purchased the NP Lifetime Senior Pass on-line from the National Parks website, but it has already paid for itself!

Summertime crowds are coming back

This was our second visit to Badlands National Park. The first time we visited was in the Fall and crowds were nil. This time we were visiting at peak post-pandemic summer vacation season and the crowds were back in force.

From the moment you enter the park, you feel as if you have stepped into another world. The dry, monotoned moon-like scenery is in total contrast with the lush greenery of nearby forests of the Black Hills of South Dakota.

We could only imagine what the Badlands must have been like to the early Native Americans, trappers, and explorers, like Lewis and Clark.

Lucky for us, the air conditioning was working just fine, and we didn’t have to find out firsthand what our pioneering ancestors might have endured.

We decided to by-pass the Cedar Pass Visitor Center and Lodge on the way in and instead, stop on our way back out of the park.

Incredible vistas

The twisty, curvy Badlands Loop Road features 14 scenic overlooks with spacious vehicle turnouts so that everyone, including the driver, can get a nice long look at the eerie landscape of jagged ridges and deep gorges. A few of the parking areas have pit toilets and covered tables for picnics.

We parked the van several times to take in the massive vistas. The 360-degree panoramas made us feel really small in the scope of all this vastness.

Some of the pull offs lead to trailhead parking. Hikers to try numerous developed nature trails. Hikes range from a 0.25-mile loop to a 5.25-mile path across a prairie are available. Park Service rangers also offer guided walks and hikes. Check with the park for more information on arranging these tours.

Rangers say you are more likely to spot wildlife in the early mornings or late evenings. On our last visit to Badlands, we had to stop for bighorn sheep walking on the roadway.

Other animals that live in the 64,250-acre Badlands Wilderness Area include bison, pronghorn, coyote, deer, and rattlesnakes.

Some of the trails and boardwalks to lookout vistas are marked with signs warning you about snakes!

Time to head back to the Interstate

After retracing our route, we parked the van at the Cedar Pass Visitors Center to check out the air-conditioned gift shop and use the restrooms.

While parked at the visitors center a fellow #vanlifer pulled into the parking stall next to us.

The Dodge Promaster van, named “Glenda II,” was decked-out with all the necessary equipment to spend many self-contained days out in the wilderness. It was fun to briefly chat about our vans and pass out a #jkandkiminthecamper business card so they could keep in touch if they wanted.

Admittedly, we were bummed that we didn’t see any wildlife during this visit to the park. We passed through the park’s exit gate and spotted a lone bison grazing in prairieland near the road. What a thrill that was. A quick, but safely executed U-turn brought us a little closer view from safety of the van. As they say at the Park Service – “Don’t pet the fluffy cows!”

Camping opportunities

The park service operates two campgrounds inside the Badlands NP at Cedar Pass Lodge – a 96 site campground for tents and RVs. Sage Creek is a free primitive campground with 25 sites, pit toilets, no water, and no campfires allowed. For further information, visit: http://www.nps.gov/badl.

With dozens of photos and videos of the Badlands National Park stored on our SD cards, it was time to make our way back to I-90 and head to Rapid City, SD, and our campsite accommodations for the night.

Next time: We see “The Heads” and have a stormy afternoon picnic amongst the Black Hills Pines.

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