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Visiting Badlands National Park is Like Stepping Into the Past
The last time I visited Badlands National Park was back in 1963. I remember a twisty labyrinth of narrow canyons, spires, and geologic formations reminiscent of Bryce or Cedar Breaks, soft crumbly sedimentary rock that in many places erodes too quickly for plants to put down roots. Vistas that stretched from the high plateau along the north of the park out to the southern plains. Sagebrush, prairie dogs, and antelope.
Erosion is the reason for Badlands National Park. The tortured geologic landscape was created when water finally broke through a hard crust of rock that covers the high plateau in this part of South Dakota. The layers of volcanic ash, clay and sandstone underneath are extremely soft and crumbly. As a result, erosion has quickly created the landscape you see today, which visibly changes every year.
Exploring Badlands is not exactly straightforward. Moderately sized at 244,000 acres, the park is split in half. The northeastern region is the one most people are familiar with as it has a paved road looping through it along with various visitor facilities. The southwestern region is comprised of one large section and another smaller plot of land separated by a couple miles of prairie. These sections are located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (and co-managed by the Oglala Lakota tribe) and are less accessible. Paved roads circumscribe the south and western portion of the larger section but only enter into the park across one corner.
A few things have changed since the last time I visited. For instance, bison and bighorn sheep have been returned to the park and their populations are flourishing (I spotted maybe a hundred of the former and two dozen of the latter during a mid-August visit). Swift Fox and the black-footed Ferret, the most endangered land mammal in North America, have also been reintroduced. The visitor’s center has been expanded and upgraded with some first-class exhibits.
However, what charmed me about Badlands this time around is how little things have changed since my last visit, including Cedar Pass Lodge. The lodge is just a few miles in from the northeastern entrance to Badlands - but feels like a step back in time to the sixties.
Cedar Pass Lodge, the only lodging facility within the park, was originally built by Ben Milliard and opened up in 1928, 11 years before the creation of Badlands National Monument (it became a national park in 1978). At the time it included what are now referred to as the "historic cabins" along with a dining room and a dance hall. The main welcome center was expanded during the 1950s and 1960s to what you’ll see now. The picturesque old diner and “trading-post” style retail area reminded me strongly of my last visit to Badlands in 1963. The smell of coffee and chicken-fried steak, the extensive selections of Western and Indian jewelry, leatherwork, rocks, books, clothes, and toys, the varnished wood and the outdoor picnic benches that seemed to come straight out of a Fred Flintstone or Yogi Bear cartoon, all harkened back to another era.
Cedar Pass Lodge is only 9 miles from the eastern entrance to Highway 240 - the Badlands State Scenic Byway that loops down from Highway 90. It is only 9 miles from the eastern entrance to Highway 240 - the Badlands State Scene Byway that loops down from Hwy 90 into the park and back up again. You can also come at it from the south or west via Highway 44. As you pull off, Cedar Pass Lodge is fronted by the gift shop and café. Behind this building are two rows of the historic cabins. Most of these are stand-alone units separated from their nearest neighbor by around 30 feet. In back they are wrapped by the surrounding prairieland.
Most cabins have two beds – usually two doubles or a double and a single - plus a small bathroom just off from the main room. They are somewhat cramped but are clean and have most of the basics. Cedar Pass Lodge does not provide television or phone service, but there is a coffee pot in the room, heat and a/c, and broadcast Internet reaches from the lodge to the nearest cabins.
All cabins feature a retro interior design style – think varnished knotty-pine wood paneling, old school lamps and furniture, and prints of dogs playing poker on the walls. What I liked most, however, was waking up inside the park with a front porch and bench facing the beauty of Cedar Pass. Kicking back on the bench with a cup of coffee, I reveled in the play of pastel colors on the heights muted by the early morning light, the sound of crows cawing in the distance, the view of rabbits feeding on the grass, bluebirds winging from tree to tree. Even the occasional sound of screen doors slamming and the murmur of distant conversation helped to create a homey ambiance.
Though personally the rustic charm of the place appealed to me, my family and I are somewhat less than average in size. Larger people may have reason for complaint. The bathrooms and shower stalls are tight fits and few rooms boast a queen-sized bed (while no kings are to be found at all). Others may complain about the lack of space or amenities.
However, those folks may be heartened to hear that improvements are in the works. Two cabins are slated for reconstruction each year over the next several years. Forever Resorts, which runs the lodge, will carefully match the look and feel of the old cabins while enlarging and somewhat modernizing them. The new cabins will have room for two queen-sized beds and larger showers, along with the option for television and Wi-Fi. There will be two handicapped units with ramps and wheel-in showers.
That said, you can expect the prices to go up a little big too. Currently the rate structure is as follows - cabins: $85.00/night, a two-bedroom cabin with connecting bath: $100.00/night, or a cottage (2 bedrooms with a sleeper sofa, kitchen, and washer/dryer): $110.00/night.
The public areas will likely see some changes as well. Proposals that the park will be considering include putting a wine and coffee sitting area in the basement under the original lodge. Forever Resorts would also like to set up an area for tour buses to pull off and have their own picnic area away from the main lodge. An open-air but screened-off outside meeting center is proposed and a plan has been approved to create a teepee village in the flatlands between the nearby campground and Cedar Pass. The idea is to create a place where people can stay and experience something of a tribal setting - rudimentary accommodations for sure, but boasting some modern comforts unavailable to the Plains Indians.
The diner may be expanded as well. Right now, however, it features a varied menu of steaks, seafood, burgers, salads, soup and sandwiches for lunch and dinner, and a great breakfast menu in the mornings. Prices are reasonable –you can spend up to $20 on a dinner entree but most items are closer to $10. A decent selection of wine and beer is available too. For breakfast they frequently have a $3 breakfast special (coffee, muffins and two eggs when I was there) or you can pick from a list of typical breakfast items - all the usual suspects are there and range between $5 and $10 in price.
Though Cedar Pass Lodge represents the only lodging, gift store and restaurant in the park, there are two official campgrounds as well. Cedar Pass Campground has 96 sites, cold running water, flush toilets, trash cans and picnic tables. Open campfires are not permitted and showers or electrical hookups are currently not available. It is located near the lodge and next to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. Camping fees are $10 per night with a maximum of two-week stays. Campers can use a dump station for a $1 fee per dump. There are plans to have, over the next two years or so, electricity and water run out to 15 - 25 spots. Public showers will also be added.
Sage Creek Primitive Campground is free and has pit toilets and picnic tables. It does not have water, and stays are limited to two weeks. It is located down the Sage Creek Rim Road in the northwestern corner of the park. This road is unpaved and can occasionally be washed out by rain. It is generally not recommended for large RVs. Though the Sage Creek runs nearby, the water is typically chock-full of eroded clay, turning it a whitish blue. Attempting to filter or treat it for drinking water is not recommended.
Other lodging and camping facilities are available just outside the park. When planning your trip, keep in mind that Badlands is eroding so quickly that significant features wash away every year. Give it a half million years and geologists predict it will be completely gone. In other words, time’s a wasting – don’t put off for too long a visit to Badlands National Park.