National Park Road Trip 2011: Lodging in Badlands National Park
Editor's note: Somewhat despondent over having to leave the cool air of the Rockies behind them, David and Kay Scott have headed into the oven-like temperatures of Badlands National Park to check out the park's lodging options for their book, The Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges. Along the way, they visited Devil's Tower National Monument.
Things are shakin’ and bakin’ in Badlands National Park. That is, shake up a couple of eggs, pour them on the asphalt, and watch them bake.
It was 105 degrees when we arrived at the west entrance to the national park. This was the hottest day of the summer, with a forecast for even higher temperatures the following day. We encountered two surprises during our visit to the park, one of which was major, but more about this later.
Following our last report from Lake Hotel in Yellowstone National Park, we departed the park through the east entrance and stopped for gas and groceries in Cody. Cody’s Buffalo Bill Historical Center is certainly worth a half-day visit, but we have been there several times and motored on through town.
Our original plan was to head to South Dakota’s Wind Cave National Park where we would spend a night camping. On the morning of our departure from Yellowstone we decided instead to visit Devils Tower National Monument in northeastern Wyoming. Between Yellowstone and Devils Tower, we spent a night camping about 30 miles west of Buffalo, Wyoming, in the Bighorn National Forest. It was a quiet campground and the evening temperature was perfect for tent camping.
Devils Tower, America’s first national monument, has been one of our favorite NPS units since we visited many years ago. Our last stop was nine years ago during a full moon when we took a special nighttime ranger-guided walk. These special walks are generally offered during June, July, and August on the night of the full moon. The final stretch of the walk takes you up a slope where the tower suddenly appears next to the full moon. What a great experience.
Not only is the 867-foot tower impressive, the monument’s campground is just about ideal. It is small and generally uncrowded, dotted with beautiful old cottonwood trees, and offers excellent views of the tower from some of the campsites.
Unfortunately, the cottonwoods are growing old and looking frail. When we visited the monument many years ago (prior to the Close Encounters movie that caused visitation to boom) the campground was full of these trees. A dam built upstream in the early 1950s has prevented occasional flooding in the campground, a necessity for young cottonwoods to take hold and thrive. The Park Service is experimenting with young trees, but success seems questionable. The cottonwoods are a main factor in making the campground so inviting and their demise will be a major loss.
Devils Tower National Monument, at slightly less than 1,400 acres, is quite small, but receives between 400,000 and 500,000 visitors annually. Many arrive via large tour buses that don’t hang around for long. Most visitors, including those arriving on tour buses, drive up to the visitor center, walk the one-mile paved trail around the base of the tower, and quickly head out of the park, most likely to Yellowstone or Badlands.
A ranger told us that so far this year visitation is somewhat below projections. About 5,000 people a year climb the tower, a task that generally requires 4 to 6 hours. The record is an amazing 18 minutes.
The top of the tower is dome-shaped and about the size of a football field. Climbers are not permitted to remain on the top during the night.
Following a night at Devils Tower we headed southeast through Rapid City, South Dakota, to Badlands National Park. With more time we would have visited Mount Rushmore, Wind Cave National Park, and Custer State Park. However, we had a reservation at Cedar Pass Lodge and have visited these other locations on several previous trips.
We entered Badlands National Park through the Pinnacles entrance on the west side and drove the paved 22-mile scenic loop to Cedar Pass Lodge near the park’s northeast entrance.
The loop road includes many overlooks and trails along the way. Much of the park is grasslands, and we have never seen it so green.
Unfortunately, it was so hot we rarely got out of the car, and then for only short periods of time.
Cedar Pass Lodge is a relatively small operation with 21 cabins plus a large cottage.
Before we describe the current lodging operation, it is important to reveal the two surprises we encountered. First, concessionaire Forever Resorts has assumed operation of the campground and installed electric service to about 20 campsites. The hot summer days in this part of the country make this a wise move. Only the Terminator would want to camp in 105-degree weather unless electrical service was available to run air conditioning.
The second surprise was much more important. The National Park Service is planning to remove the existing cabins at Cedar Pass Lodge and bring in 25 new cabins that will be constructed in Rapid City and brought to the park. In the world of national park lodging, this is earthshaking news. Cabin removal is tentatively scheduled to begin in mid-September, with the new cabins being ready for occupancy for the 2012-2013 season. According to current plans, the new cabins will each have two queen beds and be somewhat larger than the existing cabins that are to be moved.
As with the existing cabins, the proposed cabins will be owned by the National Park Service, not the concessionaire that will manage them. Although the basic design seems to be complete, a variety of details remain in question.
In the event you plan to visit the park this summer, Cedar Pass Lodge currently has 21 relatively small, free-standing, stucco cabins that sit in a grassy area with small trees. The cabins are actually kind of cozy and we were surprised to learn of their expected removal. One-bedroom cabins currently rent for $85 per night and two-bedroom units cost $100. All cabins have a private bathroom. It is anticipated the newer cabins will cost $125 to $135 per night.
The restaurant at Cedar Pass offers some of the least-expensive food we have found in a national park. Kay ordered a salmon dinner that came with a baked potato, side salad, and vegetable dish for $13.95. I had a Sioux Indian taco (formerly called a Navajo taco) with ground buffalo meat for $8.95.
When departing the park via the east we stopped at the visitor center for Minuteman Missile National Historic Site to pick up tickets for a tour of the missile command center that is about six miles west on Interstate 90. The half-hour tours are each limited to six individuals and free tickets are available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
The tour was educational but does not include a visit to the missile silo that is on down the road. I believe we were told that each command center controlled ten missile silos. This silo can also be visited but it currently has no visitor services and the silo is open for visitation only two or three times per year.
We are headed east into more heat and then south to check out the cabins at Buffalo National River in northern Arkansas. In between we will visit family in Austin, Minnesota (home of Spam), and friends in Fayetteville, Arkansas (where Razorback fans call the hawgs). It will be nearly a week before we visit the lodging facility at Buffalo National River and submit our next report.