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The Dakotas’ National Parks


August 3, 2018

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We were so excited and SO ready to get ourselves and our trailer back on the road after our month-long hiatus. While we were stopped in Utah and Idaho hanging out with family, Adam was able to install the plumbing system in our trailer. This has made such a big difference in the day-to-day tasks of full-time travel. We also put on our National Park stickers (if you haven’t seen them yet, be sure to check out the photos on Instagram!), and have felt like they invite other full-time traveling families to chat with us more often. This past week we have felt a greater connection to the full-time community. Here are some photos from us leaving my mom at the Tetons.

This was our campsite somewhere outside of Shoshoni, Wyoming. We drove up to it late at night and couldn’t tell much about it, only that there was a lake there. We assumed it would be a green, stinky lake but were pleasantly surprised when we woke up the next morning and discovered the water was actually crystal clear, fairly warm to swim in, and had fun, flat rocks to jump and swim around. The kids had a blast at this spot and had we not been on a strict schedule to get to Minnesota to see my Dad, we could have stayed here for another night just to enjoy the lake.

Out of the three National Parks that we visited while in the Dakotas, Adam and I agree that Wind Cave was our favorite! The boys, however, preferred the giant dirt hills they could climb at Badlands. Theodore Roosevelt, while a fitting tribute to this president, was our least favorite park we’ve visited so far.


Wind Cave National Park

Where to stay:
We love to boondock! This means we camp for free on public land – it also means there are usually no facilities. But our favorite part about boondocking is that it takes us to backroads we otherwise never would have traveled or explored, and generally, we have a great deal more privacy. We camped two nights in the Black Hills National Forest, next to a small creek and nestled between thick groves of pine trees. We find our free campsites on, but there are other sites and apps you can use to find spots – one other is Campendium.


However, if you’re not into boondocking, there is a campground located one mile north of the Visitor Center called the Elk Mountain Campground. These sites are first-come, first-served basis. There is also camping at Custer State Park, which is near Wind Cave as well.

What to do:
Obviously, we were most excited about touring the cave! They offer 3 different tours of the cave that anyone can attend, though you must be able to do stairs and, if carrying a baby, the baby must be in the front and not in a back carrier (you know, to avoid bonked heads and all that). These three tours are:

Fairgrounds: Strenuous. Wildest array of features and most stairs of any tour.

Natural Entrance Tour: Moderate. The most popular tour and great for families.

Garden of Eden: Easy. Ideal for those with limited time or abilities.

There are also 2 specialty tours:

Candlelight Tour: Strenuous. Includes some off-trail travel. Minimum age is 8 years old

Wild Cave Tour: Very strenuous. Crawling required. Minimum age is 16.


We chose the Fairgrounds tour, and our 4 and six year olds did great! We got there around noon, and were able to get into a 1:40pm tour. While we waited for our tour, we toured the Visitor Center and learned about one of my favorite National Park superheroes: Alvin McDonald. Alvin was a 16 year old boy whose family moved right on top of the opening of the cave. When the cave was discovered, Alvin became its expert. He would spend hours in the cave, trailing a ball of string as he went, and carrying a single candlestick to light his way. He became obsessed with discovering more and more passages, and wrote daily in his journal about each new discovery within. It is because of his record-keeping and passion for the cave that we now know so much about this underground world! Not only did he love the cave, but he also had an entrepreneur’s heart, and began the first tours of the Wonderful Wind Cave. He died at the young age of 20 from typhoid fever. I loved learning about Alvin, and felt his passion come alive as we visited.

During our tour within the cave, the ranger told us that they had found Alvin’s backpack down in the cave but had left it untouched. I can’t imagine the amount of control that would take! I would be so curious to uncover any secrets that might be contained. But alas, the ranger promised us, they do not mess with history. We appreciated that our ranger also shed light on Native American culture and history in the area. We learned that the Lakota Indians believed the Cave to be a sacred place – the opening of the cave being the portal from the Spirit World to the Living World.

Overall, we loved that this park had a narrow focus. Sometimes when visiting the larger parks, it can feel like you’ve only scratched the surface of the spirit of the park. This when came alive with an intimate, friendly feeling. We also loved this park because of the beautiful Black Hills surrounding it! We totally recommend driving through the nearby Custer State Park, too. Friends of ours drove the Wildlife Loop within Custer and saw tons of bison and other wildlife! We were sad we missed that.

Without kids: Candlelight tour

Next time: Natural Entrance tour, spend more time in Custer State Park




Badlands National Park

Where we stayed: Our boondock spot was on a large strip of grassland that overlooked the Badlands. It was a beautiful view, and we stayed for two nights. However, a few cautionaries: There are cactus. Hiding. Beware. There were also a lot of flies and a lot of wind. Inside of the Park, there is also Sage Creek Campground which is dry – and free! – camping as well.

What to do: Let’s be honest here …. My favorite part about Badlands was learning about the history of the land! Once upon a time, this part of South Dakota was completely underwater! That’s why you’ll never find dinosaur fossils here; dinosaurs lived on land! But they have found lots of sea creature fossils. A few million years later and the water had begun to dry up, turning the land into a subtropical forest, lush with trees and greenery. As the land continued to dry out, it once again began to transform into prairieland, filled with oreodonts (sheeplike mammals). All of these different phases in the land brings a different color and texture to the many layers found in the Badlands Mountains. The deep gray signifies the layer of ash that covered the prairie land from a nearby volcanic explosion.

The Visitor Center at Badlands National Park is one of my favorites. The information is displayed in a very kid-friendly, museum-like way, and there is even a fossil center where you can view a paleontologist working on real fossils! Just as Wind Cave National Park, this Visitor Center did a great job of incorporating the Native American history. We learned about the sacredness of the bison, and how the Native Americans disagree with the term “bad lands.” We stayed in the North Unit of the park, but the entire South Unit of the park is in a Indian Reservation.

This park is basically a little boy’s heaven. A playground full of climbable dirt hills. Not to mention they are encouraged by the Rangers to go off trail to look for fossils – that is how the majority of their fossils are found! We loved the Fossil Exhibit Trail, and we attempted to listen to a Ranger Program about fossils, but only Adam was successful in gleaming any kind of information from it, as I was busy chasing Mirabelle away from the underneath of the boardwalk, as we were told that’s where the Rattlesnakes like to hide. My favorite overlook on the Scenic Route through the park was in the Sage Creek area.

Next time: Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. This is SUPER close to Badlands. I didn’t even realize how close it was until I was looking at the map to write this blogpost. I wish we had taken the time to visit this as it sounds super interesting!

Without kids: Many of the National Parks offer a nighttime viewing Ranger Program, but these always end up being too late for us and our kiddos. We’d love to hit up one of these sometime! Maybe on a day when our kids all take naps?

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Where we stayed: We stayed only one exit away from the Medora Entrance of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, in – you guessed it – National Grassland. This wasn’t our favorite spot, mostly because the bugs were ferocious, and it was just grass and cactus for miles. We felt a little meh about this campsite, as well as the park itself, but we realized that we walked into this park a little unprepared. We both realized later that had we done more research beforehand, we probably would have enjoyed it more.


What to do: I had never seen a petrified forest before, so we hiked the 3 miles round-trip to check that out. I was hoping for a few more stumps than we saw, but it was still really neat to see and feel the texture of these trees-turned-stone. We had a peaceful moment in the middle of a wide open prairie, with grass stretching as far as the eye can see and no other people around except for us. We all stretched our arms out wide and lifted our faces to the warm sun, breathing in deep for just a minute.

We drove the scenic loop around the South Unit of the park. My favorite lookout was Boicourt Trail, which was a short hiking trail out to the end of a small bluff, overlooking the valley. We also enjoyed trying to get a good picture that captured the absolute cuteness of prairie dogs in their little prairie dog towns.

We took a self-guided tour of Theodore Roosevelt’s Maltese Cabin that they moved from his original ranch home, Elkhorn, to the Visitor Center. It is quite small but still fun to see. It was also interesting to learn more about Roosevelt’s history, his passion for conservation, and the extreme trials he went through before becoming president. While we weren’t overly enthused with this park in the beginning, we still love the tribute to Roosevelt and all that he accomplished in preserving public land during his presidency. We also loved looking back over our photos from the park and realizing it was much prettier than we had remembered.

Next time: Drive the dirt road that connects the North Unit to the South Unit, with Roosevelt’s home ranch, Elkhorn, being right in the middle. There isn’t much left there, since they moved his cabin to the Visitor Center, but it still would be neat to see where he spent the majority of his time.

We hope you also check out our latest vlog about our Dakotas trip!!


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I'm Meghan and I'm so glad you're here! My blog is where you'll find advice on planning your wedding, tips on what to wear to a session, and of course, my beautiful clients!

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