One Night at Badlands National Park and a Lifetime of Memories

Over the summer of 2017, I embarked on my first cross-country road trip—alone. I had been planning since January, and up until that trip, I had never traveled outside of the Four States area (Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma) by myself. My destination was Big Timber, Montana, almost 20 hours away from my home in Kansas. I did not want to make the trek in one straight shot, so I broke up the driving over three days and decided to see a lot of this beautiful country I had never experienced before. First stop on the way was Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

Photo by Kaci Preston

Overcoming the Unknown
For an unknown reason, Badlands National Park intimidated me from afar. I wasn’t sure that it was a park I wanted to visit (alone). Perhaps the warnings about the harsh and unpredictable weather at this park is what terrified me. However, it was right along the route to Montana, and there was one campsite available for when I would be traveling through. Being budget-conscious, I didn’t want to spend money on hotels, so I booked the campsite despite my fears. Coincidentally, this park ended up being my favorite!

Cedar Pass Campground
I was lucky to book a tent campsite at Cedar Pass Campground, which has 360-degree views of the buttes and pinnacles throughout the park. There are 96 sites at this campground, each with its own shaded picnic table. Being surrounded by prairie grassland, Badlands National Park is vulnerable to fire. You aren’t allowed to have any type of open flame in the park, but you can use a portable propane stove to cook on.

I pitched my tent on a flat, grassy spot next to the picnic table at my site and made dinner on my two-burner propane stove. My site was on the west edge of the campground, next to a big open field. I had the best view of the sunset and I got to enjoy a night sky ranger program while I was there. 

Photo by Kaci Preston

My two favorite trails in Badlands National Park are Notch Trail and Saddle Pass Trail. Notch Trail has a super fun rope ladder that you get to scramble up—it’s my favorite part of the trail. After the rope ladder, you scale a ledge high above the canyon. The view at the end of the trail is considered “The Notch,” and it’s spectacular! It opens up to dramatic and sweeping views of the White River Valley below. This trail is moderate to strenuous, and not recommend for those who fear heights. 

Saddle Pass Trail is the most difficult trail in Badlands National Park and it’s also the shortest trail. At just 1/4 mile long, this trail gains 300 feet of elevation. I took a little detour on the way up and decided to scramble the rock wall next to the trail. Within park boundaries, there’s an open hike policy. This means you are free to hike, climb, and camp anywhere, and you do not have to stay on the trail. It was fun being able to make my own way up the giant rock wall. 

Best Park Ever
Although I only stayed one night at Badlands, I felt like I had a full experience at the park. I hiked several miles of trails, experienced a one-of-a-kind ranger program, and saw my first bighorn sheep and prairie dog town. Summertime is definitely the best time to visit the park. As long as you come prepared for any type of weather, it’s worth a visit. The scenery is breathtaking and a must-see. And if you would like to know why I was traveling to Montana, read this article

Header photo: Courtesy of Kaci Preston

Kaci Preston is The Car Camping Queen, and she believes in seeing the outdoor world in the most unique ways possible. She earned her “Car Camping Queen” title because she bring alongs everything you could imagine for a camping trip, and with her checklists and organizational skills, she never leaves anything behind.


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