Coincidentally, I’ve had several conversations about South Dakota in just the last couple days. Both the Badlands and Mount Rushmore have come up in conversations with different friends, so, of course, I took the opportunity to brag about the kick-ass, up-close-and-personal wildlife encounters I had at both!
And since today is the UN’s 5th annual World Wildlife Day, it seems like a good time to share them here, too! Five species in all, but closer to a dozen separate encounters… eeek!
Badlands National Park and Mount Rushmore National Monument, both in Southwest SD, are just under a 2-hour drive from each other, so it’s easy to incorporate both into one trip. I was there in early April, a few weeks before the busy season began. It was still damn cold, and 1 of the 3 days I was there it snowed pretty hard, so there weren’t a lot of people out and about.
Which is to say, it couldn’t have been more perfect. If you’ve ever wanted to experience these National treasures without the typical park crowds, bundle up and go in the off season. Two of my 3 days were spent in the Badlands, and I only crossed paths with two other cars the whole time. I truly had the park to myself.
Okay, so we started at Rushmore. We arrived the night before our visit and stayed in a camping cabin at Custer State Park. It was adorable, set on the banks of a picturesque little stream (Custer is a destination in itself, but I didn’t take the time to explore it since the weather was so bad the next day. With a herd of 1000+ bison running around, I wish I’d incorporated some extra time to have a look around. Oh, well… hindsight!).
At Rushmore the next morning, there was low cloud cover and a steady snow that barely made the Presidents visible.
Billy goats, y’all, and they were cute as hell with all their white fluff. Especially one super curious juvenile that kept bouncing around in the observation area outside the gift shop…
They were also nerve-wracking as hell, as they weren’t nearly as timid as they should’ve been. I was careful not to turn my back on the big daddies that were eyeing me up and down. Except for a quick second or two… because photos.
After my quick, but thrilling, visit to Rushmore, I headed east toward the Badlands. I passed through Wall before stopping just outside the park to bunk for the night. Side note: if you ever find yourself in Wall, SD, stop there. It’s kitschy and fun, Wall Drug Store is famous, and you might just experience the most wicked storm clouds ever. (Check below for accommodation near Wall.)
Somehow, the next morning was clear and beautiful. I entered the North Unit of Badlands National Park at the Pinnacles entrance and couldn’t help but stop at all. the. overlooks. The countless colors within all those rocky sediment layers were gorgeous. I spent most of the morning doing short hikes in between scenic lookouts as I meandered east through the park.
As I headed to yet another overlook, I spotted a group of bighorn sheep negotiating a cliff — a male with all his ladies, because springtime (wink, wink)! They’d just finished their ascent by the time I skidded the car to a stop and grabbed the camera.
It was such a cool sight watching them walk, single-file along the cliff’s edge. Once they were out of sight, I hopped back in the car ready to drive off when… bonus! A mule deer right there on the side of the road!
It quickly got bored of me and strolled away, so I continued towards the Northeast entrance. And after a few minutes, what opened up to me? A huge prairie with several bison grazing. Then, a bit of a closer look revealed dozens of prairie dogs scurrying along the ground!
Y’all, as a former field biologist, I could’ve peed my pants! Within an hour, bighorn sheep, bison, mule deer and prairie dogs. And the added bonus of mountain goats the day before!
I obviously had to come back the next day for more… and I wasn’t disappointed. This time, just inside the Northeast entrance, another group of bighorns just on the side of the road. I could’ve reached out and touched them (I didn’t though, and no one really should. Hard to resist sometimes, I know, but it’s against the rules! Messin’ with wild animals = Not cool…)
If you go
My biggest tip would be to go in the off season! The opportunity to have a place like this to yourself (relatively) is worth braving the cold weather. Dress for it and you’ll be fine.
I planned my trip just using maps and resources from the National Park Service’s websites for each park. Mount Rushmore National Monument is small and pretty self-explanatory. As for Badlands National Park, I chose to enter through the Pinnacles gate into the North Unit of the Park and spend all my time there, driving east until I reached the Northeast gate. (There’s also a Stronghold Unit and Palmer Creek Unit, so plenty of options for extended exploration.)
Both parks are open year-round, though visitor center hours vary by season (if there are ever weather alerts, emergency closures, etc, they’ll be posted on each park’s homepage right at the top). ENJOY!