In September of 2022, we hit the road on a birthday trip for our kids. We had a goal of hitting at least two National Parks on our road trip to North and South Dakota. It was going to be tight, but Sandy (11), Killian(2), Scott and I were on a mission to get it done.
We chose late September for a few reasons. First, it’s right between our kids’ birthdays, so it’s a dual birthday trip. Second, the summer crowds are winding down, parks are more enjoyable with fewer people. Third, the elk rut would be starting, increasing our chance of elk activity. Finally, the temperatures would be reasonable. I do love all of the summer activities that the Midwest offers, but I am a cold weather person. Camping and travel is most enjoyable without the salty sweat brought on by intense temperatures.
The Pathfinder fully loaded with camping gear, we hit the road from our small Minnesota town on a Thursday morning in late September. We were in Fargo by noon. It’s amazing to see how the landscape changes from central Minnesota to Fargo, North Dakota. The hills flatten, trees become more sparse, and the distance that can be seen grows.
Worlds largest bison
It’s about an eight hour drive from our home to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. A great pitstop along the way is at the “World’s Largest Buffalo Monument” in Jamestown, ND. The perfect place to stretch legs and learn a bit more about bison. This attraction is conveniently located just off of interstate 94. There are several restaurants and gas stations to choose from, refuel the vehicle and the kids.
First Destination: Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Our arrival at Theodore Roosevelt National Park was just before dark. As we entered the park, a lone bison roamed the hillside. It was quite a welcome and great first impression of the park. The Cottonwood Campground was a short drive into the park on the left hand side of the road.
The campground has a simple loop drive and finding our site was a snap. After setting up our tent and making sure our site was set for the evening, we headed back to Medora in search of firewood. We found some at a local gas station/convenience store.
Night one was a s’mores night. Camping isn’t complete without the sweet smell of burning sugar. After a game of cards and a story from Sandy out of her new National Parks book, it was lights out for rest before a busy day.
Be warned; that sunrise will make your heart skip a beat. It’s just stunning the way it sneaks up the ridge and shines down on the valley in which the campground is situated. An amazing start to the day and the perfect setting to get a scrumptious breakfast of hot cocoa and country omelet sausages going.
Morning Wildlife on the Scenic Drive
If you’re goal is to see wildlife at TRNP, morning is your best bet. We witnessed the most activity during the early hours. Wild horses and bison littered the scenic drive. It’s amazing how undisturbed these creature are by the presence of visitor vehicles. The road was under construction while we were visiting, so we weren’t able to see the entire park, but we did see a great deal of it. I guess that means, we get to go back.
Hiking & Overlooks
There are numerous hiking trails, both long and short, that begin at different locations on the scenic drive. We stuck to shorter trails and overlooks. With our little hikers along, it was best to have frequent stops with shorter distance and more free exploring. These Short Hikes and Overlooks in Theodore Roosevelt National Park were the best.
North Unit Exploration
After we cruised the portions of the South Unit scenic drive that we could, we headed to the North Unit. It’s an hour drive along 85. Most visitors to TRNP stick to the South Unit. We wanted to see more than just the South, I would absolutely say that it was worth the drive to the North Unit. There we were able to see a more rugged landscape and more geological features that are missing in the South Unit. One of the kids’ favorite spots in the park was at the North Unit, the Cannonball Concretions. More details on it here.
Dinner & Tenting
After we explored the day away in both the South and North units, we found a great place for dinner. The Little Missouri Saloon and Dining Room has amazing food. We devoured our elk burger and bison steaks with a ravenous appetite. I highly recommend this restaurant for anyone visiting Medora. The ground floor has a saloon/bar and grill feel to it while the dining area on the upper floor hosts a more family friendly atmosphere. For fine weather dining, the balcony is also an option.
On night 2 of our stay in TRNP, the elk graced our ears with their calls. It was so majestic and peaceful. The best part, we were listening to them sound after the kids fell asleep. It was accompanied by an owl’s hoot. One of the best outdoor evening experiences so far. Our experience Tenting in TRNP was one for the books, a great first step into camping at National Parks.
TRNP Visitor’s Center & Teddy’s Cabin
This is a stop that can’t be missed. We started our morning out by eating a quick breakfast, packing up camp and heading to the Visitor’s Center at the Park Entrance. Inside, there is a film that plays with great information on our incredible conservationist president, Theodore Roosevelt (my favorite president). There are a number of Native American artifacts, Teddy relics, and animal remains to learn about in the center. The greatest part of this area is Teddy’s cabin, the Maltese Cross Cabin, which has been relocated to the backyard of the Visitor’s Center.
It was inspiring to stand where he stood, see what he saw and know that this land is what drove him to protect much of America’s wild lands. He will always be my favorite president for the work he did for our natural world.
Medora is a petite town sitting at the entrance to TRNP South Unit with gift shops, steakhouses and cafes. For breakfast, we stopped in at the Cowboy Café. This was not a fancy joint by any means, but a very homey, welcoming homestyle café with classic American style breakfast.
So many little shops sit in Medora, some had closed for the season already. We were prepared for that being that our stay was late in the season. Even so, we had plenty to see and do for a morning. Sandy and Killian were most intrigued by the multiple candy stores, a fun stop! The kids were able to find a couple of souvenirs at the shops. The Visitor’s Center at the NP had a few items, but the Medora shops had a plethora of knickknacks to choose from.
With our Teddy Roosevelt and Medora adventure wrapped up, it was time to hit the road again for our next stop; Rapid City, South Dakota. The four hour drive to Rapid City seemed like a piece of cake after the 9 hours from home to Medora. To pass the time, Killian napped and Sandy wrote a post card to a friend back home.
During our drive, Killian suddenly needed to potty, NOW. We were near a little town and were trying to find a place to have him potty. Ultimately, we pulled over and he peed in the grass by a baseball field. A parent has to do what a parent has to do.
When we finally reached Rapid City, it was time for a refuel. Refueling people that is. We had a restaurant in mind that was due for a revisit, we enjoyed it so much the last time were in Rapid City. Dakota Steakhouse. The bison steak is one of the best steaks that I have had, ever. Even the kids menu items are fantastic. Sandy ordered grilled cheese and it came out looking like a gourmet meal. The Dakota Steakhouse has landed itself a permanent spot on our list places to dine when we’re in the area.
Rapid City Water Park
Of course, a birthday trip for Sandy must include a water feature. She is basically a fish. We had a one night stay at the Watiki Waterpark. The kids had a blast running around this aquatic playground. After hours of soaking fun, we cleaned up and got into jammies. That didn’t mean bedtime just yet. We went to the arcade on the second level overlooking the water park and played games late at night, jammies and all. Killian loved playing the pirate ship game and driving a little car.
After two nights of camping, it was refreshing to be clean and in an actual bed. The kids slept hard after all of their adventures. It was a night of much needed rest. They were going to need it for their next day of exploration.
We packed a lot into our final day in the Dakotas. It was our last push to get as much adventure in as we could!
Early in the morning, we set out to find the Dino Park. It was in an unexpected area and when we arrived the gift shop wasn’t quite open yet. We walked up the steep path and steps to the dinosaurs. Killian had an obsession with the prehistoric beasts at the time and was amazed by their size. He and Sandy crawled around on their tails and feet. They had a great time. The statues are a bit dated and need some love, but this was a fun attraction for the little guy. We headed to the gift shop for some South Dakota souvenirs and Killian rode the miniature ride at the front door. It was still somewhat functional.
Wind Cave National Park
With the Dino Park excursion out of the way, it was time to head south to Wind Cave National Park. Cruising down Hwy 79, we passed exits for Mount Rushmore and Custer. Both amazing stops if you haven’t been. Though Custer is absolutely a must if you haven’t been. Custer is more than just a stop, you’ll need a good chunk of time or a night for camping.
The drive into Wind Cave is so neat. Right off the bat, we drove up to a prairie dog village, they were chatty and entertaining as they scurried about. After taking time to enjoy them, it was off to the visitor’s center. We checked in for our cave tour and still have time to kill, so we went off for a hike on Rankin Ridge. I highly recommend this hike that takes visitors to the highest point in the park. There are numerous other stops along the way.
One cannot visit Wind Cave without a cave tour. We went on the Garden of Eden tour, this was the perfect duration and distance for a 2 and 11 year old. There are stairs, guard rails and lights throughout. Sandy thought this was a pretty neat experience. More on things to do at Wind Cave here.
Backroad Adventure to Nowhere
After our adventure in Wind Cave, the plan was to make our way home with a pitstop at Badlands National Park. It was my turn to drive and I punched in Badlands into the trusty GPS to get me there. DON’T DO THAT! Check your route before you take off. I thought that the GPS was taking me onto the main roads and we’d pull off of Interstate 90 at the main entrance of the park. Nope!
We followed the GPS onto a turn that seemed a bit too early but we were in an unfamiliar area so we went with it. At first I was thinking that maybe it had found a shorter route, no. No, it did not. When the roads turned to gravel is when we knew we should have turned back. It was too late, we had already gone too far. So the dirt road is what we followed. We saw a total of 2 trucks in about 2 hours.
The fuel tank was running low, very low. The concern was starting to run high, and there was no cell service. After a time, about when we were on E, we happened upon a ghost town with a functional fuel pump. It took a few tries to get the card reader to work, we were able to get it to work and added a few gallons. The shack next to the pump was closed. There was a handful of other buildings scattered about, they looked like they were all about 100 years old and on their last legs.
While I was filling the tank we noticed some scurrying nearby. It was cats. There were NO people in sight, just cats. They didn’t come close, but watched us. Scott and Sandy decided to toss some left over chicken strips to them. The cats snatched up the scraps and took off. This was the most bizarre “town” I have ever encountered. An experience for sure.
Oh my goodness. We made it! We ended up at the White River Ranger Station, this is NOT the entrance you want. We had to drive a long way yet before we got to the other side of the park, which was our original goal. And the White River Ranger Station was closed upon our arrival.
If using a GPS, make sure the route goes along the I-90, otherwise you’ll be in for a wild, dirt road ride. We should have entered in the Pinnacles Entrance Station or the Northwest Entrance Station, not the White River Ranger Station.
Killian had fallen asleep, so Sandy and I explored a bit while Scott waited with the napper. After he woke up, we explored all together. We didn’t have much time before dark, but we did have some time to explore some of the park. It was beautiful! The pastel skies and vast landscapes are immaculate! Photos don’t do it justice, it must be seen with your own eyes.
As the sun set and it was time to load up, we said goodbye to the Badlands. On the road once more, we drove until we were tired and found a hotel when we wanted to stop. We call this method “Motel 6ing It.” We don’t usually stay at a Motel 6 but that’s how the original method started.
Every place we visited (except the backroads of South Dakota) is worth another visit. Every place we saw was beautiful and grand. I would do this trip all over again if given the chance. On small change… don’t trust the GPS on South Dakota backroads.