Natural beauty of Badlands unites campers

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Falls Park
The waterfalls in Falls Park are credited with giving Sioux Falls, South Dakota, its name and have been the focal point of recreation since the city was founded in 1856. (Julie Geiss photo)

After months of planning, the day finally arrived for us to start our trip west across the country. Our bags were packed, and our enthusiasm was full throttle. We double-checked campground reservations and previewed the maps once again. 

My husband and I did one final walk around the vehicle and the camper. We were ready to see our country from the midwest, across the prairies and all the way to the Rocky Mountains. 

Passing the time

With three days of travel looming ahead of us, we had to find ways to stay entertained. We started with the traditional license plate game, racing each other to find all 50 states. Alaska and Hawaii were expected to be difficult, but surprisingly West Virginia hid from us as well. 

I wanted to find another way to keep our kids looking out their windows. I told them I was taking pictures of random roadside attractions, or RRA for short. 

Our first picture was of a 20-foot mouse sporting a cowboy hat and boots near the interstate in Wisconsin. It looked like his empty hands once held cheese. Who took the cheese? We could only speculate. 

Traveling across the midwest was like watching a documentary on farming. We were able to assess the fields, whether they were dry or flooded in some areas. We watched different equipment rolling through the fields and guessed at what kinds of crops were growing. 

Falls Park

After our first night in Wisconsin, we continued on, making only one longer stop in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The city park named Falls Park is a free must-see attraction for travelers. The waterfalls in the park are credited with giving the city its name and have been the focal point of recreation since the city was founded in 1856. 

The 128-acres of natural beauty can be found just north of the city. Multiple platforms and a five-story observation tower make it possible to watch the series of waterfalls that stretch out over 100 feet. An average of 7,400 gallons of water per second is carried over the waterfalls. 

Visitors can also see remains of the seven-story Queen Bee Mill. The mill was opened in 1881, providing a local mill for farmers instead of them having to ship grain to Minnesota or Wisconsin. 

We continued heading west on Interstate 90 without much excitement until approaching the Chamberlain, South Dakota exit. The interstate banks downward towards the broad Missouri River and abruptly leads to a scenery change of rolling hills. Everyone agreed it seemed possible for gnomes or hobbits to be seen running up and down the green hills. 

Badlands

Daylight hours were giving way to dusk when we arrived at Badlands National Park. As we followed the curving road into the park, my son spotted a deer along on the top of a butte. We all turned to look as the “deer” moved slightly towards the road. 

It was a bighorn sheep, the largest I have ever seen. He looked like the king of the mountain, or butte as it’s called. Rocky Mountain bighorns were reintroduced to the park in the 1960s. A ram, like the one we saw, can weigh over 300 pounds and stand 42 inches tall at the shoulder. It was grayish-brown in color with a white rump patch. The most impressive feature was the massive horns curled tightly near its face. 

We stopped for a moment and then continued on towards Cedar Pass campground located right in the park. I like to describe Cedar Pass Campground as quirky. All the campers park on the asphalt; only tents can be on the grass. 

The view and location is what makes the campground exceptional. We could see the signature badlands geological formations all around our camper. They changed color dramatically as the sun slowly set and the sky changed from shades of red to purple. 

Unity

It was our first stay in a national park since before the pandemic. I’m an introvert compared to my dad who loved the opportunity to walk through campgrounds talking to everyone around him. It felt so good to see people without masks, smiling and talking with each other like they weren’t strangers. 

I loved listening to different languages and accents of people camping around me. There was no hostility among campers. We came together in a spirit of unity, basking in the natural beauty of the Badlands. 

After days of driving, we settled into our camper for the night knowing adventure awaited us in the morning.

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Julie Geiss lives with her husband and four children in Unity Township, Ohio. Faith and family are first in her life, but she also loves hiking, biking and camping. You can contact Julie at juliegeiss1414@gmail.com.

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