Steph and I set the alarm for 4:30 and we actually got up. We had time to make a pot of coffee and grab the lawnchairs, and we were in place at 4:45. It was already plenty light at this time, and by 5:00, you could easily read a book outside. We waited it out until 6:00, but we never got to see the sunrise, because we are so low compared to the jagged peaks across the eastern skyline. A sky full of clouds also had a lot to do with that.
We went for a Geology Walk at 8:30, which was led by a Park Ranger. She explained how the Badlands were formed and illustrated the difficulties that the early settlers would have faced. It lasted about a half hour and then we went off on our own hike for about another hour and a half. We took tons of pictures, but as the Park Ranger told us, it is hard for a picture to capture just how rugged and severe this land is. You truly have to see it in person to appreciate how beautiful it is.
We brought hiking shoes for all of the family, which we wore today. It cracked us up to see people get out of their cars and walking through the area wearing flip flops, and in one case, shoes with heels! To top it off, a bus full of senior citizens pulled up as we were there, and out they come. It was very funny to watch them pushing each other up the formations and helping each other down the various formations. I wish I had taken some pictures of that. However, when you are on the tour bus, you have a schedule to keep. They stayed about 15 minutes, and the bus took off. “Folks, that was the Badlands National Park!”
After our hike, we went back to the Lodge and rested for a while. Everyone was getting tired and cranky by this time. We took off around 12:30 and headed to a Prairie Dog Talk to be held at the Prairie Dog Farm. The kids got to see a few Prairie Dogs up close. (We can blame the French for their name – they referred to them as “little dogs” and the name stuck, even though they are technically a rodent.) The Park Ranger who gave the Talk was a college student from Ball State in Indiana. He was majoring in Parks & Recreation. He was one of 144 students who had applied for 12 summer positions at the Badlands National Park. There are about 15,000 Prairie Dogs at the Badlands. They have a very sophisticated vocal system for alerting each other about danger. They have a different sound for each kind of predator they are making an announcement about. We thought we heard the rodents say something about “Oklahoma Tourists” as we were pulling away.
After the Prairie Dog Town, we drove (on a gravel road) around part of the perimeter of the Badlands Wilderness Area, which is an area set aside to forever remain primitive, without roads, lodges, visitors centers, etc.. We saw a herd of Bison in this area, as well as hundreds of Prairie Dogs.
On the way back through the Badlands on the Scenic Road, we stopped at several of the scenic vistas. At one, we saw a number of Pronghorn (commonly referred to as Antelope), including 3 or 4 babies.
Once we got back to the Lodge, we freshened up, and it was time to go to town – Wall, South Dakota. For folks that have never been to South Dakota, much less Wall, you have probably never heard of Wall Drug, but let me tell you, it is a prime example of American Ingenuity and Capitalism. (Wall Drug has been named by USA Today to the list of “Top 10 places in America to stop the car and take a look”.) But before we got to Wall, we had to stop at the Ranch Store Souvenir Shop and Prairie Dog town. But more importantly, its 12 foot concrete prairie dog out front. We took pictures of ourselves in front of the Giant Prairie Dog and wandered over to look at the real prairie dogs. From what I can tell, the Ranch Store Souvenir Shop sells 95% shelled peanuts and 5% other South Dakota souvenirs. You are invited to purchase a small pack of peanuts for 50 cents to feed the prairie dogs. We didn’t buy any, but everyone else there did, and one nice young lady gave Mallory and Marissa a few peanuts to give to the prairie dogs. Marissa promptly started eating the shelled peanut herself!
Let’s review what makes Wall Drug famous. Back in the 1930s, tourism in this area was picking up as people were finding out about the Badlands and it was becoming a tourism destination. Ted Hustead, the Wall Drug Store owner, decided to put some signs out by the highway telling folks they could get a free glass of ice water at Wall Drug. The tourists started pouring in, and the rest is history. Wall Drug is known as the Free Ice Water Store, and we made sure to drink several glasses. Wall Drug will sometimes dispense up to 20,000 glasses of water per day. But don’t get me wrong – this place is 100% tourist trap. You can buy anything in the world there with the words “Wall Drug” stamped on it. And they have recently expanded and built a huge addition in the rear called “The Backyard” so that you can spend even more money. (Don’t tell my folks but we now have a great Wall Drug bumper sticker adorning the back of their van! It was free!) They also have magazine and newspaper articles plastered all over every available wall throughout the place, where they have mentioned Wall Drug. Also, there are pictures of people holding signs indicating the mileage to Wall Drug in exotic locations around the world. (We came up to the Badlands and Wall from the south, and didn’t see a single billboard, but it is my understanding that if you were to drive across South Dakota, you would see these billboards every couple of miles – much like the Big Texan in Amarillo inviting you to eat a 72oz Steak Dinner in one hour.) We ate dinner at Wall Drug, and several of us got the Buffalo Burgers. It was not the best burger in the world, but we’re going to assume it had to do more with the preparation than the Buffalo itself.
One other thing you will notice about Wall Drug is that 90% of the employees are foreign. Young (late teens / early 20s) girls and boys from Poland, the Ukraine, etc. This was strange, because we really haven’t seen anybody from Eastern Europe on this trip, and now everytime you pay for something, it is somebody from Europe giving you your change. Stephanie talked to one of them, and they are part of a program where you can work 3 months in America and then spend 1 month traveling. I guess it works out great for them, and for Wall Drug. (On a side note, it is sad that the Lakota Indians an hour away have 97% unemployment, and Wall Drug has to ship people in from Europe to work!)
We ended the night at Wall Drug at their Ice Cream Parlor, eating ice cream cones. We literally shut the place down at 9:30. We had to park quite a ways down Main Street when we got there, and we were the only car on Main Street when we left. The kids all agreed that Wall Drug was the highlight of their day, and it is hard to argue. It is a very neat place, and a spot you definitely have to visit the next time you’re in Wall, South Dakota (whenever that might be).