Prairie Dogs, Jackalopes and a Big T-Rex.


We anxiously waited for a sign that our two eldest grandkids might be ready to handle a day-long grandparent outing. The day could not have been more perfect. We all survived, exhausted but excited about our next adventure with these two fun kids.


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9 a.m.

“Ewiot, we’re going on a big benture today and we get to see high mountains.”

“August, it’s called an ad-venture, not a benture,” said the older and more-worldly cousin.

And, so began a first for husband Dale and me – a day-trip with our two eldest grandchildren, six-year-old girly-girl Elliot and nearly four-year-old August (better known by some in the family as Monkey Boy because of his great climbing skills).

Grandkids in the car
Kids playing with a prairie dog

Packed with a day’s worth of somewhat-healthy kid snacks, lots of water, some hiking shoes, Elliot’s favorite blankie and August’s precious stuffed “babies,” we hit the road for the two-hour drive to I-90 Exit 131. As we headed south into Badlands National Park, something caught my eye on the right side of the road. “Stop,” I shouted abruptly to Dale. “I bet the kids would like to get out and play with some cute little prairie dogs.” Grandpa Dale was very agreeable all day long, seemingly enjoying every minute and every request the grandkids or I had. The kids had a great time chasing, coaxing and staring down burrow holes trying to hand-feed the little critters.

Visitor note: If you’re heading that way, look for the giant 1951-sculpted concrete prairie dog and the Ranch Store. A small sign requests that you purchase unsalted peanuts at the Ranch Store if you want to feed the little cuties. A small bag sells for fifty cents.

The grandkids were sad to say goodbye to the energetic little rodents, but we promised them more fun was waiting down the road.

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Grandkids eating peanuts
Ranch Store gift shop
11:30 a.m.

Back in the car, we asked the kids to turn off their Disney Mickey Mouse movie and get ready to see some really incredible “mountain” formations.  And, before long, as promised, the jagged spires appeared – on August’s side of the car.  That’s when Elliot said the funniest thing I heard all day. “Grandma, how come August gets all the good mountains and all I get is this. . .grass?”

“That’s the beautiful prairie grass South Dakota is so famous for Elliot,” I declared.

“I don’t think it’s so beautiful Grandma,” she replied.

Until we drove out of the Badlands loop road several hours later, it was a contest over who had the highest mountains on their side of the car. At one point I tried to convince Elliot that even though August had the “up” mountains, she had the “down” mountains on her side. She wasn’t impressed and, furthermore, declared quite loudly at one point, that grandpa was scaring her by driving too close to the edge of the road.

We had some time to kill before meeting up with vacationing California friends at Cedar Pass, so we pulled over at Big Badlands Overlook to let the kids out to do a little climbing. August informed us that he would keep us all safe from snakes. Elliot declared, “I like snakes.”

On my best day, I can almost get a handle on my fear of heights. This experience had my stomach in knots. It is unbelievable how fast kids this age can move and climb. Grandpa called them ring-tailed lemurs. I said the bighorn sheep have nothing on these two kids. They had no fear as they navigated every valley and peak they could reach before I caught up to them and slid them back down to Grandpa. Elliot’s mantra was, “going higher,” and, yes, those are sandals she was wearing. These pictures make it look more dangerous than it actually was but, after about 20 minutes, I was relieved to corral these two safely back into car seats – complete with harness straps – and move on down the road.

Visitor note: I overheard a park ranger telling some visitors that Badlands National Park, along with Denali in Alaska, are the only two national parks where visitors may go off trail hiking. He said people are free to hike, camp and explore anywhere in the Badlands they wish. I didn’t know that.

Elliot climbing
Elliot and August in the Badlands
12:30 p.m.

Just a short few minutes’ drive got us easily through some road construction and to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, park headquarters and Cedar Pass Lodge and Restaurant where we met up with our friends. How appropriate that they stopped at Disneyland before leaving home and brought August Mickey Mouse ears and Elliot Frozen’s Elsa/Anna (two-sided) ears.

Visitor note: We made a quick stop at the visitor center, but to truly do justice to this great facility, you should plan to spend at least an hour there to visit with the folks at the information desk, view the exhibits, check out the movie in the theater and do some shopping in the book store. The kids spent a few minutes in the hands-on paleontology lab and got to meet a park ranger and color pictures of prehistoric creatures.

Then it was time to put some food in our hungry tummies. The staff at Cedar Pass Restaurant was very accommodating and put all 10 of us together at one long table. Although I didn’t order the Indian Taco (my favorite Cedar Pass Restaurant meal), I had a delicious bowl of buffalo chili.

Visitor note: Cedar Pass Lodge has a huge gift shop. The lodge is a member of the Indian Arts and Crafts Association, and they carry an extensive collection of Northern Plains Native American artwork and crafts as well as handmade regional items.

Kids wearing Mickey Mouse ears
2:30 p.m.

Our California friends were traveling in an RV with three teenage grandchildren who were anxious to do some climbing, especially after looking at the pictures of our little rascals on the nightmare-inducing climb from earlier in the day. So, we led the way northwest on the Badlands Loop Road, stopping at one of the 11 overlooks/trails between Cedar Pass and the town of Wall. Like pro-climbing guides, out of the car flew the little ones (this time Elliot had tennis shoes on), to demonstrate to the teenagers how to make grandparents cry. Once again, they were off and running with Elliot proclaiming her consistent desired goal of “going higher.”

What we couldn’t see was that if we walked around to the back-side of the really scary high mountain they had climbed, we could almost reach up and touch them. The teenagers were great, taking charge of the little ones and guiding them on their climbing adventures.

Sadly, the day was passing much too fast and we still had a very important stop to make before heading back home. It was with a good deal of reluctance and promises to bring them back that we coaxed the climbers into the car. The drive out of the Badlands was breathtaking for Dale and me, but to the kids and the California friends who were there for the first time, jaw-dropping. Next stop – the world-famous Wall Drug Store.

4 p.m.

I really can’t do justice when explaining what Wall Drug is and how much fun it is. It’s just something you need to experience yourself, at least once in your life. Elliot had a brief infatuation with a plastic dance-hall woman, August fancied himself a saddle bronc rider, both were delighted with the ride on the giant jackalope, and a life-like T. rex amused Elliot and sent a terror-struck August running for his life. One of the highlights of the visit to Wall Drug was a chance to sit down and relax in the beautiful dining room with the adults to share a couple of frosted mugs of very cold beer and, of course, consume several of Wall Drug’s famous donuts.

Visitor note: In prehistoric times, the T. rex was at the top of the food chain in what is now the Badlands of South Dakota. It surely would have eaten the jackalope, which is a mythical so-called fearsome critter described as a jackrabbit with antelope horns. Jackalope and T. rex items in many forms may be purchased at Wall Drug.

We lingered longer than we probably should have, considering we had a two-hour drive to get the kids back home to their parents and our California friends planned on driving to Deadwood for the night. Saying goodbye came with lots of hugs and a group picture of the new friends and promises to not let 30-plus years go by before seeing each other again.

Wall Drug
Wall Drug
Donut at Wall Drug
Wall Drug
6 p.m.

With two very tired grandkids safely strapped into their car seats, we pointed the Acadia east on I-90. It took Elliot about five minutes to fall to sleep. August held on for about an hour before quietly whispering, “Grandma, I wub you. Can I go to sweep now?” We’re already talking about our next “benture” with these two fun kids. Their siblings won’t be old enough for a couple of years and we can’t wait to repeat the trip with them.

Sleeping in the car
Illustration of mountain goat in front of Mount Rushmore
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