If you go to the Badlands

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The Badlands

Information: nps.gov/badl.

Admission fees: Park entrance fees are $15 per private vehicle, good for seven days.

What to do: The drive through the Badlands would take about an hour without stopping, but you'll want to stop at the various overlooks and maybe even for animals.

Though there were reports of bison, we never saw them. What we did see were deer, bighorn sheep and prairie dogs, lots and lots of chirping prairie dogs. Their prairie dog towns sit right next to the road, and they don't seem to be a bit afraid of cars.

Besides hiking and stopping to gawk at the animals, the park offers several other activities.

Visitors Center: Located at park headquarters, the Ben Reifel Visitor Center features a 95-seat air-conditioned theater, the fossil lab where you watch scientists at work and many exhibits. The interactive displays include information on the paleontology of the White River Badlands and how the Badlands were formed.

Special programs: Like most national parks, the Badlands provide a Junior Ranger program in which kids complete activities and a workbook to earn their Junior Ranger badge. The park rangers also offer guided hikes, talks, activities and evening programs. We especially loved the night-sky viewing. The sky in the Badlands isn't polluted with man-made lights, so you have darkness. Real, complete darkness. On this moonless night, the only illumination came from millions of miles away: stars and a few planets. Wrapped up under blankets, we watched as the rangers gave us a quick tutorial of the stars, using a special green light to point to them. It's much like the Science Center's Planetarium show, only this is the real thing. After, we used two high-powered telescopes to look at star clusters and Jupiter. And then I had to pry my husband away.

Where to stay and eat:

Right next to the visitors center, you'll find Cedar Pass Lodge and campground, operated by Forever Resorts. The lodge offers rental cabins, a restaurant and a surprisingly good gift shop with locally made items including Northern Plains Native American crafts.

We stayed in a rental cabin ($137 a night, cedarpasslodge.com). The rooms, with wood walls, floors and vaulted ceilings, were quite spacious and just updated this year with eco-friendly, Gold LEED standards. We also had a television, mini refrigerator, microwave and air-conditioning. But best of all: We had a large front porch with three lodgepole pine deck chairs, perfect for staring out at the Badlands formations in front of us. Certain rooms are ADA accessible and pets are allowed for a fee.

With few other choices around, we ate at the lodge's restaurant several times. We loved the Sioux Indian Taco, made from special fried bread and seasoned bison meat.

From our hotel, a 40-minute drive through the park took us to the famed Wall Drug in the town of Wall, S.D. Let's just say we didn't escape the touristy kitsch after all. From a giant rabbit you can "ride" to animatronic singing cowboys, this place has it all, and sells it all. It's fun, if you don't take it too seriously, and the fried fish sandwich was actually delicious.

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