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Badlands actually good land for wheelchair riders

The spectacular views that draw around a million people a year to the South Dakota Badlands are also what make the area an ideal travel destination for wheelchair users.  When vistas as grand and vast as these rise up out of rolling prairie and fall away from the grasslands that surround them, it doesn’t require hiking boots to see miles of their beauty. The view from a car window or from the seat of a wheelchair is just as satisfying as it would be from a remote trail at the end of a strenuous hike. If you think a wheelchair is preventing you from enjoying travel, a trip to Badlands National Park might open up new possibilities. The Badlands Loop Road winds for about 35 miles past sheer canyons, pink-tinged spires and wide-open spaces that take your imagination into the distant past. The Sage Creek Rim Road offers another 15 to 20-mile scenic drive. There are overlooks every few miles along both roads. Most of these have wheelchair ramps, sidewalks, boardwalks and walkways that make it easy to look out over the rock formations or the lands that spread to the horizon. Some walkways may require more assistance than others, and some are on a flat grade. Wildlife paths cross these roads frequently, especially on the Sage Creek Road. Even though this makes it hard to drive, it makes it easy to get snapshots of American bison, bighorn sheep, jack rabbits and prairie dogs. These animals are not tame, but people don’t surprise them either. Prairie dogs are probably the most entertaining, with their warning calls and tail-up disappearances. The bison are impressive as they roll through the park like ships in a low wind. Pronghorn antelope graze in the distance. Coyotes howl in the night. Magpies call. Every now and then you might think you hear the rattle of the prairie rattlesnake’s tail, and you might be right. Porcupines, swift foxes, bobcats and black-footed ferrets usually stay out of sight. “If you have time, there are quite a few hiking trails that are good for all ranges of mobility,” says Ara Baumkratz, office manager of the Black Hills, Badlands and Lakes Association. Enter the park at the northeast entrance, and after a few miles of driving you’ll come to Door Trail and Window Trail. The two trails offer a round-trip mile of completely accessible boardwalk paths that will reward you with fantastic views. The grades on the two trails average 4 percent to 6 percent, according to the Badlands Accessibility brochure. Nearby, Cliff Shelf Nature Trail has 100 meters of boardwalk with benches and a lovely panorama of the White River Valley. The access ramp has a grade of 10 percent. Following the Loop Road farther west will take you to Fossil Exhibit Trail, which is also accessible with a grade of 2 percent. Accessible trails allow wheelchair users to delve into the beauty of the sediment, clay and soft rock formations that form the banded towers and ravines that make up the landscape. Other trails range in difficulty from easy to moderate to strenuous and may have steep climbs and stairs. The Notch Trail even includes a ladder. While the Castle Trail is flat, but not paved, it is also the longest – 10 miles for the round trip. Aside from hiking, the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and Park Headquarters (open year-round) presents the history, geology and paleontology of the region through exhibits and a park video. The exhibit presents information on Native American history, soil erosion, how the Badlands were formed, and the progression from being an inland sea to tropical area to its present configuration. Park rangers are on hand to answer questions. From late May through September Ranger programs are available. Many are handicap accessible. Some are geared toward children. “I know their Junior Ranger program is really popular,” notes Baumkratz. She adds that the Badlands are “a great place to go if you are interested in geology and paleontology.” Many fossils have been unearthed in the area. October is a wonderful time of year to visit. Temperatures are comfortable (the thermometer can reach over 100 degrees here in the summer). There is little rainfall, and the roads are not crowded. “Colors on the rocks are a little bit different with the seasons and different lighting,” Baumkratz points out. Sunrise and sunset are ideal times of day to visit, when the tints in the striated rocks are strengthened. Another good reason to head for the hills of South Dakota in October is the Autumn Expedition. Events take place in nearby Rapid City, Deadwood, Custer State Park and Mt. Rushmore. Travelers can take advantage of music festivals, Native American Day, Oktoberfest, a historical reenactment and, in Custer State Park, the annual buffalo roundup. The Badlands are around 100 miles from these towns and attractions. The Badlands Park northeast entrance is about 285 miles from Minnesota’s western border on Interstate Highway 90, and about 485 miles from St. Cloud, 450 from Alexandria and 350 from Wilmar. The per vehicle entry fee is $15 for seven days. A free Interagency Access Pass grants a lifetime entrance to all National Park areas to any United States citizen or permanent resident who is blind or permanently disabled. The Senior Pass grants the same lifetime benefit for $10 to any citizen or permanent resident 62 and over. Cedar Pass Lodge, the only lodging other than camping within the park, has cottages available from mid-April to Oct. 15. Darla Cook, general manager of Cedar Pass Lodge, restaurant and gift shop is enthusiastic about their accommodations for wheelchair users. “Two cabins are ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act – accommodations for the disabled], brand new and very accessible. They’re very popular. They have chairs on the front porch, and people love to sit out there. They have quiet air conditioners and heating, with microwaves and refrigerators. The beds are handmade by a family from Montana.” Cook is also excited about what the restaurant serves. A favorite menu item is the Sioux Indian taco with buffalo meat on fry bread. The bread is made fresh daily. There is a vegetarian version too. The menu has gluten-free items, including a veggie burger that uses large portabella mushrooms to replace the buns. “We are known for the South Dakota items we use. South Dakota State University has a dairy, so we use cheese and sell ice cream made from that. We also feature South Dakota-made wine,” Cook adds. The restaurant and gift shop are accessible. “These are very easy to get into and out of,” she says. The town of Wall is only eight miles from the park’s northwest entrance and has several hotels, along with the famous Wall Drug and café, which serves 5 cent coffee. Their cinnamon rolls have just the right amount of caramel drizzled over soft dough. Buffalo burgers are a popular menu item. The Badlands landscape looks as if it belongs in another world. The plains stretching out beyond it seem to be from another time when the only spires and towers around were those formed by the Creator, and the only lights in the sky at night were the moon and brilliant stars. While some other wilderness areas may be difficult to access, a trip to the Badlands in a wheelchair makes you feel that you are not missing out on anything. To find out more about Badlands National Park call 605-433-5361 or write Badlands National Park, 25216 Ben Reifel Road, P.O. Box 6, Interior, SD 57750, or go online to For park accessibility information pick up a brochure at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, or use the phone number, address or website above. For more information on the Autumn Expedition call 605-355-3600, write to the Black Hills, Badlands and Lakes Association, 1851 Discovery Circle, Rapid City, SD 57701, or check They also have information about where to stay. On the website click on Accommodations, select Lodging and select Wall for the city to find rooms or RV parks nearest the Badlands. You can also order a South Dakota travel guide from their automated phone system.

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