During the last five national parks we have visited (Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Rocky Mountains, Wind Cave, and Badlands) we have noticed a trend: national parks located directly next to each other.
Thinking back to our previous 43 parks, it was easy to conclude that this happens a lot in the park system. For us, this is GOLD. We drive a ton, so close parks are a welcome relief. For most people seeking a week-long vacation, it’s extremely beneficial too.
Here are several upsides to national park pairings:
- High density of activities
- Variety of camping and lodging in the vicinity
- Usually a “gateway” city with fun restaurants, museums, shops, and activities
- Low amount of driving
- Family friendly
There are more park doubles throughout the country than you might realize.
Here are the national park service’s cutest couples, plus a little bit of information about each. We’ll go into the most detail about Badlands + Wind Cave National Parks because that was our most recent excursion.
- Yellowstone + Grand Teton (MT/WY/ID)
- Base camp: Jackson, WY; West Yellowstone, MT; other small towns
- Yellowstone highlights: Old Faithful, other hydrothermal features, wildlife in the northern range, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
- Grand Teton highlights: Colter Bay hiking, Jenny Lake, floating on Snake River, Morman Row
- Suggested time: at least 6 days
- Sequoia + Kings Canyon (CA)
- Base camp: Visalia, CA or other small surrounding towns
- Sequoia highlights: General Sherman tree (largest in the world), Congress Trail, Moro Rock
- Kings Canyon highlights: Grant Grove
- Suggested time: at least 4 days
- Everglades + Biscayne (FL)
- Base camp: Homestead, FL
- Everglades highlights: Anhinga Trail, Nike Missile Site, Flamingo campground
- Biscayne highlights: Kayaking the bay, boardwalk trail
- Suggested time: at least 4 days
- Carlsbad Caverns + Guadalupe Mountains (NM, TX)
- Base camp: White City, NM
- Carlsbad Caverns highlights: natural entrance trail, Kings Palace tour, bat flight program
- Guadalupe Mountains highlights: Guadalupe Peak trail (highest point in Texas), McKittrick Canyon
- Suggested time: at least 2 days
- Arches + Canyonlands (UT)
- Base camp: Moab, UT
- Arches highlights: Fiery Furnace, Delicate Arch, Landscape Arch
- Canyonlands highlights: White Rim Overlook, Murphy Point, backpacking in The Needles
- Suggested time: at least 4 days
Finally, we just visited Wind Cave and Badlands National Parks. They are located about 1 hour and 30 minutes apart near Rapid City, South Dakota. We wanted to get a good feel for the area and its many National Park Service sites, so we carved out a little extra time to explore. Here’s what we found:
Base camp: Rapid City, South Dakota.
Rapid City is a great launching-off point in this area because it has a lot to offer in terms of restaurants and lodging options, and it is centrally located in between the two parks. Check out the Rapid City tourism website to start planning your trip. There’s so much to do in the Black Hills!
Knowing it is a small park with short trails, we set aside three days to explore Badlands National Park. We arrived after dark and drove straight to the first-come, first-served FREE campground in the park called Sage Creek. This is basically a field where you can squeeze your tent in anywhere, plus a vault toilet. But did I mention it’s free?
On Day 1, we Drove the length of the Badlands Loop Road to Ben Reifel Visitor Center to plan our day, watch the park film, and learn about the geology and history of the Badlands area. Then we started the loop from that eastern end, hitting highlights like the Big Badlands Overlook, the Notch Trail, Fossil Exhibit Trail, Panorama Point, Yellow Mounds Overlook, and Pinnacles Overlook (perfect for sunset!). As the skies grew darker, we returned to our campsite at Sage Creek.
Day 2 was supposed to be a fun day of exploring the backcountry (no trails but no permits required) in the south stronghold unit of the park. We drove up to Sheep Mountain Table (highly recommend) to check out the Bryce Canyon-like hoodoos. Awesome. Then we planned to follow a Backpacker Magazine route we had down into the badlands and camp for the night. Unfortunately, after a couple of hours wandering in circles trying to find a good way down the steep cliffs (that were covered in what appeared to be poison ivy), we cut our losses and headed back to the car to drive into the Black Hills National Forest for the night.
Although we decided to cut our time short, we still feel like we got a great feel for Badlands. As much as we like to argue otherwise, it truly can be a one-day park. Perfect for road trips. Perfect for families (From our personal childless points of view).
Wind Cave Highlights:
We didn’t have crazy high expectations for Wind Cave, but from what we’d heard and learned about the park, we had the feeling that this small park would surprise us. And it did!
Doing a bit of research ahead of time on cave tours paid off for us. There are four types of guided tours: Garden of Eden (short but diverse), Natural Entrance (most popular), Fairgrounds (more strenuous and a bit longer), Candlelight History Tour (lit only with bucket lanterns and goes more in depth into the cave’s history), and the Wild Cave Tour (strenuous crawling tour). We chose two tours that we felt would show a variety of the cave’s features: the Natural Entrance Tour and the Candlelight Tour. We felt like we could have just done the Candlelight Tour. Some of the information and the route overlapped, the tour was longer, and the cost was the same ($12).
Above ground, there is a whole additional world to explore. We suggest the unpaved 35-mile scenic drive, which takes you far away from the crowds and into the wildlife of the park: think prairie dogs, bison, and pronghorn everywhere. The drive also connects to several trails, like the short but rewarding Rankin Ridge Trail.
Another pleasant surprise was the Wind Cave campground. A ranger told us that even with big summer crowds, the campground has not filled up once in over 30 years. The sites are cozy and spread out, the water spigots are cold, and the evening ranger program was an added bonus.
Like I mentioned, the Black Hills of South Dakota are brimming with side excursions. We loved getting the opportunity to check out several other NPS sites in the area: Mount Rushmore, of course, but also Jewel Cave National Monument, Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, and Devil’s Tower National Monument. These sites added historical and geological context to our time at the national parks.
We are already talking about making another trip to the area, because there is much of the Black Hills we want to still explore, like hiking up Harney Mountain, visiting Custer State Park, and climbing Crazy Horse Memorial. So the options are literally endless.
Suggested Time: 2 days for the parks + 2 days for the side trips
Don’t hurry through this area of the country. There is a lot to learn, a lot to see, and a lot to dive deeper into.