The Black Hills are one of those magical places where almost anything seems possible. The same day can include bighorn sheep and a nuclear missile, badlands and monumental presidents. So it’s only natural to want a great experience when it come to mealtime, particularly from the few restaurants in Badlands National Park.
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Cedar Pass Lodge Restaurant
If you’re looking for restaurants inside Badlands National Park, then the Cedar Pass Restaurant is your place. In fact, it’s the only place you’ll find inside Badlands National Park.
The Cedar Pass Lodge and Restaurant are located in the North unit, where the Badlands Loop Road meets up with SD Highway 377. This means that the restaurant is not far from the park’s northeast entrance and the Interstate 90.
A Natural Location
Cedar Pass definitely wins at having the best location. Your national park experience doesn’t have to go on pause as you enjoy your meal. Instead, you can admire the beauty of the Badlands while enjoying air-conditioned, casual dining.
Cedar Pass Restaurant is a short drive from nearly all of the trails in the North unit. This makes it an ideal stopping point, especially during the peak summer months. You can hike a segment of Castle Trail and then enjoy a quality lunch.
If you’re up for more hiking, the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail, Notch Trail, and Door Trail are only a short drive away. Otherwise, you can take a short walk to the park headquarters.
The Ben Reifel Visitor Center features great displays on the natural and human history of the badlands. You can even visit a working paleontology lab. The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is the place to get set up with Junior Ranger booklets and refill your water bottles.
Cedar Pass is a prime stopover and a good stepping stone in planning out your time at Badlands National Park South Dakota.
The Badlands NP’s one and only restaurant offers a good selection of menu items. But there is one meal that they’ve become particularly known for.
The Indian Taco is a famed South Dakota dish. Dinner-plate size Indian fry-bread is topped with refried beans, Buffalo meat, shredded lettuce, tomatoes, cheddar cheese, and black olives. Cedar Pass Restaurant serves its Indian Tacos with their very own fry bread and a side of salsa and sour cream.
“Sioux Indian Taco” sounds like a grotesque product of 50’s marketing, but the meal actually has its origins in Native American culture. The Taco’s light and fluffy fry bread resulted from the extreme hardships of reservation life. Sioux tribes were rationed yeast instead of baking soda, and gradually learned to make the bread from neighboring tribes.
These were incredibly difficult times for the Sioux, and the fry-bread symbolizes the bitterness of reservation confinement.
Native Americans still serve fry bread at Pow Wows and related events throughout the West. The light, savory base can accommodate a wide range of toppings. Don’t miss the chance to try South Dakota’s official bread and the feature dish of Cedar Pass Lodge.
World Famous Wall Drug
We weren’t familiar with Cedar Pass Lodge, but we couldn’t avoid Wall Drug! The world-famous pharmacy literally makes a name for itself for miles. Colorful, creative signs appeared beside I-90 almost as soon as we crossed into Eastern South Dakota.
Wall Drugs is a special place with a beautiful history. Ted and Dorothy Hustead moved their young family to the smallest of towns and opened a pharmacy in the hardest of times.
South Dakota had little to offer in 1931. Most people were out of work and there was little to do in that part of the country. The Husteads faced the daily question of how to bring customers into the store.
Then one day they struck gold. The Husteads realized that they had something that everyone could use. Highway signs quickly drew crowds to the drugstore that served “free ice water”.
Wall Drug now serves more than two million visitors a year and the Hustead’s drug store has put the town of Wall on the map. Some people may sneer at this glorified convenience store, but it truly is an example of how a hardworking family can build up a community.
We arrived at Wall Drugs at dusk, hungry and ready to relax. We’d enjoyed a fantastic day at Minuteman NHS and Badlands NP. Now it was time to refuel and regroup for the two hour trip to Custer, SD. Wall Drug was a great place to do just that.
Titanic Tourist Trap
Wall Drug isn’t difficult to find, even if you happen to miss the innumerable signs foretelling your arrival. The store is nearly a city block is size, and dominates the Main Street of the small town of Wall.
You can get free ice water, prescription medication, and just about anything else at Wall Drug. This 76,000 square foot, Black Hills bazaar is its own attraction. Wall Drug includes
- a mall selling all things Western
- a roaring T-rex
- a water show
- a giant Jackalope
- a traveler’s chapel
- two robotic singing groups
- a gold-panning station
- five sets of restrooms
- and the largest private western art collection in the United States!
What About Food?
The gastronomical delights include an old-time soda fountain that offers homemade ice cream, homemade donuts, taffy, and sweets, and 5-cent coffee. Sugar and caffeine aside, there are two actual restaurants at Wall Drug.
The Western Art Gallery Restaurant is Wall Drug’s full-fledged eatery. The institution spreads across three rooms that are packed with character and memorabilia. The kitchen boasts a Silver Dollar Bar and life-size carvings of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
This is also the place to enjoy the Hustead’s extensive art collection while sipping 5-cent coffee.
The adjoining dining rooms feature a hand-carved walnut bar, a stained glass skylight, and an abundance of Western sculptures and oil paintings. Art includes works by NC Wyeth, Harvey Dunn, Dean Cornwell, Louis Glanzman, and Harold Von Schidt.
I think Herodotus would have drooled over this place!
But What About Food?
Wall Drug serves classic Americana with a South Dakota twist. One or two of us ordered Buffalo Burgers with onion rings or fries. Some of us enjoyed enormous hot dogs.
Wall Drug is known for their hot beef sandwiches covered with homemade gravy and served with mash potatoes.
All around, the food was good, hot, and filling. Internet reviews squawk about it not being top-rate, but it makes you wonder what they were expecting. Food is not the reason people walk through the door. That said, Google rates it a 4 out of 5, and I would agree.
Wall Drug is like the County Fair. That food isn’t five stars, but were you looking for cordon bleu?
A La Carte & Al Fresco
Prairie Food Parlor offers another way to eat at Wall Drug. In spite of its name, “Prairie Food” Parlor doesn’t serve South Dakota fare. It’s really a theme-park snack shack that offers pizza, nachos, espresso, etc.
The Parlor provides a good alternative to the Western Art Gallery Restaurant. The stand is located in a large, fair-type location known as the Backyard. The micro-amusement park is a great place for children to run around and explore, the kind of place you want after a long day of driving.
Picnic tables and benches give Mom and Dad a place to sit and enjoy their mocha as the kids scramble up the titanic Jackalope.
Timing Your Pilgrimage
Dusk isn’t the best time to visit Wall Drug. Our 7:45 arrival gave us enough time to enjoy dinner and explore the outdoor areas, but not much else. The Mall shops had already closed at 7:30 and the Backyard exhibits were closed as well.
That said, we had plenty of fun (if you couldn’t tell), and are hoping to visit again soon.
Cedar Pass, Wall Drug, or Both?
You could spend loads of time in the Badlands region of the Black Hills. However, the area seems to cater to those who are passing through. Here’s our recommendation on where to eat as you travel I-90 and the Badlands Loop Road:
West to East
Cedar Pass is a natural place to stop if you’re driving eastward on the Badlands Loop Road. The no-nonsense eatery is ideal for making the most of your park experience. You can work up an appetite as you explore the west end of the park and then enjoy lunch at Cedar Pass.
Take sometime to digest as you explore the Ben Riefel Visitor Center. Finally, you can kick it back into full gear to trek the rest of the park trails before heading to Minuteman Missile NHS.
East to West
Wall Drugs is a natural ending point when driving the Badlands Loop Road from East to West. The world-renowned pit-stop is only minutes away from the Park’s north entrance.
Several miles of the Badlands loop road consist only of road and overlooks. That means that there’s a lot of time in the car, and little space for running around.
The Wall Drug Backyard provides a places for the kids to play after miles of watching wildlife and keeping off overlook fences. Mom and Dad can pick out something they like from one of the gift shops, and everyone can head to bed full and happy.
That wraps up our review of the best restaurants in Badlands National Park. What restaurant wonders have you discovered? We’d love to hear about your adventures. Happy traveling!
© Copyright Brian A. Warren 2022.