“I’ve been about the world a lot, and pretty much over our own country, but I was totally unprepared for that revelation called the Dakota Bad Lands . . . What I saw gave me an indescribable sense of mysterious elsewhere – a distant architecture, ethereal . . . , an endless supernatural world more spiritual than earth but created out of it.” –Frank Lloyd Wright
Geologically speaking, the term badlands refers to arid soft-rock terrain that has been heavily eroded by water and wind to create hills, mounds, and other various geological formations, which can be quite colorful. Though badlands can be found scattered throughout the west, the “Big Badlands” are in southwest South Dakota and northwest Nebraska. Early inhabitants and explorers of this area, including the Lakota Native Americans and early Europeans, referred to the region as “bad lands” because the lands were difficult to cross and the climate extreme – it can be unbearably hot and sometimes stormy in summer, while unbearably cold in winter, with year-round wind that can be relentless.
I started noticing badlands in southern Utah and was enthralled by them. So, I was pretty excited when Jason admitted that my idea to go to Badlands after Yellowstone wasn’t completely crazy. After some map studying, we slowly headed east through Wyoming with a few-day layover in Cody and a quick stop in the funky town of Thermopolis where we soaked in the world’s largest mineral hot springs and then quickly showered to rid ourselves of the smell of sulfa. We passed through some serious mountainous terrain, reaching an elevation so high that the temperature dipped to a chilly 43 degrees! I assumed that the Badlands region of South Dakota, situated at a much lower altitude, would be similar to southern Utah – arid, desert-like, mountainous, and full of brown, red, and white. I was completely unprepared for what we found as we motored our way into South Dakota: green! Wide open seemingly endless expanses of green.
It simply hadn’t occurred to me that South Dakota is part of the Great Plains, a landscape defined by grasslands/prairies. Maybe it’s growing up on The Wizard of Oz and Little House on the Prairie books, but I’ve long felt an inexplicable attraction to the Great Plains of the Midwest despite many people making comments along the lines of, “Oh, it’s pretty boring, just lots of flat fields that go on and on”. I couldn’t disagree more. It’s even more beautiful than I imagined. Maybe the element of surprise of unexpectedly being in the Great Plains added to my excitement and perception of beauty, and maybe I’ll have a different perspective at the end of the year if we drive back to North Carolina via Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, etc., but I doubt it. For me, the wide open grasslands hold a timeless simple beauty. The emptiness and vastness feel freeing and welcoming. And between the vastness and the constant breeze, the grasslands feel almost like an ocean; and, like being at the beach, I found a certain kind of peace there. The prairie grasses also smell absolutely amazing.
I will pause to note that, in hindsight, we technically saw a piece of the Great Plains in west Texas and probably saw some badlands formations there as well, but they were nowhere near as striking, and I truly didn’t absorb them or even recognize them as such until just now. The prairie of Badlands and the surrounding area, much of which is protected as a National Grasslands, is full of unadulterated, unspoiled beauty, rolling hills, and diversity. In fact, Badlands National Park and Buffalo Gap National Grassland protect one of the biggest remaining tracts of mixed-grass prairie in the country, and I absolutely loved seeing all the different types of grasses, plant/wildflower- and animal-life that thrives there. (Another fun fact: prairies are defined as areas that are too wet to be deserts but too dry to sustain tree life.)
Between my recently discovered fascination with badlands and my long-held desire to see prairieland, I was super excited to be in Badlands National Park. My excitement grew even more as we settled into our campground and began exploring. The park has two campgrounds – one developed and one primitive. We chose Sage Creek Primitive Campground, reached only via an unpaved road and nestled in rolling prairieland adjacent the Badlands Wilderness Area. It felt just right. The campground had ample space for us and several other RVs, though it was primarily inhabited by tent campers. Within an hour of setting up camp, I realized this campground embodies so much of what I think a national park campground should be: isolated, scenic, quiet, simple, and well, primitive and undeveloped. And, it was free!
On our first evening in the park, I mountain biked from our campground up the dirt road to a point with 360-degree panoramic views and simply breathed in the beauty of the grasslands and the badlands that slowly emerge from them, and then in the distance, sharply rise from them. I realized the park as a whole embodies so much of what I love about nature and so much of what I desire in a national park – it’s isolated, otherworldly, undeveloped, open, pure, vast, and often breathtaking.
Over the next few days, we explored the park to our heart’s content.
We drove the main park road, hiking the shorter trails and stopping at the many overlooks along the way.
The road follows “the wall”, which is essentially the uprising of cliffs and buttes where the badlands have formed, so the main road cruises through the heart of Badlands. Words really fail me in describing the beauty and otherworldliness of the badlands, so I’ll hope that pictures really are worth a thousand words.
We mountain biked Sheep Mountain Table Road, an unpaved road in the Stronghold (Southern) Unit of the park, which offered magnificent views of the valleys below and of badlands that look similar to the formations found at Bryce Canyon National Park. Biking this small section of the Stronghold Unit was a great way to get a taste of this ultra-remote section of the park.
We saw an abundance of wildlife – more bison, pronghorn antelope, and prairie dogs, which I spotted after recognizing the chirping sounds they make to communicate with each other. We learned at Bryce Canyon that prairie dogs are intelligent and have highly developed communication; they make different sounds to warn each other of different dangers, including predators.
We also heard lots of coyotes near our campground at night, howling and barking back and forth to each other. I saw my first rattlesnake and channeled my inner Cheryl Strayed (author of the book Wild) as I dismounted my bike and walked around him with a ridiculous amount of space between us. We also saw our first big horn sheep, which I’ve been so eager to spot!
We were lucky enough to see several groups sheep (lambs and all), and we spotted one herd running full speed across the prairie – a pretty awesome sight! We got a kick out of the way they agilely lounge and walk right on top of the narrow ledges, and we loved this one ram who seemed to enjoy being on display atop this butte not far from a well-traveled trail.
We also did a little backcountry hiking. As a ranger told me, Badlands is an “open park”, meaning you can go anywhere you please; there are no restrictions or limitations. People even climb on the badlands formations themselves, sometimes not realizing that going up is much easier than coming down (it was good entertainment to watch). As an open park, there are relatively few established trails, all of which are in the front-country and all of which are fairly short and easy. There are no truly established, maintained backcountry trails, though “cross-country hiking” is totally permitted, as is dispersed camping (provided you’re a certain distance from roads or trails) since there are also no official backcountry campsites. Basically, the message is, “Explore the wilderness totally unrestricted. Take lots of water (because there is limited water in the prairie and what is available is so full of silt that it can’t even be treated), a compass, and a topographical map. Enjoy and good luck!” It’s quite a different (and somewhat refreshing) attitude than we’ve experienced at other parks. There are backcountry registers in a few places, but basically, you could set out from any point in the park, walk out into the prairie and badlands, and forge your own path as you go.
That said, there are some semi-established backcountry routes that seemed to be largely ill-defined social trails. In our experience, there were no rock cairns or other markers to follow. Dirt paths existed for several hundred yards and then disappeared, at which point we looked for footprints, natural markers, and indentations in the grasslands. We also may have followed some backpackers for a short distance when we lost the “trail” less than a half mile from the backcountry register. We hiked through the prairie in grasses and wildflowers ranging from ankle to shoulder height (maybe “waded” is a better term than “hiked”). We climbed up buttes and into depressions where ponderosa pines grow. And we even discovered and explored a small slot canyon. We enjoyed the feeling of being surrounded by badlands near the end of our “trail”. And we marveled at the brightly colored wildflowers and the diverse grasses that exist in so many hues of green and brown.
As if all this isn’t enough, Badlands exists to protect not only geology and prairie, but also a land that’s rich in fossils. Fossils exist throughout the park, found especially in a certain layer of rock. While we didn’t spot any fossils, lots of visitors do. In 2010, a seven year old girl completing a scavenger hunt as part of a Junior Ranger program discovered what turned out to be the skull of a saber-tooth cat! Her discovery led to a whole new area of the park being explored for fossils. Fossils are so frequently found that the park employs fossil preparators, and visitors can watch them prepare fossils in a lab within the Visitor Center.
So there you have it: Badlands is one awesome place and among my favorites visited. (More photos below.)
“peaks and valleys of delicately banded colors – colors that shift in the sunshine, . . . and a thousand tints that color charts do not show. In the early morning and evening, when shadows are cast upon the infinite peaks or on a bright moonlit night when the whole region seems a part of another world, the Badlands will be an experience not easily forgotten.” –Freeman Tilden