Badlands National Park (South Dakota)

As we wound our way westward, inching ever closer to Alaska, we found ourselves in South Dakota, a place neither of us had ever given much thought to until we started planning our route. We’d heard from friends in Minnesota that The Badlands and Black Hills were amazing, but with Glacier National Park and Alaska waiting for us, we were looking past it.

Once we started laying out that leg of the trip, though, we found ourselves really excited to visit Badlands National Park. Luckily, we weren’t disappointed by what we found when we got there.

A Barren, Rugged Landscape

The Badlands are a rugged, barren, and exceptionally dry region of South Dakota. It’s an incredible landscape, shaped by the wind into impossibly steep slopes and sharp drop-offs. When you’re there, you find yourself thinking about what the first people that came across it must have thought. Here you are, riding your horse through wide-open grasslands and suddenly there are these ridiculous cliffs dead ahead of you.

Of course, we’re making that scenario up in our heads, but wait till you get there and think of the Lakota Indian tribes using the area for hunting grounds. Amazingly, these seemingly inhospitable lands have supported humans, both Lakota Indian tribes (and earlier tribes) and later arriving non-Indians, for over 11,000 years.

The Badlands are one of the fastest eroding landscapes on earth, averaging about 1″ per year in the fragile layers. As you drive or hike through, you’ll see all of the rocky layers in their brilliant colors that change as the light changes. It would probably be an incredible sight to see after a rainstorm. Or at sunrise. Or at sunset. But it is still incredible just in the middle of the day, too.

The Wildlife

The Badlands are one of the richest fossil beds in the world. Over the past 75 million years, this land has gone through a lot of changes. First, it was a shallow sea stretching across the Great Plains, from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada and from Iowa to Wyoming.

Fossils from the “sea era,” along with the later emerging forests, savannahs, grasslands, and today’s barren, rocky land, are found extensively throughout the area. At least one of the hikes features several of the fossils. What kind of creatures, other than humans, have called this place home? Ancestors of alligators, camels, pigs, squirrels, sheep, and deer.

Today, though, you’re quite likely to see buffalo and oodles of prairie dogs. If you’re lucky, you’ll see pronghorn antelope (we didn’t see one) and a big horn sheep (we saw several females…we think. Perhaps they were just mountain goats though.). Deer, bobcat, mountain lions, and coyotes also call The Badlands home, along with lots of other mammals, reptiles, birds, and butterflies that we didn’t run across.

If you’re really, really lucky, you might see an eagle. We weren’t really, really lucky. But we did see tons of beautiful birds in plenty of striking colors, including a bright yellow one that we managed to get up close and personal with.

Hiking The Badlands

There are relatively few opportunities for hiking within Badlands National Park. Off of the main road, there are some short trails, ranging from 1/4 of a mile up to about 1.5 miles running out to overlooks and scenic vistas. There’s also a 4-mile and a 10-mile hike, both of which are moderate hikes on flat to rolling trails, according to the National Park Service. We walked a few of the short trails to get better glimpses of The Badlands, but didn’t get to the longer hikes since our ultimate destination for the day was Custer, SD.

Be careful though, and stay on trail. You might run across a rattlesnake or a cactus spine should you venture off trail. Plus the landscape is fragile and prone to giving way. Twisted or fractured ankles are the most common Badlands injury.

The Scenic Drive

Good news for those of you not up for the longer hikes. South Dakota Highway 240 runs right through the middle of The Badlands and is an incredibly scenic drive. Assuming you come in on Interstate-90, we’d recommend taking Exit 110 and heading southward to the eastern entrance. This allows you the opportunity to take Hwy-240 through the main part of The Badlands, where you’ll encounter lots and lots of cars and lots and lots of people.

But before you exit out of the northwestern gate, take a left onto Sage Creek Rd, a dirt and gravel road that really gets you the best look at the wildlife. Here you’ll find Robert’s Prairie Dog Town (think thousands of prairie dogs and a landscape dotted with prairie dog hills) and a herd or two of buffalo. This is your best chance of seeing buffalo. Eventually, you’ll have to turn around or you’ll find yourself on SD Highway 44. You can turn left on Hwy-44 to get back to Hwy-240 and I-90.

It’s About Time!

And now, the pictures. Hopefully you enjoy them half as much as we enjoyed our visit to South Dakota’s Badlands National Park.