Our Travels: Badlands National Park in South Dakota

After leaving Custer and the Black Hills we headed to Badlands National Park in South Dakota for four days in early spring 2018. We parked our RV at the Cedar Pass Campground (electric hookup only) next to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and got a taste for this wonderful place.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright called the Badlands the “mysterious elsewhere,” and the description is appropriate. It’s almost as if you have journeyed to an alternate reality when you’re there. As you’re traveling into the park, you’re surrounded by mixed grass prairie and then, suddenly, you’re not. The transition is abrupt and these barren formations seem to appear from nowhere.

Over millions of years, the Badlands were formed with deposits of volcanic ash, organic matter from forests and savannas, and sediments from rivers and inland seas. Around 500,000 years ago, waters retreated, the deposits were exposed, and wind and rain started to wear away at them. Erosion rounded them off into mounds and revealed their layers. At their current rate of erosion (about an inch a year), geologists expect the Badlands to be gone in the next 500,000 years.

In addition to their famed buttes, mounds, pinnacles, and spires, Badlands NP is covered in a mixed-grass prairie. In fact, it is one of the largest remaining tracts of mixed-grass prairie in the US. Prairies are areas where it is too dry for trees, but too wet for a desert habitat.

These lands were initially deemed “bad” by the Lakota people (the NPS states they used the phrase "mako sica," which translates to "land bad”). It is certainly a place with little water and extreme temperatures, and the name serves as an important cautionary message. Though true, the badlands are full of life and have been for thousands upon thousands of years

Late-April 2018 was an incredible time to visit Badlands National Park in South Dakota because temperatures were in the low 60s (F) during the day and above freezing at night. The park was quiet, the Cedar Pass Campground had empty spaces so all the RVs had ample room between neighbors, park rangers were available at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to chat as long as necessary, the government wasn't shut down, and we only encountered a few other hikers on trails during our time there. Plus, the evening sky continuously put on a magnificent show for us.

Recommendations

If you enter Badlands National Park from the north coming in from exit 131 off I-90 and head toward the Visitor Center on the Badlands Loop, you'll quickly pass three well-marked trails that share a parking lot–the Door, Window, and Notch Trails. Since we only had four days in the park last April, we decided it would be foolish to pass up these "must see" trails.

Window Trail is only .25 of a mile and you follow a boardwalk the entire way. It's great for anyone with physical limitations, and the view at the turnaround point is quintessential Badlands. We saw lots of small wildlife on this trail in comparison to what we spotted on the other two.

The Notch Trail is a 1.5 mile there-and-back trail that involves climbing a rickety rope-and-plank ladder and has some fun narrow points along small cliffs. Similar to Window Trail, its turnaround point has a view of the park that is spectacular (and very windy). As long as you don’t have a fear of heights, this trail is unlike others in the Park.

The Door Trail is my favorite of these three trails. The registered trail is .75 of a mile (a there-and-back) and you hunt for signs on the top of mounds, eventually reaching the turnaround "End of Trail" sign. The official trail is a short adventure, but the real fun comes when you pull out your compass and just start wandering through the Badlands after you reach the "End of Trail" sign (or at any point when curiosity overwhelms you). We explored the mounds and valleys, sometimes coming to dead ends and other times discovering awe-inspiring views. It's a great time to work on your navigation skills (the NOLS Wilderness Navigation book is a great resource if you need to brush up ahead of time). Eventually, we headed back west, found the road, and made our way to our truck. The experience was reminiscent of exploring the Fiery Furnace in Arches National Park (our favorite day hiking experience in all the US), but on a smaller scale. Don't forget to bring water and a compass, and slather yourself in sunscreen.

In the Sage Creek Wilderness Area of Badlands National Park is a wonderful hike to a destination known as Deer Haven. Most of the hike to Deer Haven is through prairie, but Deer Haven is an oasis filled with juniper trees and bountiful wildlife. Bighorn sheep, pronghorn, bison, swift fox, and innumerable birds flock to this area to find shelter and water. The unusual shape of the area allows rainwater to collect here. There isn't a clear trail for much of the hike to Deer Haven, so I strongly recommend discussing your hiking path and plans with a ranger at the Visitor Center before you head out on your journey. Private property is near this area, so you also want to be sure not to wander onto someone's land. A good compass, topo map, and navigation skills will serve you well, too. Park at the end of the Conata picnic area (a great picnic stop with picnic tables shaded by wood cabanas) where you will find a backcountry registration station and the "start" of the Deer Haven trail. If you walk to Deer Haven and back and don't do any exploring, it's about a 3 mi trek. If you explore the Haven, you could easily add another couple miles. The day we were there, a storm was brewing, so we didn't linger too long. Rain can quickly fill up the washes at the base of Deer Haven and cause life-threatening situations–best to avoid those. In late April it was hot, humid, and I ended the hike with four ticks on me. So be careful, bring a lot of water, cover up, and beware most of the trail is without any shade. We learned about the hike in the book Secrets of the National Parks, which is a resource we always check before going to a NP.

In addition to hiking up to Deer Haven, you can view it from above at an overlook on the Badlands Loop drive. Apparently, there is also a trail that allows you to hike down to Deer Haven (instead of the route we took). I know nothing about it, but definitely ask a ranger at the Visitor Center if that sounds appealing to you.

One of the best reasons to go to Badlands are their dark skies. Each evening during the summer the park has a Night Sky ranger program at the Cedar Pass Campground Amphitheater. There's also an annual Astronomy Festival there in July. Badlands isn't an IDA-certified Dark Skies park, but there aren't any major metropolitan areas near the park to pollute its skies, so the views are awesome.

It rained heavily a couple times while we were in Badlands, so we decided to check out the town of Wall as a side trip. Even if you've never been to South Dakota, you've likely seen bumper stickers on cars that say "Wall Drug" on them. It is a kitsch place, but it's the King of Kitsch. You will be hard pressed to find a place that does kitsch better, larger, or more intently than Wall Drug. We bought nothing but lunch, ice cream, and fudge for the road, but we had some good laughs walking through the place. Since it was late-April, it was relatively empty, which also made it more tolerable.

We made our way to the National Grasslands Visitor Center as a second stop in Wall and it was definitely more our style. We learned a good deal from the information they have and we took in their movie...which was wonderful for all the wrong reasons. The data provided in the film was great, but it was definitely filmed more than twenty years ago and needs an overhaul.

In addition to the hikes previously mentioned, we did a few more little things while in Badlands NP. We walked the .25 of a mile Fossil Exhibit Trail. It details the types of fossils that can be found in the park and is an accessible trail for folks with mobility issues. (Badlands does this better than a lot of parks, btw. At least four trails are fully or partially covered with a boardwalk.) We also hiked the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail (.5 mi). We recommend doing the Cliff Shelf Trail as a night hike, which the rangers often lead during the summer.

Driving the Badlands "Loop" Road (SD 240) is a must-do activity for anyone visiting the park. It's 31 mi one way in the park and has 15 overlooks–the Pinnacles and Big Badlands overlooks are must stops. If you don't have an annual pass to the US National Parks, I believe the park entrance fee is currently at $20. If you plan to spend more than three days in a year in a National Park, the annual pass is worth it.

Last but definitely not least: on our way to Badlands, coming from Custer State Park, we went through Rapid City and stopped at Wild Idea Buffalo Co. If you have read Buffalo for the Broken Heart by Dan O'Brien, you understand why we went there. If you haven't read it, you need to. The bison meat we purchased there was incredible and we strongly recommend learning about and going to Wild Idea.

We hope to have a longer stay in Badlands NP the next time we visit–hike the Yellow Mounds, do some backcountry camping, and explore the southwest side of the park. We would eagerly stay in the Cedar Pass Campground again.

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