Buttes and spires in Badlands National Park

by Kim on June 4, 2012 · 33 comments

The entrance to Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park doesn’t get the kind of attention that many of the other National Parks do.  Tucked into the southwestern corner of South Dakota, the park is unassuming and even hard to find.

Brian and I purposely routed our 2,600 mile whirlwind drive from Oregon to Ohio through South Dakota so that we could stop by the Badlands. We hadn’t heard much about the park but given the name and location I expected it to be flat and exposed, like Death Valley with grass.  Which is exactly what it wasn’t.

The Badlands were deposited in layers

Our Badlands Visitors Guide told us that the Badlands is located at the edge of the Great Plains, part of the largest undisturbed mixed-prairie rangeland remaining in the United States.  But instead of the exposed and desolate landscape I’d pictured in my head, the park is 244,000 acres of buttes, spires and rolling grasslands.

Rocks in the peaks of the Badlands were deposited 28 to 30 million years ago

A few years back Brian and I had some hours to kill in Colorado so we drove through Rocky Mountain National Park.  Viewing that park from the car was torture, I ached to strap on a backpacking and march into the wilderness.

Badlands isn’t like that.  There are a couple of backcountry trails but the longest, the Castle Trail, is only 10 miles (16 km) long.  Most of the other trails are a mile or less round trip and can be accessed via Badlands Loop Road, the popular scenic route through the park.

If there is any National Park to be viewed from the road, this one is it.

The road to the Badlands

So drive we did, stopping at various overlooks to take in the views.

Brian takes in the views of the Badlands

It was an overcast day in late May and the breeze was cool, though a woman we met at the visitors center told us the temperature had topped 100 the day before our arrival.  The clouds were foreboding and moved in thick, dark trails across the sky. Rain was visible in the distance but never reached us.

Near the end of our loop we turned down Sage Creek Rim Road, an unpaved but easy-to-navigate two lane road. A five-minute drive lead us to an expansive field populated with Prairie Dogs and free-roaming Buffalo.

A Prairie Dog family

Buffalo roam free

In late afternoon the sun broke through the clouds and we decided to call it a day.  We still had a few hundred miles of driving ahead of us.

Sunshine in the Badlands

But before we got back on the highway we had one last stop to make, a visit to the iconic American road trip tourist trap: Wall Drug.

Wall Drug: worth the stop

Brian found a mug with his name on it

We returned to the highway with the sun at our back, shooting east through dusk into nightfall.  A thunderstorm rolled towards us from the south, illuminating the starless sky. I curled in the passengers seat and watched the headlights on the road, chatting idly with Brian. The open road lay before us. It still does.