Buttes and spires in Badlands National Park

by Kim on June 4, 2012 · 29 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.

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Carmel June 4, 2012 at 7:22 am

I know how hard it is to find your name on a mug, especially one of that quality, so congrats, Brian.

Wow, that does look amazing, though. I hope someday Shawn and I can take a long road trip and hit all these places.

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Kim June 6, 2012 at 12:45 pm

Carmel, I think you guys would love it, though it isn’t bigfoot country ;)

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Patricia GW June 4, 2012 at 7:34 am

“The open road lay before us. It still does.” How thrilling! You two are living the dream :)

Did you get very close to the prairie dogs or did you zoom in with the camera? I’ve only ever seen them at the zoo, it’s so cool you two saw them in the wild.

Brian’s mug ‘Princess’ cracked me up. So glad you two are having such a great time!

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Kim June 6, 2012 at 12:45 pm

So thrilling!

I wasn’t even zoomed when shooting the Prairie Dogs. I think I could have literally just sat down and touched one if I’d wanted to… and they were everywhere. It was very cool.

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Ali June 4, 2012 at 8:53 am

Gorgeous! I’m sure you weren’t hoping for an overcast day, but I imagine 100+ degrees would’ve been much worse. I don’t think I’ve ever seen prairie dogs, they’re really cute!

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Kim June 6, 2012 at 12:46 pm

They are pretty cute, and they make the strangest sound.

I’m so happy it wasn’t 100 degrees. Especially because we don’t have AC!

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Sarah June 4, 2012 at 9:00 am

We are in the middle of a three week road trip ourselves and just visited Badlands & Wall Drugs a couple of days ago! Badlands really was spectacular… the way the grasslands just dissolve into the rock and sand was beautiful!
Enjoy the rest of your new adventure. I love following along on the blog!

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Kim June 6, 2012 at 12:46 pm

I was so amazed at how the grasslands just dissolved into the rock and sand- that’s the perfect description. Enjoy the rest of your road trip!

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Rhonda June 4, 2012 at 11:45 am

Love the pics! That is one of my favorite national parks areas due to the unique scenery. Growing up in SW Minesota the Badlands and Black Hills were our closest vacations each year so I have had many a cup of water at Wall Drug. lol, such a tourist trap but so glad you got to stop and check it out!

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Kim June 6, 2012 at 12:47 pm

I would have liked to explore the Black Hills more as well as Wind Cave. I had no idea that Wind Cave was a National Park.

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Pamela June 4, 2012 at 2:30 pm

I’m behind on reading your blog because I’ve been on my own road trip, but congrats on starting your new adventure. I’ve never been to Badlands…WOW…beautiful.

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Kim June 6, 2012 at 12:48 pm

Thanks Pamela :) You’ve got to add the Badlands to your ‘must visit’ list!

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Kindra June 4, 2012 at 5:04 pm

Great photos! Love the one with the prairie dogs especially :)

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Kim June 6, 2012 at 12:48 pm

They’re pretty cute, huh?

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Lindsey June 4, 2012 at 10:12 pm

Bison? I LOVE bison! You’ve just made this a must-visit for me when I make it to the US. The striped hills look pretty stunning too.

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Kim June 6, 2012 at 12:48 pm

The bison are INSANE! They are walking in the road and you have to wait for them to decide to move… they were bigger than our car. It was a wonderful experience.

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EdG June 5, 2012 at 3:43 am

I LOVED the Badlands NP – magical, beautiful place. When I drove across the US (from Seattle to NY), I camped there, and walked through the park at sunset – my journal records “giant’s sandcastles, glowing in pinks, orange and yellow”.

Enjoy your travels – and be glad you escaped Wall Drug with only a coffee cup!

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Kim June 6, 2012 at 12:49 pm

I would have LOVED to see that park at sunset… what a treat.

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Traveling Ted June 5, 2012 at 7:43 am

The cool thing about the Badlands is you can backpack anywhere cross-country. I was going to do this a couple of years ago, but instead I hiked in the Black Hills. On my way back home I stopped by for an afternoon drive on the scenic routes and vowed I would return to do some backcountry hiking. Great pics.

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Kim June 6, 2012 at 12:50 pm

Ted, that would be awesome. I think it would be hard to find a path… so many of the prairie lands just drop off into canyons! Definitely not a place to walk at night :) So amazingly beautiful though.

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Sarah Somewhere June 5, 2012 at 9:28 am

Wow, those photos are amazing! I love, love those layers, each representing umm… about a million years or something! That’s my kind of national park if you can see the best bits from a comfy vehicle, he he!!!

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Kim June 6, 2012 at 12:52 pm

I know! It’s amazing to think about all of the history there. Native Americans hunted on the land and then homesteaders moved in- you can imagine they weren’t very successful.

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Lauren June 5, 2012 at 5:46 pm

Amazing photos!

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Kim June 6, 2012 at 12:52 pm

Thanks!

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Ayngelina June 5, 2012 at 10:26 pm

This is why I want to spend more time in North America this year, so many incredible things like this I had no idea existed.

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Kim June 6, 2012 at 12:53 pm

There is sooo much to see in North America. We’re taking three months and it isn’t nearly enough. We aren’t even treading into Canada.

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Hannah June 6, 2012 at 4:51 am

“The open road lay before us. It still does.” – LOVE that! Beautiful photos Kim, especially the bison – they are my favourite animal! I went to Yellowstone NP just to see them roaming free. I hope to make it to Badlands one day in the future too, it looks breathtaking :)

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Kim June 6, 2012 at 12:53 pm

The bison were amazing… I think you would love the Badlands!

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