Saturday, August 29, 2015

Great Day in the Badlands

South Dakota
Overlooking the Badlands National Park, South Dakota

I first read about the Badlands long ago, although I can't remember where. It seemed like the stuff of legends. A bleak and desolate place. A wasteland that surprised pioneers as they made their way west over the prairies filled with waving grass that suddenly dropped down into a strange landscape. A place where fugitives hide from the long arm of the law. Badlands. Even the name sounds forboding.

So, of course I had to go there. Right?

The Badlands stretch down towards an ancient flood plain

There are two ways to get to Badlands National Park from Rapid City. Interstate Highway 90 to Exit 131 is the quick and easy route. Having driven that road the day before, we chose the scenic way along State Highway 44 hoping to see something a little different. Even though IH90 runs near the northern border of the Badlands, I couldn't see anything other than rolling green hills. SD44, on the other hands, descends down into a vast ancient floodplain, and we could see the Badlands rising up in the distance on the left. Either way, it takes about 80 minutes to get their from Rapid City.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Paleontogist at work in the Fossil Room at the Ben Reifel Visitors Center.

Our first stop was the Ben Reifel Visitors Center near the Interior Entrance.  It's not too big but has good exhibits on paleontology, geology, wildlife and early people in the park. Make sure to watch the 20-minute film, Land of  Stone and Light, as an introduction to what you'll see in the Badlands. My favorite part is the Fossil Room where we watched a paleontogist work on a speciman. Park visitors frequently come across fossils while hiking. We were told that if we managed to stumble across one, leave it in its place but note its exact location and report it to a Park Ranger. A large bulletin board displayed photos of an impressive number of visitors who had found fossils in the first half of the year. If you have kids along on your trip, make sure to pick up a Junior Ranger workbook for the park.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Fossil finders

After the Visitors Center, we hiked the Door Trail and Window Trail. Both of them were relatively easy and delivered terrific vistas. If you have 45 minutes and want to do one hike in the park, I highly recommend Door Trail. Read last week's blog post, "Badlands Door Trail: Short Hike with a Big View" for more detailed information. The Window Trail is only 100 yards long and has a boardwalk the entire way. It leads to a break in the Badlands Wall that you can look out to see the almost alien landscape that has intrigued people for centuries. People entering the park through the Northeast Entrance can do these hikes before heading to the Ben Reifel Visitors Center.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota
People climbing up the formations near the Door Trail parking lot.

It was about lunchtime at this point. Because we didn't pack a picnic lunch, we decided to eat at the only restaurant in the park, the Cedar Pass Lodge Restaurant, which is open from mid-April to mid-October. It serves sandwiches, burgers and the a local favorite, Sioux Indian Tacos. These tacos use thick Indian Fry Bread instead of a crispy taco shell and is served open-faced. Refried beans, seasoned buffalo meat, lettuce, tomatoes, shredded cheddar cheese and olives are layered on top. Salsa and sour cream are served on the side. Believe me, it was very filling. Vegetarian options are available.

Cedar Pass Lodge, Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Sioux Indian Tacos at the Cedar Pass Lodge

Well fed and having a museum and one hike behind us, we were ready to drive the Badlands Loop Road which strategically runs from one interesting overlook to another. If you don't stop, it takes about one hour to drive. Of course, I had to stop just about everywhere.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Fossil Exhibit trail

The Fossil Exhibit Trail takes its name from the numerous educational signs that dot the 400-yard long boardwalk loop. I had hoped to spot some undiscovered fossils but came up with nothing even though the area is knows as a rich source of fossils. This area has morphed from an inland sea to a subtropical jungle to a desert over millions of years. The distinctive layers of rock were created by the differences in climate as each layer was deposited.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Bigfoot Pass Overlook

As we drove westward along the Badlands Loop Road, I noticed that the landscape softened. Instead of jagged and spiky pinnacles, they gradually became more rounded on top. Bigfoot Pass is where Chief Big Foot (aka Spotted Elk) and his group of Native American Minnecounjou people crossed the Badlands on their way to Oglala land where they planned to stay for the winter, Instead, they were stopped by the Seventh Cavalry at Wounded Knee, 65 miles away. Explanations differ, but what is certain is that on December 29, 1890, the cavalry opened fire on the men, women and children, killing over 200 Minneconjou as well as 30 soldiers. This became known as the Wounded Knee Massacre.

The Badlands sneak up on you. One moment, you're on the prairie, then BAM, it dips down into this. Watch the video, and you'll get what I mean. Read more about our day exploring this alien landscape at
Posted by Malaysian Meanders on Wednesday, September 2, 2015
Panorama of Prairie Wind Overlook

At Prairie Wind Overlook, I was surprised by the how the lush, green prairie land suddenly gave way to the Badlands. What a surprise it must have been for some unsuspecting pioneer to unexpectedly come across this obstacle. The short, 14 second video above gives you an idea of the abruptness of the change. That sound is the wind rushing across the prairie.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Bighorn sheep picking its way across the rock

Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Young Bighorn sheep grazing

If you want to spot wildlife in the park, just keep an eye out for places along the Badlands Loop Road where people have come to a stop even though there are no trails nearby. It's likely that they've spotted some sort of animal. The bighorn sheep were much easier to see when they were in the green grass instead of against the light beige and tan colors of the Badlands rock formation.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Prairie Dog

I thought that we'd have to drive the unpaved Sage Creek Rim Road in order to see prairie dogs. It turns out that there's a big enough prairie dog town along the Badlands Loop Road that it satisfied our curiosity. We watched them scamper around and into their holes in the ground all while chattering to each other.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Conata Basin Overlook

The rock formations of the Conata Basin Overlook change from the spiky Brule formations in the back to the rounded Chadron formation in the front. The Yellow Mounds group is visible along the road in the center of the photo.

After the Pinnacles Overlook, we exited the park by traveling northward on State Highway 240 to where it intersects with Interstate Highway 90. Across the highway is the town of Wall, and more importantly, Wall Drug.

Fun times at Wall Drug

If you have kids along, the promise of a treat or ice cream a Wall Drug can keep the whining to a minimum. They indeed offered Free Ice Water which is advertised all up and down IH 90. With an
animatronic T-Rex that blows smoke, a water splash area, and tons of souvenirs, it's an interesting store to explore.

As it turns out, the Badlands aren't so bad at all. In fact, it's just plain incredible. 

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  1. Michele, I love the Badlands...especially the name. I love Wall Drug. I remember when I was about your daughter's age driving cross-country with my family reading the billboard after billboard touting Wall Drug. Hilarious. Back then it really wasn't much more than just the original drug store! A road-trip must!

  2. That is such an incredibly weird landscape! And with a name like that I agree, you've got to visit. I'd never heard of Badlands before but now I want to go. Thanks Michele for the travel inspiration!!

  3. It looks so "otherwordly" from where I live! Loved seeing the prairie dogs on our trip out west - they are so fun to watch. Looks like a great day!

  4. What an amazing landscape. Thanks for sharing! I hope we have the opportunity to visit someday. Seems like an ideal spot to add to an extended American roadtrip.

  5. Michelle, you have me hooked with this park since last week. I have been all week looking for information about the area. The Southwestern corner of South Dakota looks like an amazing place to explore. There is so much to do (including this park, of course).

  6. I tell ya, the U.S. is just so much more diverse and rich in nature than people give it credit for! What a cool area (which I hadn't heard about before you!) and that I would love to explore now. Thanks for sharing!

  7. I can see why it was called the Badlands. It just looks to bad to cross, especially if you were in a horse cart. The landscape looks desolate and forbidding, imaging trying to navigate through that rocky outlook.

  8. I visited the Badlands many years ago. I loved that abrupt contrast between prairie and bare rock. I also loved the peace and quiet: you can get far away from anybody to where you can't hear anything but the wind.

  9. Oh my!!! That's absolutely wonderful!!!! Your photos made my travel feet itch! Those outlaws who hid in this area must've had the time of their lives while there. :p

  10. The beauty of the National Parks always amazes me. We're still hoping to do this South Dakota soon and we'd love to visit Badlands NP. Thanks for a great overview of the park and I'm glad your kids enjoyed it too. I would stop at every lookout too. Wall Drug is on my must places to visit just to get that same picture you have in front before my kids are too old and refuse to go on it.

  11. There have been a lot of old westerns filmed around the Badlands and I remember driving through this area years ago and totally falling under its spell. There are so many ways to describe this awesome, desolate and totally beautiful area and I loved your photos! Thanks for the virtual trip down memory lane. Anita @ No Particular Place To Go

  12. Fascinating place. It must have been a complete shock to the pioneers to suddenly hit that landscape.

  13. INCREDIBLE. I can't believe how many people found fossils, just the possibility of finding one would have me obsessively looking.

  14. It is truly amazing how it just appears in the prairie. I love that it has different walks to do. The Indian Taco looks yummy and I bet it was filling too. The Bigfoot Pass Overlook is a great photo. From a distance the badlands looks like Cappadocia in Turkey. :)

  15. I just love visiting the Badlands. Such an incredible part of America to visit


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