South Dakota: The Badlands

Returning from South Dakota, I got the typical response at work.  After a number of years with family out in the midwest, I’m used to the typical response:

“South Dakota??  Why’d you go there?”

The obvious answer for me, is that I’m visiting family.  But, if I had to pick two words to convince you to go…

Natural beauty.

The depth of the Black Hills landscape is really something to admire, and you have to be there in person to truly appreciate it.  Unique even for South Dakota’s varied landscape, Badlands National Park offers incredible scenery and a great look at some of the geological factors at play on earth.  This was one of the first places we explored on this trip!

Getting to the Badlands is a bit of a trek.  As anyone that knows the midwestern US can tell you, driving a few hours for something to do is a totally normal part of life, and the Badlands  is pretty far out of any major city.  Interior, a town that serves as the unofficial gateway to the scenic Badlands Loop Road, lies just under 4 hours (276 miles) west of Sioux Falls, SD on I-90.  Coming from Rapid City to the east of the Badlands, you could drive about an hour and 15 minutes to Interior (74 miles on Route 44), or for a little under an hour (55 miles) on I-90 to Wall, SD.  Stop off in Wall and check out the famous Wall Drug, and then continue south on Route 240 for just a few miles to get to the middle of the national park.

The roadtrips are an experience all to themselves.  If you’ve never seen flyover country, here it is!  Plenty of farms, ranches, and open field until you get closer to the Badlands.  Although it can be taxing, even boring, it’s definitely worth the journey.

Driving the Badlands

There’s one major route through the park – Badlands Loop Road.  The Loop Road follows Route 240 from I-90 to the edge of the park grounds, just south of Wall.  Here you have two options.  Turn north for Wall and to get back to I-90, or continue on through the park.  If you continue driving through the park, you’ll follow the Sage Creek Rim Road to the west boundary of Badlands National Park.  Continue on Sage Creek Rim Road (which will turn into Route 590) to Scenic, SD.

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All of the trails I mention below can be easily accessed from the Badlands Loop Road and are well-marked.  There are also a number of scenic outlooks along the main road, and it’s absolutely worth hopping out of the car and taking in the beauty and the expanse of the Badlands.

The park boasts the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and the Cedar Pass Lodge, as well as a few campsites.  If you forgot to pack lunch, you’ll definitely be able to stop by the Lodge for some food and drink, but don’t bother unless you need to.  The Visitor Center is worth the stop though, and offers a decent gift shop and a small exhibit center to learn more about the history of the Badlands.  You’ll find your National Parks Passport stamp here as well!

Hiking the Badlands

Check out the National Park Service’s site for more information before going.  I want to make sure you’re well-prepared for however you choose to enjoy the park!  Through-hiking and backcountry camping is allowed throughout Badlands National Park, you’ll just need to register for it through their visitor center system.  Registration ensures that the park is aware of how many people are camping in the event of any emergencies.

There are plenty of marked hiking trails throughout the park, and these run the range from short, educational boardwalks to the park’s Castle Trail:  10 miles roundtrip.  Hiking routes can often be combined with other trails or shortened by turning off onto a new trail-head.  With the family in tow, we didn’t chance any of the longer trails through the park, and kept most of our visit near the car.  Even driving through, there are plenty of scenic stops and small hikes to be enjoyed.  Simply turn into the lots, park, and hop out of the car!  We took advantage of the Door, Window, and Cliff Shelf Trails, as well as the Fossil Exhibit Trail.  If you’re driving from the Northeast Entrance off of I-90, you’ll see the following trails in order.

Door Trail

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Exploring just past the numbered signs of the Door Trail.

As you drive through the Badlands, the first encounter you find will be the Door Trail.  There’s a shared parking lot here that offers easy access to the Door, Window, and Notch Trails.  The first quarter mile of this trail is a very accessible boardwalk, that follows the edge of a rock formation to a view of the Badlands not visible from the road.

Once the boardwalk ends, you can continue walking out into the park, following numbered signs as you go.  Watch your step, as there are many divets and ravines in the area, but it’s a great spot to explore.  If the kids have been cooped up in the long drive, let them race to the next sign along the trail!

Window Trail

Walking through the “Window” itself offers a great view of the landscape you just trekked along the Door Trail.  This is one is very short, just up one hill and back down to the car.  This same parking section also houses the trailhead for the Notch hiking route, and across the road is one of the entrances for the Castle Trail.

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Hiking through the Window along the trail.

Cliff Shelf Trail

Once you leave the first group of trails, continue driving, and eventually you’ll come to another small parking lot.  This time, hop out of the car and look for birds in the juniper that dot the Cliff Shelf Trail.  This one is almost entirely boardwalk, but it does have some steep stairs to get up to the highest point.  Cliff Shelf offers a view of the same rocks you’d see on the Notch Trail, but you won’t have as much elevation.

Fossil Exhibit Trail

I’m skipping over the Saddle Pass Trail, Castle Trail, and the Medicine Loop Trail, as we didn’t explore any of those while in the park.  The Fossil Exhibit is really more of a small museum exhibit than an actual hike, but it has plenty of interesting information on the geological history of the area.  In fact, the Badlands even encourages you to keep an eye out for fossils!  Many of the fossils found throughout the Park are discovered and reported by hikers.

If you’re still looking for some wilderness, try hopping off trail and climbing the nearby cliffs.  Everything seemed safe to us, just take normal hiking precautions, as you would anywhere.  Be sure to pack plenty of water, you’ll need it in the hot sun!

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Originally called mako sica (land bad) by the Lakota Sioux, the Badlands represented a very real and dangerous terrain to explorers.  French fur-traders adopted the name as well – les mauvais terres pour traverse (bad lands to pass through).  The name also spawned the geologic term badlands:  extensive erosion of soft sedimentary rock in a dry climate.

Having been to the Badlands once when I was much younger, I made it a point to get there this trip.  I love the natural beauty, and the uniqueness of the land.  As we drove through, I saw license plates from all over the 50 states and from Canada too, as well as families speaking plenty of foreign languages.  The National Park system in this country is clearly something to be proud of, and I’m happy we get to show it off a bit here and there.

My son and I have a goal in the next few years to take a month or two and drive the country – seeing a bunch of the national parks.  I’m talking full on van living, though the occasional night in a hotel will be purchased with points, of course!  Besides, van living brings up a whole new side of travel hacking that I’m really looking forward to.  Cheapest gas?  Best gas card?  Is there a card that’s good for vehicle repairs and maintenance?  I wonder if renting a car with points would be cheap enough to sacrifice the experience of van living (which I’m actually looking forward to).  I think I’m looking forward to the travel hacking as much as I am the travel!

That actually seems to be a common theme in my life…

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