It’s nearing dusk, so it’s hard to see what’s along the Fossil Trail at South Dakota’s Badlands National Park. Interpretive panels tell of prehistoric pigs, three-toed horses and camel-like creatures that once lived here. A couple of cottontails hop across the dry, chalky terrain as if cued to twilight, surprising those of us still lingering on the boardwalk.
In this extraterrestrial landscape that can seem daunting and barren, they’re a welcome sight. And as the park’s last scattering of day-trip tourists exit the Hwy. 240 Badlands Loop Road, unseen birds cue up an evening serenade. I’m grateful I’m finally here to take my time and enjoy a fresh perspective on a familiar place.
I’ve lost count how many times I’ve looped through Badlands National Park throughout childhood and adulthood, snapping photos in satin 1970s shorts, 1980s Members Only jackets and Columbia fleece. We’ve seen weathered buttes and sharp red peaks in drizzly rain, soggy snowflakes, blistering heat and wild winds that threatened to sweep our young children into ragged ravines.
This time the goal is to linger. Stay. Soak in the scenery.
A few miles down the road, I pull over to watch buttes darken into shadowy outlines while twilight blues settle above a tangerine horizon. Night somehow softens the surroundings, and the moon — a fingernail scratch on an inky sky — shines beautifully in its sparseness.
Cedar Pass Lodge, the park’s lodging since 1928, makes it more tempting than ever to spend the night. A major renovation in the past few years now offers visitors two dozen new cabins with mini-fridges, microwaves, a coffeemaker, log furniture, cushy pillows, quilts and a back porch for savoring the pinnacled sight of Cedar Pass. They’re homey and equipped enough to pull together picnic meals for daily hikes or simple suppers at the end of the day.
The actual Cedar Lodge contains an impressive gift shop with items such as regional wines and wagon wheel furniture, plus the national park’s sole place to dine. The restaurant serves its signature Indian tacos with all the fixings heaped onto fry bread and more upscale dinners such as elk medallions and buffalo ribeye. The decor is basic, but the line of windows frames up Cedar Pass, where everyone gazes as they eat.
I’m up by 6 a.m. the next day, scrambling out the door to catch what photographers dub the “golden hour.” Four people wander the Door Trail, bleary-eyed, expectant and eager to see dawn brighten the Badlands. I venture off the boardwalk in search of a better spot to frame the view.
A cool breeze rustles my still-damp hair as I’m hunkered down with a gravelly butte at my back. It feels hushed and almost sacred to sit here as the sky lightens and the sun slips above the horizon. It blazes across the landscape, sharpening shadows, illuminating pinnacles like a copper glaze.
By the time I pull away from the view, only one distant photographer is visible. A smidgen of panic flares as I forget the route I walked off the boardwalk. The gullies and trenches of the Badlands landscape suddenly feel like a topsy-turvy maze I forgot how to navigate. But I find the right foothold and hoist up onto the terraced edges toward the boardwalk and official path.
It’s a good reminder that there are plenty of backpacking adventures to be had — especially in the more remote Southern Unit that is managed in conjunction with the Oglala Tribe — but you need to know what you’re doing. The park’s rugged 242,000 acres offer little mercy, especially under a scorching sun. Colors come from chalky minerals layered into ancient formations without the greenery or shade of trees and shrubs.
It can feel stark and uninhabited until signs post rattlesnake warnings or an antelope or prairie dogs pop up in the distance. The overnight stay and the chance to hear nocturnal sounds and rhythms also change my view of the Badlands.
And maybe that’s the crux of the real beauty here: While there’s a mesmerizing new maze of a buttes and ridges that tug visitors around every curve of the scenic drive, it’s best enjoyed by parking the car and finding a place or a path where you can tune into a targeted part of the Badlands. Sunshine and clouds, moody skies and time of day, moonlight and stars all continually repaint this landscape. The trick is slowing down enough to catch it.
Here are some more tips for enjoying the park:
Enter at the northeast entrance (9 miles south of Exit 131 on I-90) and stop at the Big Badlands Overlook for the first big wow, then head to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. A 20-minute park film provides a good introduction to the area’s geology while exhibits cover the park’s earliest creatures and modern wildlife, which includes the rare black-footed ferret and bison (easiest to spot near Sage Creek Rim Road on the park’s northwestern edge).
Engage the kids
Pick up a free Junior Ranger booklet and earn a park badge for completing it. Budding scientists will appreciate the Fossil Exhibit Trail, a 400-foot accessible boardwalk with interpretive panels about prehistoric ancestors of pigs, camels, rhinoceros and horses that once roamed this area.
Take a hike
The trio of Window, Door and Notch trails offer views of “The Wall,” a Badlands “backbone” that stretches more than 100 miles. Take plenty of water and wear good boots for the five-mile Castle Trail through prairie and Badlands. Watch for rattlesnakes and pay attention to trail signs.
Time it just right
Late-afternoon or evening visits tend to be best for photography, more comfortable temperatures and a heightened chance to see wildlife such as antelope and prairie dogs. If the weather looks iffy, be patient. Storms can deliver short jagged lightning that crackles along the horizon and they can bring an afterglow of golden light or the welcome gift of a rainbow.
Mid-May to June offers a greener landscape and longer days, while September through early-October trips provide crisp skies and late-season color from wildflowers and grasses.
Catch the sunset
Good spots to watch the sun go down include Pinnacles Overlook with east-facing spires near the Wall exit of I-90; Conata Basin Overlook where you can see yellow and rosy layers in the rounded mounds; and Bigfoot Pass Picnic Area, which is named for a Lakota chief and offers another area known for colorful layers in the buttes.
Gaze at the stars
Park rangers offer stargazing nights among the interpretive programs May through Labor Day. The remote location and clear skies can twinkle with more than 7,000 stars. Anyone attending the annual Astronomy Festival (July 8-10) may be able to see star clusters, nebulae, planets and moons through park telescopes.
Lisa Meyers McClintick is the author of “The Dakotas: Off the Beaten Path” and “Day Trips From the Twin Cities.” She lives in St. Cloud.