South Dakota's Badlands are a geological gem boasting a poetic blend of simple grandiosity and rugged natural beauty.
South Dakota's Badlands are a geological gem boasting a poetic blend of simple grandiosity and rugged natural beauty. The never-ending dance of deposition and erosion is what makes the Badlands remind us of the age of the planet and the truth behind the saying "Nothing lasts forever."
Made up of 244,000 acres of rolling grasslands and serrated rock formations, the Badlands National Park largely is a landscape of canyons, steep pinnacles, buttes, ridges and spires. The area also is rife with fossils.
The Badlands deserve a couple of days. It's worth spending the night, if anything, to bear witness to the beautiful displays of color against the stone at sunrise and sunset. The dynamic visage of pinks and purples behind silhouetted rock pinnacles created by the rising and setting sun are rivaled only by the night sky. The park's secluded setting makes for world-class stargazing. Stretching from each horizon, the sheer number of visible stars paints a perfect picture of the universe's immensity.
By day, explore the vast expanse of the park via hiking trails. No permits are required beyond the vehicle entry fee. There are eight trails in the park ranging in difficulty from easy to strenuous. They vary in length from a quarter-mile to a 10-mile round trip.
At times, hiking through the park can seem like a lunar experience. The Notch Trail cuts through a canyon surrounded by colorless towering rocks leading to an open area seemingly devoid of life. To reach the trail's namesake "notch" above a cliff overlooking the White River Valley, hikers have a rare and slightly daunting opportunity to scale a steep log ladder leading to a ledge where the trail continues and where you may discover that little pieces of rock can be chipped away easily with a fingernail. That serves as a warning that you can't fully trust your surroundings, especially when teetering on a cliff.
On the Saddle Pass Trail, you will traverse a sharp pinnacle. Saddle Pass connects near the halfway mark of the 5-mile Castle Trail, cutting the distance in half. Castle meanders through grasslands, offering a change in scenery. Stick to the trails; prairie rattlesnakes inhabit the grasslands, and nothing will put a hop in your step like the sound of a rattler.
If hiking isn't your thing, the 32-mile Badlands Scenic Loop drive gives visitors a good lay of the land. With 14 photo-worthy overlooks, the trip takes about an hour by car and exposes visitors to one of the strangest natural occurrences in the Badlands. Colorful layers of yellow, orange and pink appear atop rock faces and mounds, creating an alluring color palette against an azure sky. Some of the oldest exposed layers in the park, which appear black, date to the Cretaceous Period, 65 million to 135 million years ago.
Camping is half the fun of visiting the Badlands. For unparalleled views, stay at Cedar Pass Campground in the park, surrounded by the expanse of the Badlands' eroded rock formations. In early morning light, the intricate play between highlighted peaks and shadowed ridges gave the landscape a rich contrast. The trade-off: no showers. Cedar Pass has 96 campsites at $15 per night/$28 for electrical hookups. Cabins also are available for $85-$100 per night, and upgraded cabins (flat-screen TVs, free Wi-Fi) go for $130. (20681 Hwy. 240; 1-605-433-5460; www.cedarpass lodge.com)
Three minutes down the road is the Badlands Interior Campground, which has hot showers and a less conventional means of accommodation: a tepee that sleeps five people ($24.95 a night). Beware: The tepee can be drafty. The campground has 60 sites on five acres. (900 Hwy. 377; 1-800-388-4643; www.badlands interiorcampground.com).
Hit up Badlands Grocery (101 Main St.; 1-605-433-5445) in the tiny town of Interior for supplies, or go to Cedar Pass Lodge to stock up and pick up a couple of souvenirs or have a hot meal at the restaurant. Wall Drug (510 Main St., Wall, S.D.; 1-605-279-2175; www.walldrug.com), which began as a drugstore in 1931 and since has morphed into a tourism metropolis, is a 30-minute haul from the park, but offers a choice of restaurants.
Interior, population 67, makes for an interesting excursion by day or night. Try barhopping in the town's watering holes, the Wagon Wheel Bar and the Horseshoe, which are conveniently located right across the street from each other. A subtle rivalry exists between the two similarly decorated establishments; each displays pinned-up dollar bills posing as wallpaper and large canines that double as door greeters. For a deliciously potent cocktail, ask the Horseshoe's bartender to make you its signature drink: Sex in the Badlands.
Find more information on the Badlands National Park at www.nps.gov/badl/.