What would I do with a five-day mini-getaway? Let’s see, maybe New York City, San Francisco, Miami or — South Dakota? Lets be honest, the Mount Rushmore State doesn’t generally come to mind when thinking “vacation.” But after seeing a photo of Badlands National Park in the book “501 Must-Visit Natural Wonders,” I changed my mind.
The National Park Service describes the South Dakota Badlands as one of the planet’s fastest-eroding landscapes. What you see today will in some way be different tomorrow. The Badlands also 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, Badlands National Park largely is a landscape of canyons, steep pinnacles, buttes, ridges and spires. The area also is rife with fossils.
For more than 150 years, paleontologists have been digging up the bones of early mammals, such as the three-toed horse, saber-toothed cat and miniature camels — not to mention the Field Museum’s leading lady, Sue, the most complete and best preserved Tyrannosaurus rex ever discovered. The skeleton was found a couple of hours north of the Badlands, near the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation.
That is all very interesting but not why I ultimately decided to make the trip. South Dakota’s driveability fit well with my lack of airfare funds and vacation time. So I recruited a contingent of fellow adventure enthusiasts — my sister and a friend — stuffed my sedan with camping gear and made the 13-hour trip from suburban Chicago to the Badlands.
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. No trip to the Badlands is complete without experiencing the celestial grandeur that comes with a clear night.
By day, we explored 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. Each one varies in length from a quarter mile to 10 miles round trip.
At times, hiking through the park seemed 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. While exploring the area, I quickly noticed that little pieces of rock could 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.
Because we had only a couple of days, we combined the Saddle Pass Trail, where we traversed a sharp pinnacle, with the five-mile Castle Trail. Saddle Pass connects near the halfway mark of Castle, 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 took about an hour by car. Had we skipped this, we would have missed 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, we chose to stay overnight at Cedar Pass Campground within the park. The expanse of the Badlands’ eroded rock formations lay all around us. In early morning light, the intricate play between highlighted peaks and shadowed ridges gave the landscape a rich contrast. The trade-off: no showers.
After a day of hiking and in desperate need of a good scrub, our second night we transported our weary bodies three minutes down the road to Badlands Interior Campground and its hot showers. There we took refuge in a less conventional means of accommodation: a tepee. An opening in the tepee’s top as well as the lack of a door flap proved unfavorable in maintaining warmth, resulting in a very cold and sleepless night. The trade-off: being in close proximity to what little night life the Badlands have to offer.
The campground sits on the outskirts of the minuscule town of Interior, population 67, which makes for an interesting excursion by day or night. I recommend barhopping at the town’s local watering holes, 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.
South Dakota had captured my imagination. And I learned something. Sometimes it’s not vacationing in the hottest destinations that makes the magic; it’s allowing yourself to be pleasantly surprised by the place where you least expected greatness.
IF YOU GO:
Badlands Interior Campground (900 South Dakota Highway 377, Interior, 605-433-5335, badlandsinteriorcampground.com) has 60 sites on five acres and includes the option to stay overnight in a tepee for $24.95 (sleeps five). There also are hot showers.
South Dakota Department of Tourism, 800-732-5682, travelsd.com
National Park Service, nps.gov/state/sd