Here are 5 great things about the Badlands that you may not know. Badlands National Park near South Dakota’s Black Hills is full of beauty and mystery and wind! Before getting into the meat and potatoes of it, can you tell that I kind of fell in love with South Dakota? I sort of did. From the Black Hills to the big horn mountain sheep to the Western saloon vibe, I just really liked all of our time there. Our trip last Fall was my first time in the Dakotas, Steve’s too for that matter. And I really would enjoy going back.
Upon hearing that we’ve been full time truck campers for the past 2 1/2 years, people regularly ask what our favorite spot is. Steve generally replies that his favorite is the “next one”. He likes the thrill of exploring and finding something new. I like that also, but I’m a tad bit more of a “nester”, so new places are great. But uncovering as many stones as possible in one place is even better for me. That’s why South Dakota and Southeast Utah are my favorite places so far. They both have so much wild nature, that I really loved our time in both states.
The Badlands are really not bad!
Let me tell you about the first of 5 great things about the Badlands. It’s not really all that bad! In fact, it’s pretty dang interesting. The Lakota people called the area “mako sica” or “bad lands” because it’s rocky, there’s not much water and it’s super hot in the summer. Well, if you’re traveling on foot or on horse back, these are huge reasons to not want to go here. But traveling by car (or truck camper) changes the game. We drove throughout the Park over the course of a couple days and didn’t once worry about running out of water or food or gas or anything really. Ha! So even though, the area has an eerie name, it’s a great place to visit.
It’s also only about an hour east of Rapid city on I-90, so drive out, stop by Wall Drug and then feast your eyes on the Badlands. Highway 240 is known as the Badlands Loop Road and it takes you throughout the park. Stop at the overlooks, take a walk on a nature trail, and visit the air conditioned Visitor Center at Cedar Pass.
The Badlands Wall
The Badlands Wall is the main feature of the Badlands National Park North Unit. We stayed overnight atop The Wall and while the views are amazing, the wind is unforgiving. It gave us a battering as bad as one we took near Utah’s Canyonlands and that was a doozy! We landed off Hwy 240 (South of Wall Drug), just before the Pinnacles entrance to the National Park. The location worked great for us.
The White River carved a valley and all kinds of rock formations within it. The North side of the valley ends in a literal “wall” spanning east (near Kadoka, SD) to west (Wall, SD). The Wall separates the lower prairie to the south from the northern upper prairie. As we drove toward its edge, we could see RVs stationed all along The Wall. For as far as we could see, really, RV’s just perched there. So we did too. It made for one heck of a sunset! The best time to visit is actually first thing in the morning as the sun rises or late in the day. It’s the magic hour when the reds and yellows of the pinnacles become brighter and richer.
I set an alarm to watch the sunrise and the half hour or so before the sun came up were truly magical for me. Wrapped in a big blanket to protect me from the ridiculous wind, I explored as far down The Wall as I could easily get. The colors were astounding and the solitude of being the only person brave enough (or foolish enough) to face the winds, gave me such a peaceful feeling. What a great experience, one that I won’t soon forget.
The Night Sky
Third in my list of 5 great things about the Badlands is the darkness of the night. Zero light pollution means that we could see thousands upon thousands of stars. During the summer, rangers point out constellations during the Night Sky Programs at Cedar Pass Amphitheater. We settled for lawn chairs, Bloody Marys and tipping our heads back. We easily saw the Milky Way, while searching for shooting stars. What a great way to pass the evening. See why I love being nomads?
Steve set up his camera for some time-lapse views and captured some great images of the night sky. He also got this great view of Cupcake, our truck camper. It’s interesting because with your normal eyes, you can’t see the glow of our faerie lights through the windows. But with the longer exposure, our windows are lit up in bright red. Pretty cool.
Every July, The Badlands Astronomy Festival celebrates all things celestial. It’s a free event that brings together space science professionals, educators, visitors and amateur astronomers for a three day starapalooza. Attendees can peer through solar telescopes and attend technology demonstrations by special guest speakers. There are astrophotography workshops and all kinds of stargazing opportunities. Definitely a good time to head to the Badlands.
Camping and Hiking in the Badlands
We stayed on The Wall, because it’s the kind of thing we like to do. But the Park does have the Cedar Pass Campground near the Ben Reifel Visitors Center. We stopped to dump our tanks there and it looked like a great place to stay. It’s close to the Loop Road and has easy access to hiking trails. Of course, it was closed in late October. But we felt thankful to still use the dump station.
The Notch Trail is one of the Park’s more well-known hiking trails. It’s 1.5 miles out and back with a moderate rating. The trail takes visitors through a canyon to a log ladder. Climbing up it takes you “the Notch” with views across the White River Valley.
The Fossil Exhibit Trail is a National Scenic Trail, which gets heavy use in the summer. But like the name suggests, allows visitors to get a glimpse into the Park’s past. This trail is a self-guided, fully accessible boardwalk featuring fossil replicas. Along the way are also exhibits about the extinct animals who once called the Badlands home.
Get a list of all the Badlands hiking trails from the Visitor Center. Just be sure to take water, maybe a hat for some shade, and definitely be on the look out for rattlesnakes! We saw quite a few signs warning us to stay alert and watch for snakes. We saw a few of them on the Pacific Crest Trail and they didn’t seem so interested in us, as long as we kept our distance. I imagine it’s the same here. Be alert, listen for the warning rattle and don’t panic.
#5 of my 5 great things about the Badlands
The wildlife in Badlands National Park has to be in my top 5. We saw bison, Pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep and, of course, prairie dogs. Black-footed ferrets also call the Badlands home, as do lots of turtles, snakes and birds.
Bison are enormous. So huge. They can grow up to 6.5 feet and weigh up to 2,000 pounds. They look slow and relaxed, having an almost lethargic look about them. But they can actually run up to 35 miles per hour and they have a vertical leap of six feet. Those bad boys can jump! They spend most of their time grazing, roaming about two miles daily. Just moving along and eating the grass. I enjoyed watching them throughout South Dakota.
We didn’t see any ferrets, because they sleep all day! They live in abandoned prairie dog burrows and rely heavily on prairie dogs as their main food source. One ferret eats a prairie dog about every three days, around 100 per year. So, the prairie dog really does have a huge impact on their environment. They’re a food source themselves for the ferrets. But they also create a better food source for the bison and pronghorn by eating grass and weeds, bringing in new grasses for the larger grazers.
So much Wildlife!
We saw a big herd of bighorn sheep and stopped to watch them for awhile. They’re grazers so they descend to the grasslands, eat lots of vegetation and then return to the cliffs away from predators. There aren’t many predators for them in the Badlands, so the ones we saw were napping in the sun.
There are so many reasons to visit Badlands National Park in South Dakota. My list of five great things could probably be the same list I’d make in any park (like Yellowstone). Some hiking, some stars, some animals and some amazing views. It sounds pretty standard but the pinnacles and buttes of the Badlands are certainly a site to see. Just beautiful. So take some time, visit South Dakota. See the Badlands. You’ll be glad you did. And let me know your top 5 in the Badlands too!
Related: Northern Black Hills of South Dakota