“The prairie is not forgiving. Anything that is shallow – the easy optimism of the homesteader…. the trees whose roots don’t reach ground water – will dry up and blow away.”
-Kathleen Norris (Dakota)
Reminiscing about my first visit to Badlands National Park, South Dakota in August 2014.
“Kaiti, wake up,” I groaned and tried to cling to sleep as Vince prodded at me from the driver’s seat, “We’re here.”
Now that got my attention. The sixteen hour drive through midwest grasslands had been an exceptionally boring one, and nothing could excite me more than the fact that it was finally over. At least until a bright bolt of lighting illuminated the pitch-black landscape that surrounded us. Suddenly, the dark void of night disappeared, replaced by an other-worldly landscape of towering, jagged buttes. As quickly as the scene had materialized, it was gone and I breathed out an awed, “Wow,” as I pressed my nose to the window, staring at our once-again invisible surroundings. Lightning illuminated the sky again and again, and every time it struck, we caught another tantalizing glimpse of the alien landscape of Badlands National Park.
Since it would still be hours before daybreak, and we couldn’t check into our campsite until morning, we decided to park somewhere and sleep until then. We woke up with the sunrise to realize that we had parked at a scenic overlook where we got our first view of the Badlands in daylight.
Excitement welled in my chest as I gazed over the striped buttes. I couldn’t wait to get out there and explore them. Our first order of business was to set up camp though, so we drove to the Cedar Pass Campground where we pitched our tent as quickly as possible. The campground even had its own stunning view of the park.
With camp set up, we headed over to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to pick up a brochure and learn a bit about the park. The visitor center had some really nice exhibits about the badlands formations and the unique wildlife that lives in the park. Of particular interest was the elusive and endangered black-footed ferret. These nocturnal ferrets live underground in abandoned prairie dog burrows, and were actually declared extinct in 1980. Thanks to a lucky discovery of about 130 ferrets still living in Wyoming, scientists have been able to capture, breed, and reintroduce the ferrets to 29 sites in North America.
We also learned that the badlands formations in the park were created by deposition and erosion, meaning the soil in the area was built up over millions of years, and then began the process of erosion about 500,000 years ago. The erosion was caused by the waters of the Cheyenne and White Rivers, and the different colored layers of built-up soil were revealed as the rivers carved through the landscape.
With our brains packed full of new knowledge, we decided it was time to hit the trails, stopping first for a quick walk along the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail. This loop trail was only a half mile long, so it was a quick hike, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t beautiful. It offered a great view of a wall of badlands formations that jutted up from the flat prairie.
After that, we headed to the saddle pass trail. This is another short trail that climbs straight up over a butte and meets up with the Medicine Root and Castle Trails. Even though the Saddle pass is less than a mile long, it was a bit strenuous because it is steep, and we happened to be there on an incredibly hot August day. The sun was shining brilliantly by the time we started our ascent, and we had to drink a lot of water to keep hydrated as we climbed.
Even in the heat, it didn’t take us long to reach the top of the butte.
From there, the terrain flattened out, and we continued along the castle trail. This is one of the longest trails in the north end of the park, and popular with backcountry campers.
Although the intensity of the sun was uncomfortable, it made the scenery look extra beautiful. Big fluffy clouds floated in the sky, and distant buttes gleamed in every direction we looked. The castle trail was completely flat so the hiking was easy, and I enjoyed exploring the unfamiliar landscape. We kept finding interesting details like cracked soil, a shed rattlesnake skin, and an area where water runoff had carried rocks downhill and left them scattered in an interesting pattern.
If all of the cool little details weren’t enough, the panoramic views certainly were.
We hiked the castle trail until our stomachs started complaining with hunger, then we wandered back down to the car where we made PB&J sandwiches for lunch. Afterwards, we thought it was high time we drove the park highway to check out some scenic overlooks.
Highway 240 is an attraction in itself. It twists and winds through the Badlands with new sights around every turn. As we drove, we began to notice that the road was dominated mostly by motorcyclists. In fact, there were so many motorcycles that we eventually started to wonder if there was something going on that we didn’t know about. Indeed, it turned out that we had arrived in South Dakota right in the middle of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, a ten-day event that draws about 500,000 visitors annually. We immediately felt a little dumb upon learning this because the rally isn’t exactly a secret (we already knew of it from friends and family that bike) and we had planned a whole trip, totally oblivious to the fact that it would be happening at the same time. It was easy to see why bikers would be drawn to the badlands; the highway was drop dead gorgeous. We even spent some time lamenting that our own motorcycle was sitting in our garage back in Michigan (of course we never could have made a cross-country trip on our 1985 Honda anyway).
After cruising along the highway for a little ways, we made a stop at the aptly named Panorama Point.
As one of the most jaw-dropping views in the park, Panorama Point is difficult to even comprehend at first. It takes a minute for your eyes to adjust and start seeing the details of the layered rock that sprawls out towards the horizon.
We stopped at a couple more lookouts along the road, and eventually, we left the main highway and headed for the more remote Sage Creek area of the park. We drove all the way to the Sage Creek campground, which took a long time, because I had read that American Bison can often be found there. The landscape changed dramatically as we drove, morphing from jagged buttes to rolling hills covered in grass. Unfortunately, there were no bison at the campground, but that didn’t mean we wouldn’t see any wildlife.
On our return drive we stopped at Roberts Prairie Dog Town. At first glance this looked just like an open field, but we parked the car and got out to look around. We heard the prairie dogs before we saw them. The little fluff balls manage to make ridiculously loud squeaking sounds to warn each other of danger, and these chirps echoed across the prairie as we stepped onto the grass. Next we saw mounds of dirt dotting the sprawling grasses, and finally we began to see the tiny, well-camouflaged prairie dogs.
We didn’t get very close to the cute little creatures, but we thoroughly enjoyed watching their antics from a distance.
We hit the road once again, and I kept an eye out of my window in hopes of finding more wildlife. Before long, I saw a black dot in a field far below the road. We got out of the car to investigate, traipsing to the edge of a butte. Sure enough, there was a bison in the distance. It was so far away that we could barely make it out, but I snapped a couple of pathetic photos anyway. I even had Vince take a picture of me with the bison in the background.
Before long we had some much more satisfying wildlife encounters with bighorn sheep. First we came upon one that was treading majestically along the top of a butte, with a nice view in the background.
And later, we pulled into a parking lot that had as many sheep as it did tourists, including some playful lambs.
It was dinner time when we finally got back to the Cedar Pass area, and we ate at the Cedar Pass Lodge before retiring to our campsite for the night. There was a violent rainstorm that night, which wasn’t ideal since our tent at the time was an old monstrosity that I had bought for five dollars from a garage sale when I was in college. It leaked like crazy, it was absurdly difficult to set up, and it did not hold up well to the intense winds that came with the storm.
Still, we made it through the night unscathed, and we were ready to tackle some more hiking by the next morning. The night’s rain had subsided, but the weather remained gloomy. I wasn’t bothered by the clouds though, because cooler days can make hiking much more comfortable.
We started the morning at the Fossil Exhibit trail, an easy quarter-mile hike with interpretive signs describing the now extinct animals that used to roam the badlands, and replica fossils. This trail was even more barren than the rest of the park, with only a few scraggly patches of prairie grass growing from the earth.
It didn’t take long to finish the trail, and soon we were on to the next one, the Door Trail. Although this trail was short in distance, it packed a huge punch in terms of breathtaking scenery. The hike begins when you slip through an opening in a massive wall of badlands formations. Once through, you find yourself on a Mars-like surface of red and white rock where. The trail blends in completely with the surrounding earth, and is denoted instead by the occasional metal post. It ends when you reach a massive, very treacherous looking canyon that sprawls out as far as the eye can see.
After finishing the Door Trail, we went back to the nearby Castle Trail. This time we were starting from the opposite end of it, so we got to see different scenery than we had the previous day. As you can probably tell from the pictures, I was experiencing knee issues during this trip (a far cry from the fractured tibial plateau that I am recovering from as I write this). I was having problems with IT band pain, which is actually quite common and not that difficult to manage if you know what you are doing. At the time, I had no idea what the problem was or how to fix it, so I just braced up my knees and hoped for the best (ah to be young and inexperienced with sports injuries). Anyway, because of all of that I couldn’t hike the full ten miles of the Castle Trail, but it was fun to be able to approach it from either side and get a taste of what the full loop would be like.
The east end of Castle Trail felt less desolate than the section we’d done the previous day. The ever-present prairie grasses were broken up by tall wildflowers, including the beautiful little sunflowers that I now associate with the Great Plains.
There was one more thing I wanted to do after we finished our hike. I wanted to drive back to the west end of the park to try one more time at seeing bison. Vince begrudgingly agreed to reembark on the long drive, and we made a few different stops along the way to make things more interesting.
One such stop was at the Yellow Mounds Overlook. This offered a view of the oldest badlands formations. They were different colors than the buttes in the rest of the park, and it was obvious that they had suffered much more erosion over the years.
We drove to the Sage Creek area again, but saw no sign of the bison herd. Since we were there, we decided to check out Sage Creek itself. We wandered down to creek below a bridge and gawked at its strange, tan colored water. The river is full of eroded sand and clay that causes its milky color.
When we turned around to go back to the car, we noticed that there were swallows swooping around below the bridge. I’ve always loved the flight patterns of swallows. They have very distinctive pointed wings, and they dive and twirl through the air with such whimsy that I can’t help but imagine that they are overjoyed by the freedom of flight. These cliff swallows had built mud nests below the bridge we had parked near, and I was fascinated by their shape and construction.
By the time we made it back to our campsite we were quite hungry, and we decided to change things up and go into town to look for dinner. Interior is the nearest town to the park, so we drove south until we passed a sign that read: Interior, POP 67. The sign is inaccurate as Interior is actually home to somewhere around 100 people, but you can probably imagine that the town was incredibly small. We chose the eat at the Wagon Wheel Bar and Grill, which had standard American fare, and a relaxed atmosphere. Interior may very well be the smallest town I’ve ever visited to this day (at least nothing smaller comes to mind). This would be our last meal in the Badlands, as we would move on the the Black Hills early the next morning.
It’s hard to explain or to put my finger on, but my experiences in the Badlands have stuck in my mind over the years in a different way from most places. Everything about them, from the striking landscape to the town of Interior, feels like the perfect setting for some epic untold story that I want to read. I’ve done a couple of paintings inspired by this trip, and over the years I’ve written short stories and poems about the Badlands (none of these will ever see the light of day). Still I don’t feel quite done with it. I had this impression that the earth itself was holding its breath in the Badlands, as though it was waiting for something. I’m not sure I’ll never know what that something may be, but I am sure I will always hold a special place in my heart for Badlands National Park.