Nothing “bad” about Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park is an unique place. My aunt likened it to exploring another planet, and I definitely felt like I was in another world.
The park is located in western South Dakota just east of the Black Hills. It is about an hour’s drive from Rapid City, S.D., along I-90. The geography is amazing, and I love the rugged terrain and the painted hills. Badlands National Park showcases the prairie, and it also incorporate sculpted peaks.
If you are into fossils, Badlands National Park is one of the richest fossil beds in the worlds.
My uncle and I hiked and explored the park while I visited my aunt and uncle during the second week of September of this year.
My uncle, who lives in South Dakota, showed me around the area, and we spent a day in Badlands National Park. But we could have spent much more time in the park.
Nearly 250,000 acres of mixed grass prairie and dramatically eroded sedimentary soil make up the park. Flat prairie land gives way to multiple-color layered buttes, spires, and pinnacles, which are truly beautiful and unique.
The park’s website can be found by clicking here.
Exploring Badlands National Park By Vehicle
We began our journey by driving the Sage Creek Rim Road and Highway 240 Loop Road, which showcases the diversity of the park.
Sage Creek Rim Road
The Sage Creek Rim Road is a dirt road that follows the north rim of the Badlands Wilderness Area. You look down into the eroded valleys and over the grasslands. The wilderness area is on the west side of the park. There are many pullouts along this road with informative signs about the area. Keep an eye out because we saw buffaloes and prairie dogs along our drive.
I loved looking over the vast grasslands which are divided by deep cuts and in some places only leave a small single butte. It is easy to see how water and wind shape an area and how well plants and animals adapt.
The views from the overlooks made me want to run off down the hill and through the grasses like a child being let out for recess. I live in an area of thick forest, so vastness and wide open spaces area novelties to me. I kept my composure because I knew we were going to hike later.
Highway 240 Loop Road
The Sage Rim Road runs into the Badlands Loop Road, or the Highway 240 Loop Road, which is a paved highway. (Click here for a map of the park.)
Like the Sage Rim Road, the Badlands Loop Road provides visitors with scenic pullouts and informative signs.
On this road, you drop down into the valleys and drive among the barren peaks that are the signature of Badlands National Park. It is interesting to see them up close.
Along this road, my uncle and I got up close and almost personal with bighorn sheep. I love bighorn sheep and in all my travels had not seen one in the wild until I visited the Badlands. These sheep were practically in the road. And if I wanted to I bet I could have reached out and petted them, but touching or interacting with wildlife is discouraged.
On this drive I love how the highway snakes around up and down along the spires, pinnacles, and buttes. You can see the dried mud and rocky soil from a distance as well as up close.
I thought it was interesting how the ground looks like soft rock or packed dirt. I touched it expecting it to crumble at my finger tips, but it is actually rock hard.
Hiking at Badlands National Park
The park does not offer many miles of hiking trails, but the trails that it does have are excellent.
Most of the trails are moderate, but a few are considered strenuous. The park also offers boardwalk and interpretive trails.
Saddle Pass and Castle Trails
My uncle and I started with a short but strenuous one. We stared with the Saddle Pass Trail and then about two miles on the Castle Trail.
The Saddle Pass Trail climbs up the Badlands Wall and is a quarter of a mile long. At the top of the wall it connects with the Castle Trail and the Medicine Root Loop Trail. The Saddle Pass Trail is sometimes hard to see because there is not much vegetation to mark the trail. We lost the trail a few times, but made it to the top.
At the top of the wall, the trails level out and take hikers through prairie grasses with views of the pinnacles.
From the intersection of the trails, we went west toward Norbeck Pass and the Fossil Exhibit Trail. The Fossil trail is a boardwalk trail that showcases creatures that used to inhabit the area. It also takes visitors through exhibits and fossil replicas.
From that trail juncture we retraced our steps back to the vehicle.
Door, Window, and Notch Trails
From the Saddle Pass Trail, you can take the Castle Trail to the east, and that will lead you to the Door, Window, and Notch trailhead complex.
The Door Trail begins on a boardwalk, which snakes through barren peaks. From the end of the board walk, you have the option to stop there or hike on rocky ground and continue to overlook a valley. Numbered poles mark the rest of the trail. I enjoyed waking over the rough and rugged ground and noting the contrast of walking through the prairie.
The Window Trail is extremely short, and it leads to a natural window within the wall of the Badlands. It’s interesting to see how wind and water erode and shape the terrain.
The Notch Trail is not only a little longer, but it is also more strenuous. The beginning of the trail takes you into the narrow channeled valley of the sculpted rock. Here my uncle and I saw three bighorn sheep.
But soon the trail climbs up the rock. And when I say climb, I literally mean climb. The trail goes up a log ladder to a ledge, although going down was more scary. From there the trail follows the ledge and therefore is not a good trail for those with a fear of heights. But it didn’t bother my uncle and me too much, so we climbed the ladder and walked along the ledge.
Another aspect of the trail being a little dangerous is where the spines of rocks make their way to the valley, which caused us to climb over them. Several times we had to survey the best route to take.
But when we made it to the “notch” the view was more than worth the difficulties of the trail.
Indian Taco and Wall Drug
After hiking in Badlands National Park, my uncle and I ate a victory meal at Cedar Pass Lodge in the park. An Indian Taco is like an open-faced taco on frybread, which a flat bread that is fried. It was so good, and I wish I could figure out how to make it. But it wouldn’t be near as good anyway.
In addition to the lodge, there are also two campgrounds within the park.
The town of Wall is located on the north side of the Badlands at I-90, and is the closest town between the park and Rapid City. When visiting the area, you have to go to Wall Drug. On your way to the park, you will pass a sign or 20 signs advertising the store. Wall Drug is much more than a drug store. In fact it is several shops, where you can get everything from boots to books to toiletries. It is also full of interesting tourist attractions. I loved seeing all the old photographs and learning about the Badlands, Black Hill, and prairies.