When Andre first suggested we head to Badlands National Park I honestly had to google it to see what it was. Upon finding a bunch of stark looking desert scenery I was like… “ummm… suuuure?” I’m more of a mountain-forest girl; deserts don’t really do it for me. But it was another National Park we could check off our bucket list, so up to South Dakota we headed. Boy, am I glad we did.
Having just been at Wind Cave National Park, we headed into The Badlands via highway 44, making our entrance on the South-East side of the park near the town of Interior. There’s a great visitor center/museum near the entrance where we proudly stamped our National Park Passport book and learned all about how The Badlands used to be the bottom of an ocean floor. Be sure not to pass up the opportunity to check it out because woah– mind blowing knowledge was dropped. After the obligatory (yet super cool) visitor center stop we headed into the heart of the park.
Much like the Grand Canyon, pictures of Badlands National Park simply do not do it justice. Once you’re there, the beautiful pictures you’ve seen transform into brilliant large scale works of geological history right in front of your eyes. You have to be there in person to fully comprehend the scale and colors, and let the splendor of massive geological formations wash over you while you stand there in awe.
As one who is generally not even remotely interested in desert habitat, I couldn’t stop reading the interpretive signs pointing out what the different colored striations in the landscape meant. For example, when you see the really dark stripes near the tops of the formations, that was from volcanic activity 20-30 million years ago when ash rained down and the climate was cooling. Most beautiful to me were the yellow mounds, which were left when the black hills and Rockies were lifted up and the sea drained away. The layers turned yellow and are “fossil soil, or paleosol.” For more information on these unique geographical layers, click here. Once familiar with what each of the colored stripes mean, you can literally read the history that’s painted on the landscape. It’s incredible.
As for hiking opportunities, we checked out Door, Window and Notch trails, which all share a parking lot. They’re all very short, being .75, .25 and 1.5 miles respectively. They head straight out into the middle of beautiful geological formations, and while there is a marked path you are free to roam off-trail anywhere you want. When you’re done roaming, head back to the parking lot and find the next trailhead. You can also do the 10 mile long Castle Trail from here, but we passed that up for the chance to drive around and see more of the park via car. Click here for a list of the other trail options on the park’s website.
There are ADA compliant boardwalks that lead you out to the edge of the formations so everyone can have something awe inspiring to see regardless of ability. We did have a ranger come by and warn us that there are sometimes rattlesnakes underneath, so be careful to not step off trail until you get to the end of the boardwalk.
We’ve never spent the night in a desert before, so we parked at the Conata Picnic Area and started hiking in to find a spot to make camp. It’s totally free to back country camp in Badlands. However, make sure to register at the trailhead so they know where to send the search party. We didn’t have to go in far before finding an absolutely beautiful spot to spend the night.
I’ll spare you the photo of a giant tarantula…
Things to know before you go:
- When back country camping you must be at least .5 miles from a road.
- When back country camping you must not be visible from a road.
- No pets are permitted on trails or basically anywhere except the parking lots.
- No campfires are permitted. Use of backpacking/camping stoves ok.
- Bring lots of water! There’s no water to filter, because desert. Duh.
- Before heading out with your tent, I’d check in at the visitor center or with a Ranger to see where they advise to go camping. The National Park property crisscrosses private lands, so you want to make sure you’re not trespassing.
If you’re hesitant about hitting up Badlands National Park because you’re worried it’s going to be boring, push those thoughts aside and lace up your hiking boots. Badlands is AWESOME, in the truest sense. It literally inspires awe when you see it in person. If you find yourself as close as Mt. Rushmore, (which sucks by the way,) be sure to head over to Badlands National Park because you won’t want to miss it. I’m certainly glad I didn’t.
– C. Egli