“When a man moves away from nature his heart becomes hard.” – Lakota Indian Proverb
18 days after leaving Richmond we officially made it to undisturbed nature and designated wilderness – 244,300 acres of it. It took until the day we left for the astonishment of our surroundings to wear off just a little. The Badlands are a very strange kind of beautiful. We got in at the dead of night, in complete darkness, and the petrified walls popped up around us before we knew what was happening. It was the most eerie drive I’ve ever experienced. Having not seen the formations in daylight yet, we felt like we were driving through Mars…it was surreal.
With our FIRST guests caravanning behind us (we crossed paths with my friends Pat & Jotanna on their drive from DC to LA) we got into our campground around mid-night.
In the morning we drove from our KOA campground, 5 minutes from the park entry, back into The Badlands and got our first glimpse of them in daylight. Huge rugged steeples jutted up out of the prairie for 100 miles and the Jeep got silent. We were not worthy.
Our first stop was the Cedar Pass Lodge. Don’t go here if you’re in a hurry. We got sucked into a whirlwind of Native American clay pottery, turquoise jewels, aztec rugs, and beaded moccasins. If that’s not enough, they have this serene, traditional Native American music playing in the background. Every piece of art is so obviously a meticulously created tribute to nature. I wanted it all. Nothing like being in South Dakota, where the culture is permeating everywhere, to feel ridiculous, overdue pangs of guilt and anger for the dishonor these people endured. It took close to an hour to pull ourselves out. A few dream catchers later and we were ready to look out over The Badlands:
Pat, Jotanna, and I walked the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail and went to a few awesome lookouts. The next day, Josh and I hiked parts of Castle Trail, Notch Trail, Window Trail, Door Trail, and then Saddle Pass Trail on our last day.
Castle Trail winds you through the prairie, making you feel like an ant, with towering shelves of rock surrounding you. If the weather hadn’t been PERFECT this past weekend, I’m sure this can be a really hot hike with very little shade. (Speaking of weather – in our beginner’s luck, we seriously picked the best weekend to come. This area is scorching in the Summer and in about a week it will be frigid. We had low 70 degree temps our entire stay.)
If you want a good workout- Saddle Pass Trail and Notch Trail are shorter but much more vertical. Notch Trail has a more climactic end point with a vast view, making it our favorite hike of the weekend.
Most of the marked hikes are pretty contained to the Cedar Pass area. But if you take the Badlands Loop Road, you have 30 more miles of formations with a lookout every 3 miles or so. We drove the Jeep through the loop for some late afternoon views:
The park then spits you out in Wall, SD, home of the famous Wall Drug. On a scale of 1 to 10, this place scores a 12 on the Tourist Trap ranking. There are about 99 billboards leading up to it during the 5 mile span from the exit of the National Park. It’s basically this region’s “South of the Border.” As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not too cool for a Tourist Trap. So we went… and it was all kinds of cowboy boots/milkshakes/& old-time photos wonderful.
On the way back, Josh and I were hell-bent on seeing some buffalo. There is an area in The Badlands called Roberts Prairie Dog Town which includes a 5 mile dirt road. Apparently you are usually able to see a herd of bison from the road (there is a herd of 800 in the park). We went at dusk on the way back from Wall thinking this would be a good time. No dice. The closest we got to a buffalo was the Indian Taco Josh ordered at Cedar Pass Lodge’s Diner earlier in the day. (Indian Taco: ground buffalo meat on Indian frybread with lettuce, cheese, and tomato.) We did, however, see some long-horned sheep, a fox, and earlier in the day my life was made when we ran into a bunch of prairie dogs.
Aside from the weekend’s obvious win, which was the fascinating beauty of this place – a highlight was the 4 of us heading into “town” the first night. There was a bar that had signs outside promoting their air-conditioning and 5XL T-shirts. Knowing that they had an AC system and planet-sized T-shirts was all we needed! We probably spent 4 solid hours there, eating pickled pigs feet, drinking “Sex in the Badlands”, playing pool with locals, and taking shots in honor of Crazy Horse (it being the 107th anniversary of his death). By the end of the night, my hiking boots were off and me and Pat were dancing with pool sticks and a puppy. The town of Interior, SD (population 67) definitely showed us a good time.
Another highlight of the weekend were the amazing sunsets. Sunsets, alone, are already so dramatic so you can imagine their intensity with this scenery. You get two types of sunsets in The Badlands. Josh and I ended up witnessing both. If you’re in the prairie, you can see so far that if you look to your right, you see the sun setting and the sky lighting up with pastels. Then if you look to your left, you see the actual night rising and the dark blue sky creeping up out of the grass. If you’re on a lookout on the wall of a formation, you see the jagged shadows of the peaks as the sun falls behind them. We had a very bright moon most of the weekend (full moon on Sunday) so I caught some good sunset photos:
We couldn’t stop taking panoramas:
The Badlands through our Lens: