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Road Trip to the Moon: Badlands National Park
Photograph by Annie Griffiths Belt
A storm sweeps over buttes near Pinnacles Overlook, part of the Badlands' signature formation known as the Wall. Stretching for miles west to east, this daunting geologic feature was carved over the past 500,000 years by three river systems that eroded the edge of a high plateau of claystone.
By Scott Elder
The Ogalala Sioux called the forbidding maze of buttes and spires mako sica, land bad. Early French-Canadian trappers also gave the jagged and barren landscape a bad nameles mauvaises terres à traverser, "bad lands to cross." But don't let the gloomy labels steer you away from the rough-hewn beauty of South Dakota's Badlands. Wind, water, and time have sculpted a natural masterpiece on the American prairie, and the haunting Badlands inspire a unique awe in hearts not easily impressed. "I've been about the world a lot and pretty much over our own country," wrote architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1935, "but I was totally unprepared for that revelation called the Dakota Bad Lands... What I saw gave me indescribable sense of mysterious otherwhere." After exploring the pockmarked gray terrain, many of the park's 900,000 annual visitors draw a comparison beyond Wright's fertile imagination: It reminds them of scenes from the moon.
Work commenced on this terrestrial moonscape, including a portion known as the Wall, half a million years ago, and in modern times nature continues to chisel the claystone labyrinth at a rate of about one inch (2.5 centimeters) a yearbreakneck speed in geologic time. As the crumbly ground erodes, it yields bones of mammals many millions of years old. Park visitors can watch paleontologists digging in the rich fossil beds and check out exhibits describing the ancient boars, rhinos, and dog-size horses. Those interested in the wildlife that now make a home on the range need only drive a few miles west of the nearly lifeless Wall. Here in the Badlands Wilderness Area, visitors can watch buffalo roam, pronghorn play, and prairie dogs scurry in the lush grasslands.
Badlands National Park offers activities and accommodations for everyone. Outdoorsy folk can hike the many challenging trails and pitch their tents at one of the park's two campgrounds, or anywhere they choose, with only a few restrictions. Less ambitious travelers can bed down in cabins inside the park and drive to most of the overlooks and sites. But whether you decide to rough it or take it easy, just make sure you go to the Badlands at least once in your lifetime. There's no other place like it on Earth, and it's just ten minutes off the interstate.
Mapping out a cross-country road trip? If so, swing north and add the Badlands to your itinerary. The park is an ideal midway destinationinexpensive, quick (if you choose), and along the way. Scenic Badlands Loop Road, also known as Highway 240, skirts the Wall's edge and connects to Interstate 90 at both ends of its 41-mile (66-kilometer) length. Get off at I-90's Exit 110 near the town of Wall or Exit 131 near Cactus Flat.
If you want to fly, the nearest airport is Rapid City Regional, 80 miles (128 kilometers) to the west. In Rapid City, either rent a car from one of the many agencies at the airport or sign up for a private bus tour. There is no public transportation to the park.
Everyone driving into the park must purchase a $10 entrance pass for themselves and their car, and the charge for each additional passenger is $5. The passes are good for seven days and the park is open 24 hours a day, year-round. Summer and winter weather can be particularly bad in the Badlands, so try to visit in spring or fall.
Where to Stay
The Cedar Pass Lodge offers the only indoor accommodations within the park. The lodge's 24 air-conditioned cabins are a short walk from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and several trails. Open from mid-April to mid-October, the cabins range from $51 to $70 per night. For reservations call (605) 433-5460 or visit www.cedarpasslodge.com/. Outside the park, there are many motels in nearby Interior, Kadoka, and Wall.
Camping and Backpacking
There are two campgrounds inside the Badlands, the Cedar Pass Campground near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, and the Sage Creek Primitive Campground in the Wilderness Area. Both are operated by the Park Service year-round on a first-come, first-served basis with a 14-night limit, and both allow RVs.
The Cedar Pass Campground provides water but has no showers. Campsites run $10 per night in the summer, $8 per night in the winter. There are four group campsites that can be reserved in advance by calling (605) 433-5235. The Sage Creek Primitive Campground is free, but you need to bring in your own water.
Backpackers can set up camp anywhere in the park that is not visible from the roads and at least one-half mile (almost one kilometer) from roads and trails. Pitch your tent in a spot that has been used before so you don't damage the vegetation, but avoid bison trails. You might be woken by a buffalo making its morning commute. Bring a compass, a topographical map, and a gallon of water for each person per dayfilters and chemical treatments won't make the silty water potable. Also, bring a backpacking stove, since open fires are outlawed in the wildfire-prone park.
Badlands To Do
Trails and Exhibits
The park has eight trails near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, all with parking, including short leisurely walks and a ten-mile (16-kilometer) hike. The paths lead visitors on a tour of the Badlands' most amazing formations, such as dizzying, cliff-lined canyons, and a fantastic "door" and "window" carved into the Wall. Don't get too close to the edge, and be careful where you put your weight; the loose ground could erode beneath your feet. The Cliff Shelf Nature Trail passes an unexpected oasis in the desolate land and presents a spectacular view of the plains below. The Fossil Exhibit Trail shows examples of the extinct animals that once prowled the area, and during the summer park naturalists give short presentations about the Badlands' fossils.
To see paleontologists in action, visit the fossil excavation at the Pig Dig site beside Loop Road. The trowel and dental-pick wielding bone hunters will chat with you about their work and answer your questions about the site. If you encounter a fossil yourself during your wandering, don't touch it, and make a report at the visitor center. That's what the considerate people who discovered the "pig" backbone that started the dig did, and moreover, fiddling with fossils is a federal crime.
To take a walk on the Badlands' wild side, grab your binoculars and head down the gravel of Sage Creek Rim Road into the park's Wilderness Area. The only trails in this grassy 64,000-acre (26,000-hectare) section of the park are made by the 600 buffalo that live here. If you see one, stay back at least 100 yards (91 meters). They can be unpredictable if startled, and bison can charge at more than 30 miles an hour (48 kilometers an hour). Another speedy resident is the pronghorn, which with a top-speed of 61 miles an hour (100 kilometers an hour) rates as the second fastest land animal after the cheetah. Other creatures making their home in the Wilderness Area are bighorn sheep that thrive on the steep terrain and prairie dogs that burrow under it. Rattlesnakes also dwell in the grasslands, so watch your step and wear boots and thick socks. Don't get spooked by the prairie rattlers and buffaloaccording to the Park Service, the most dangerous creature in the Badlands is the prickly pear cactus.
Badlands National Park, National Park Service
Visit the Badlands National Park's official website for travel tips, history, downloadable brochures, campsite information, and other useful information.
Call the Ben Reifel Visitor Center for information at (605) 433-536.
Free, downloadable color maps of the Badlands and driving directions provided by the National Park Service.
South Dakota Department of Tourism
The state's tourism site has more helpful travel tips for the Badlands and neighboring attractions.
Catch a glimpse of the famed Badlands Wall right now.
Black Hills, Badlands & Lakes Association Website
This online vacation guide can help you find a room and plan your trip.