Badlands of South Dakota was my first national park of “moonscapes” and to this day it holds a very special place in my heart as of my favorite parks. South Dakota was also the first state where I got to truly experience the Wild West and realized I was born JUST 150 years too late 🙂 I would have made a great outlaw (or who knows, maybe I was one in a previous life and that’s why living on the road has such an appeal to me).
Badlands National Park was shaped by wind and water over millions of years. It is NOT a series of striking landscapes BUT moonscapes instead. The colors of the park change based on the time of the day, the angle the sun hits the rocks, and the minerals in them. Badlands consists of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles, and spires blended with the LARGEST undisturbed mixed grass prairie in the US. The movies Dances with Wolves and Thunderheart were shot in Badlands National Park.
The Native Americans saw the land as prime hunting grounds and called it “White Hills” due to the bentonite clay that gives it its white color. They considered the nearby “Black Hills” (named so due to the dark color the ponderosa pines give them) as sacred grounds. The first settlers and trappers named the area Badlands because travel through it was beyond difficult due to horrendous wind and lack of water and nothing would grow there so they couldn’t survive. I wish the “Whites” would adopt the sustainable practices of the Native Americans of living in peace with nature and leading a more down-to-earth existence, instead of practicing “pillage and plunder” in every place they set foot at.
Half of Badlands National Park is still on Native American territory and the only way to see that part of the park is to take a dirt road to Sheep Table Mountain. You need a 4×4 high-clearance vehicle for that road, it is often impassable in mud season, and if you get stuck you won’t be able to call anyone to your rescue. NOT a joke, DIDN’T go 🙂
If you want to see the largest untouched grasslands and huge wild roaming buffalo, take Sage Creek Rim Road for a leisurely drive. It is a dirt road but my tiny car did just fine 🙂
Plan TWO FULL days to experience Badlands National Park and the surrounding area. Add 2-3 nights at Circle View Guest Ranch. The ranch and the activities it offers to guests are so spectacular and different I wrote them their own blog post 🙂 #doasIsaynotasIdo
I had just 1 day to explore, hence I ran all my trails instead of hiking them 😦
With very limited time I chose to the “Door”, “Windows”, and “Notch” trails. All relatively short and although they are rated strenuous, they are NOT really 🙂 Strenuous in National Parks will be moderate at best in any other environment. The “Door” trail has a boardwalk over canyons and badlands – wander down the maze at your own risk 🙂
On the “Notch” trail you can test yourself on their famous ladder and then hike up some spires. I also wanted to walk down the “Medicine Plant” trail as it sounded really interesting but I didn’t have time for a longer hike (or another run ;-).
Something to watch out for in Badlands National Park is rattlers. Due to the specifics of the land and the park terrain the snakes like to suntan right where you walk #toughluck 🙂 and some trails can be poorly marked. So when you walk and stop short of a vertical drop, you probably verged OFF trail 🙂 (It may have happened to me a few times…made for beautiful pictures nevertheless :-))
If timing allows it, visit “Little House on the Prairie” on your way TO Circle View Guest Ranch. You’ll appreciate the way of life of the first settlers and you’ll understand better how Circle View was formed. Prairie dogs are the kings of that homestead now…don’t feed them unless you wish to be bitten 🙂
“Little House on the Prairie” still features the original homestead buildings from the early 20th century. Many hopeful farmers traveled to South Dakota from Europe or the eastern United States to try to seek out a living out West after the Civil War and the Homesteading Act for Western Expansion. Situation was SO dire in South Dakota that while the standard size for a homestead in the West was 160 acres that proved far too small to support a family in this semi-arid, wind-swept environment so the homestead size was increased to 640 acres in the Dakota Territories. Even though the land is good for grazing, the original settlers were farmers so it few generations perished before they figured out what to grow and how to raise cattle on the prairie.
With no woods on the prairie, sod houses were the norm. The homes were either built of grass and mud or dug into the earth to provide shelter from the brutal wind. Windows were a luxury and only on the front of the buildings. Buffalo chips were used for heating… (Told you in Longest Drive Ever to get used to the smell :-))
I found the American Homesteading history and the moonscapes of Badlands National Park fascinating. I hope you’ve enjoyed them too 🙂 Wait till I tell you the outlaw stories and give you a glimpse into the cowboy culture around the Black Hills of South Dakota!