This was our first visit to Badlands National Park, and we were stunned by the beauty. In early June, the temperatures were pleasant, the grasslands lush against rainbow-hued rock formations, wildlife was abundant, and wild roses bloomed on the trails. (Wild roses? In the Badlands? Not exactly what we expected.)
Although we enjoyed good weather, this is not a gentle place. Temperatures vary wildly, with extremes in summer and winter; winds can be fierce any time of year; there’s no potable water, and the terrain is rugged. The Lakota, who used this area for hunting grounds, called it “mako sica,” meaning “land bad.”
The term “badlands” has evolved to become a geologic term, referring to barren areas in which soft sedimentary rock has been extensively eroded by winds and water into fanciful forms. It’s a harshly beautiful land, with the peace that comes from being surrounded by nature with no sign of civilization as far as the eye can see. It’s good medicine for the soul.
The Badlands Loop Road
The Badlands Loop Road winds 31-miles through the heart of the park. The scenery is spectacular all along the way, traveling through a photogenic array of ancient geologic formations. There are numerous lookouts to pull over to soak up the views.
The best times of day to capture the colors of the Badlands are at dawn and late afternoon, during the “golden hour.” Despite our good intentions, we never captured sunrise in the Badlands and didn’t manage much at the golden hour, either. Still, it was gorgeous.
Hiking In The Badlands
Although much of the beauty of the Badlands can be seen on the scenic drive, getting out onto the trails provides a more intimate experience of the landscape. We walked the easy Window and Door Trails, looped together the Castle and Medicine Loop Trails for a six-mile hike, and climbed the ladder on the Notch Trail for a short but fun 1.5-mile adventure.
(Click on any photo to enlarge it and to access a slideshow)
All of the trails were interesting and worthwhile with the exception of the Saddle Pass Trail, which is a ridiculous trail. It’s a steep 1/4 mile climb up a slippery gravel slope, and descending was impossible without sitting down and sliding.
Wildlife In The Badlands
We were serenaded by birdlife on our hikes, from the flutelike melody of the Western Meadowlark to the buzzy trills of Rock Wrens. Along the scenic drive, we spotted groups of female Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep (mostly hanging out by the Ancient Hunters Overlook).
In the Sage Creek Wilderness Area in the northern part of the park, we saw lots of bison and their young. In June, the bison have shed much of their winter coats and look like they’re wearing moth-eaten fur blankets.
But the most exciting sighting of all for me was a Burrowing Owl. Every year I have a short “wish list” of creatures that I’d like to see. Burrowing Owls have been on my list for years. We knew the owls use burrows made by prairie dogs and are active during the day, so we searched the prairie dog town with our binoculars. Sure enough, among the squeaking little rodents stood a taller, long-legged, feathered creature with enormous eyes. I was thrilled.
About The Campground
Although our first choice is generally to stay at campgrounds within the park when we’re visiting national parks, after reading reviews of the campground in Badlands we chose a private park instead. Badlands Interior Campground is just one mile outside the entrance to Badlands, with the same view that the national park campground has, just a bit further away.
The RV Park has full hook-ups, showers, laundry, dark night skies, weak Wifi, good Verizon, and the sites are much better than most in the national park campground. We drove through the national park campground to check it out for future reference, and the sites are close together, awkwardly laid out, and the road was pot-holed. We would happily choose the private park again.
Eric took this photo of our site at sunrise one morning. Makes me wish we would have gotten up to head into the park for very early morning photography. Maybe next time.