When you think of South Dakota your mind probably jumps to one of three things; Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills, or the Sturgis Bike Rally. Unless you know nothing about the state or where its located geographically (hint: we are below North Dakota) then your mind is probably drawing a blank. However, our state packs a lot more punch than people are aware of. We have stunning surprises around every corner and one of the most treasured is the rugged beauty of Badlands National Park.
An hour drive east of Rapid City lies one of the oddest terrains found in our state, the Badlands. Here, rolling plains are interrupted by large, jagged, multi-layered rock formations that can truly only be described as other-worldly. Maybe you’ve heard of this park before or maybe it’s completely new to you. Either way, trust me when I say – add it to your list.
Don’t let the name fool you, it’s good to be this kind of bad. These eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires earned this title some time ago. The name first originated from the Lakota people who referred to this place as “mako sica” or “land bad” due to the extreme temperatures, scarce water sources and barren landscape. Makes sense. The name rang true for others as well, like French-Canadian fur trappers who labeled the area as “les mauvaises terres a traverser”, or “bad lands to cross.” Today, however, they provide grounds for some pretty unreal exploration, just bring lots of water, sunscreen, and a hat.
The best way to explore the area? Any way you can. As a hiking lover, I would suggest heading out on a hiking trail like the popular Notch Trail. Or part ways with the beaten path and do some exploring of your own, Badlands National Park has an Open Hike Policy meaning you can go off-trail. Just be prepared with plenty of water, and know the park is full of wildlife but limited on cell service. Cruising through the park doesn’t disappoint either (on a bike or in a vehicle). Enjoy a drive on the Badlands Loop Road or Sage Creek Road. Don’t skip the overlooks, it’s never the same view twice. During the drive keep an eye out for wildlife. This national park is home to 39 different mammals like bison and Bighorn Sheep, 9 reptile species, 6 amphibian species, 206 bird species and 69 different kinds of butterflies.
For a special treat that will top the whole experience I would recommend staying to experience the sunset or getting to the park early enough for sunrise. Watching the colors blend in the sky and saturate these layered fossil beds below might just make your heart skip a beat. Stargazing in the Badlands is also a must because of the lack of light pollution.
While exploring this national park don’t forget to stop at the visitor center. They can help you learn about the land, discover the differences in the layers, learn about the fossils they’ve found and the transformations that took place to create a place so out of the ordinary.
Moral of the story – South Dakota is awesome and sometimes being bad is a good thing. Thank me later!