21 Jan Barren is beautiful in Badlands National Park
Table of Contents
One of South Dakota’s stunning destinations
Barren hilltops and dusty overlooks greeted our every turn driving through Badlands National Park in South Dakota. We never knew “desolate” could be so beautiful.
If my words don’t convince you, then I’m hoping these photos can turn your head. We visited the Badlands approximately 40 years ago as part of a longer driving vacation out West. Back then, we didn’t explore the park; instead, we drove through and ogled a few vistas and walked to a couple of paved scenic overlooks.
During our recent vacation in early October, we explored the park for three days and discovered what makes this national park truly remarkable. Maybe you’ll agree.
Hiking the Notch and Castle Trails
We benefitted from exceptional autumn weather, lows in the 40s and 50s and highs reaching 70. For us, perfect hiking weather. We’re not gonzo hikers, but we like to trek 5-7 miles, sometimes piecing together multiple short hikes or picking a longer one.
Our favorite was Castle Trail, with options of ten miles roundtrip or shorter versions. We chose the seven-mile loop early in the morning, encountering only a handful of other explorers. Three bighorn ram sheep delayed part of our hike as they slowly grazed across our trail. Whenever we attempted to skirt around them, the biggest male stared us back into place. We still enjoyed watching them at a safe distance and they eventually moved on after 30 minutes.
For a little more adventure, we hiked the shorter Notch Trail which included a slightly challenging ladder climb to reach a scenic overlook of the Badlands. We enjoyed the minimal risk and sense of accomplishment for a retired couple in their mid-60s.
Driving the Badlands Loop Road
Also called Highway 240, this 40-mile Loop Road cuts through the heart of the Badlands North Unit and contains breathtaking views, especially during early morning and late afternoon light. Plan at least two hours of driving and sightseeing but also be prepared for a crowded road if you go during peak hours and weekends.
Our favorite spot along the Loop Road was the Yellow Mounds area, which I was able to photograph during the best sunlight and clouds of the day. We drove the Loop Road three times in three days, shortly after sunrise, late morning and finally at dusk. Each trip offered a different experience and photo opportunities.
Searching for wildlife along Sage Creek Rim Road
If you prioritize wildlife sightings, then be sure to drive Sage Creek Rim Road near dusk, which we did three times. Why? Because we saw lots of animals the first night and kept going back each evening in anticipation of more sightings.
Our highlight? We watched a badger for 20 minutes as it attempted to dig a prairie dog from its hole. We also enjoyed the Roberts Prairie Dog Town along this route and all the antics of these goofy and neurotic animals, which are a keystone species. More frequent sightings included coyote, pronghorn, mule deer, bison, grouse and a variety of prairie birds.
Sampling the Badlands other attractions
We stayed in Wall, SD, infamous for the Wall Drug tourist trap. I don’t describe it that way to be derogatory – its attractions might tickle your vacation fancy. We stopped at several establishments and I posed with a few western statues and oddities. And watched a lady stir a slab of fudge which, for me, was entertaining.
Nearby, I suggest the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. Friends highly recommended it, especially for anyone who’s a history buff. During our trip, tours were severely limited. But this national park service unit offers interesting and unnerving insight into our nation’s nuclear missile program during the Cold War, when an arsenal of weapons was placed in the Great Plains states.
Buffalo Gap National Grasslands surrounds Badlands National Park, protecting habitat for plains wildlife. And about two hours east of the park, right off Interstate 90, at a rest stop, sits the amazing Dignity Earth & Sky sculpture, a 50-foot high stainless steel work of art that pays tribute to the indigenous people of South Dakota. I highly recommend including it in your vacation plans.
Author’s note: COVID-19 precaution compliance in South Dakota was awful during our visit, if that’s important to you. We stayed at a chain hotel, which did a better job of protecting their guests. Restaurant and local business compliance, though, ranged from poor to catastrophic. We brought a cooler along on this driving vacation and refilled it constantly with sandwiches we made from grocery store ingredients. And we ordered a few takeouts. We never dined in restaurants because of how little they cared about safety – the totally opposite experience from our trip several months ago to Colorado.
While I am ranting … I watched in horror as a family taught their kids how to feed wildlife in Badlands National Park. The adults dumped bags of potato chips down prairie dog holes. I had a very vivid conversation with them. I used no expletives (with my outward voice), but I do regret calling them idiots and poor role models. But I got over my regret. Please don’t feed the wildlife.