South Dakota: The Badlands are Bad Ass!

Just in case the title of this post wasn’t clear; I totally dug the Badlands!

Badlands, Badlands National Park, South Dakota, Off Path, Notch Trail, Off Trail, HIke, Hiking, Scramble, Scrambling, Explore, Exploring South Dakota

For those of you unfamiliar with 1) the Badlands and 2) South Dakota, let me give you a quick run down:

  • Badlands National Park consists of 244,000 acres of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires surrounded by a mixed-grass prairie ecosystem.
  • The Badlands were formed by deposition and erosion.
    • The deposition of sediments began 69 million years ago by an ancient sea that once covered the current Great Plains.
    • The significant erosion of the Badlands did not begin until half a million years ago.
    • The erosion of the buttes and spires continues today and will eventually end in the complete erosion of the Badlands. (Source: NPS)
  • South Dakota is home to the Sioux Nation, the Akta Lakota, Crazy Horse, Wounded Knee, State and National Parks – Custer State Park, ironically, being one of them – Mount Rushmore, Wall Drug (cool little tourist trap my family and I fell into 21 years ago), fish and game, grasslands/prairies, and good ole Laura Ingalls Wilder’s home.

The quick and short of it:

If you go to the park, Sage Creek Rim Road is an absolute MUST if you want to see wildlife!  No truck or 4×4 needed; I rolled out in a Ford Fusion and did just fine.  Also, if camping at Sage Creek, using a rain fly on your tent before you go to sleep is a good idea as the fog tends to settle in the valley and leave ya quite dewy otherwise.

All of the hikes and trails the National Park Service lays out and gives suggested times on… I firmly believe they wrote them out based on senior citizens.  If you’re a hiker or an active person, these suggested times are absolutely ridiculous.  You do NOT need to give Notch Trail 1 1/2 hours of your time… you will finish it in 15 minutes.  Just go in knowing that scrambling around is going to be a heck of a lot more fun and more of a challenge than staying on path and assuming these hikes will take you a long time.

If you want to read “The long of it”, check it out after the photos!

Landscapes, Sunset and Sunrise:

Sage Creek Rim Road Drive - Badlands Beginning

Badlands - The Badlands 2

Badlands - The Badlands 1

Badlands - Notch Trail 2

Badlands - Notch Trail 1

Back Down 240 - Walking Ridge Line a few hundred feet up - Badlands National Park, Badlands, South Dakota, Hike, Scramble, Hiking

This ridge line is about 400-600 feet up (I’m terrible at guessing elevation or gain) if I had to guess. Fun little path finding mission on the way up and looked like it had only been traversed by the big horned rams and/or antelopes.

Back Down 240 - Badlands Yellow Hills - Badlands National Park, South Dakota, Explore, Hike, hiking, solo travel

Some of the hills have a yellow tint to them, but only in one area.

Sage Creek Campground - Sunset - Badlands, Badlands National Park, South Dakota, Solo Travel, Explore, Sunset, Hills

I fought spiders … lots and lots of spiders to see this!

Sage Creek Campground - Sunrise Field of Fog - Badlands, Badlands National Park, Sunrise, Solo Travel, Explore, Hike

Sunrise in heavy fog down in the valley at Sage Creek Campground


Back Down 240 - Big Horned Sheep Mama and Juvenile - Badlands, Badlands National Park, Hike, Explore, Wildlife

Big Horned Sheep Mama and her Baby (Juvenile). Mom’s wearing a tracking collar.

Back Down 240 - Close Up Big Horned Sheep Pack Navigating Ridge - Badlands, Badlands National Park, Wildlife

Go ahead and call him “big pop-pa”. These fellas were navigating down some serious ridge line to the valley floor.

Back Down 240 - Big Horned Sheep Ridge Line - Badlands, Badlands National Park
Sage Creek Campground - Buffalo Munching - Buffalo, Bison, Badlands, Badlands National Park, Food, Vegetarian, Wildlife

Sage Creek Rim Road Drive - Coyote Face - Coyote - Badlands National Park, Badlands, South Dakota, Wildlife

Sage Creek Rim Road Drive - Bird of Prey 1

Badlands - Least Chipmunk - Notch Trail - Cute - Animal - Badlands - Badlands National Park - Wildlife - Least Chipmunk

This is a “Least Chipmunk”. Super tiny and incredibly cute!

Flora, Fauna, and Me:

Badlands - Flora and Fauna Sunflower

Badlands - Flora and Fauna 2

Badlands - Flora and Fauna

Badlands - Girl Selfie 2 - Scramble up 300 feet

Badlands - Girl Selfie 3 - Notch Trail off Trail

The long of it:

After driving past the 1,000 Wall Drug signs, I finally arrived at the park around 1pm.  Given the late arrival, I decided to drive around the park loop in order to plan out some actual hiking.  Lo and behold, I didn’t really have to plan a thing!  I jumped out of the car and walked/climbed/scrambled up a number of formations along the roadway on my way out to Sage Creek Campground (it’s free!).  What I had planned on being an hour’s drive to get out to the camp wound up turning into about a 5/6 hour drive with all the stops for photos and meandering up along the formations.  SO much fun!  Like Nike’s slogan: just do it!

The best part of the drive?  Finding Sage Creek Rim Road – the one I had to take to get to the campground.  It seems people are turned off by or afraid of dirt and gravel roads.  I’ve always found them to lead to the best things!  Within minutes of driving down the road I saw buffalo (note: they call them bison, but I’m fairly certain these are buffalo as what remain of bison are found in Yellowstone and one other state park.  If I’m wrong, please feel free to correct me.), prairie dogs, a slew of birds, and a beautiful mix of grasslands and formations.

After I setup camp I took a walk over and across the dry creek bed and up a hill and some ridge line just to watch the sun on its descent.  Totally worth walking through some 40 spider webs and having to knock more than a few off my person (I HATE spiders, so this was a feat in and of itself for me).  Totally worth it, especially when a hawk flew by and my immediate thought was, “Grandma Mary”.  She was Muscogee and I swear I feel her at times when I’m out in the wilds of nature.

The night was spent listening to packs of coyotes having a howl and bark-off, listening to some night birds, and hearing a huff or two from some of the buffalo that like to graze in and around the campground.  Waking up to buffalo grazing around the campground is just one of the many benefits to sleeping out under the stars in the “primitive” portions of a park where they don’t technically allow backcountry camping.

Finally got out on the road and found wildlife out in abundance!  Buffalo were grazing everywhere, coyotes were out in the grass, prairie dogs were up and barking, birds of prey were out flying, and bighorn sheep were out grazing and playing daredevil going down steep cliffs.  The universe seemed to be firmly back on my side as I found myself scrambling up and around formations, walking wash basins, and meeting a gent from Ontario who I led to a rock formation I’d found down in one of those wash areas.  Just another person the universe threw in my path to validate my life choices – so thanks, Joe!

As stated up in the short section, these trails were ridiculously easy, but also allowed for quite a bit of going off the path to get better views.  Notch Trail was especially a let down when you were prepared for a solid two hours of hiking, just to complete it in 15-20 minutes.  On the bright side, when you are walking out to the end of the path, on the left-hand side on the way out you see what looks like an unmarked trail.  Naturally, I went that route after the rather anticlimactic ending I had with the trail system itself.

In the end, don’t be afraid to wander off a bit to find the better views or more challenging areas.  It’s a difficult park to get lost in so long as you have a decent eye for landmarks, feel free to hop off the trail (unless otherwise marked) and explore.



    • T Smithers

      Haha! You would definitely dig it 🙂 It can easily be a day trip or an overnighter. Wouldn’t recommend it in the high summer – I can only imagine the extreme heat of it.

  1. Pingback: Places we want to Grill at in 2017 | Home of 55 Grills

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