Before my mom moved to the Black Hills, I knew almost nothing about South Dakota except for its location on a map and the fact that it was home to a massive presidential hillside. But after visiting twice now, I’ve been able to see its appeal. I already wrote about the beauty of the Black Hills and all there is to do near Custer, but there is another spot that is filled with indescribable beauty as well—the Badlands.
Badlands National Park is filled with stunning views of geologic deposits, rock formations and ancient fossil beds. Coupled with these rocky wastelands, animals frolic in the parks prairie land. Traveling groups who love the outdoors, natural scenery and staying active are sure to enjoy this lesser known national park.
The park is located in a territory that once belonged to the indigenous Lakota tribe. They referred to this area—with its lack of water and extreme temperatures—as “mako sica”, their word for badlands. Canadian travelers in the early 1900s called it the same thing and the name stuck when it was declared a national park in 1928. Today, the term “badlands” is associated with areas of soft sedimentary rock and clay soil that are eroded by weather.
Known as Badlands Loop Scenic Byway, SD 240 is the park’s longest route, a winding 31-mile highway that twists past colorful spires, cliffs and plateaus. While many enter the byway near the city of Wall, we saved that for the end and started backwards, turning onto SD 240 from Philip, SD.
As you enter the park, rock spires rise along the road. Wild sunflowers grow in groups at the base of the towering formations, adding even more colorful to the already red-hued rocks. As you move on, you’ll wind down to a canyon floor. Be sure to stop at the Ben Reifel Visitors Center to learn about the dinosaur fossils found within the area and see how the local landscape developed. As you start on again, striated cliffs rise all around with layers of dark yellow and muted red rock. The colors are breathtaking, but when you the road heads back up to the tops of the cliffs, endless overlooks give you some of the most incredible views you’ll ever see. Standing on top of the buttes, canyons cut down to the floor below, their sloping sides stretching on for miles. As you stand on the edge of the overlook and gaze into the horizon, there is nothing to see but magnificent rocks. The colors appear to fade as your gaze gets further out, but the faint outlines can be seen for miles.
The end, for us, was the flat grassland prairie. While it’s said to be home to wild buffalo and bighorn sheep, all we saw were prairie dogs and hawks. We visited on a windy day and the wind skipped over the grass, cutting through it and changing its direction as if it were alive. With no one else around, it felt like we were the only ones on earth.
We were there at the very end of August, after the kids returned to school and the tourist season was winding down so we really lucked out on enjoying the area without crowds of tourists. If you’re heading out in a big group, travel companies offer advanced reservations on scenic tours. Their up-to-fourteen-passenger vans can be a great way to ensure that everyone stays together to experience the beauty of the Badlands.
Get Out and Explore
While you’re there, you might as well get out and explore. Groups that like to stay active have a couple of options, though the Badlands tends to be a little harsh—with extreme temperatures and very, very little shade, it’s important to take water and limit your time in the sun during mid-afternoon.
There are less than ten major hiking trails in the park. They range in distance from a fourth-mile to five miles one way and vary in difficulty, but some, like the Door Trail and the Notch Trail, offer spectacular views you can’t get elsewhere in the park. Another option is to bring bicycles, a great choice to really experience the isolate beauty and surround yourselves with the calm atmosphere of the Badlands.
If you’re traveling with older family members or friends who aren’t able to get out onto the trails, wander the wooden walkways at the viewpoints and snap some photos of the sweeping landscape below.
End Up At Wall
As you leave the park, stop in the city of Wall at the Wall Drug Store. This roadside attraction has some fun props for group pictures and a spot for kids to pan for gold. But it also has various gift shops and restaurants within the massive wooden building. The interconnected rooms make it a giant playground in which to shop for souvenirs and grab a bite to eat after your adventures in the park.
Or Stay Overnight
If you want to stay overnight within Badlands National Park, your only option is the Cedar Pass Lodge. With new cabins built from pine trees and matching pine furniture, the lodge’s quaint atmosphere mixes well with the gorgeous views. But group travel complicates matters a little so book in advance to make sure there is enough space for everyone you’re traveling with.