We started our trip toward the Badlands on a national park “high” – having just visited Theodore Roosevelt National Park and knowing we also had future plans to visit Wind Cave National Park, we were right in the thick of our park-hopping experience when we descended on Badlands National Park.
We stayed at the nearby KOA which, unlike our stay at Teddy Roosevelt, allowed us to enter the park after only a 15-minute drive. This was obviously very convenient and, while the KOA had literally the worst cell signal we’ve had on this trip to date, it was otherwise very quiet and charming and we would certainly consider staying there again should we find ourselves back at the Badlands. And likely, we will.
We tried to plan our trip to the Badlands outside of the annual Sturgis Rally – not because we have anything against motorcyclists, but simply because we wanted to avoid the traffic – but long story short, we ended up staying there midway through the weeklong rally. Turns out, it was fine – we were far enough away from Sturgis to avoid the heavy crowds, but still close enough that we often found ourselves dining with leather vest-clad bikers (many of whom were very friendly). Sometimes, we had to pull over on the side of the road at the park to let a biker or few pass us by as they joyrode through, but no matter – it gave us more time to take in the expansive views of this mysterious, wild landscape.
Being on that aforementioned high, we had lofty expectations for this park. And we were not disappointed.
While most of the trails the park has to offer are short and built on boardwalks, there are a few off-road opportunities of which we took advantage – including the Castle Trail and the Medicine Root Loop trail. The Notch Trail, which we had read was one of the park’s best loops (and the perfect distance for our kiddos) was unfortunately closed for renovations during the entirety of our stay, which was a bummer. Still, we made the most of it and, in addition to hiking part of the Castle and the entirety of the Medicine Root Loop trails, we walked the Fossil Exhibit trail (fantastic for kids and adults alike who are fascinated by fossils and prehistoric wildlife) and the Door and Window trails. All trails, while relatively close to each other within the park, offered different landscapes, so we recommend them all (Medicine Root Loop might be the only one we were meh on, as it was mostly prairie land with distant sounds of rattlesnakes, which was a little unnerving).
One element going against us during our time there was the heat. It averaged 100°F most of the days we stayed there, so to enjoy the trails without melting, we had to get an early start. This approach has, in most locations we’ve visited so far, worked in our favor in terms of avoiding crowds. It’s not that we don’t like people – we just like to hike and explore with a bit of seclusion. The early hours provided just that, though even by 9:30 a.m., the park began to swell with visitors.
And we get it – this park offers vast views of ridged geologic deposits with stark bands of browns, tans and reds, all of which tell a story in layers of prehistoric eras. To the eye, they’re just really pretty. And when you give yourself a few moments to look out onto those vistas, you wonder if you’re on Earth at all. The formations have an almost alien-like quality to them, as if they belong on another planet. You walk along these towering rocks, altogether majestic and fragile, seeming as if they might just crumble in a bad storm, and then you turn the corner and find an entirely different landscape before you. Be it mixed grass prairie or the Yellow Mounds or expanses of Pierre Shale, there is something new to see around every turn.
According to the Badlands NPS website, these Badlands – dubbed as such by both the Lakota Indians and French fur trappers for the terrain’s difficulty to cross/inhabit – erode at a rate of about one inch per year. They estimate the Badlands have already spanned half their lifetime in 500,000 years; in another 500,000 years, they expect them to be eroded away completely.
In a way, we felt this sense of urgency in our visit there. We’ve been struggling to find the delicate balance of seeing literally every single thing we possibly can in every national park we visit, and just letting our kids take a breather and explore at their pace. This is part of a greater lesson for us, as both Elliott and I are busy beavers and don’t like to sit idle. Yet, a major factor in our decision to embrace this lifestyle was to be idler, but in a way that allows our children (and us) to experience nature and new environments – not just barrel through them, like we usually did on quick vacations. I wish I could say we’ve found our balance, but we’re still figuring this out. That’s just the reality of finding a new normal in a life radically altered.
Still, our kids had plenty of time to explore. Avery will tell you her favorite part of this visit was, in fact, the tourist trap known as Wall Drug, which we visited twice (once, on purpose; the second time, we found ourselves close to lunch time and closer in proximity to Wall Drug than to our camper, so we bit the bullet and made another trek out there) and let both kids play in the jumping fountains. The KOA had a decent playground for them to climb all over. And of course, we let them explore the Badlands themselves, too. It’s a great place to allow them to climb over mounds and along the boardwalks.
One evening, we took a sunset drive through the Badlands which, for me, was most formative in my time there. The formations glowed orange and red as the fading yellow sun descended beneath the ridges, and there was a faint but refreshing breeze that cut through the heat. The kids were (for once) quiet and content in the back, and we just drove, stopping every now and then for a photo. It reminded me of my childhood vacations, those crazy Griswold family-like road trips we used to take to these novel lands, when all I really cared about was when I could get back home to see my friends again. Now, I am older and (hopefully) wiser, and I am in the front seat, taking my own children on these adventures. I know they are young and may never remember these days. Still, I pray and hope that, like me, there is a seed being planted – one that will grow inside of them and bloom to appreciate nature for all its beauty, strive to be good stewards of this earth we’ve been gifted, to stay unabashedly curious and above all, kind to all living things.
As Avery commented during our time there, “Badland? This is not a bad land!” She already knew – there is beauty here, deeper than the cracked, dry clay surface.