It was 102 degrees when I stepped into Badlands National Park.
It was perfect. The intensity of the heat seemed entirely appropriate for a place almost lunar in its strangeness.
The richly hued rock formations of Badlands National Park are as beautiful as they are otherworldly. Vast, sunbaked canyons the colors of rust and bone stretch off into the horizon. Hikers climb soft hills that appear brushed with powdery yellow ochre pigment. Buttes rise up into the cloudless sky striped with eggplant, burnt sienna, paprika.
It’s disconcerting and disorienting, like a strange, surprisingly colorful desert rising up out of the Great Plains. The clay, sand and silt landforms in this wild place — which rises up between the rolling South Dakota farmland in the east and the dense forests of the Black Hills in the west — have been pummeled by prairie winds, heat and brutal cold for millions of years.
It’s a place of contrasts, of extremes. The land I see as I stand on a windswept overlook hasn’t always looked like this. At various points in its history, this patch of earth has been a jungle, an inland sea, a savannah. It’s been dotted with woodlands and carpeted with volcanic ash. Each of these eras left behind fossils and sediments which are eroding and decaying into the landforms we see today.
This all happened between 26 and 75 million years ago. It’s difficult to reconcile the ancient nature of this landscape with the travelers that happily step out onto the buttes to push the limits of their fear or cheerfully pose for photos.
My brain flicks back and forth between the two realities, one excruciatingly slow and deliberate and mind-bogglingly old and the other as quick as a camera shutter, in the same way that I used to close one eye at a time when I was a kid, watching something in my peripheral vision disappear and reappear — here, gone, here, gone. I can almost see the sabre tooth cats that roamed here out of the corner of my eye.
Soon the badlands themselves will be gone too. Geologists estimate that erosion will level the cliffs, canyons and buttes in 500,000 years. That’s an eternity to those of us scurrying out of our cars, but it is, as the scientists gently remind us, a blink of an eye as far as the earth is concerned.
It’s an excellent reminder that even the things we assume to be fixed and immutable, even things as seemingly solid as the earth itself, are always changing. The badlands I see now will be different than the badlands I see when I come here as an old woman. It’s impossible to leave this place without feeling small and full of wonder.
But for all of its wild strangeness (and its tendency to invoke mild existential crises in perhaps overly sensitive people like myself), Badlands National Park is also peaceful and serene. It contains acres of mixed grass prairie which is home to sure footed bighorn sheep, lumbering bison and communities of chatty prairie dogs. The prairie brings a sense of lushness and life to a landscape that can feel both awe inspiring and inhospitable, offering up quiet corners where grasses rustle like waves on the ocean and plucky little sunflowers rise up from the rocks.
I had planned to hike Badlands National Park for an hour or two, but as I opened my car door, hot wind blasted my face. It felt like I was opening an oven. I glanced at my husband, spent his childhood running through the scorching streets of Arizona. He knows heat. He shook his head. Way too hot. We needed a new plan.
So we concentrated our energy on the scenic vistas off of the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway (SD 240). I don’t regret our choice in the slightest. This stretch of two-lane road winds through the cliffs, canyons and spires of the park and offers plenty of opportunities to dip your toe into the natural wonders of Badlands National Park.
This isn’t a passive drive. It demands that you sit up and pay attention. It takes about an hour if you’re driving a car or a camper straight through. (It’s also popular with groups on motorcycle and cyclists.) But rushing is the last thing you should do.
There are 15 scenic overlooks along the way and even the very young, the very old and those with limited mobility can experience them. The more athletic and outdoorsy can access eight trails along the route.
IF you’re going west on I-90, take Exit 131 to enter at the east side of the park near the Big Badlands Overlook and the well equipped Visitors Center, which offers food, restrooms and a much better than average gift shop. If you’re headed east on I-90, follow the signs to Exit 110 near the city of Wall. You’ll enter near Pinnacles Overlook on the west side of the park. You can also take Highway 44 from Rapid City as a back road alternative.
Going slow and taking it all in is what this place is about. After all, Badlands National Park is a place that’s at least 76 million years in the making. Give it the time it deserves.
What about you?
What natural wonders blow your mind?
Which National Parks are your favorites and why?
Which National Parks are currently on your bucket list and why?
What do you love about Badlands National Park?
Has a landscape or outdoor experience ever made you see the big picture (the really big picture!) like this place did for me? Where were you and what happened?
Tag your pics and travel tips #PrairiePeople and #PrairiePlaces on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. You could inspire an upcoming post on Prairie Style File.
Prairie Style File is curated by Alicia Underlee Nelson. All rights reserved.