The Bold, Beautiful Badlands
As the sun set over the Badlands National Park, the strange formations came to life with colorful tints and long shadows. A quiet calm replaced the busyness of the day. The only sounds to be heard were the bird calls echoing off the rugged walls. Evening is a magical time in the Badlands, and I’m so glad we got to witness it.
When I first plotted our BirdyNPS100 road trip, I planned to just take a short, scenic drive through the Badlands. Much like the Painted Desert, this park is located near a major interstate and includes a route (called The Badlands Loop Road) that begins on one end and deposits you out another, allowing you to drive through the park. Since our school year ended earlier than expected, we added a night to our trip and decided to stay in the Badlands instead of just driving through. I’m so glad we did, as this park was one of our favorite stops. Doing a drive-through would not have done it justice.
As we made our way across the plains of South Dakota, our window view consisted of green prairies and blue skies…and the occasional dinosaur skeleton.
Suddenly, off in the distance, we saw a strange wall of sandy peaks jutting up from the horizon, and we realized those were the Badlands. We were surprised by how abruptly the landscape changed.
After entering the park, we paused for some shots of Birdy in the Badlands.
Door Trail & Window Trail
We started our explorations by walking the Door Trail, a 3/4 mile trail with a boardwalk heading into the interesting landscape. The formations seem like sandcastles lining our way.
Very, very large sandcastles.
This moonscape felt like a whole new world.
Where the boardwalk ends, you can continue to explore at your own risk. My sons loved that this park was so open and that they had the option to go off the trails.
My intrepid explorers took off…traveling down into deep chasms in the landscape and forging paths far away from us.
We were so happy to see our kids having an adventure. If you remember, our younger son isn’t fond of traveling, and he has pointed out that he doesn’t like “mountains and waterfalls.” I know, I know…how can that be? I have realized he doesn’t particularly enjoy hiking. We’ve often done hikes where the payoff was a view of a waterfall, but that doesn’t float his boat, and he complains that all we do is LOOK at the waterfall. So, maybe part of finding his park is finding a place where he can DO something. The Badlands are the perfect place for this.
Our two boys clearly conquered the Badlands.
Though we felt fairly comfortable letting the boys run around the Badlands, this sign made us a little nervous….
However, we encountered more rabbits than rattlesnakes, luckily. We also saw a bighorn sheep near the entrance to the park but didn’t grab a camera in time.
Next, we headed to the Window Trail. Conveniently, the Door Trail and the Window Trail share a parking lot. Even though they are close together and sound similar, they offer different perspectives on the landscape.
The Window Trail is just 1/4 of a mile on a very accessible boardwalk. It leads to an overlook where you can peer down into a canyon.
As the day came to an end, we headed out of the park to set up camp (at the Badlands/White River KOA). The drive provided plenty of scenic moments. This bird’s eye view shows the visitors center and the campground below.
Evening in the Badlands
We revived our energy with a delicious dinner of Fry Bread Tacos at the Cedar Pass Restaurant, set up camp, and then returned for more adventures in the park.
As I said earlier, evening was a magical time as the colors of the land and sky changed. The peaks caught the sun’s golden rays as it sank beneath the horizon.
Near a trailhead for the Castle Trail, we found this amazing area that formed a natural playground for the boys to explore. They ran and climbed and slid around for over an hour.
While the boys were playing, I took a walk on the Fossil Trail, which is 1/4 of a mile and has some exhibits about the fossils found in the area. I was more interested in the wildflowers, though.
We all took a lot of pictures, of course. The Badlands provides plenty of photo ops and scenic shots.
After all of that fun, it was time to rest. Luckily, the Badlands provide perfect places for that, too. As you look at this picture, you might imagine John Lennon singing, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one….”
As the sun sank closer to the horizon, we knew it was time for us to end our visit, but the Badlands surprised us with even more beauty as we headed out of the park.
We came around a curve in the road and suddenly saw the sunset filling the sky with color. I loved stopping to take in the view alongside many strangers doing the same. We were all delighting in the same amazing show, trying our best to record it with a snapshot.
Eventually, we said goodnight to the Badlands. A picture perfect ending to an awesome visit to this park.
Tips for Planning a Visit to the Badlands
- Bring Water: The Badlands are partially named so for the harshness of this landscape. It can be dangerously hot and dry, so stay hydrated.
- Bring Sunscreen: There’s not much shade during the day, leaving you fully exposed to the elements. A hat would be great, too.
- The Easy Trails are Very Accessible: Though they are marked as “trails,” there wasn’t much walking required for the Window Trail and the Door Trail. There were were a couple of others we didn’t get to. These trails would be fine for wheelchairs, strollers, and little kids.
- Consider Doing a Hike Out & Back or a Long Trail: The Medicine Root and Castle Trail are both a few miles long, which we didn’t have time for. Although we didn’t think of it in time, it would have been fun to hike out and back, doing a smaller portion of either trail.
- Hit the Notch Trail for Adventure: This trail involves a climb up a ladder embedded into a wall of the Badlands, with some steep ledges on the other side. I’ve heard that the views are stunning, so we were really tempted to give it a go. However, we opted not do the Notch Trail. I asked a park ranger about it, and she said, “It’s our most popular trail…and it is the most popular call for search and rescue.” Maybe next time!
- Grab a Fry Bread Taco from Cedar Pass Restaurant: Imagine a fresh, pillowy piece of fry bread (a Native American treat), topped with savory buffalo meat, tomatoes, lettuce, and guacamole, and you have yourself one scrumptious meal. After eating too many plates of hot dogs and chicken strips from park concessionaires, this was an unexpected treat within the park.
- Stay until Sunset if your Schedule Allows: This was our favorite time in the park with the cooler tempts and beautiful views. The park really emptied out, making us feel almost as though we had the place to ourselves. Camping near the parks makes this option even easier.
- Be sure to make a stop at the Badlands Ranch Store as you head south toward the park. You can feed prairie dogs here, which our family had a ton of fun doing! You’ll also be very close to Wall Drug and the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. I wrote about these great roadside attractions HERE.
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