One visit to South Dakota’s Badlands won’t be enough.

With echoes of our Badlands sister trip (1996) still resounding, it became a must-stop when husband and I drove west.

The Badlands vary from any other rock formations I’ve seen in these vast states of ours. They jut from the earth like Grand Teton in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and yet are completely unlike that sharp mountain. Teton springs skyward, at least from the Jackson Hole side, a rugged triangle set on a flat surface—no rolling hills leading to it—  standing there proudly 7,000 feet above the valley, calling out, look at me.

The Badlands are Far More Chaotic 

One row of low-rising buttes have you thinking of Haleakala on Maui where the earth appears moon-like.

The next moment, you’re looking over a warren of twisting, tight hills with deep or shallow dips running between them. Think of viewing an ant farm lying on its side.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Entering Badlands National Park

Turn again when the sun strikes the pinnacles at the proper slant. It reminds you of Arizona’s Painted Desert as colors move from bleached to red-orange with a streak of purple.

Arrange to arrive as the sun descends, pick a spot at Pinnacle Peak not far off Route 240. The sun setting across the expanse is reminiscent of the Grand Canyon. Wide valley meadows spread before you, the leas are trapped by the surrounding formations tossing together mesas and plateaus. The light catches a pool of water in the distance. Or is it white stone starting to show its stuff as the sun hits at the perfect angle?

Ocean or Prairie—What do the Badlands Remind You Of

The striations in the landscape change with each moment the sun sinks lower. Sitting in lawn chairs or on blankets as you would to enjoy a Hawaiian sunset, you feel the folks around you holding their breath, waiting, waiting. 

The Badlands are different from the ocean as the sun takes ages to disappear across this skyline. Here, there is no final plop into the water, but a spreading side-to-side of orange against the now black horizon. The ever-moving, changing clouds providing that upward shot of rays beckoning you to believe in heaven.

The next day drive the rough seven miles to Sheep Mountain for a bit of a back country hike. Be prepared with water, sunscreen, hats and a 4-wheel drive. Don’t be a dunce and try this trek in a car or when the weather is bad. It’s a slow ride with a rutted, rarely maintained road. But persevere because the views along the way are worth it and the destination is pure delight.

South Dakota’s Badlands are Stuffed With Formations!

Roadside are formations that appear to be overgrown toadstools, or if you have a big imagination, Fred Flintstone’s home.

At the end of June you can expect a multitude of wildflowers to provide you with a kaleidoscope array of colors. Ah, nature! Let me photograph you and you and oh wait! There’s another one!

If you’re lucky, and quiet, you’ll glimpse a blue bird balanced perfectly on a spent yucca stem.

How many of you American (and elsewhere!) children of the sixties grew up watching westerns from Rawhide to Maverick? The good guys would chase the bad guys into the canyons where they’d never be found. The Badlands are a labyrinth of hiding places for bank robbers and train-stoppers. The ne’er-do-wells could hunker down and stay out of sight until the good guys gave up … if they did.

We found that backcountry hiking and overnight stays were discouraged, but were not given a clear reason.  If you presented your camping pedigree showing particular astuteness at surviving the remote life, perhaps the rangers would lighten up and let you in on the best places to go. Or maybe not. It’s dangerous country with little cell coverage, wide-ranging temperatures, and yes, deer, antelope, and bison play here. 

A reminder that the wild animals aren’t pets. Don’t walk near animals, don’t startle them, and for pity’s sake, don’t try putting a bison in your car.

South Dakota’s Badlands National Park details

Size – 244,000 dazzling acres to explore

The Ben Reifel Visitor Center – This is the main visitor’s center and worth stopping. 

Wall, South Dakota

Wall is the closest little town just off Interstate 90. There’s a nice visitor’s center with helpful rangers, a gift store and a museum. Wall is a pure tourist town, but don’t let the trappings of that atmosphere stop you from exploring. And by all means, visit the ice cream shoppe.

Scenic, South Dakota

With respect, share a chuckle with the handful of residents still living in this wide spot in the road. We laughed at the official “business district” sign pointing to town only to discover most businesses are closed. Keep driving south four miles to reach the Sheep Mountain Table Road and take the hike mentioned above.

Pine Ridge Indian Reservation Center

If you check a map, you’ll see that the Badlands weave through this reservation. If good fortune is on your side, you’ll be able to chat with new ranger, Matthew Janis. We could have spent hours with him learning about the history of the area, the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and his far-reaching connection to historical leaders.

What Are You Waiting For

The Badlands have a geographic personality worth getting to know … even if learning takes several visits.