Breaking in the Badlands

Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Article by Alexander Moliski
January 13, 2019

"This broken country extends back from the river for many miles and has been called always be Indian, French voyager and American trappers alike, the Bad Lands."

Theodore Roosevelt

The Great Plains

There aren't many places left in this world that let you go back in time to a world ruled by beasts. African safaris are an option, but what if I told you, that you can experience safari-like conditions in South Dakota? I didn't believe it at first either.

Before leaving for the trip, I half-jokingly asked my 60-year-old mom, if she wanted to come. Her eyes lit up and she told me that she had been waiting for years for one of her boys to ask her to come along on an adventure.

South Dakota

Our trip took us across the country, from Pennsylvania to first Colorado, and finally, South Dakota. I told my mom that if she were to come along, we would travel under my conditions. That means, no hotels, lots of nature, few stops, and no dillydallying. She hesitantly agreed.

Our first stop was an overnight hike in the Never Summer Wilderness in Colorado, a wilderness area that borders the ever-famous Rocky Mountain National Park. After two days in the mountains, it was time to head to South Dakota. Coming in from the Wyoming side, we stopped and stayed a few days in the Black Hills, exploring Custer State Park, The Black Elk Wilderness, and the various monuments in the area.

Custer State Park, South Dakota

Finally, climbing out of the Black Hills and heading East, we were ready for Badlands National Park. It was strange leaving the mountains and heading towards the plains for adventure. Most, if not all, of my backpacking, is done in either the mountains or hills. It didn't feel right to be looking for a story in the flatness of the great plains.

The Not-So-Badlands

After a brief stop for a late lunch in Rapid City, we headed out for the Badlands. The Badlands are one of the few national parks left that allow dispersed camping through self-permit stations. Most national parks require a stop at the ranger's station to receive backcountry permits for any overnight stays in the park.

Starting to get late, we rushed to the closest self-register station for backcountry permits. I figured, that being a National Park, the Badlands would be as well maintained - with paved roads in visitor centers. What we found, is that if you enter via route 44, the park is more like a national forest in the sense of dirt roads and wilderness. We drove a few miles down Sagecreek Road before coming across a scenic overlook with the self-register kiosk.

Mom enjoying the colors in the clouds (and watching for bison!)

With sunset approaching, the silhouettes of hulking beasts could be seen below in the endless grasslands. My mom was having a bit of anxiety attack, claiming that bison "definitely eat people", and it took some convincing to get her out of the car and down the trail.

2,000 pounds of American Bison

What you really should be afraid of are the Prairie Dogs that carry the Plague - not lie. But truly, rattlesnakes were much more of a threat than bison. With the tall grass, they could be hiding anywhere. I was told later that four people that summer had already been bitten by hiding rattlesnakes.

Watch out for those prairie dogs!

The rules of the park stated that wilderness camping is allowed if you stay out of sight of the road, and at least half a mile away. This simple requirement was difficult to achieve because the prairie was so flat and empty that you could see the road from well over a half-mile away. Also, the grass from far away looks soft and welcoming, sort of like that windows screensaver we all know and love, but when you start walking in it, the grasses are sharp and long. Sometimes it felt more like wading through a shallow sea of reeds. The grasses regularly stretched above knee-height, which made setting up the tent a difficult process.

A not-so-happy camper. . .

We found a spot, a little over half a mile from the road that looks like a good place to set up camp. It was horribly buggy, hot, and itchy, but the surrounding area was something out of science fiction. I was charmed, to say the least. I saw, for a moment, what Roosevelt must have seen in the area.

My mother was not so impressed. She was ready to "climb in the tent and not come out until the morning". I stayed up, playing my harmonica, trying to put myself in the shoes of the great ranchers and cowboys of the time. I noted to myself that this area was nice, and noted them as the Not-So-Badlands in my head.

The Badlands

That morning I was woken up by a worried mother. She was ready to get back to the car before any Bison showed up - it was 4:00 in the morning, but I could tell anxiety was getting to her and agreed to pack up camp. It was good we did, because not more than five minutes later, a herd of bison walked over the nearest hill and were eating breakfast right where we set up camp - it must have been mother's instincts.

We continued down the road, towards the northern entrance of the park. The landscape dramatically changed within minutes from the bright grassy greens, to dusty browns. Moreover, pillars of stone and dirt stacked into the sky in bizarre shapes and sizes.

But we soon left all the life behind as we entered the bonafide Badlands, and they were remarkably bad and barren. Absolutely useless for any agriculture or grazing purposes, the land was simply left along for generations and generations, keeping them well preserved. Geologically speaking, the area was ripe with scientific purpose.

The colorful hills had built-in carbon dating. The striations in the rocks and cliffs are so apparent, that you can tell what year you are looking into without even having to dig. You can see back from as early as 28 million to as far as 75 million years from the road. What amazed me was the variety of animals that were found in the area. Evidence of Earth's first dogs and horses were found among the hills, as well as alligators and super fauna. The Dakotas would have been unfamiliar long ago.

There was so much to see and do in the Badlands that I had to completely revise my re-visit list. The Badlands confidently took the number one spot. A few more days in the area would have given me a bigger picture, but with a tired mom, and a job interview coming, I had to leave the grassy flats and clay pillar behind and travel back to the East Coast.

As far as fulfilling bucket list items, first backpacking trips, and mother-son adventures, the Badlands did not disappoint.