Just about everything anybody in Europe knows about the “Badlands” in South Dakota – to the extent that they know anything about them at all – is that they provide the setting and the title for a classic outlaw movie, a sort of Bonnie and Clyde for the 1970s. But did you know that the Badlands also provide the setting for some great hiking adventures? Well, now we do – thanks to Ted who has “cased the joint”.
A Badlands Adventure
When I was a growing up there was a series of books that were very popular called “choose your own adventure.” Readers would start off on page 1 and at the bottom of the page the story would come to a crossroads. Then there would be choices with corresponding page numbers for the readers and depending on how the reader wanted to continue the adventure they would choose that page. The story would continue in this fashion until the end.
The Badlands National Park is set up in similar fashion because visitors are allowed anywhere in the backcountry. There are two main scenic roads that cross the park. The main road is route 240 and is a scenic loop and conveniently exits off of Interstate 90 at exit 110 and 130. It is a paved 26 mile road that cuts through the most sensational canyons and passes as well as the visitor’s center. There is also a 12 mile gravel road that follows canyons and then flattens out at the Sage Creek Basin and ends at the Sage Creek primitive campground.
The average visitor to the park spends 1-2 hours in the park. This means they drive the scenic loop, take a few pictures at the overlooks, and maybe hike a portion of one of the trails, and then head to Mt. Rushmore. Those that choose this adventure will not be disappointed as the scenic drive is outstanding.
Hiking adventurers who thirst for more have the option of hiking one or two of the trails along the scenic drive. There are only a couple of established trails in the park and they range from about 1-10 miles.
Then there is the backcountry choice. The freedom of walking anywhere in the park makes it simple for easy hikers. One can park their car along either of the scenic drives and just walk as far as they want, as short as they want, or not walk at all, and then return to the car.
The Sage Creek campground parking lot is an excellent place to start. Most think the Badlands is an inhospitable environment with craggy cliffs and canyons with sharp inclines. The area along the scenic loop fits that description but the area along the Sage Creek Basin is more prairie-like with rolling hills and an occasional mesa or butte.
This makes for perfect walking. There are no trails here, but there is a buffalo population 800 strong that wanders the basin and they make it easy to follow trails. Just watch out for the buffalo pies and also for the buffalo themselves. They look tame and gentle, but they can be ornery and like to have their space. Do not approach especially if their tail is straight up in the air as that is the first sign that they are getting agitated.
Other dangers include rattlesnakes, heat and sun, and getting lost. Be sure to wear a hat and use sunscreen as there is not much shade. Getting lost in the park should not be a problem if you take careful note of the path that you have walked. The problem is the park is so beautiful that it draws people in farther than they intended to come and they lose track of where they are, panic and become disoriented. A compass would help solve this issue.
Come to the Badlands National Park and take a scenic drive, hike one of the trails, and choose your own adventure in the backcountry.