Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota

Entering Badlands National Park

(Entering Badlands National Park)

So you’re in South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore. Fine, everyone needs to do that at least once. But while you’re there don’t overlook some other great attractions in the western half of the state. After all, let’s face it, Rushmore is a long way from anywhere and if you’ve gone to all the trouble of driving there in the first place, why not see the rest?

It's hot down there

(It’s hot down there)

There is actually some green out there

(There is actually some green out there)

That’s exactly what we did on our 2014 road trip. Whether you’re coming from the east or west on I-90 there’s no better place to start than Badlands National Park. Established as a National Monument in 1939, Badlands was redesignated as a National Park in 1978.

Thunderheads approaching

(Thunderheads approaching)

An inhospitable land

(An inhospitable land)

Badlands is surely one of the easiest National Parks to access in the entire country. You hop off I-90 at exit 131 and drive south a few miles on South Dakota Highway 240 and poof, you’re in the park. 240 becomes the Badlands Loop Road which meanders through the North Unit of the park. Your first stop should the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, which is the park headquarters. Don’t pass it up as it offers great information and exhibits on the history and geography of the Badlands.

Is this Mars or Earth? Okay, the clouds maybe give it away, but...

(Is this Mars or Earth? Okay, the clouds maybe give it away, but…)

Native Americans have lived in the area for 11,000 years according to the geological evidence found in the Badlands. What they haven’t found in 11,000 years is why anyone would want to live in the Badlands – but that’s another topic. The unique climate and topography have made the Badlands a fossil bed treasure trove with some of the best preserved ancient artifacts of both plants and animals found in the entire country.

Keep your eyes - and ears - open on the trails!

(Keep your eyes – and ears – open on the trails!)

Thunderstorms in the distance - a common summertime occurrence

(Thunderstorms in the distance – a common summertime occurrence)

The North Unit is by far the most visited area of the park. The Loop Road makes it a simple drive-through experience if that’s all you want to do, with plenty of overlooks, pathways and simple wide spots in the road to pull over and gawk at the jaw-dropping, otherworldly landscapes of this mysterious and one-of-a-kind geological marvel. The rugged, carved spires, buttes, and canyons of the Badlands really do give the impression of somewhere not quite of this earth.

A constant wind ripples the weeds

(A constant wind ripples the weeds)

Come in the heat of summertime like we did and the place it’s most likely to remind you if is Hades. In fact, one of the most famous quotes about the area is “Like hell with the fires put out.” I quickly realized the truth of that statement the first time I stepped out of the car and walked a couple hundred feet out to one of the overlooks. Of course you could easily avoid this fate by simply coming at a different time of the year. I would recommend spring or fall, as winter in South Dakota can be just as harsh and extreme in its own way as summer.

Boardwalk in the Badlands

(Boardwalk in the Badlands)

Picture perfect skies

(Picture perfect skies)

Despite all this, the vast majority of visitors come as we did in the summer, so expect the heat, plan for it and deal with it. We saw several hardier folks than us heading off on trailheads to go hiking straight into some of the most desolate, sun-blasted infernos imaginable, and more power to them. I’ll stick to my nice green, shady Pacific Northwest forest hiking trails, thank you very much.

Colors abound among the rocks and hills

(Colors abound among the rocks and hills)

Yes, there really are trees in this park

(Yes, there really are trees in this park)

The best thing about the Loop Road is you can go at your leisure. Zip through in an hour if that’s all the time you have, or spend the whole day. If you’re feeling like you haven’t seen enough of this magnificent land you can always head south into the interior of the park along 590 to the village of Scenic, then take 589 south to the White River Visitor Center. This route will take you through the Buffalo Gap National Grassland and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. We didn’t take the time to do this ourselves, but at several of the overlooks on the Loop Road we were afforded expansive views in this  southerly direction and saw only vast stretches of an untamed wilderness landscape that could have easily existed eons ago.

Goodbye Badlands

(Goodbye Badlands)

Rockscapes in the Needles area of the Black Hills

(Rockscapes in the Needles area of the Black Hills)

When you’re done with the Badlands, head west to the Black Hills. These pine-clad mountains are a rich and redolent source of some of the Old West’s most famous locations, persons and stories. The names alone bring to mind all manner of western tales: Deadwood, Crazy Horse, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and many more.

View to the north in the Needles

(View to the north in the Needles)

Tight squeeze

(Tight squeeze)

If it’s an unforgettable scenic mountain drive you’re looking for, this area if rife with possibilities. We chose the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, also known as The Needles Highway (SD 87), Iron Mountain Road (US 16A), Horse Thief Lake Road (SD 244) and Sylvan Lake Road (SD 89). Parts of all these make up this oval-shaped route through the most rugged parts of the Black Hills. The Norbeck Byway includes picturesque lakes, towering granite formations, rock tunnels, hairpin curves and spiral bridges. It also encompasses the wildlife ranges of Norbeck Wildlife Preserve, Black Elk National Wilderness Area and Custer State Park.

View to the south

(View to the south)

The spectacular rocks formations of the Needles

(The spectacular rocks formations of the Needles)

Wildlife abounds throughout. Deer and elk are a common sight, and we were fortunate enough to encounter not one but two decent sized herds of buffalo as we drove.

The rolling grasslands of Custer Stare Park

(The rolling grasslands of Custer Stare Park)

Buffalo in Custer State Park

(Buffalo in Custer State Park)

Other points of interest are 7,242-foot Harney Peak (the USA’s highest point east of the Rocky Mountains), Sylvan Lake and the Needle’s Eye and Cathedral Spires rock formations. There are more than 36 miles of rugged hiking trails lacing the area and enough photographic opportunities to satisfy the most avid amateur or professional shutterbug.

If all this sounds like I’m being paid by the South Dakota tourism board, well, I’m not. I’m simply passing on my take on what I found to be a much more fascinating and diverse part of the country than I, or many others, might expect to find. If you think of South Dakota as nothing but a flat, featureless landscape of endless prairie and farmland, come to the Black Hills and Badlands and have your expectations and horizons expanded.

A sunset and good night, South Dakota

(A sunset and good night, South Dakota)

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