Return to the Badlands

Merriam-Webster

noun:

badlands: a region marked by intricate erosional sculpturing, scanty vegetation, and fantastically formed hills —usually used in plural.

It’s been fifty-plus years since I stood looking out over the masterful beauty of the Badlands National Park in South Dakota. The first time was on a coast-to-coast trip with my family at the age of eight in a roll down the window station wagon and trailer; no AC. In my faded memory, I remember driving through the park at sunset and being overwhelmed by the pastel glow of the Badlands as the sun drifted into the horizon. At that point in my life, the stark barren beauty of the Badlands was completely foreign to me.  It’s a visceral memory for me. All I remember is what I felt. Awed and part of something much bigger than myself. So, when my boyfriend, Roy, and I set out on a coast-to-coast trip this summer, the badlands were a must revisit destination.

Roy and I at the end of Door Trail in the Badlands.

Here are the highlights from my return to the Badlands:

The Door Trail

I think part of the reason I remember this park is that it is so easily experienced. While I might get frustrated standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon looking down at an ice-encrusted impassable trail, the Badlands begs to be experienced. The Door Trail does not disappoint. After walking down a boardwalk for about 2/10’s of a mile, you go off into the badlands and follow numbered yellow markers until you get to a poignant sign marked “End of the Trail”. It requires mental and physical agility to make your way through the trail (or lack of a trail). I was completely engaged on a way forward by climbing, stepping and hiking within and around hills, mounds, steps and gullies. It was hot and windy and many folks were out there climbing around. There was camaraderie with the other hikers as I watched how others traversed the obstacles. Experience the Door Trail.

The Prairie

Unlike the southwestern portion of the United States (i.e., Grand Canyon, Arches, etc.), the Badlands of South Dakota are interspersed among vast swaths of prairie. I was taken aback by how, after countless hours of driving on I-90 and miles and miles of prairie, there were these barren formations of the badlands. When driving through the park, I kept miscalculating where we were because we were suddenly surrounded by prairie again so I thought, well, I guess we’re almost done; and then we would take another corner and the prairie receded and there were more stark colorful formations taking over the horizon. The prairie, on the other hand, was flat and covered in grass or small mounds. It’s quite the juxtaposition.

The Animals

Even though it’s called Badlands, there is an abundance of wildlife. I saw two animals I had never seen in the wild before on this trip. One was pronghorn antelope. There was a small herd grazing in the prairie very close to the road. Next was prairie dogs. There were hundreds of prairie dogs in mounds across the prairie. I was surprised and intrigued by their little chirps to each other. There was a private business outside the park that advertised feeding prairie dogs. There is no need, there were plenty to behold, video and gawk at from the drive through the park. The last animal I had seen before hiking at Canyonlands in Utah were bighorn sheep. I was surprised that bighorn sheep could be found in the middle of the prairie instead of stalking the barren rocks. In about 2 hours we ended up spotting pronghorn antelope, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep and longhorn cattle. Amazing.

When I reminisced with my brother Rick about returning to the Badlands, his memory is that we had just pulled off the side of the road in the park and camped there that night in the trailer. Perhaps that’s why I remember sunset and the glow of the Badlands. What’s remarkable is how little it has changed yet my experience was so different as I have a new appreciation for the size and diversity of the park. I’m glad I had the chance to return.

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