The native Lakota call this landscape “mako sica,” meaning “land bad.” Here you will find equal parts stunning vistas and harsh exposed desert that is hot and dry several months out of the year. Either way, Badlands National Park will leave you breathless.
Colorful buttes, pinnacles, and spires come together to create one of the most photogenic landscapes in America. Bighorn sheep and bison roam the largest mixed-grass prairie in the lower 48. It is a place where the sunrises and sunsets are magical. Where the hikes are short and sweet, and those looking for solitude have their pick of a handful of unique backcountry experiences.
A Photographer’s Playground
It’s important to choose the right time of day to photograph the Badlands. It is all too easy to capture bright, washed-out photos of rocks that don’t show off their true beauty. To remedy this, head out in the early morning or evening when the sun is at an angle to accentuate the colors and shapes of the otherworldly formations of the landscape. When the sun is making its descent, “magic hour” or “golden house” happens and the light makes things extra crisp and glorious. Panorama Point is a magical place offering a vista that is seemingly never-ending. This overlook provides one of the best panoramas and photo ops in the entire park.
Lace Up Your Hiking Boots
Notch Trail. Arguably the park’s most famous trail, its 1.5 miles is listed as moderately strenuous, however, it should be noted that you should not have a fear of heights! A ladder is the trail’s defining feature, and care should be taken when going up or down it, especially after heavy rainfall. The trail ends abruptly at a cliff and a significant drop to the valley below. Enjoy the views!
Cliff Shelf Nature Trail runs ½ mile and goes through a fragrant juniper forest, hugging a portion of the badlands. It provides wonderful views of the valley and is a great introduction to the unique scenery of the Badlands. The trees here are a lovely change of pace, as they are sparse throughout the rest of the park.
Saddle Pass is for those who are a bit more adventurous and seek a unique experience. The trail is only 0.7 miles with 200 feet elevation gain, and while that doesn’t sound too challenging, know this – most of the hike is scrambling straight up rocks – so make sure your hiking boots have plenty of traction. Once at the top, spectacular views of the White River Valley can be had.
Door Trail starts out as an easy, flat, 0.75-mile boardwalk loop trail. But once the boardwalk ends, continue the adventure to “the door”; an awesome break in the Badlands that opens up to incredible views. Explore the jagged formations that make this park so unique. Just follow the metal markers installed by park rangers once the boardwalk ends.
Castle Trail is a 5-mile hike that cuts through the heart of the Badlands. It is an out-and-back trail, so if you opt for hiking the entire length, it will be 10 miles roundtrip. One particular feature of this hike is the 4.7-mile Saddle Pass-Medicine Root Loop, where you are treated to wonderful views across prairie land and rocky pinnacles where bighorn sheep may be spotted.
Explore Scenic Drives
Badlands Loop Road (Highway 240) involves twists and turns along “the Wall,” a 30-mile section of jagged rocks that separate the upper and lower prairies of the Badlands. Here you’ll drive through the most scenic area of the park. Throughout the drive are gorgeous overlooks, trails, and backcountry hiking, so there are many opportunities to stop.
Sage Creek Rim Road is a well-maintained gravel road, heading into the western section of Badlands National Park. This is the perfect route to take to experience a less-traveled and more rugged, remote section where you can get close (but not too close) to wildlife. The road begins on the Badlands Loop Drive not far from the Pinnacles Overlook. Its 25 miles will take you near Scenic, South Dakota. You’ll likely encounter bison, pronghorn and bighorn sheep, and the occasional coyote.
Roberts Prairie Dog Town
As you drive through the badlands, keep your eyes peeled for mounds and burrows by the hundreds. These are the homes of the park’s most adorable mammals – the prairie dog. You’ll see them popping in and out of the mounds. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear them “barking” at each other. And while it may be tempting to feed them, please don’t; they are more than capable of gathering their own food.
The Overlooks are Amazing
Yellow Mounds Overlook adds some exciting color to the Badlands experience. The striated colors of the hills show off the millions of years of wind and water erosion in the most vibrant of ways. Compared to the pink, red, beige, and gray of the rest of the park, the stark yellows here are more than eye-catching.
Pinnacles Overlook is a dramatic vista with magnificent spires, ravines, and cliffs. Jagged formations completely cover the landscape, and the juxtaposition of all of these features makes for a truly awesome spectacle.
Big Badlands Overlook may just be your favorite – it offers an amazing vista of zebra-striped rock formations that is the stuff of legend. This is a magical spot to visit at sunrise (you’ll encounter far fewer people, as well).
Explore the Backcountry
The best way for adventurous hikers to experience the Badlands is hiking the Sage Creek Wilderness Area. Badlands National Park is one of few that allows visitors to hike off the trails and explore the wilderness on their own (provided you have some hiking experience and have plenty of food and water for the time you expect to be hiking.) Several access points are available, including Sage Creek Campground and Sage Creek Basin Overlook. Deer Haven Wilderness Area in another option to explore unmaintained trails. Before doing any backcountry hiking, be sure to register your name and vehicle information in the Backcountry Register.
Rob Decker is a photographer and graphic artist who had the rare privilege of studying under Ansel Adams in Yosemite National Park when he was just 19 years old. Now, Rob is on a journey to explore and photograph all 61 of America’s National Parks. He’s creating WPA-style posters to help people celebrate their own national park adventures — as well as encourage others to get out and explore!
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