Nothing BAD about the Badlands
by: Dana Johnson, head adventure concierge, Open Leaf Excursions LLC
When I was a kid on my family’s “out west” vacation, we skipped the Badlands. We felt that what we saw from I-90 wasn’t interesting enough to warrant dipping south and checking out this desert. Interestingly enough, my husband had the same experience in his youth. Being of the personality that I don’t want to miss anything, we swung south on our nuclear family trip this summer and experienced the Badlands.
“WOW!” is all I have to say. What you see from the highway is not even the tip of the perverbial ice-berg, or sand-berg in this case. We entered the park at the Northeast Entrance utilizing exit 131 to travel south off of I90 on 240. We thought the initial views were pretty impressive, but it wasn’t until we made the first pull-off of the road and hiked to the look-out that our socks were knocked off.
The badlands are a unique formation cut deep from alluvial and volcanic ash deposits. The continuous action of wind and water continue to carve the formations with infrequent but torrential downpours.
It all began about 80 million years ago when the Pierre shale, the bottom layer of the Badlands geology, was laid down by a great inland sea. About 35 million years ago, rivers and streams running downhill from the Black Hills spread sand, mud, and gravel on the area. Volcanic activity, probably originating in the Rocky Mountains to the west, poured vast quantities of wind-borne ash on the plains of South Dakota. For a few more million years, the land built up faster than it was eroded away. Then the balance changed, and wind and water went to work to create the geological wonderland of today.
The layers of colors and the seemingly unending vista are breathtaking. What’s even more fun is to actually take one of the many hikes offered from the parking areas. Having young children (7 and 9) we weren’t sure how far we should wander so we started with a simple trail called “Door Trail.” This gave us a good indication of how much water we needed to carry and what to expect on a hike in the Badlands. The trail only went out 1/2 mile and interestingly enough at the end we were the only hikers left.
Of all the millions of people who visit the National Parks each year, about 97% never wander more than 200 yards from their vehicles. This is so sad because the true experience of the outdoors lies beyond that 200 yard mark.
Our second hike was really an adventure. Any family with children who love to climb, MUST check out the Notch Trail. This trail begins at the south end of the same parking area as the Door Trail. You can find the trailhead if you look for the bike-rack that is near the southern exit of the parking area. The Notch trail is only about ¾ mile long but is considered moderate to strenuous due to the climb it makes up a huge log ladder to a ledge called “The Notch.” If you’re extremely fearful of heights, forego this hike. I’m moderately scared of heights and I did fine.
The trail goes through a canyon which leads you to the ladder. After scrambling up the ladder you can hike along the ledge to get another amazing view of the Badlands. Our boys positively loved this trail. We were sure to bring plenty of water (and sunscreen) because it’s hot in the sun and with the dry climate you don’t even realize you’re sweating to the point of dehydration. On the Notch Trail we only ran into one other family on the ledge. Again, we were beyond that 200 yard mark and the payoff was wonderful.
After our two hikes we did the traditional tourist stuff visiting the visitor center and gift shop. This is worth your time as there are a lot of educational displays in the building and you can speak with the scientists about how they find fossils etc… Speaking of fossils, my kids were really jazzed to hike on the “Fossil Exhibit Trail.” In the visitor center they were told that one of largest fossils found was by a seven year old girl hiking in the Badlands with her family. We were on a mission to be the second family to bring in such a find.
The trail was extremely disappointing though. To quote my seven year old, “What a rip-off.” The trail was really a short ¼ mile boardwalk that had display boxes along it with fossil models of the now extinct creatures that once roamed the area. We saw similar models in the air-conditioned visitor center so even the models weren’t exciting. We did make it fun though by bouldering on huge outcroppings of rock near the trail.
We exited the Badlands on Hwy 44 heading northwest to the Black Hills. Surprisingly this road had very little traffic and was beautiful as it traveled through the Buffalo Gap National Grassland area. This route allowed us to bypass the craziness of Rapid City and head into the Black Hills on a road less traveled meaning no line of cars to enter the park.
So, the next time you’re traveling past the Badlands, remember they’re not so “bad.” Take the opportunity to see this amazing natural wonder.