If you get the itch to stretch your legs — really stretch your legs — head to Badlands National Park on the edge of our country’s Great Plains 65 miles east of Rapid City, S.D.
Within the 244,000-acre park is the sprawling 64,144-acre Badlands Wilderness Area. This special place represents the largest expanse of protected prairie ecosystem in the United States, where strangely eroded hills and gullies alternate with a rolling sea of grass.
Little has changed here since the nomadic Oglala-Lakota Sioux traveled through this broken topography 250 years ago. To these once-undisputed masters of the plains, this forbidding-looking area was mako sica, or “land bad.” Good news: It still is.
The all-around best Badlands trek begins at the Sage Creek Campground, a primitive drive-in camp with space for around 25 vehicles and tents; camping is free.
From here, hoist your hefty backpack (weighed down with ample drinking water) and follow normally bone-dry Sage Creek into the heart of the Badlands wilderness. There are no established trails in this twisted, sweeping terrain.
Instead, hikers use the bison trails that meander through the vast silent spaces, or simply set out cross-country through the prairie and badland formations. Head southeast for
about 7 miles and eventually you’ll discover a prairie paradise in the realm of the “Wall.”
Set up camp wherever you please — the crowding that plagues some other wild places is unknown here — and explore until your cache of drinking water runs low. An assortment of great fantastical spires, pinnacles and ravines stretch out in all directions, beckoning to be reconnoitered.
Climb a crumbly ridge and be rewarded with unencumbered views that can stretch for more than 50 miles. Listening to the song of the coyote, you can easily imagine what it was like when 60 million bison roamed the endless plains. This is as close to Dances With Wolves-type scenery as you’re ever likely to get.
Hiking off-trail across the grasslands is surprisingly easy, but the Sage Creek Basin is interspersed with ranges of classic badlands architecture that can be difficult to cross and might develop into wet, concretelike ooze when it rains. Bring all your own drinking water (1 gallon per person per day is recommended); any water found in alkaline seeps or urine-contaminated buffalo wallows isn’t to be trusted.
While some claim there are fewer prairie rattlesnakes per square mile in the national park than in other parts of South Dakota, play it safe and listen for their warning rattle — and watch where you place your hands and feet.
According to the National Park Service, the most common injury in Badlands is a twisted ankle. Sturdy shoes with good ankle support are recommended.
Finally, always carry a topographic map, compass and/or GPS unit. Cellphones will not work in most areas of the park, so do not rely on them if you become lost or disoriented.
Backcountry Rules and Regs
All parkland is open to backcountry camping except areas one-half mile from any road or developed area. Permits are recommended for safety’s sake but are not required for overnight stays. Contact a ranger at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to notify them of your overnight trip plans. And don’t forget: No campfires are allowed; use a backpacking stove.
Have a healthy respect for bison; a herd of approximately 1,000 animals roams Sage Creek Basin. Watching the magnificent 1-ton
creatures on the windswept horizon is to feel linked to the past, but looking one in the eye as it charges faster than 30 miles per hour is to feel sheer terror.
You Won’t Forget
The diversity of wildlife. Here in the badlands, if you don’t see bison, prairie dogs, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, whitetail deer, bighorn sheep, coyotes, and a variety of songbirds and hawks, it’s because you’re not looking hard enough.
If you’re looking for peace and quiet, you’ve come to the right place. Badlands is one of the quietest places in America. It’s also one of the best places for stargazing.
Did You Know?
No area in the world excels like the Badlands for fossilized remains. This ancient sea bottom is littered with the prehistoric bones of giant fish, aquatic lizards and turtles, and the shells of large ammonites, snails and clams. These are just for viewing; it’s against the law to remove these artifacts.
When to Go
Badlands weather is variable and unpredictable, with temperature extremes ranging from 116 to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. If possible, plan your trip for spring or fall; both seasons boast pleasant days and cool nights.
Take Interstate 90 east of Rapid City to Exit 110 at Wall. Follow signs directing vehicles south approximately 7 miles to the park’s Pinnacle Entrance. The unpaved Sage Creek Rim Road takes you west along the north rim of the Badlands Wilderness Area and to Sage Creek Campground.
Badlands National Park, 605-433-5361, nps.gov/badl
LARRY RICE resides in Buena Vista, Colo. An avid backpacker, canoeist and traveler, his Trail Guide column appears regularly in Scouting.
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