Travel: Badlands offer otherworldly experience

Ebbing and flowing of waters and harsh winds have created towers, ridges and pinnacles of rock and mud.

A hiker sets off on the Castle Trail in the Badlands of South Dakota.

A hiker sets off on the Castle Trail in the Badlands of South Dakota.

BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK, S.D.—Where much of the drive from St. Louis to the Badlands is filled with billboards for kitschy tourist attractions, from the corny Corn Palace to the 1880 Town, the Badlands feel like they haven’t been spoiled by human hands.

Rather, they’ve been shaped by years of geological events. Ebbing and flowing of waters and harsh winds have created these towers, ridges and pinnacles of rock and mud, streaked with shades of gold, pink and red and softened by grasslands filled with prairie dogs.

Just after passing through the entrance to the Badlands, you are greeted with a giant crater of peaks and valleys.

The formations are so incredible they led Theodore Roosevelt to say the Badlands “seem hardly properly to belong to this Earth.” Indeed, much of it seems otherworldly.

Though many roadside stops offer vast views of deep canyons and many scary moments for moms and dads of little ones who want to look over the edge, other areas are like nature’s largest playground. Many of the formations rise up from areas near parking lots and don’t go too high. So parents can’t rest fairly easily letting their kids climb up, down and around them.

The Badlands National Park has several hikes, mostly small ones on boardwalks, but the Castle Trail runs 5 miles through the middle of the park. I knew my 6-year-old couldn’t do 10 miles round-trip, so we set out to hike for an hour and a half and then turn around.

At one point we ventured off the trail to check out what looked like caves. As we were heading back to the trail, my 8-year-old son saw a rock that caught his eye. “This is heavier than a rock,” he told me. “What if it’s a fossil?”

We had just come from a ranger talk about fossils in the park. Turns out, according to Ranger Alison Shoup, the Badlands area was established to protect the plethora of fossils there. The region was actually a sea during the time of the dinosaurs, so the oldest fossils you find are those of sea creatures. Over time, the area dried up, becoming more like a tropical forest. By this time, the dinosaurs had left the Earth, so the bulk of the fossils in the Badlands are from prehistoric mammals. During our talk, she showed us real fossils vs. casts. The real fossils had a certain feel to them. Hmmm, I thought: What if this rock my son discovered is a real fossil?

Turns out, it was. We took it to the fossil lab at the visitors center (it’s illegal to keep fossils), where rangers there told us it was quite a find. They also told us we should have left it there for paleontologists to examine (we didn’t realize that!). Park officials later confirmed that it was the base of a skull and vertebra of a prehistoric mammal, but that’s really all they could tell.

Julie Johndreau, public information officer for the park, said the park receives about 150 fossil reports each year from visitors. Most turn out to be fossils. “We diligently try to send a letter back to everyone who files a fossil report through us. We make every effort to follow up with the visitors.”

At the park

The drive through the Badlands would take about an hour without stopping, but you’ll want to stop at the various overlooks and maybe even for animals.

Though there were reports of bison, we never saw them. What we did see were deer, bighorn sheep and prairie dogs, lots and lots of chirping prairie dogs. Their prairie dog towns sit right next to the road, and they don’t seem to be a bit afraid of cars.

Besides hiking and stopping to gawk at the animals, the park offers several other activities.

Visitors Center: Located at park headquarters, the Ben Reifel Visitor Center features a 95-seat, air-conditioned theater, the fossil lab where you watch scientists at work and many exhibits. The interactive displays include information on the paleontology of the White River Badlands and how the Badlands were formed.

Special programs: Like most national parks, the Badlands provide a Junior Ranger program in which kids complete activities and a workbook to earn their Junior Ranger badge. The park rangers also offer guided hikes, talks, activities and evening programs. We especially loved the night-sky viewing. The sky in the Badlands isn’t polluted with man-made lights, so you have darkness. Real, complete darkness. On this moonless night, the only illumination came from millions of miles away: stars and a few planets. Wrapped up under blankets, we watched as the rangers gave us a quick tutorial of the stars, using a special green light to point to them. It’s much like the Science Center’s Planetarium show, only this is the real thing. After, we used two high-powered telescopes to look at star clusters and Jupiter. And then I had to pry my husband away.

Stay and eat

Right next to the visitors center, you’ll find Cedar Pass Lodge and campground, operated by Forever Resorts. The lodge offers rental cabins, a restaurant and a surprisingly good gift shop with locally made items including Northern Plains Native American crafts.

We stayed in a rental cabin ($137 a night, The rooms, with wood walls, floors and vaulted ceilings, were quite spacious and just updated this year with eco-friendly, Gold LEED standards. We also had a television, mini refrigerator, microwave and air-conditioning. But best of all: We had a large front porch with three lodgepole pine deck chairs, perfect for staring out at the Badlands formations in front of us. Certain rooms are ADA accessible and pets are allowed for a fee.

With few other choices around, we ate at the lodge’s restaurant several times. We loved the Sioux Indian Taco, made from special fried bread and seasoned bison meat.

From our hotel, a 40-minute drive through the park took us to the famed Wall Drug in the town of Wall, S.D. Let’s just say we didn’t escape the touristy kitsch after all. From a giant rabbit you can “ride” to animatronic singing cowboys, this place has it all, and sells it all. It’s fun, if you don’t take it too seriously, and the fried fish sandwich was actually delicious.

If you go

More info:

How much: Park entrance fees are $15 per private vehicle, good for seven days.

Amy Bertrand is a reporter with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.


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