Photography, Outdoors, South Dakota

Good Times in the Badlands

Catching up on summer adventures with a day trip across Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and South Dakota to Badlands National Park. Rocks! Buffalo! Prairie Dogs!

August 13, 2022

A photo of a jet black road with brightly painted double yellow lines curving around a large rock formation which has clearly visible reddish layers from different ages all underneath a bright blue sky.

If it's Friday after about noon, I'm probably wondering what kind of road trip I can get away with that weekend -- what destinations I can tick off, how far I can get, and whether the skies there are dark.

Sometimes these little schemes develop into adventures, and sometimes they don't. This time: The Badlands!

Badlands NP has been on my list for years, because I love a good rock formation, and it seems so appealingly right down I-90 from Chicago. Well, it's a 12 hour drive, so it's not quite right down the road, but I've done worse, and it was one of my favorite road trips ever.

Hurtling into the sunset down I-90 isn't a terrible way to start a weekend, and it was great fun to rush past rural Minnesota farm towns at 2am blasting Bad Bunny or some such. Momentum kept me going until Valley Springs, SD, just short of Sioux Falls, where I pulled over for a few hours' sleep in the driver's seat.

The next morning I pulled into the park, paid my entry fee, and immediately got a breathtaking view to share with my truckstop coffee at the aptly named Big Badlands Overlook.

A mile or two of peaks rounded by time, split by clear layers in the material stretch away in the foreground, behind which you can see flat grassland

Yellow-green grassland is punctured by occasional rocky hills and rock formations

A small group of people stand in a small, fenced-off observation area on a cliff viewed from behind as miles and miles of rocky hills stretch into the distance

A deep black road with bright yellow lines winds to the right, around a dramatically layered formation of sedimentary rock which has bold rust-colored stripes

A bighorn sheep lifts its front hoof as it grazes on tall grass next to a park road

After one of my all-time great morning cofees, watching the morning unfold at the end of the Great Plains, I took what was honestly my first look at a map of the park (I plan things professionally, I'm allergic to it in my personal life, it tends to work out well enough). I found out the best place to find bison -- and I've been on a search for a wild bison all summer -- is by driving down the Rim Road, about an hour into the park at 25mph. That's just fine, this is a road trip, this is what we do!

And I found bison! After shaking my poor, poor sport sedan to it's spiritual core for about 3 miles of rutted, dusty misery, I turned a corner and found a field where a few dozen bison were grazing. This was only the second time I'd been out of my car for about a full day at this point, and I watched them in absolute contentment for about 20 minutes, with the prarie wind blowing and not much else going on. Soon enough, someone saw me stopped by the side of the road, and one became two, became five, and it was time to get moving.

Cars in the park wind up a crushed gravel dirt road as they kick up dust clouds behind them

About a dozen buffalo graze on low grasses on the next hillside over from the viewer

The dirt road through this portion of the park is pictured, showing deep rutting from vehicles passing

Eventually I couldn't make it any further in my car...the ruts were just too serious, and even going about 2-3mph (not super easy uphill in a manual on gravel) was actually causing me to fear for my ride home. But turning around, I noticed a lone bison perched on top of a rock on the other side of the road, exactly where I would have missed it completely had I not moved exactly when I did. I pulled over at a respectful distance and watched it calmly, slowly -- sloooowly -- wander back across the road, to the field I'd been watching earlier. Absolute peace.

A lone buffalo stands on top of a rocky, sandy patch in the distance, facing the viewer

A lone buffalo stands in a slight dip in a rock formation as it walks toward the viewer

A buffalo steps onto the gravel road it's about to cross. I can't tell you exactly why the buffalo crossed the road, unfortunately.

The buffalo from the previous photos wanders off into the grassland, toward the small herd of buffalo pictured earlier, which are not shown, but just off camera

A view of rounded cliffs which lead down into a deep valley, whose sides are covered in light brush

A view into the distance showing rocky terrain occasionally pierced by patches of smooth grassland

A light tan bird with brown streaks and a yellow breast, with its long beak open, searches tall grass for food,

A prarie dog is standing its rear legs in front of the entrance to its burrow, as other entrances are seen behind in the grassland

I spent the next few hours crisscrossing the park looking at prarie dog towns, incredible views, and taking in the warm breeze in some of the most beautiful country I've ever seen.

I've realized that my favorite part of almost every adventure involves climbing some geological feature to its very top. So: enter Saddle Pass Trial. It's about a quarter mile to the top, and then maybe another few hundred feet to an even higher, adjacent, climbable-if-you're-a-little-creative outcropping. But what a quarter mile. There are a couple of pitches where I was laughing out loud at the pitch, which reminded me of climbing a ladder to hang Christmas lights. The rock is grippy, though, it's great fun, and rewards you with a very amazing view.

A smooth, worn path winds up a steep hill in between rough rock formations under a bright blue sky

A lone figure is shown in siloutette high atop a dramatic cliff against a sunny sky, with a valley stretching out below

The roads of Badlands National park wind between rock formations and grassland into the distance

A photo showing a single mountain-like rocky outcropping rising from the grasslands, which stretch far into the distance, where a small town is visible

A view of the small parking lot where I left my car before hiking a few hundred feet up the mountain where I now stand. You can see far into the distance of grassland.

Standing in a small parking lot looking at the start of a trail, which crosses a small bridge next to a signpost and leads into the rocky hills which I had just been climbing

I did need some snacks after that -- I can't emphasize enough how I bundled myself and my camera into my car back in Chicago on Friday afternoon and hit the road, with absolutely no preparation -- so I headed back to the visitor's center for some Cliff Bars or similar fare. On the way I noticed a very amazing view I hadn't seen before, as clouds sweeping in from the southwest blew across a sunny plain, casting an amazing light on a huge formation of rocky pinnacles a few miles away.

I had to wait for a family to take a (presumably adorable) photo, which gave me a few minutes of calm in a whirlwind few days.

A tiny family can be seen posing for a photo in the distance, standing in the road against a backdrop of a large mountain of rocks

A dramatic vista as a road stretches toward a sharp mountain of rock as dark cloud cover blows in from the right of the image. The road is the same one shown in the previous photo.

A profile view of my white Volkswagen, covered in a light dust, sits at the side of the road with grassland stretching out behind it

Mountains of smooth, tan sedimentary rock form sharp formations as they stretch high into the sky

It was about 5pm now, Saturday afternoon, and I was becoming aware that I had to make a choice whether to stay another night. I had work on Monday, and about 16 hours including some sleep between me and home. The skies around the park are extremely dark in stretches, but it was going to be a stormy night as weather blew in from Wyoming. So, I decided, sitting in a parkling lot with the view in the photo right below this, it was going to be a one day trip. It was already worth it, and the real adventure is the friends we make along the way, or something.

A plateau of soft green grass above a valley showing dramatic, layered rocks in the soft evening light

A rocky outcrop featuring reddish and grey layers of material underneath a blue sky with fluffy clouds

Looking down a two lane road heading toward striking rock formation featuring a narrow tower rises on the horizon

People take in a view in an observation area atop a rocky hill as others walk back on the path leading to the observation area

On my way out of the park, I got one last surprise: one of my favorite sunsets I've ever seen, just as one final part in the clouds passed overhead before the rainshowers came. What a drive.

The main road in the park takes a turn, giving the viewer a sightline directly down the road as a single car drives into the park at sundown. The grasslands on either side of the road are lit with diffuse light, and the sky behind above rocky hills is a subtle purple-blue

As the sun sets, a line of rocky hills is lit by warm red light, dividing a landscape between shadow, where the sun has gone below the horizon, and brightness, where its light is still peeking out

The sun sets, bursting the photo with deep oranges and yellows above a grassland puncuated by a few small trees and shrubs

The Badlands National Park entrance sign in the characteristic rounded font of National Parks Service signs as light falls and the sky turns a purplish blue in the background

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