Native American Lakota referred to the area as mako sica, or “land bad.” When I visited the Badlands National Park in western South Dakota, I saw “land beautiful.”
Centuries ago, before modern roads and conveniences, the peaks, gullies and wide-open prairie with little water were difficult to traverse for nomadic tribes, especially in the extreme heat of summer and bitter cold of winter. Today hiking in the area is almost always purely recreational. Paved roads take you to trail heads, and unless you plan to hike cross-country, trails are short. There are still weather extremes, but when I visited in late September, the weather was picture-perfect—cool in the morning and pleasantly warm in the afternoon.
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Our travel group made two visits to the park. One afternoon we stopped at one of the many overlooks on the Badlands Loop Road for our first view of the rocky buttes with their layered, banded peaks.
However, neither view compared to our experience the following morning when, before dawn, we made our way to an area near Notch Trail to watch the sunrise. This time we weren’t at an overlook. Rather, we walked on the craggy, rocky terrain that seemed more like Mars rather than Earth. Early morning clouds threatened rain, but as the sun rose, the clouds parted, painting a spectacular picture.
Our treat from Mother Nature didn’t end with the sunrise. As we were on our way to breakfast, we came across a half dozen or so bighorn sheep. We pulled to the side of the road, and several people in our group walked into the prairie to photograph them. I was a bit apprehensive because of the sign we had seen a short time ago.
Once several others walked through the prairie, though, I took the same path. I couldn’t pass up this rare opportunity. The animals stood for several minutes staring at us, seemingly as fascinated by us as we were with them. And then one by one they began to lie down, once they realized we weren’t a threat. Or maybe they became bored with us.
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If you go:
Badlands National Park, located 75 miles east of Rapid City, South Dakota, is easily accessed via Interstate 90. Check the web site for directions and other park information. We saw just a small part of the park on our short visits. The National Park Service recommends spending a full two days to fully experience the park.
Where to eat and stay:
After our morning visit we ate a buffet breakfast at Cedar Pass Lodge, located at the east end of the park. Cabins and a campground are available.
Disclosure: My visit to Badlands National Park was hosted by the South Dakota Department of Tourism. However, all opinions in this article are my own.
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