“In all things of nature, there is something of the marvelous”. – Aristotle
Last July, we decided to take a different kind of family vacation and headed west to South Dakota. Our trip brought us to such national treasures as Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore and the Badlands National Park. I’d never been to the Badlands before yet had heard that this remote part of South Dakota is worth the trip for its unusual beauty. Although the drive there is long and uneventful, once you arrive, this striking landscape of buttes, canyons, pinnacles and spires takes your breath away. It is quite unlike any other place I’ve ever seen.
The Lakota (the indigenous people who inhabited this area) gave this land its name, “mako sica” which means “land bad“. The Badlands was delegated a national monument in 1939 and a national park in 1976 after reaching an agreement with the Oglala Lakota. Today, the Badlands National Park welcomes visitors and paleontologists from around the world who come to see and study this magical landscape of eroded sedimentary layers of rocks that holds fossils dating back millions of years in time.
It was a beautiful hot summer day as we headed east to the Badlands National Park. With luck, we would arrive a little before lunch and check in to the only lodging in the park, The Cedar Pass Lodge. Many tourists simply drive through the park during the day and never spend the night. But in my opinion, you are missing the best part about the Badlands. The day is hot with very little shade and quite frankly, a little bit miserable trying to do any kind of hiking (especially with young kids). It is the evening, as the sun sets and casts the Badlands into a rainbow of harmonic colors, that it is most spectacular. If you don’t stay the night, you miss out on the best part of visiting.
Thankfully we booked our accommodations at the Cedar Pass Lodge almost a year in advance, as there are only a handful of cabins available. Our cabin had been completely remodeled and was beautiful. The new shiny hardwood floors and little front and back porch added to the appeal of our quaint little cabin. The only downside was the lack of dining options. The only restaurant within an hour’s drive is at the Cedar Pass Lodge and it is very basic. But it would have to do.
The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is located at the park headquarters on the south edge of the Badlands Loop Road and right next to the Cedar Pass Lodge and Restaurant. It is worth stopping there to watch the 20-minute documentary Land of Stone and Light in the theater which gives you an impressive overview of the geology, wildlife and paleontology of the park. There are also hiking and driving maps available at the center to help plan your visit.
Unfortunately it was steaming hot that afternoon so our plans to do any hiking were canceled. Instead, we decided to take a drive through the park and save the hiking for the evening when the conditions were more tolerable. The Badlands Loop Road is the only paved road in the park and weaves for 23 miles between the Ben Reifel Visitor Center in the southeast and the Pinnacles Entrance in the north. We began at the visitor center and moved up marveling at the dramatic maze of pinnacles and spires that went on as far as the eye can see.
The further in we drove, the more impressive the scenery became. The Badlands are a work in progress, constantly changing and forming each day. They did not exist until 500,000 years ago when water began to carve jagged shapes through what had been a flat flood plain. Every time it rains, more sediment is washed away and the landscape changes. What is so hard to believe is that the spectacular formations of the Badlands may entirely erode away and disappear in another 500,000 years. It is hard to imagine such a huge landscape vanishing from the face of the earth.
Given the multitude of sedimentary layers of rocks, it is not surprising that the Badlands National Park is a paleontologists dream. The first discovery of a fossil jaw was recorded in 1846 and more discoveries are made to this day. Fossils of ancient camels, three-toed horses, saber-toothed cats and giant rhinoceros-like creatures have all been found within the 244,000 acres of the park.It is hard to imagine such enormous creatures rooming the earth!
I found the landscape surreal and wanted desperately to get out of the car and hike. But it would have to wait. It was too darn hot. So instead, I took pictures and planned out the hikes we would do at sunset. There were several I wanted to do but we could only pick a few.
Finally, we got to the best views of the park, the maze of pinnacles, spires and canyons that turn colors throughout the day. I took a few pictures not realizing how incredibly lucky I would be to be standing in this very same place at sunset. This view would transform into perhaps one of the most beautiful sites I’d ever seen. A pure work of art.
“Badlands National Park is famous for its spectacular rock formations, with vivid colored bands that can be traced from pinnacle to pinnacle. The rocks were laid down by oozing mud, river floods, sands from an ancient sea, volcanic ash, and wind-blow dust for more than 70 million years. Some thin bands are remains of ancient praise soils, others are layers of river sediments that are hundreds of feet deep”. – Placard in the Badlands National Park.
I could hardly wait to come back.
South Dakota Vacation Guide (magazine)
Moon Handbook “Mount Rushmore & The Black Hills” by Laura Bidwell
Also, I took this photo of a placard at the park which discusses the different layers of the rocks. I thought it was fascinating and wanted to include it here in the post as a reference.