Badlands National Park Interior, S.Dak. Visited: June 28, 2004 Second Visit: August 19, 2004 NPS Site Visited: 62 of 353 NPS Website
WHAT IS IT? Stark, unearthly rock formations, canyons and pinnacles ostensibly, but mistakenly, devoid of wildlife and very hot. The Site contains one of the world’s richest mammalian fossil beds.
BEAUTY (8/10) Badlands NP is harshly unwelcoming but strangely beautiful and undeniably awesome. The rocks’ contours, spires and shapes are under steady attack from erosion’s forces. The badlands have a mystical presence whose attractiveness is oddly fleeting. Its inspiration is dry; the place does not teem with life. We were amazed but did not want to stay.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (7/10) Geographically, the Badlands are babies and they will be gone in 500,000 years. The Badlands are a blip in time. See them while you can.
The Badlands contains layers and layers of fossils, exposing mammals from a different age, native to climates and environments completely inconsistent with the present day Badlands area.
Lakota Indians flourished in this seemingly hostile environment for over one hundred years, hunting bison and adopting horseback riding to better navigate the landscape. Fur trappers, miners and settlers pushed on the Indian population and eventually forced them into reservations after the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. The Badlands NP preserves the location of this sorrowful event.
CROWDS (6/10) Most people we saw at Badlands NP looked to be having a good time. Both kids and adults excitedly climbed on the rocks, scurrying in and out and up and down their huge natural playground. The park service seems to have designated a few formations as sacrificial rocks.- buttes near scenic overlooks and parking lots which host the majority of the climbing. The badlands formations exist in a geological blink of an eye; erosion will soon reduce them back to flatlands in a few ten thousand years.
Our tour group, while large, was filled with people asking intelligent, thought-provoking questions. Questions that Michael could not even imagine coming up with but whose answers somehow allowed him to understand better the complex geological forces that created the badlands anomaly. If we had more tour groups like these, learning would be much easier.
On the negative side, the Visitor Center crowds were overwhelming and the proliferation of campground RV’s a little hard to take. Badlands NP quiet hours are shorter than most parks, 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Imagine, it’s 9:00 p.m. the stars are beginning to come out and the full moon is perched behind rugged buttes. But nearby, we are surrounded by behemoth RV’s. Their satellite dishes are working and The Game Show network is on as we can slightly hear the “No Whammies, no whammies, no whammies” chant over their generator’s roar.
We are not against RV’s in National Parks; we just wish the campgrounds would follow Theodore Roosevelt NP’s lead and separate the RV campers from the tent campers. It is an easy solution that would alleviate a lot of stress.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (5/5) Location, location, location. If you are traveling westward along Interstate 90, Badlands NP is located just eight miles south of exit 131. You can take the 22-mile scenic drive west through the stunning scenery where you meet S.Dak. route 240. An eight-mile drive north returns you to Interstate 90’s exit 110 and you can continue your travels into the Black Hills. The scenic drive includes many overlooks that provide just as good a view as a hike into the rough terrain.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (2/5) The book selection looks large sprawled across seven topic-sorted bookshelves until you notice that many of the books are the same. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee appears on six of the seven shelves; it presumably does not contain astronomy information. The store does include the cutest prairie dog stuffed animal to date as well as neatly designed NPS patches. The stores direst problem is that its ample amount of merchandise is stuffed into a very small area. Lots of customers + small area = shopping nightmare.
COSTS (2/5) Park entry cost $10 per vehicle, free with the National Parks Pass.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (1/5) In our two-day mid-June stay at the Park, we saw zero Park Rangers. We encountered the same Park volunteer working the bookstore during the day, at the campfire talk that night and on the nature walk the next morning. The reason, budget cuts. Because of the lack of Rangers, the tour groups were extremely large, the Visitor Center a cacophonic mess and Park-related questions unanswerable. It is a travesty that one of our nation’s most visited and most famous travel destinations cannot afford to hire additional Park Rangers during the height of tourist season.
TOURS/CLASSES (5/10) Our learning experience at Badlands NP was characterized by extreme high and lows.
The 5 rating comes only as a result of an extraordinary Park Volunteer-led nature walk along the Door Trail through the Badlands. He has been the first person we have ever met that made geology make sense. The other 60 or so people on the tour seemed to agree. After finishing, a long set of applause was followed by copious thank you’s and over 20 minutes of questions. Our opinion of Badlands NP changed during the course of our talk. We were not alone.
Every other Park experience disappointed. The Visitor Center’s displays, while informative, had not been changed since 1959! The Fossil Exhibit Trail’s displays seemed just as old. No self-guided nature trail pamphlet was available. We were forced to guess what we were looking at and imagine its significance. Signs advertised a nighttime Nature walk but reality proved different. The evening walk no longer exists, a victim of budget shortcomings.
The film was boring and dated. The Park’s theater was outside and despite the shade, provided only a bit of respite from the heat. The films’ soundtrack had to compete with the slamming of bathroom doors nearby and the loud chatter of people entering and exiting the Visitor Center.
We chose not to go to the Pig Dig Archeological Site, an eleven-year-old project that has collected over 8,000 bones and greeted over 50,000 visitors even though it has traditionally been open to tourists only from mid-June to August. The Park newspaper told us that the Dig is in its last year “due to the difficulty in obtaining funds.”
Even though all of the self-guided nature trail boxes were empty, our volunteer guide assured us that a pamphlet existed, you just had to ask for it at the Visitor Center. He added that it was not very good. He was right. The pamphlet’s closing paragraph bid goodbye to the tourist with a stunningly threatening ultimatum. We are not going to elaborate.
FUN (6/10) The vistas are amazing but things got a little repetitive on our 11-mile hike on the Castle and Medicine Root trails. Besides these two easy trails and the more difficult but very short Saddle Pass trail, there are no other marked routes through the Badlands. Backcountry is always an option, but all water must be carried with you. That gets heavy. It looked hot and barren. It did not inspire us to pack up the tent and set out into the soft rock. We weren’t sure how long we wanted to stay at Badlands. For us, one night was plenty.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (8/10) Yes, make it a part of your South Dakota vacation. Descent into the rocky terrain after hours spent driving across the flatness of the plains is both an fantastic experience and a stalwart of American travel. Unless you are especially moved by the Badlands, take the scenic drive and continue on to Wall Drug.
USA-C2C.com is an independent website, not affiliated in any way with the National Park Service, the National Parks Foundation or any of their partners.