From Wisconsin we headed into South Dakota, a surprisingly beautiful drive with vast expanses of green rolling hills. We drove through some national grasslands just as day was breaking and I happily admired the scenery as Zach slept in the passenger seat.
The Lakota called this area of Southwest South Dakota mako sica – “bad land” and early pioneers viewed it as a wasteland. But the contrast of sharply eroded buttes and spires juxtaposed to colorful mixed prairie grasslands give this place a unique beauty. It is a landscape unlike any I’ve seen before and the pictures do not do it justice. You just have to see it for yourself.
We opted for the “primitive” (read: free) campground – the first official campground we’ve stayed at thus far. Fifteen miles of dirt road led us to our site and was a good test for how our van will handle the roads south of the border. On the way, we passed several prairie dog towns, a common site in the Badlands. Their burrows blend into the landscape so well they are easy to miss, but once you notice one you see that they span for acres. Prairie dogs are highly social creatures and most towns consist of more than 20 different families. We could literally see dozens running around at a time. When we reached our site we noticed a herd of bison grazing not 200 yards from us. Later while we were eating dinner, a dozen of them came within 20 feet to dine with us. I wanted to see a lot of wildlife on the U.S. tour and this was a good start.
One thing that sets the Badlands apart from other National Parks is that they allow visitors to meander wherever they choose rather than restrict them to prescribed trails and campsites. Perhaps this is because erosion is happening so quickly here that human impact on the environment is minimized. As appealing as this was, a combination of a later than expected arrival date, little planning, and giant prairie rattle snakes kept us on the trails. We arranged for one full day in the park, which Zach spent riding 20 miles of the Badlands Loop while I chose an 11 mile hike through the rock and grasslands. During the day, temperatures in the Badlands can reach 110, with little shade for relief. We got lucky with a mild 85 degree day and plenty of wind to cool us down.