Welcome to the Badlands. Millions of years ago this was an ocean. Now we drive and walk and explore the bottom of it, among fossils and sediment, among peaks and valleys, among stillness and thoughts. To be here is to feel small and humble, to be in awe of our world, to yearn for even more secrets kept underground. You know, the little things in life.
When we first heard of the Badlands, people told us it was like walking on the moon. It was. My daughter said it was like, “being inside the Earth.” It was. It’s simply unlike any other place we’ve been. We were drawn back to it each day, just to take it in all over again.
But the adventure didn’t really start at the Badlands. We’d been driving 2,000 miles and about 10 days before we even hit the South Dakota border. Our cross-country road trip had taken us west from New Jersey, through terrain that was largely similar. While each state has it’s own culture and landscape and it’s own feel and uniqueness, the area was largely covered in similar forests and fields.
Then we hit South Dakota and everything changed. We pulled off an exit to get gas, and we were among bison. Just there, next to our car. We got back on the highway, seemed to turn a corner and all of a sudden, there were misty, rolling, green hills as far as the eye could see. A storm was coming in. The dark clouds, with the sun behind us gave everything a neon hue. It was simultaneously bright and dark, endless and natural, stunning and new.
I was overjoyed that the next two hundred miles could possibly look like this, but South Dakota reinvents itself over and over again. For most of our drive was flat prairie land, dotted with cattle, farms and billboards – my daughter described it as, “all flat and green, with signs”. If we didn’t already know about Wall Drug, it was impossible not to after this trek. But it was here that I truly understood what it was like to see the sky as a large dome. It was bigger than we’d ever seen and more expansive than we’d thought possible. We already felt so tiny.
By the time we reached the Badlands, I didn’t realize we could see so much variety in a few hours drive. The formations just appeared, almost out of nowhere. A few miles off the highway and we were driving through Badlands National Park, trying to wrap our heads around what we’re seeing, pointing over each other in every direction.
We drove for miles, winding through these formations. The road that runs through Badlands National Park brings you up close. You get a great view from your car window alone. Our first time through, on the way to our nearby campsite, we just gawked. It’s seemed impossible this place could exist. We were happy to have days to go back and keep exploring.
Camping made for a unique visit. Being among the Badlands we already felt connected to the earth, but camping meant we never really left it. From our picnic bench we watched distant storms and sunsets. Clouds were massive. Lightning was wild. The sun was a color we’d yet seen. It hung like a big, bright, orange-red ball low in the sky. From our campground, we biked up and down hills. There were rivers running through cliffside formations, snake skins along the side of the road, flocks of birds flying in circles over and over again and prairie dogs popping up all along the fields.
South Dakota was positively beautiful.
There was just as much to explore nearby the Badlands, as there was actually in the Badlands. But, of course, the Badlands were the main show. When we picked a few of the smaller trails to explore, we found that no matter your age or physical ability, the Badlands have been made accessible for you to experience. There were 1/4 mile boardwalks in some places and 6 mile dirt hikes in others. There were roadside pull-offs and climb at your own risk opportunities.
The summer gets quite hot, so we spent limited time hiking. A joy of slow traveling was that we felt we could spend an hour hiking and then just plan to come back another day, without a fear of missing something. But what we did hike was beyond memorable, looking out over a desert of towering rocks and frightening valleys. There was much talk about the history of this land, the idea that one day something might walk among the floor of our own oceans, and the perspective we have of ourselves in this space.
Our daughter really captured it when she said, “Sometimes you feel small because everything around you is so big”. Yeah, that’s exactly how we felt.
We loved it there. The Badlands felt very special for us. And we weren’t the only ones. While never feeling too crowded, the Badlands attracted many folks, and many families. We couldn’t help but smile watching kids of all ages in this space – infants wrapped on their mamas, kids holding their parents’ hands as they climbed, teenagers climbing the highest peaks they could possibly reach – then hopping in the RV or trailer or their car, like us, and heading off to wherever else they’re going to discover in this world.
It’s an exciting energy to be around and the Badlands themselves are a truly memorable experience – through your own eyes, and through your child’s. I hope you all get the chance to experience it someday.
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