The scenic drive through Badlands National Park is called the “Badlands Loop Road,” although it doesn’t make a loop, unless you consider it to start and end in the little town of Wall and to include the 21 mile drive from there on I-90 to get to the Park’s Northeast Entrance.
Arriving at the Northeast Entrance gate, we entered a completely alien world, a land nearly devoid of life, bleached and baked and stratified, with an exposed and ancient heart.
Badland terrains are formed by two processes: deposition, followed by erosion. Here, dark muds were deposited by an inland sea 75 million years ago that hardened into grey-black, fossil-strewn shale. This was followed by deposits of red and yellow soils, sand, mud and gravel left by rivers flowing down from the Black Hills to the west beginning 30-35 million years ago. Mixed with these riverine deposits is white volcanic ash blown here from the eruptions that attended the creation of the Rocky Mountains. Erosion began around 500,000 years ago and continues to the present, now at a loss of about one inch of surface matter annually.
Approaching from the north, as we did, the canyons and ravines are hidden from view until you arrive in their midst, but approaching from the prairies to the south, these eroded plateau appears as a great barrier – a wall – and so it is called: the Badlands Wall.
This area, known as the South Dakota Bandlands, was established as a National Monument in 1939 (to protect the numerous fossils found here), then as a National Park in 1978. Like Theodore Roosevelt NP in North Dakota, Badlands National Park is also comprised of three separate units: the North Unit (which includes 100 square miles of designated Wilderness Area and the entirety of the Loop Road); and, to the south, the Stronghold Unit and detached Palmer Creek Unit, both of which lie within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, managed by agreement with the Oglala Lakota Sioux. At the time of our visit, only the North Unit was open for visitation.
There aren’t many hiking trails here and most of them are short. The trailheads of the most popular trails are all accessed from a common parking lot about 2 miles from the Park entrance. We planned to hike the Door Trail and the Notch Trail.
The Door Trail is an easy ramble across the top of a sandstone mesa. If you limit yourself to following the trail markers it’s a 3/4 mile walk, round trip, but most people – us included – tend to just wander around, taking in the bizarre scenery.
As we left the parking area and rounded the oddly eroded pinnacles, above, we could see sod tables to our left (photo, below), evidence of the higher surface elevation that existed here in the not-too-distant past:
Out on the open mesa, we had the sensation of walking on the moon.
We stopped at several overlooks and it was apparent to us why this area has historically been called the Badlands. It is not an easy terrain to traverse, barren of water, shade and nourishment of any kind. We spent an hour here, but could have stayed longer, feeling when we left like we had only scratched the surface (pun intended).
After the Door Trail, we hiked the considerably more challenging Notch Trail, a 1.5 mile round trip hike that meanders through a small canyon to the base of a log ladder ascent.
At the top, the trail continues along a ledge protruding from the face of a cliff, ultimately leading to a notch in the escarpment through which there is a view of the White River Valley to the south.
We made it most of the way, until the cliff-face trail got a little too narrow, at which point, we decided to turn around (the photo, below, is looking back down the little valley that we had hiked to get to the log ladder).
On the way back to the car, Dale spotted two bighorn sheep:
Back in the car, we drove past the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, turning right at the fork to continue the scenic drive, now on the south side of the Badlands Wall.
The view soon expanded to include vistas of the southern prairie.
There’s an eerie, surreal beauty here, a feeling of nothingness and eternity. It’s a place that can make you feel absolutely alone in the universe, yet, oddly, not lonely. There’s an asymmetrical symmetry, a design without a plan. If you stayed here long enough, watching nothing move and listening to the silence, I’m sure you could reach Nirvana. Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous architect, summed up his feelings this way:
What I saw gave me an indescribable sense of mysterious elsewhere – a distant architecture, ethereal,… an endless supernatural world more spiritual than earth, but created out of it.