62 Parks Traveler started with one simple goal: to visit every US national park. Avid backpacker and nerd Emily Pennington saved up, built a tiny van to travel and live in, and drove off. The parks as we know them are changing fast and she wanted to see them before it was too late.
Pennington is back on the road and pledges to follow CDC guidelines to keep themselves and others safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. She visits new parks and adheres closely to best safety practices.
Entering Badlands National Park via the less-traveled Sage Creek Road is not for the faint of heart. After a long drive through a sea of spotty, green meadows, I turned sharply left onto washboard street and watched my van throw up a cloud of dust in the rearview mirror. A dozen miles later, I drove to a sunny picnic table in Sage Creek Campground and was immediately greeted with a series of high-pitched, alarm-like chirps. Hundreds of small rodents dispersed and disappeared underground.
The campsite was in the middle of a prairie dog town.
I watched the playful little ground squirrels do their daily dance, giggling every time they arched their backs, stood on their hind legs, and let out a synchronized two-syllable screech. As I watched them I almost forgot that I was surrounded by a huge, wild park. I was reminded again when I made my way to the bathroom to find it casually guarded by a trio of male bison.
(Photo: Emily Pennington)
The next morning, I woke up at 6 a.m. to overcome the predicted 95-degree heat in July and explore the Castle-Medicine Root Loop, a seven-mile trail that cuts through the heart of the park’s most striking badlands. By 7 a.m. the temperature was already in the mid 70’s and my poor Scandinavian body was left behind.
I strolled through the labyrinth of sedimentary rocks and great prairie vistas in awe of the severe devastation around me. Blood-red streaks pierced the otherwise dull, cream-colored buttes and towers. I couldn’t believe these early American homesteaders once tried to navigate and farm these crumbling hills.
As soon as the thermometer reached 93, I was done. I poured water over my head, hopped back in my van, and raced to Cedar Pass Campground to escape the scorching midday heat. Half-naked and sprawled in the shade on the only picnic table on my website, I prayed the sun would go down.
After what felt like an eon, I lifted my head to find the once dreary wastelands suddenly full of color. The sun began to set below the horizon, turning the park and everything in it a blasphemous shade of pink. It was absolutely addicting.
(Photo: Emily Pennington)
I jumped into my van and looked for the perfect vantage point from which to see the evening show. I stopped near the Norbeck Pass when the sun set behind a jagged ridge of eroding rock.
As I stood in the still air and gazed out across the open meadows to the west, I noticed several other tour groups gathered in groups nearby, staring in awe at the same trick of the light. I swelled with gratitude.
The parks are so often a perfect excuse to undermine our usual bustle, telling us not to do anything other than slow down and watch the immeasurable beauty of the fading light.
62 Parks Traveler Badlands Info
Size: 242,756 acres
Place: South Dakota
Created in: 1939 (national monument), 1978 (national park)
Best for: Scenic drives, hiking, car camping, geology, night sky observation
When to go: Spring (25 to 73 degrees) and autumn (25 to 81 degrees) offer near-perfect temperatures for hiking and exploring the colorful wasteland formations. The summers (56 to over 100 degrees) burn with lots of sunshine, while the winters (below 0 to 41 degrees) are cold with strong winds.
Where to sleep: The park is home to two developed campsites: Sage Creek and Cedar Pass. Sage Creek is the more primitive, free option, located on a dusty dirt road on the west side of the park. Cedar Pass (from $ 23) offers more conveniences like water, flush toilets, and showers and is closer to the park’s most famous formations.
Mini adventure: Wander the wheelchair-accessible window and door paths. Located in the heart of the Cedar Pass area of the park, these two .25 mile boardwalks are kid-friendly. They bring visitors close to the park’s wasteland of the same name. After a few photos, take a scenic drive along Badlands Loop Road to see firsthand the mile-long expanse of Badlands Wall.
Mega adventure: Backpack the ten mile (round-trip) Castle Trail. As the longest trail in the park, this hike traverses some of the most scenic peaks and towers that make the area famous. If you want to change scenery, take the Medicine Root Trail on the return trip to explore the biodiversity of the park’s mixed grasslands. Backpackers, note: many of the low-traffic trails are a maze of crumbling rocks and wasteland. GPS is recommended and plenty of water is a must. This is not for novice backpackers.
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Main photo: Emily Pennington
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