The South Dakota Badlands vary from any other rock formations I’ve seen in these vast states of ours. They jut up from the earth like the Grand Teton in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and yet are completely unlike that sharp mountain. Teton springs skyward, at least from the Jackson Hole side, a rugged triangle set on a flat surface—no rolling hills leading to it— standing there proudly 7,000 feet above the valley, calling out, look at me.
The Badlands are far more chaotic.
One row of low-rising buttes will have you thinking of the top of Haleakala on Maui where the earth appears moon-like.
The next moment, you’re looking over a warren of twisting, tight hills with deep or shallow dips running between them. Think of viewing an ant farm lying on its side.
Turn again when the sun is striking the pinnacles at the proper slant and you’re reminded of the Painted Desert in Arizona as the colors move from bleached to deepening shades of red and orange with a streak of purple.
If you’re fortunate enough to be there as the sun descends, and happen to pick a spot at Pinnacle Peak not far off Route 240, you might feel reminiscent of the Grand Canyon. Wide valley meadows spread before you, trapped by the surrounding formations tossing together mesas and plateaus. The light catches a pool of water in the distance, or is that white stone starting to show its stuff as the sun hits at the perfect angle?
The striations in the landscape change with each moment the sun sinks lower. Sitting in lawn chairs or on blankets as you would to enjoy a Hawaiian sunset, you feel the folks around you holding their breath, waiting, waiting.
Different from the ocean, the sun takes ages to disappear across this skyline. No final plop into the water, but a spreading side-to-side of orange against the now black horizon, the ever-moving, changing clouds providing that upward shot of rays beckoning you to believe in heaven.
Take the next day and drive the rough seven miles to Sheep Mountain for a bit of a back country hike. Be prepared with water, sunscreen, hats and a 4-wheel drive. Don’t be a dunce and try this trek in a car or when the weather is bad. It’s a slow ride with a rutted, rarely maintained road, but persevere because the views along the way are worth it and the destination is pure delight.
To one side of the road there are formations that appear to be overgrown toadstools, or if you have a big imagination, Fred Flintstone’s home.
Flat? or valley beyond?
See the Badlands' depths
Peaks & Prairies
Fred Flintstone House or toadstool?
At the end of June you can expect a multitude of wildflowers to provide you with a kaleidoscope array of colors. Ah, nature! Let me photograph you and you and oh wait! there’s another one!
If you’re lucky, and quiet, you’ll glimpse a blue bird balanced perfectly on a spent yucca stem.
244,000 dazzling acres to explore
Ben Reifel Visitor Center
This is the main visitor’s center and worth stopping.
Wall, South Dakota
Wall is the closest little town just off Interstate 90. There’s a nice visitor’s center with helpful rangers, a gift store and a museum. Wall is a pure tourist town, but don’t let the trappings of that atmosphere stop you from exploring—and by all means, visit the ice cream shoppe.
Scenic, South Dakota
With respect to the handful of residents still living in this wide spot in the road, we got a kick out of the official “business district” sign pointing to town only to discover that most businesses were closed. Keep driving south four miles to reach the Sheep Mountain Table Road and take the hike mentioned above.
Pine Ridge Indian Reservation Center
If you check a map, you’ll see that the Badlands weave through this reservation. If good fortune is on your side, you’ll be able to chat with new ranger, Matthew Janis. We could have spent hours with him learning about the history of the area, the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and his far-reaching connection to historical leaders.