The next morning I woke up early, it having rained the night before, and headed out. Usually I’m able to pack up the tent, brush my teeth, and have everything organized within about 30 minutes.
Breakfast at this overlook: 2 apples
As you can imagine, this left a lot of time to spend the day at the Badlands. Unfortunately, the park is essentially a straight road, and a maze of about 13 miles of hiking trails, most of which I’d already hiked. I spent the morning going through the overlooks along the road – the park was deserted this early.
Another nice overlook.
Sometimes as you visit overlooks you get into the same rhythm as other people, which leads to the weird ‘office corridor’ syndrome. You’ve said hello, you commented on where they were from or where they’re going, and then you just nod awkwardly. I had to flee a few outlooks to avoid having these conversations with a French couple.
After visiting the overlooks, I took a trip into Wall (home of the infamous Wall Drug) for supplies. Wall Drug is a tourist trap known to anyone driving in South Dakota, as there are billboards plastered all along the highway.
I went once as a kid and was considering visiting again, but didn’t have the heart. Wall Drug has grown quite a bit, but at heart it’s a town in the middle of nowhere, whose entire appeal is based on gimmicks and the roadtripping families who pass by. The only real appeal is watching the other tourists. But the uncomfortable fact is that you’re a tourist, just like them, and only so much ironic enjoyment can be derived from observing people just like you.
I returned to the Badlands from Wall, then headed to the rest of the park – which was dirt road. Immediately, this cut out 80% of the crowds. The dirt road portion of the park has nothing in common with the rest; it might as well be a separate park. It focuses more on grasslands and prairie, rather than rock formations. I think that in the end, I enjoyed this part more.
Everybody loves these large rats
The first stop along the dirt road was a small prairie dog town). I found these interesting at first, but would eventually get quite jaded by these little beasts. They look like guinea pigs, but when they flee to their holes there is a resemblance to a running terrier, which I guess is what gives them their name.
These furry cows are also crowd pleasers
Also near the prairie dogs were a few buffalo, my second large animal sighting. These are much bigger than you can easily convey, and they simply don’t care about people in cars, a few of whom had pulled over to the side of the road. I snapped some pictures and moved on.
Finally I came to a beautiful overlook. There was a grazing buffalo nearby, and then a large herd in the distance, and the terrain was wonderfully varied and diverse: hills, buttes, rivers, small forests, and a few rock formations.
I ate here, sitting in back of the van with the gate open, and saw something interesting near the normal descriptive plaque: a backcountry log. These logs are for hikers to sign in, so that rangers know to send out a search party if they go missing. But there was no trail. It seemed bushwhacking was endorsed! I threw on my pack and headed down into the valley. Here are three rules I discovered for bushwhacking in this environment:
- Keep your starting point in visual range, or behind at most one hill.
- Wear sunscreen
- Long pants are preferable unless you want your legs scraped raw by the grasses.
I spent about an hour wandering around, but then wanted to secure my campsite. I’d chosen to spend this night in the Sage Creek campground, which was marked on the maps as primitive: “no water available.” It was also free. That sounded good to me.
View of the primitive campground from a nearby hill.
The campground required an additional 10 miles of dirt road to reach, which became quite rough. It seems that the park service drove some tractor over this road, which left huge tread marks that caused the van to grind noisily over the road.
The campground itself was another loop in a field, but it was in a bowl of hills similar to the environment I’d just bushwhacked in. I set up camp, and then wondered what to do. It was about 2 in the afternoon. The sun was fierce, but so was the wind. There was a small trail leading out of camp and up a nearby hill, so I decided to hike that.
View after bushwhacking a ways from the campground.
This trail lasted half a mile or so, before dwindling into nothing. I’d summitted the first hill and decided to bushwhack my way around the rest of the hills that surrounded the campsite.
There were huge fields of wild lavender. Smelled great when hiking.
There wasn’t that much brush to contend with, mostly grasses. There were various paths through the grass which appeared and vanished; I think many were old buffalo-trails. In all I bushwhacked about 11 miles around the campsite (much more rugged than the previous day), forded a stream, fought through some brambles, had a ton of fun and earned a terrific sunburn.
When I finally went to sleep that night, I was really happy. This was definitely among the most memorable hiking experiences I’ve had.