RV Trip West Journal: The Badlands


From the time we left Ohio, we began to see sprawling farms throughout Michigan (cherry trees and corn for miles), and in Iowa (neat farms of rolling hills covered in corn). We will remember Minnesota as the place with dozens of wind turbine farms, corn fields, and bio-diesel. We could not get diesel in Minnesota since the state mandates 20% biodiesel rather than regular diesel. Mercedes Sprinters can't handle more than a 5% mix. So, we took on just a few gallons to get us to the boarder of South Dakota where diesel is just diesel. Note to self: route around Minnesota in the future. We'll have to find a different way to explore that state!

But nothing prepared us for the landscape of South Dakota. Our first stop in Sioux Falls brought us beautiful Falls Park with its walkways following the river and viewing platforms and bridges by the falls. It was lovely. The rock colors and stripes were a clue to what was to come.


Then we began our long drive west. The corn fields faded and soon we gazed out over endless grass prairie. The low, rolling hills, the endless horizons were quite a change from the heavily wooded areas of the east. I was reminded of our friend Don who, raised in North Dakota, felt smothered by all the trees in Georgia. He needed big open spaces and breathing room. This is kind of what he meant. And I understood the appeal. There is so much visual space from horizon to horizon. Mountain ranges so distant they are nothing more than a blurred jagged line impossibly far away.

Our stop for the night was in Wall, South Dakota. This tiny town is home to the famous Wall Drug Store where they have been serving 5 cent coffee and free ice water to travelers in the area since the 1930's. The Drug store has grown into a small town with a restaurant, ice cream parlor, leather goods shop, candy store, souvenir shop, a museum, and even a travelers chapel!


The day we arrived we noticed a lot of motorcycles - dozens of them lining the street. Then it occurred to us that the Sturgis Rally Week was this week! And the motorcycles just kept coming through - all day and well into the evening hours. On the way to or from Sturgis - just a couple hundred miles away. There was a remarkable variety of bikes from basic to tricked out to trikes. Everyone seemed to be having a good time, and i know the local shop keepers were happy to see them. The motorcyclists filled the restaurants and shops, bars, and roadways. The next morning we were ready for a spot that was a bit more peaceful and so headed for the Badlands National Park.


As we approached the Badlands, the expansive prairie continued but the ground suddenly opens up to a spectacle of rough spires, peaks, canyons, rock sculpture striated and colored as if by a paintbrush. Even in bright morning light, the region was something special to behold. Instinctively, I rubbed my eyes and looked again. It was not a mirage but a rough and rugged spectacle of rock. These are not canyons like the deep narrow river-cut crevasses in photos. The Badlands are like a wall across the prairie. Not quite mountain but just as impenetrable for the early settlers. Peaks and valleys, crumbled rock rubble blocked any attempt at a straight route across. Because it appears so suddenly in the flat grasslands, it is all the more startling. The ground just opens up and the exposed land looks ripped and cut.

At every overlook, I jumped out of the van eager to take in and be a part of the vast space. At the second overlook, as I took a few photos, I noticed something move below me - a couple of pronghorn were resting on the rock ledge just yards from me. As my gaze followed them, I realized there were a dozen of them in little groups all along that same ledge. They seemed quite at ease having their photo snapped, but I quietly retreated to the van trying not to disturb their repose.

We drove slowly, taking in the view when Jim spied something very large in the grass right next to the RV - a bison! Huge and quiet, just standing in the grass. He didn't regard us at all and we kept our distance, taking photos from inside the RV so as not to agitate him. We were warned that these large beasts can run 30+ miles per hour and jump up to six feet. At 2,000 lbs for a large male, it is no match for the fiberglass and aluminum shell of the RV! The pamphlets from the National Park service recommended keeping your distance from these huge beasts because they can suddenly charge if they feel threatened. No problem. We took our photos and slowly moved on.


At the last overlook, I got out and walked to the edge of the rim road. From horizon to horizon stretched these beautiful, rugged badlands. It is so quiet, crickets chirping, a gentle wind blowing. It's early morning and well worth getting here before the summer crowds. I took hundreds of photos and shot video but knew, sadly, that neither would convey the sense of open space and grandeur of the place. It is almost beyond description.

Most National Park campgrounds are tucked away from the big views, but at Badlands, the campground is in the center of the view. Set in a canyon and surrounded by the peaks and pinnacles the campground has stunning views from every angle. The sites are on an open grassland in two loops - one with electric hook ups and the other only for tent camping. Since the RV sites are arranged parallel-parking style along the road, views can be seen from every window.


Nearby is a great visitor center with excellent exhibits on the geology of the region as well as a working paleontology lab. We watched one of the scientists painstakingly remove rock and sand from an ancient animal jaw bone. He used dental instruments and puffs of air to clear away the debris. It takes remarkable patience!

The park also has an amazing gift shop with a significant section on native american history, arts and crafts. Lots of handmade jewelry, pottery, and leather items waiting for an owner. The restaurant is well managed and the food very good. We enjoyed bison burgers in keeping with the spirit of the place.

I don't know if the next few places on our itinerary could be more spectacular, but I am so glad we made the time to see this unexpected, surprising, and awe inspiring place.