Good times in the Badlands
Written by Jamie
Leaving Michigan was sort of monumental for us for a couple of reasons: 1) it was the last time we would be staying with friends or family until we got to California; and 2) it was the official start of our western journey to places we’ve largely never been before. Everyone suggested that we drive up through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but unfortunately the timing of it wasn’t going to work out on this trip as we had reservations in Yellowstone in the following weeks that could not be changed. So a trip to the UP is definitely in our future at some point. So around Lake Michigan and through Chicago we drove, our goal being to reach the Mississippi River by the evening. After a long day of driving (longer than we normally like to push it), we found a great campsite right on a tributary of the Mississippi at the Pettibone Resort in LaCrosse, WI, setup camp for the evening, and enjoyed a nice beer with the sunset over the river.
The next day was going to be another drive day across more of the plains region. As you drive through this part of our country, you can see for miles in every direction – tons of crops – tons of wind turbines – we even watched a few storms roll in from over a hundred miles away. It can be beautiful, but truthfully it is very boring after a while. We were happy to arrive at our stop for the night in Brandon, South Dakota, where we had contacted another Harvest Host, Wilde Prairie Winery. After parking the trailer, Trae cooked a yummy shrimp and veggie dinner on the grill that we then followed up with a delicious wine tasting with the owner, Jeff. He explained about the different varietal grapes that he uses that are more prone to survive the particularly harsh winters of South Dakota. These types of grapes tend to yield either sweeter white wines, or tart red wines. Wilde Prairie has some delicious fruit wines as well, and we grabbed a bottle of their strawberry wine to have for dessert that evening.
The following morning, we woke up early and hit the road again headed towards Wall, SD, home of the famous Wall Drug. We were told about Wall Drug and all of its kitschy glory by our good friend Dave Hasenmyer. Stopping at Wall Drug seems to be a right of passage for any travelers heading west. You almost can’t help but stopping after seeing the signs for the last 100+ miles. Of course, like any other tourist trap, Wall Drug is filled with cheap, made-in-China souvenirs, but it also has quite the western wear collection as well. All-in-all, Wall Drug is really not worth a visit, but probably everyone that’s ever driven across the country on I-90 has been there, so someone will inevitably ask if you stopped there – the answer might as well be yes. 🙂
The town of Wall is one of a couple tiny towns that are typically used as a home base when visiting Badlands National Park. We grabbed some groceries in town and then headed towards the entrance of the park. Just outside the park boundary is an area call the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, administered by the Bureau of Land Management. This public land is completely free to camp on for up to 14 days. We have become avid users of the user review-style website Campendium (everyone should check it out) to find our campsites, and an area known as Nomad View at Buffalo Gap came highly recommended. We put in the provided GPS coordinates, and within a short 15 minute drive south of Wall and just 5 minutes north of the park entrance gate, we found ourselves at the most perfect semi-remote, prairie location right on the edge of the iconic sedimentary rock cliffs of the area where we planned to test out our off-grid abilities over the next 4 days.
Getting the trailer level was a bit of a task, but once we got it, we really couldn’t picture a more perfect setup for camping. Our bedroom window looked right out over the rough cliffs, sunny and cloudless skies kept our 3 solar panels re-charging our battery banks each day, 70 degree weather allowed us to keep our windows open and our trailer cool, tons of space between us and any other campers allowed us plenty of privacy, and one of the best parts (even though it was a bit of an eyesore) was a cell tower within 100 yards of us, providing great Verizon service and allowing us to get some work done when we weren’t out exploring. That evening, we revelled in our beautiful location, face-timed some of our friends and family, and tried out our propane oven for the first-time by cooking a pizza!
The next morning, I woke up early and perched myself on the edge of our cliffside campsite to watch an AMAZING sunrise over the cliffs. The already colorful cliffs lit up in warm pinks and peaches as the sun came over the horizon. It really was a spectacular view, made even more amazing by the fact that it was just 10 steps from my front door, and completely free.
Once Trae woke up, we loaded up the cooler with some drinks and sandwiches and drove over to the entrance gate for Badlands National Park. As we approached the gate, we caught our first (of what would be many) sight of a bison herd! As soon as you drive through the gate at Badlands, you witness what all of the fuss is about when you reach the Pinnacles Overlook. Millions of years of deposition and erosion have formed these amazing layered rock formations that drop off the edges of sprawling prairies and grasslands. What was a shallow sea around 75 million years ago, is today a dry/arid craggy landscape riddled with fossils of species that went extinct long ago and evidence the dramatic changes this landscape has gone through over the millennia.
The park is over 240,000 acres, but only a much smaller portion of that is accessible by roads. Thankfully the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway (SD240) offers a terrific sampler of the surroundings, with multiple overlooks to stop at above and below the cliffs. We spent the remainder of the morning driving the route through the park, stopping by the Ben Reifel Visitors Center to take in an informative movie about the Native American roots of the area.
That evening, we had an amazing clear, starry night which allowed for some awesome photos, but what we didn’t a expect was how windy it would be. The wind woke us up multiple times in the middle of the night, and while there wasn’t any immediate threat or danger, it sure didn’t make us feel great on our perch on the side of a cliff! After a long, somewhat sleepless night, we took it slow the next morning and then headed back into the park to do some more exploring. When we hit up the visitors center the previous day, we learned that there were only a few maintained trails in the park, but that the NPS allowed, and actually encouraged, hiking anywhere within the park boundaries (using appropriate caution, of course). We decided to hike along the interpretive Cliff Shelf Nature Trail, followed by a hike on the Notch Trail, a 1.5 mile roundtrip hike that climbed up some rock formations and then up a log ladder to “the Notch” viewpoint over the White River Valley. While the trail is rated moderate to strenuous, it wasn’t particularly difficult (especially given the the length) – I’m thinking they rate it this way because of the log ladder (which is very steep).
For our last night there, we drove up the the Sage Creek Rim Rd. and watched the sunset over the Badlands from the truck tailgate – so beautiful! On the way out there, we saw a herd of bison out in the prairie, but on our way back to our campsite, the bison had come all the way in and were coming up next to the road to scratch themselves on the pylons! We knew better than to approach them, so we stayed safely in the car and watched them from there.
We couldn’t have asked for a better way to end our time at Badlands National Park!
Trae and Jamie