Badlands National Park: Traveling to a Wilderness Sunset

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Although legislation to establish a National Park in the White River Badlands of South Dakota was introduced into Congress by Senator Peter Norbeck in 1909, the measure stalled and was almost destroyed completely by a Park Service in its infancy after 1916. The Badlands would not be declared a National Monument until 1939 and would not become a National Park until November 10, 1978 (two days before I was born).

Badlands National Park would be the first that I would visit for a second time. I’d already spent a cold, exhilarating January afternoon there with my friend Lisa over ten years earlier. That earlier trip anticipated my move from Ann Arbor to Chicago and this one felt that it helped mark my tenth anniversary in the city.

Sean and I took a mid-morning flight on American Eagle to Sioux Falls on Friday, September 5. (The previous evening we’d taken in a fantastic concert by Owen Pallet at the Metro.) The 9:30 – 11:05am timeframe was ultimately civilized, allowing us to wake up at our normal times and to grab breakfast at Frontera Tortas, our O’Hare tradition.

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The regular, orderly farm fields of the township-and-range survey system come into view as we descend through low clouds.

We had decided to fly in/out of Sioux Falls instead of road tripping the whole way because we’d be renting a car anyway and the hour and a half flight would shave off the nine-hour drive through Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, allowing us more time on the ground in the Dakotas.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Image: Sean M. Santos

The decision to fly meant we had to check our big backpacks with most of our gear, but we also had to find a place to buy camp stove propane on the ground once we arrived. Through some research and phone calls before we left, we determined that a store called Scheel’s carried both backpacking stove fuel and backpacking dehydrated meals. After picking up our four-wheel-drive Jeep Compass from the Enterprise at Sioux Falls Regional Airport, we headed to Scheel’s. Scheel’s was much bigger than we’d expected. It had a ferris wheel in the store. It was as if someone had crammed an REI, a Sports Authority, and a Cabela’s all under the same huge, two-story roof, and added games. And a ferris wheel. Plus, it is an employee-owned company with locations in Wisconsin, the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wyoming, and other parts of the northern central plains. We were impressed.

And they had everything we needed.

At check-out, we got chatting with Shayla, who was counting the hours that Friday afternoon until she and her husband would be heading to their regular weekend spot along the Missouri River in southern South Dakota. She also recalled many visits to Chicago since she has family here, and inquired whether the Sears Tower was still waving in the wind.

She also warned us that it was supposed to get cold in the Black Hills over the next week. We had noticed before we left that the temperatures that had been forecast for lows in the 50s and highs in the 70s throughout our trip had begun to fall by about ten degrees for Theodore Roosevelt. We’d brought some warm clothes just in case, but we resolved to carefully monitor the forecast.

After a quick stop at Target for paper products and big bottles of water, we were on the road, headed west on I-90 for the not-quite-four-hour drive to the Badlands.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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We stopped in Mitchell to get some lunch and see the Corn Palace, which was under construction and didn’t even have its cupolas. So we blew on by and found a great little coffee shop deli where we got delicious sandwiches to go.

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The overcast skies cleared by the time we reached the Missouri River. We pulled over at the scenic rest stop on a bluff above the eastern bank. The bridge to the left is the old Saint Paul and Pacific Railroad line.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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There is a palpable change in the landscape crossing the Missouri River. What had been predominantly flat or gently rolling fields of corn and other Midwestern crops gives way to a much more dramatically rolling landscape of cattle pasture and sunflower fields. In the distance, we saw the first higher hills hinting at the landscapes to come.

Crossing the Missouri, we had entered the West.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

We entered Mountain Time and stopped for gas not too far from the eastern border of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, which surrounds the park.

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Cleaning the car windows, better to take in the scenery. Image: Sean M. Santos

We ignored the eastern entrance to the park and continued on another twenty miles on I-90 to the exit for the western entrance (south of Wall). We intended to stay in the primitive Sage Creek Campground at the north unit’s western edge rather than in the busier, more amenity-laden, concessionaire run campground at Cedar Pass on the eastern side.

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The park’s western entrance. Image: Sean M. Santos

Almost immediately after entering the park, we abandoned the paved scenic loop road, which headed east along the prairie and badlands wall, and turned right onto the dirt road that led into the Sage Creek Wilderness area of the park and to our campground twelve miles further on. On my previous visit, Lisa and I had only taken the paved loop road, so already I was experiencing new aspects of the park. The road winds through prairie along the edge of the wall that drops away to create the Sage Creek Basin to the south, most of which is federally-designated wilderness.

Before we’d gone a mile, we spotted a Bison down on one of the prairie-covered tables at the bottom of the basin. It was the first of the twenty-five, mostly bulls alone or in small groups, we’d spot at Badlands National Park.

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Several moments later we came upon more Bison, much closer in the prairie we were passing through.

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American Bison

And also our first Prairie Dog Town.

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Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs. Image: Sean M. Santos

The road left the dramatic vistas of the Sage Creek Basin and began to descend through more rolling, occasionally wooded prairie and savanna, ultimately turning south in a wide arc toward Sage Creek Campground.

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American Bison. Image: Sean M. Santos

Sage Creek Campground is a single loop of tent pads and shelters with two pit toilets and no water located in a lovely valley completely surrounded by federal wilderness. It was perfect.

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Ever since the debacle of Lane Cove at Isle Royale, I’ve been just a touch nervous about campsites at areas that don’t take reservations. It turned out there was no danger that we’d not get a spot to set up our tent, but we did score the last available shelter and picnic table. This would be home for the next two nights.

After setting up camp, we headed back out toward the top of Sage Creek Basin, snapping photos of browsing Bison along the way, to watch the sunset.

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American Bison. Image: Sean M. Santos

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The Badlands wall in the distance to the east as we ascended from Sage Creek Campground. Image: Sean M. Santos

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Pronghorn with Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs

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Sage Creek Wilderness Overlook and Trailhead.

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At the overlook, we met two girls who were headed in the opposite direction, east from San Francisco. Sean took their photo for them.

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Back in camp after the sun had dropped behind the hills, we were amazed at the Bison that were contentedly browsing just across the campground loop road. The one in the image below would settle down there, a stone’s throw from our campsite, for the night.

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We’d only been in Badlands National Park a few hours, and already we’d seen Bison, Prairie Dogs, and Pronghorn. I was going to make a wish on the first star I saw, but I thought to myself, what could I possibly have to wish for? This is perfect.

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