With my successful visit to Acadia National Park. under my belt, I felt ready for my grand tour of national parks. After finishing up quitting my job, selling most of my possessions, mailing the rest home, and moving halfway across the country, I was finally ready to embark on #TerryTreksUSA.
It took me a day and a half to drive to my first stop, Badlands National Park in South Dakota. I had heard of the Badlands, but I didn’t know that much about them. The park preserves a large expanse of eroding buttes, pinnacles, and canyons. It also contains the largest mixed grass prairie in the United States.
I wanted to backpack into the grassland wilderness area. A wilderness in a national park, isn’t that redundant? The unfortunate reality of our national parks is that most of them are overdeveloped. There are roads going practically everywhere in many of them. The only way to get around them is to drive, so there are huge parking lots. The Wilderness Act set aside some areas to keep free from development. There are no roads, or even trails, in the wilderness.
Into the wilderness
A well trod trail led me to a creek. Once across that there were only bison trails through the grassland. It was hard going through the rugged terrain. The grasses were long, and there were all sorts of other plants I had to make way through. The “trails,” which were just where the bison had pushed down the grasses a bit, didn’t really go anywhere. I bushwhacked to a ridge, and climbed to the top. The grassland went on as far as I could see in all directions. There were no other people. It really was incredible.
It was totally quiet up there. I enjoyed the peace for a bit and had some lunch. Even though I was an hour into the wilderness, and out of sight of Sage Creek campground, I could actually see cars on the road sometimes.
Out of the wilderness
As much as I wanted to spend the night there, I didn’t time it right. I was reluctant to go much further and risk getting lost. And I didn’t want to spend the whole day in one place. So I bushwhacked an hour back out. There were many bison about, and I had to go far out of my way to avoid them. They are nothing like cows. They are big, wild animals that are best given a wide berth.
I had to drive an hour back to the main part of the park. There’s only one long trail in the park, and I wanted to do it. The Castle Trail goes ten miles one way. Unfortunately, there’s no shuttle system in the park, so there’s no way to get back to the start. I was able to do a six mile loop starting on the Castle Trail, then going back to the trailhead via the Medicine Root Trail.
The Castle Trail was very interesting. First it went through the rugged canyons. Later it went by the eroded rock formations. But it was exposed to the midday sun the whole way.
The Medicine Root Trail went through grassland areas. I saw some mountain goats. This trail didn’t seem as interesting as Castle, but I may have just been eager to get out of the sun. There were hardly any people on these trails.
I also explored the short Door and Window trails. These trails are highly accessible, with boardwalks, so they were full of people. But it’s possible to go beyond the boardwalks into the canyons.
A good place to stay in the Badlands
I stayed at the primitive Sage Creek campground. It’s in the wilderness area, far from the crowds. There are no designated spots, so you just drive up and pick a place to set up. It was quiet and peaceful. As I struggled to set up my tent in the wind, a couple of buffalo wandered by. I was actually a little worried that the flapping tent would anger the them. Luckily they continued on their search for grass to eat.
Sage Creek was exactly what I was looking for: a free, remote, wilderness experience. But it’s not for everyone. It’s a primitive campground, so the only amenity is a pit toilet. There’s no water, so you have to bring your own. An alternative is the developed Cedar Pass Campground. For those who don’t like camping, there is the Cedar Pass Lodge.
A good start
Badlands was a nice park. The mix of canyons, eroded rock formations, and grassland was interesting. I saw plenty of wildlife: bison, mountain goats, and prairie dogs. I went to sleep to the sound of coyotes in the remote Sage Creek Campground. The park is not too big, so you can do everything in two days. It was a good start to #TerryTreksUSA.