Badlands National Park is over 240,000 acres of some of the most fascinating stretch of terrain I’ve seen in this country. Created by both deposition and erosion, comprised of sharply eroded buttes, striking pinnacles and deep gorges, as well as the largest undisturbed mixed grass prairie in the United States, it is both rugged and fragile at the same time. Each overlook unique in their own ways, all lending views to make you stop and catch your breath. But the best part is that it’s easy to see a significant amount of it in half a day, with plenty of time to truly appreciate it, and even get a hike or two in along the way. Appropriately named “Makȟóšiča“” or “land bad” by the Lakota, it has a long and complex history, and you should absolutely take the time to read about it. I’ll provide some links at the end, but for now, let’s drive!
We decided to take the Badlands Loop Road (highway 240) from east to west, since we would be heading into Wyoming later in the day. This loop is about 40 miles long from Cactus Flat to Wall, and if you were to drive it straight through without stopping you could do it in about an hour, but with more than a dozen overlooks you have plenty of reasons to stop along the way. It was shortly before 8:00am when we came in through the North East Entrance, and the first pulloff at Big Badlands Overlook.
Not a bad view to start with, but we were ready for some hiking. You can look at a place all you want, but there’s so much more to feel when you put your feet down on the ground and really get yourself in it. So on we went.
Just mere minutes to the south we found our next pullout. There are four trailheads here, of which we took in three of them. The Door and Window Trails are both under a mile, and great for those who have limited time or are unable to do longer and more strenuous hikes, and they provide fantastic views, like the one above. For those who don’t mind navigating some cliffsides and climbing a pretty steep set of wooden stairs, The Notch Trail (1.5 miles) would be my recommendation, and I could put together an entire post for this one alone.
Well worth the climb, even for the slightly acrophobic, you’ll be hiking along views like the one below. Kind of made me feel like I was on another planet, but this is another area where I highly recommend taking the time to learn more. The way this land was formed and the different types of rock that make up the whole of the area, in addition to the history of the people who do and have called this place home just contributes to really knowing the place that you’re standing on. And there’s no way to connect yourself quite as deeply to any space without having some understanding of how it came to be and who walked upon it before you. All these things go through my mind as I weave along these edges that will surely crumble to the ground beneath me one day.
Upon reaching the end of the Notch Trail, you’ll be rewarded with views like this one.
Also on the eastern side of the loop road is the Cliff Shelf Nature Trailhead, which is off to the right of the photo above, and is a fairly easy half mile walk. All of this barely touches the surface as there are still nearly a dozen overlooks yet to potentially take in. And none of these views disappoint. Most of the overlooks are wheelchair accessible boardwalks, so minus those found on the hikes, many of the views I share here are available to anyone.
The Yellow Mounds Overlook (below) might have been my favorite as I’m a total sucker for contrast in landscapes, especially set against deep blue skies, but also because you can really see the fragility in the erosion here and imagine what it might look like a hundred years from now. How much of this landscape will still be visible to my great-grandchildren? How much was visible a hundred years before I stood here?
And at the western side of the loop road is Pinnacles Overlook, where we arrived just a few hours after we started. You can walk out pretty far among these sweeping views, and it just seems to keep going forever. Breathtaking is an understatement, and even though I’m also a sucker for a great photograph, it’s nothing like actually standing there looking out on it all.
If you’re so inclined at the end of your drive through the park, the town of Wall is about 20 minutes north from Pinnacles Overlook and has options for food, lodging, the National Grasslands Visitors Center and the infamous Wall Drug. The town of Wall is home to 800 year-round residents, and each year 2 million visitors to Wall Drug alone. If you choose to be one of those 2 million, be aware that in peak season as many as 20,000 people can come through in a day. Give yourself a couple hours if you want to wander through the many aisles of souvenirs, or if you’re more fond of the wide open spaces that take up the majority of this post, grab a magnet from the first shelf you find and get out of there before you get lost in the overwhelming sea of tourists.
And last but not least, remember that wildlife is common here, and includes large mammals you should keep plenty of distance from.
All images Copyright T Wagner Studios and prints can be purchased HERE – if you see an image that is not listed in the Print Shop, please send me an email and I’ll be happy to add it for you!