The Badlands. I know. It sounds…well, bad. Right? You may be thinking bleak, severe, forbidding. The area was named by the Native tribes who lived there long ago. I can imagine why they chose to call it bad lands. If you had to find water and food while hiking through that unforgiving land, it makes sense. Today, with cars and piped water, the land is a little less daunting; though I’m sure living on it is still not easy.
Most people visit the north unit, which is more popular and has several places to camp including BLM land. Brian and I ended up staying on the south side of Rapid City at Rapid City South RV Park. It was a beautiful park with friendly staff – close enough to town for necessities, but not in town. It also gave us access to the less built-up south unit of the park.
Part of the Badlands National Park’s south unit belongs to the Oglala Lakota – the northern portion of the Pine Ridge Reservation. Over the years, the tribe has tried to acquire management of the Badlands’ south unit from the National Parks system stating its their land and they should manage it; but, as far as I can see, haven’t yet succeeded. I hope someday it happens for them.
South Badlands Scenic Drive
First, bring water and binoculars or a camera with a good zoom/telephoto or both. Maybe also pack a lunch or snacks – and water. Even in late September it was warm and very dry. Without stopping, it takes about 2 1/2 hours to drive the loop from South Rapid City to Hermosa, out Highway 40 to the turn at onto BIA 2, north at Rockyford up BIA Highway 27, then back via Highway 44. It’s about 45 minutes from the campground to Red Shirt Table Overlook, which is your first absolutely amazing view. You’re going to want to stop. (BIA = Bureau of Indian Affairs.)
From Hermosa, you’re driving through farms and ranches, then in between beautiful, lush low hills. Horses and cattle dot the land. You come across the sign announcing you’re entering Oglala Lakota land and pass through the tiny town of Red Shirt.
Just when you’re wondering if you’ll ever see the canyons you’ve heard so much about, the green splits open and there’s brutal beauty on both sides of you. You’re at Red Shirt Table Overlook. The photos can’t give you the feeling of being there – the immensity and intensity of such a place. Truly. Plan a trip now to see it for yourself.
Pull over and hang out a bit. Both sides of the road offer fantastic views and little differences throughout. There are spires and chimneys, colorful layers and buttes. If you’re here during mid-day, photography isn’t very easy here; so just look – maybe take a few photos and walk the trail on the north side of the road to capture more of the view. Come back another time at golden hour around sunrise or sunset for better photos.
As out of the way as it seems there, don’t be surprised if you’re not alone. We had company off and on both times we visited Red Shirt Table Overlook. One couple were obvious visitors like us – cameras in hand. Another was a local man named Dreaming Bear, a Veteran, whose son tore down the trail on the edge of the canyon to gather sage. We chatted with Dreaming Bear while he waited and he told us of some places to be sure to go see. During golden hour, a photographer stood near the edge with his camera and binoculars and, later, a group of younger people pulled over to watch the sunset for a bit. It’s nice to know the locals haven’t been desensitized by a lifetime of amazing colors over the canyons.
As you continue the loop, the landscape tends to hide much of the view again, then suddenly opens into a panoramic valley right in front of you.
You quickly end up on the valley floor, surrounded by buttes and hoodoos as far as the eye can see. It’s breathtaking!
Science Snippet: The layers that make up the Badlands’ formations, consisting of ash, clay, sandstone and more, were deposited anywhere between 75 and 28 million years ago. Then, about 500,000 years ago the Cheyenne River, along with the winds and rains, ice and snow, started eroding the softer sections. Scientists say the Badlands are still eroding at about one inch each year and suggest they will be gone in another 500,000 years! Learn More.
Once you’re through the valley and headed back west, the landscape returns to high prairie and farms, eventually giving way to suburbia and the town of Rapid City. If you’re only spending time in the southern unit of Badlands National Park, Red Shirt Table Overlook and the valley between Rockyford and Scenic are the two places to explore. There is the White Center Visitor Center at the turn from BIA 2 onto BIA Highway 27. It’s only open during the summer, though; so we weren’t able to go inside. The larger Ben Reifel Visitor Center in the northern unit is open year ’round.
I consider myself lucky in that I get to visit such an awe-inspiring place and, luckier so, in comfort with plenty of water and my air-conditioned car to return to after each foray outside. Spending time in the south side of the Badlands only makes me want to return – to spend more time exploring it and discovering the incredible beauty that I’m sure awaits us in the north unit.
Thank you for joining us as we live the journey…