Trip Recap: Badlands National Park, South Dakota (March 2015)
Few places seem as desolate and bare, but are actually full of life, as the Badlands of South Dakota. Katie and I did a 25-mile trek through Badlands National Park in March of 2015, and it quickly became one of our favorite trips.
About the Badlands
The Badlands Wilderness Area is actually the largest prairie wilderness in the United States. There are no established trails here, except those made by Bison. The Badlands are known worldwide for the distinct wind-eroded rock formations, the immense expanses of mixed-grass prairie, and as a rich paleontological site with fossils of ancient animals like the saber-toothed cat. The park is situated in southwestern South Dakota. Today, visitors can share the space with an array of wildlife including bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, coyotes, eagles, and deer to name a few.
We could have spent at least a week in the Badlands, but in the interest of time (we had other parks to visit on this particular trip) we limited our trek to a 25-miles (3-days).
We started out in Conata Creek where we immediately encountered several Bighorn Sheep and Mule Deer.
There was a sign indicating the presence of rattlesnakes in the grass. The prairie rattlesnake, which is the only venomous snake native to the Badlands, is luckily the least aggressive of all rattlesnakes. However, it is still wise to proceed with caution as a snakebite can quickly ruin a trip and result in a hefty emergency room bill. We followed the base of dramatic rock formations through the grasslands, looking for the Deer Haven oasis.
After just a few miles, we reached the base of Deer Haven, a beautiful Juniper stand accessible by climbing some of the formations. Climbing these formations can be tricky, as there are countless holes and caverns that have formed over the years.
We remained sure of our footing and proceeded towards the junipers. We picked out a campsite in the middle of the junipers to get out of the wind and left our gear to explore our home for the evening.
We had the entire area to ourselves – not another person for miles around. We watched two eagles pass back and forth from one ridge to another and enjoyed a beautiful sunset. The views from our camp were some of the best we have seen – overlooking Conata Basin and the silhouetted rock formations on either side.
After breakfast and packing our gear, we left Deer Haven and navigated through the junipers towards what we thought was an acceptable route up to the ridge. We were wrong. It took us two more tries but we finally found a less-than-dangerous path towards the ridge, which upon summiting gave us an incredible view of the formations and grasslands.
This was the high point of our route (literally, we were higher in elevation here than anywhere else on the route).
We descended into a maze of sandy washes towards Tyree Basin. Along the way, we saw signs of bison in the creek – scat and tracks – and the unique nests of swallows in the rock walls above us.
Somewhere in the middle of this maze we met the only person we ever saw on our trek – he was a lone hiker standing at an intersection in the washes. He must have been happy to see us, because he had forgotten which direction he was supposed to turn to get back to Deer Haven, where we had just been that morning. After finally leaving the washes, we found ourselves in the Sage Creek Basin, which is a grassland framed by rock formations and veined with a huge network of washes.
The washes here were what slowed us down this day. Some were too steep to descend and too wide to jump over (especially with packs on). Others were easy enough to descend but difficult to get out once at the bottom. Eventually, we saw our first bison of the trip – one of many we would see along the way.
Bison are amazing creatures. They are huge: standing over 6 feet tall at the shoulder and often weighing over 2,000 lbs. From here, we hiked west towards Tyree Basin. Tyree Basin might as well have been another planet. While evidence of wildlife was all around us, and we saw grasslands in the distance, much of the basin was desolate, and covered with rock and sand.
As the sun went down and the temperature began to drop, we set up camp at the base of the formations in Tyree Basin. We fell asleep this night listening to the wind pummel the side of our tent, even though we had picked what we thought to be the most sheltered location available.
The third and final day of our trek was a cold, windy, and cloudy. We walked out of Tyree Basin through a prairie dog colony and saw our target – Sage Creek Pass – in the distance to the south.
To get to the pass, we ascended and descended a series of washes; often being so low into the crevasses that we could not see which direction we were going anymore. Luckily, we were armed with compasses, topos, and a great GPS.
It struck us that a horizontal photograph of this area made it appear to be relatively flat, but actually travelling through the landscape revealed countless washes, crevasses, plateaus, and formations.
We hiked through Sage Creek Pass and towards a fence line that would lead us back to the Conata Basin. We stopped for lunch at an odd location – a dramatic drop in elevation that seemed to span for miles in either direction.
We ducked under a fence and proceeded to cross several more washes and grasslands before reconvening with our Day 1 route in the Conata Basin outside Deer Haven.
If we had to pick one word to describe the Badlands it would be surreal. The whole landscape was so foreign and ancient, and the contrast between the sharp rock formations and the rolling grasslands was breathtaking.
The Badlands gives its backpacking visitors a feeling of isolation and solitude. If it weren’t for our gear, we might have thought we had been transported back in time several thousand years. As with many wilderness areas, the rest of the world seems to disappear when you backpack the Badlands.
For more information on the Badlands, and to plan your trip, click here.