If you were given the responsibility of attracting tourists to the Badlands, you might consider changing the name. Somehow, Badlands doesn’t sound as inviting as, say, Fountain of Youth, South Dakota.
That area of the U.S. Great Plains has been called some version of “bad lands” since humans first encountered it. The Lakotas called the region mako sica — you can guess what that means.
When French-Canadian trappers showed up centuries later, they made a similar assessment, calling it (in French) “bad lands to travel through.” Maybe it was the lack of water and shade, along with the volatile weather conditions, that gave them that impression. The jagged landscape probably influenced their opinion, too.
It is undeniably rugged — but that is part of its appeal. The rock formations, the colorful peaks and gullies created over millions of years by erosion and other geological forces, are mysterious. Some people consider the Badlands a spiritual experience. It’s definitely unusual.
Badlands National Park is about 80 miles east of Rapid City, South Dakota. Every few hundred yards along Interstate 90 are billboards for Wall Drug (in the town of Wall), but other than that, it’s wide-open prairie.
The entrance to the park is a few miles off the Interstate and connects with Badlands Loop Road, which meanders through spectacularly stark scenery. There are numerous overlooks and trails just off the Loop Road; one of them features fossils of some of the beasts who lived here millions of years ago.
Current inhabitants include bighorn sheep, coyotes and prairie dogs. In hopes of seeing some bison in their natural habitat, we left the main road and went a mile or two along a rutted gravel track called Sage Creek Rim Road.
At times I had trouble holding the steering wheel because the road was so bad — it felt like it was going to shake the car apart. Hey, in case you happen to work for the rental car company that supplied our vehicle, just ignore that last part — of course I wouldn’t do anything that would void the rental contract! (For everyone else, when the car starts shaking, stop and then resume driving at a very low speed.)
The noise our car generated must have scared off the bison, but we did see a lot of prairie dogs in the area. Obviously, the Badlands themselves are the main attraction; this is wilderness with an emphasis on wild.
On the return to civilization, it’s probably worth stopping at Wall Drug, since it claims to be the world’s largest drug store. It was once a small establishment in a town of a few hundred people, but now occupies most of a block on Main Street. Apparently the owners gobbled up neighboring stores over the years.
They probably fill an occasional prescription, but most of Wall Drug’s trade is in things like western wear and arcade games and souvenirs. They even have a traveler’s chapel, in case you’re seeking a spiritual experience in a drug store. Let’s just say it’s quite a contrast to nature’s vast cathedral down the road in the Badlands.