Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Alexander Moliski

"This broken country extends back from the river for many miles and has been called always be Indian, French voyager and American trappers alike, the Bad Lands." - Theodore Roosevelt

The Great Plains

There aren't many places left in this world that let you go back in time to a world ruled by beasts. African safaris are an option, but what if I told you, that you can experience safari-like conditions in South Dakota? I didn't believe it at first either.

I was drawn to the Badlands by a near-unhealthy fascination with the 26th president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. I have a list of all the wilderness places and parks I want to visit, and honestly, the Badlands always hovered in the bottom half. That was until I began studying and reading about Theodore Roosevelt.

Like thousands of others, I fell into a curious ensorcellment by the past president's charm. His charisma flows through his writing and actions, making him almost come to life, and you can certainly still feel Roosevelt's impact today. I asked myself, "how could such a landscape capture the heart of Roosevelt?" The question shot the Badlands from the bottom to the top of my list.

But first, who was this Theodore Roosevelt guy, and why is he important?

Theodore Roosevelt

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

When most think of Theodore Roosevelt the first thing that comes to mind is a flash of teeth and the phrase; "walk softly and carry a big stick." Although these thoughts are synonymous with the man, he is much, more than a smile and a witty saying.

A soldier, Nobel Peace Prize winner, statesman, vigilante, conservationists, hunter, explorer, author, rancher, philosopher and family man, are just a few professions that could be used to describe Roosevelt. He was an extraordinary man who led an extraordinary life. A life that sounds like it is straight out of a fiction book, a life of triumphs and contradictions, a life of love and loss.

I could go on forever about TR, and his nearly endless list of accomplishments, but here are some of his most notable contributions:

  • Set aside some 200 million acres of protected lands, including: National Parks, wildlife sanctuaries, bird sanctuaries, and national forest.
  • The Pure Food and Drug Act, making inspection and safety checks on food and drugs. A precursor to today's FDA
  • Kick started the FBI
  • First American recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded after Roosevelt arbitrated the end of the Russo-Japanese War
  • Started the Panama Canal

After the death of his first wife, Alice Lee, in 1884, Roosevelt took a sabbatical from the New York state assembly, and purchased $50,000 (a tremendous amount for the time) worth of cattle to start a ranch in the Badlands of the Dakotas.

While in the Badlands, Roosevelt came across many characters and stories. From wanting to join a vigilante group called "the Stranglers", to getting into fights at saloons, to having an interesting relationship with the "Emperor of the Badlands". Roosevelt himself was convinced that his time in the west was directly responsible for his presidency, he once said; "I have always said I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota."

There had to be something about the Badlands, something..magical about it. TR stated in a letter to his sister, Bamie, "The country is growing on me more and more. It has a curious, fantastic beauty of its own."

"I heartily enjoy this life, with its perfect freedom, for I am very fond of hunting, and there are few sensations I prefer to that of galloping over these rolling limitless prairies, with rifle in hand, or winding my way among the barren, fantastic and grimly picturesque deserts of the so-called Bad Lands..." - TR

I needed to experience this fantastic beauty first hand. So I planned a trip, and as I was leaving, I half-jokingly asked my 60 year old mom, if she wanted to come. Her eyes lit up and she told me that she had been waiting for years for one of her boys to ask her to come along on an adventure.

South Dakota

Our trip took us across the country, from Pennsylvania, to first Colorado, and finally, South Dakota. I told my mom that if she were to come along, we would travel under my conditions. That means, no hotels, lots of nature, few stops, and no dillydallying. She hesitantly agreed.

Our first top was an overnight hike in the Never Summer Wilderness in Colorado, a wilderness area that borders the ever-famous Rocky Mountain National Park. After two days in the mountains, it was time to head to South Dakota. Coming in from the Wyoming side, we stopped and stayed a few days in the Black Hills, exploring Custer State Park, The Black Elk Wilderness, and the various monuments in the area.

Custer State Park, South Dakota

Finally, climbing out of the Black Hills and heading East, we were ready for Badlands National Park. It was strange leaving the mountains and heading towards the plains for adventure. Most, if not all, of my backpacking is done in either the mountains or hills. It didn't feel right to be looking for a story in the flatness of the great plains.

The Not-So-Badlands

After a brief stop for a late lunch in Rapid City, we headed out for the Badlands. The Badlands are one of the few national parks left that allow dispersed camping through self-permit stations. Most national parks require a stop at the ranger's station to recieve backcountry permits for any overnight stays in the park.

Starting to get late, we rushed to the closest self-register station for backcountry permits. I figured, that being a National Park, the Badlands would be as well maintained - with paved roads in visitor centers. What we found, is that if you enter via route 44, the park is more like a national forest in the sense of dirt roads and wilderness. We drove a few miles down Sagecreek Road before coming across a scenic overlook with the self-register kiosk.

With sunset approaching, the silhouettes of hulking beasts could be seen below in the endless grasslands. My mom was having a bit of anxiety attack, claiming that bison "definitely eat people", and it took some convincing to get her out of the car and down the trail.

The rules stated that wilderness camping is allowed if you stay out of sight of the road, and at least half a mile away. This was actually pretty tough, because it was so flat and empty that you could see the road from well over a half-mile away. Also, the grass from far away looks soft and welcome, sort of like that windows screensaver we all know and love. When you start walking in it, the grasses are short and long. Sometimes it felt more like wading through a shallow sea of green. The grasses regularly stretched above knee-height.

Rattlesnakes were much more of a threat to me than bison. With the tall grass, they could be hiding anywhere. I was told later that four people that summer had already been bit by hiding rattlesnakes.

A not-so-happy camper!

We found a spot, a little over half a mile from the road that look like a good place to set up camp. It was horribly buggy, hot, and itchy, but the surrounding area was something out of science fiction. I was charmed, to say the least. I saw, for a moment, what Roosevelt must have seen in the area.

My mother, was not so impressed. She was ready to "climb in the tent and not come out until the morning". I stayed up, playing my harmonica, trying to put myself in the shoes of the great ranchers and cowboys of the time. I noted to myself that this area was nice, and noted them as the Not-So-Badlands in my head.

"After nightfall the face of the country seems to alter marvelously, and the clear moonlight only intensifies the change. The river gleams like running quicksilver, and the moonbeams play over the grassy stretches of the plateaus...The Bad Lands seem to be stranger and wilder than ever, the silvery rays turning the country into a kind of grim fairyland." - TR

Badlands National Park

That morning I was woken up by a worried mother. She was ready to get back to the car before any Bison showed up - it was 4:00 in the morning, but I could tell anxiety was getting to her and agreed to pack up camp. It was good we did, because not more than five minutes later, a herd of bison walked over the nearest hill and were eating breakfast right where we set up camp - it must have been mother's instincts.

We continued down the road, towards the northern entrance of the park. The landscape dramatically changed within minutes from the bright grassy greens, to dusy browns. Moreover, pillars of stone and dirt stacked into the sky in bizarre shapes and sizes.

The many bison weren't the only fauna we saw. There were herds of goats, hawks, prairie dogs, and other critters scampering about. It was almost like a safari - you are almost guaranteed to see wildlife.

"Now and then we hear the wilder voices of the wilderness, from animals that in the hours of darkness do not fear the neighborhood of man: the coyotes wail like dismal ventriloquists, or the silence may be broken by the snorting and stamping of a deer." - TR

But we soon left all the life behind as we entered the bonafide Badlands, and they were remarkably bad and barren. Absolutely useless for any agriculture or grazing purposes, the land was simply left along for generations and generations, keeping them well preserved. Geologically speaking, the area was ripe with scientific purpose.

The colorful hills had built-in carbon dating. The stridations in the rocks and cliffs are so apparent, that you can tell what year you are looking into without even having to dig. You can see back from as early as 28 million to as far as 75 million years from the road. What amazed me was the variety of animals that were found in the area. From the first dogs and horses to alligators and super fauna.

There was so much to see and do in the Badlands that I had to completely revise my re-visit list. The Badlands confidently took the number one spot. A few more days in the area would have given me a bigger picture, but with a tired mom, and a job interview coming, I had to leave the grassy flats and clay pillar behind and travel back to the East Coast.

As far as fufilling bucket list items, first backpacking trips, and mother-son adventures, the Badlands did not disappoint. I got to see the land that shaped Theodore Roosevelt into the figure I admire, and my mom had a wonderful jounrey.

"Nowhere, not even at sea, does a man feel more lonely than when riding over the far-reaching, seemingly never-ending plains; and after a man has lived a little while on or near them, their very vastness and loneliness and their melancholy monotony have a strong fascination for him." -TR