Hiking Under the Sea: Badlands National Park

Seventy five million years ago a shallow sea covered today’s Great Plains area. It spanned north to south from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and east to west from western Iowa to western Wyoming. Sea creatures that died sank to the bottom of the sea and became fossils, as well as a gray-black layer of sedimentary rock. This layer is just one of the bands of rock comprising today’s Badlands National Park area, formed as the sea retreated and the climate dried. The Lakota called it mako sica, and French trappers called it les mauvaises terres a traverser, both meaning “bad lands.” We spent three days in the park exploring the badlands rock formations and viewing fossils, while hiking on several trails under the ancient sea, including an overnight trip to a tree-filled ridge in the backcountry. 

We entered the park from the east, and our first stop was at the Big Badlands Overlook. Here we had our first view of the Badlands Wall, a 60 mile carved cliff dividing western South Dakota’s upper and lower grasslands. We saw rock formations consisting of distinct layers, representing bands of time when the climate changed from inland sea to subtropical forest, then to savannah and dry grassland. The result was the accumulation of varying kinds of sediment over different periods. The soft rock comprising the badlands formations erodes easily, at a rate of about an inch a year.

Badlands Overlook view
Badlands Overlook view

Badlands National Park has one of the most plentiful concentrations of fossils in the world. We took time to visit the working paleontology lab at the visitor center, observing actual paleontologists analyzing some of the latest finds in the park.

Watching a paleontologist at work

There are a variety of trails to hike, with distances ranging from a quarter of a mile to five miles and beyond in the backcountry. Our hiking began at the Door and Window Trails, with each providing a different perspective on the Badlands Wall. The Door Trail travels along a boardwalk for the first quarter mile. When the boardwalk ends, a series of stakes mark the trail; how you get from one post to the other is up to you. The trail ends at a “door” or opening into the wall and the rock formations below.

The adjoining quarter mile Window Trail leads to a another opening in the Badlands Wall with a different view of the rock formations.

View from the Door Trail

Close by was another short hike at the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail. A portion of rock eroded from the Badlands Wall, creating a flat spot that is conducive to the growth of junipers and cottonwoods. 

Juniper and cottonwood trees on the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail

The park’s longest path is the Castle Trail, which runs for five miles one way through the heart of the badlands. Because it was in the 90s F and there was no shade, we decided to divide our hiking into shorter sections, covering the trail’s length over two days. On the first day, we began hiking the Castle Trail at the Door and Window Trails parking lot, walking west. After winding through several rock formations, we reached the intersection of the Medicine Root Loop. 

Rock formations on the Castle Trail
Darren hiking the Castle Trail
Sign at the intersection of the Castle Trail and Medicine Root Loop

The Medicine Root Loop climbed into the prairie grasses, providing a nice contrast with the badlands we had seen. We saw blooming catcus and flowers as we hiked.

Medicine Root Loop path through the grass
Blooming catcus on the Medicine Root Loop
Flowers on the Medicine Root Loop

The Medicine Root Loop joined up again with the Castle Trail near Saddle Pass, and we turned back towards where we began to complete 6.6 miles. In contrast with the crowds we had encountered on the shorter trails, we saw very few people as we hiked the longer distance. In 2016 Badlands ranked 23rd in visitation, with 966,263 people.

We picked up the Castle Trail again the next day at its western terminus, located at the intersection of the Fossil Exhibit Trail. Just as we were approaching the parking area, we saw a Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep by the side of the road. Badlands became a national monument in 1939; subsequently 20 bighorn sheep were relocated into the park area in 1964. This provided the nucleus for the current population after Badlands became a national park in 1978.

Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep

Before beginning our Castle Trail hike, we walked through the quarter mile interpretative Fossil Exhibit Trail, learning more about the now extinct creatures discovered in the park. Several signs along the path displayed fossil replicas and information about animals like Leptomeryx, small and deerlike, Oreodonts, sheeplike, and Archaeotherium, a distant relative of pigs.  

Our hike along the Castle Trail took us 3.5 miles round trip back to where we had ended the previous day at the Medicine Root Loop intersection near Saddle Pass. While walking we had the opportunity to view more of the badlands.

View from near Saddle Pass

In addition to our hiking, we drove the 38 mile scenic loop through the park, stopping several times to take pictures at the overlooks. Our favorite view was at the Yellow Mounds Overlook, where the yellow tint of the rocks provided a nice contrast to the colorful badlands next to it. The layer of rock corresponds to black ocean mud weathering that took place after the inland seas receded about 67 million years ago. Near the overlook, at Dillon Pass, is the only place in the park where all the layers, down to the gray-black sea bottom of sedimentary rock, can be seen.

Yellow Mounds Overlook
Yellow Mounds Overlook

Towards the western end of the scenic loop is an intersection with Sage Creek Rim Road. The unpaved 24 mile out and back road took us through the prairie, a section of the largest protected mixed-grass area in the national park system. Nearly 60 species of grasses can be found throughout the 244,000 acre park.

Looking at the prairie grasses from Sage Creek Rim Road

Our hope was to see some animals along the road, with a guarantee to witness numerous prairie dogs at a “dog town.” Sitting on top of their dirt holes, the prairie dogs were a riot to watch as they scurried around and made high pitched barking sounds to one another. 

Driving down Sage Creek Rim Road
Prairie Dog on top of its hole

After we turned around and drove back on Sage Creek Rim Road to where we had started, we were fortunate to spy a lone bison in the grass to the left of us. We played it safe and stayed in the car to photograph it, as bison weigh up to 2,000 pounds and can run as fast as 30 miles per hour. 

Lone bison sighting

Even though the weather was still hot, we decided to backpack into the backcountry for our last night in Badlands National Park. We consulted the rangers at the visitor center to determine a suitable route. One ranger told us she had recently returned from an overnight trip in the wilderness area to Deer Haven, a ridge covered with juniper and cedar trees. It was not on any official park maps, but there was a faint path running to the base of the ridge from a picnic area. From there we would need to scramble up to the trees. 

She gave us instructions on how to find the trail and where to park our car. Because of the heat, we decided to not start hiking until the late afternoon, so set off at about 4:00 pm. The trail was not too hard to follow as we wound our way along some rock formations. 

Rock formations on the overnight backpacking trip to Deer Haven

After about 1 ½ miles we turned a corner and could see the tree covered ridge ahead of us. When we reached its base, Darren decided to climb ahead to find the best route forward. That way we wouldn’t both be wasting our time in case there was some trial and error involved in finding the best way up the ridge. 

Hiking towards Deer Haven
First view of Deer Haven ridge
Approaching the base of Deer Haven

After about 20 minutes Darren returned. He had found a great campsite and was glad I stayed behind, as he had needed to try a couple of different ways to get there. His “optimal route” had us going almost straight up a steep slope, with a climb of about 200 feet. My back was still bothering me from the fall at Voyageurs National Park a week earlier, and I struggled to keep up. About halfway into the climb, Darren pointed out another place we could camp instead, but I was determined to make it up to his first choice. 

The campsite he chose was well worth the climb, because it was located in a large grassy area at the top of the ridge with a commanding view of the badlands below. With no one else in sight, we set up camp and ate dinner as the sun began to sink lower in the sky.

Climbing up the ridge
Our campsite at Deer Haven
View from our campsite

As had happened the previous two nights we had spent at the park’s established Cedar Pass Campground, dark clouds formed, and we could see some rain on the horizon. It didn’t look like we would receive a direct hit, and the thunder and lightning in the distance made for a nice show. We did get a little rain in the middle of the night, but with the rainfly covering our tent we kept dry inside.

Lightning strike in the distance

We slept well and left early in the morning to hike out about 2.5 miles to our car and the end of our time at Badlands National Park. In addition to learning more about life under the sea millions of years ago, we had the opportunity to hike 16.6 miles through beautiful badlands rock formations and prairie grasses. We saw several animals and had a peaceful overnight experience in the backcountry.

Leaving Deer Haven in the morning

Our travels will take us a short distance west to the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wind Cave National Park. 

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