Driving 200 miles through open space on a straight westerly path void of most anything except cattle herds and Wall Drug billboards hypnotized us. As we passed one cattle field after another, I knew we were getting closer to something so severely different from this grass prairie landscape that it was difficult to imagine how it could be so hidden away from our highway view or how it could develop out of such flatness.
Finally, we turned onto exit 131. From there, highway 240 continued south through more open prairie. Everything looked the same except for the 12-ft, 6-ton concrete prairie dog that stands in front of the Ranch Store not far from the entrance to Badlands National Park.
At last, we arrived at the north east entrance to the park. Still, the prairie land prevailed as we continued driving, now officially within National Park. But then in a blink of the eye, we were transported to a completely different world; a landscape so strangely unique as to attract a million visitors each year. A land that compelled Frank Lloyd Wright to describe it as follows, “ “How is it that we, toward the Atlantic, have heard so much about the Grand Canyon and so little of this, when this is so much more miraculous?” We were entering the ‘land of stone and light’.
With our 33-foot fifth wheel, we normally stay outside of national parks and enter one only after we unhitch and leave the home parked. This time, our campground (Badlands/White River KOA) location necessitated us to pull the RV through a portion of Badlands National Park. Thanks to the National Park Service that maintains a scenic highway, we were given a generous preview to the oddly formed rocks that radiate a mesmerizing beauty ever to behold. I witnessed this scene as Vivian drove the 11 miles from the park entrance to the campground. While pulling the RV slowly up and down grades through a dense outcropping of layered and jagged sandstone cliffs and pinnacles, my jaw remained dropped. Like a kid walking into a candy store, I became overwhelmed with anticipation of photographing those exquisite rock formations against a brilliant evening or morning light.
Our campground lays adjacent to the White River near the tiny community of Interior. Located within Pine Ridge Reservation of the Oglala Lakota tribe, we are a short distance from the national park boundaries. The fact that we were surrounded by Indian land made it difficult to ignore history and the current state of affairs among the Oglala Lakota people. Pine Ridge encompasses one county in its entirety and partially two others, three of the poorest counties in the country. The reservation contains the southern portion of Badlands National Park and since the time of COVID, has been entirely shut down. I could not help but think of the tragic consequences of foreign viruses introduced to native Americans by Europeans immigrants. Indian tribes throughout the country were shutting down completely due to COVID and in the case of the Pine Ridge Reservation, this necessarily closed a large portion of the national park. But most of the park remained open.
Being inside the Badlands National Park requires all your senses and pondering the history of its native people rarely came into thought as I photographed and took in the scenes. I simply wanted to capture the moment. Later while staying in the nearby Black Hills, Native American history would come into focus for us. In the meantime, I simply wanted to capture the stone and light. And the park service makes it so easy to do so. The highway gives visitors unprecedented access to the Badlands with continuous sweeping views, opportunities to hike short distances easily through canyons and views of wildlife including bison, bighorn sheep and prairie dogs.
The word “Badlands” comes from the Oglala Lakota description of the harsh landscape as ‘mako sica’ which translates to ‘land bad’. The 244,000 acres of national park use to be under water. When the water receded millions of years ago, perhaps as the Rockies were formed and forced it out, it left behind sediment deposits that comprise the rock formations. Basically, the Badlands terrain was shaped by water. On the Badlands scenic drive starting at the northeast entrance and driving west to the Pinnacles entrance, we witnessed dramatic change in landscape beginning with tall jagged pinnacles that look like castles to colorful rolling mounds of rock interspersed with grasses, to flat open grasslands pock marked by prairie dog holes.
And we saw wildlife. As with the Everglades, the crown jewels of the park are the wildlife. Instead of an alligator near the road, it was a bison. Herds of bighorn sheep grazed in large numbers on the grassy prairies instead of flocks of wading birds in the shallow waters. The elusive prairie dogs contained in large underground communities reminded me of the hermit crabs that populate the tidal zones of the gulf coast. Wildlife viewings are reminders that these wilderness areas are not ours alone. The Badlands is not just to photograph, it is home to much life. Check out this next slide show for some wildlife images.
The animals of course define much of the Badlands, but for me, it was the light and the exquisite power it has over the rocks. The rocks themselves have so much character and all one needs to do is drive through the park to witness how that character changes profoundly. Amazed at how bright it is outdoors well before sunrise, we drove a backroad from Interior into the park 45 minutes before the sun peeked over the horizon. We pulled off at a lookout point to view the magic as the sun eventually lit up the rocks. Meanwhile, beautiful clouds formed in the sky and soon they were painted with pastel blues and pinks. Eye candy everywhere, Vivian used her artistic eye to point out scenes to me so I would not miss out. With the changing light and clouds, we spent an hour in one location as I created several compositions while the clouds and sun did what they do best. Only one time did a car pass by. We had the Badlands to ourselves and it was extraordinary.
The early morning scene was a hard act to follow but as the day progressed, it just got better. Such is the Badlands. Just wait a second and it will change dramatically before your eyes. Drive a short distance and another world will appear. We left the pull-off site and continued west on the scenic drive. It was early enough in the day that cars were few and far between. Clouds remained prominent in the sky creating an everchanging show of light.
This is what the Badlands were to us. Yes, we did drive out of the park to see the infamous Wall Drugstore, but only from our truck. And we did visit the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site but our self-guided tour lasted only minutes. These were meager diversions eclipsed by stone and light. On day six, we left our campground and pulled the RV one last time through Badlands National Park before returning to I-90. Once on the interstate, the Badlands was again hidden away as if it never existed, somewhere beyond the grass prairie that lay out in front of us. Soon, we would enter yet another enchanting land. Black Hills, here we come.