Badlands, South Dakota / by Bradley Hanson

German tourists at one of the many observation decks in Badlands National Park, SD

One of the joys of life is stumbling across the unexpected. The midwest region of the United States is thought of as being flat and uneventful. This is not an observation that is completely devoid of merit, though there are many unique features about the area that don't exist elsewhere. The 5 great lakes that touch the borders of Canada, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio comprise 20% of the fresh water lakes in the entire planet. Lake Superior in northern Minnesota is so vast it looks like the ocean, replete with seagulls. Chicago is the third largest city in the US with a population of 3,000,000. Aside from cities like Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Detroit, it *is* more sparsely populated than the east coast, and it is definitely flatter. South Dakota's population ranks 46th in the US with only 800,000 people in the entire state. I have been to 46 of the 50 states (I will be covering the "final four" in during a road trip this August), and I am continually surprised by the diversity and beauty. The Badlands offer an intensely beautiful topography that I've only seen in Utah's Bryce Canyon or Arizona's Grand Canyon, and it is a trip I would definitely recommend to anyone.

My family and I have been discussing this trip for a long time. It's 9 hours from Minneapolis, and we did it with only one night in a hotel. As we drove from Minneapolis heading west on I-90, it's extremely flat. Farm after farm and lush green landscapes start to merge in your mind. There is a massive wind farm with over 100 windmills near the border of Minnesota and South Dakota. Suddenly, in the distance, a pointy rock appears. Are our eyes deceiving us? Are those mountains? Excitement in the car is building as we get closer to our destination. It's a perfect day at about 72 degrees F and the sky is sprinkled with light cirrus clouds. The brown and orange landscape pops out between the green foreground and the deep cobalt sky. 

We have been here before, but it still takes my breath away. With an attempt at variety, we decide to take a new way in to Badlands National Park, a massive expanse with many different sub-climates and landscapes. This turns out to be a happy accident as we find ourselves in Longhorn, SD, a completely abandoned town almost literally in the middle of nowhere. Not a soul in sight, but evidence lingers of a bar, an outdoor jail and a single strip of road overlooking the beautiful painted landscape in the distance.

Long abandoned Longhorn Saloon in the main road of a ghost town, just outside the park

A rare glimpse of water and wildlife other than buffalo and prairie dogs as we enter the park

Millions of years of erosion have left beautiful layers of painted rock

With countless observation areas, Badlands are like a sunset: just when you think it can't get any more beautiful, it does!

There is a paved road through the central park area appropriately called the Badlands Loop Road, just off highway 240, as well as a number of unpaved roads that take you to various corners of this massive park. Some of the unpaved portions were soft and damp, like driving on a giant marshmallow. For the sake of safety, as well as the best views in the park, I recommend sticking to the main Loop Road, which has several safe places to pull over and look around, as well as many "official" outlook points. As someone looking for unique perspectives, we made a lot of stops in some very narrow points, occasionally soaking our feet in mud.

The depth and complexity of the land only exceed by the Grand Canyon in Arizona or Bryce Canyon in Utah

My wife Jackie at one of the observation points where you can walk all the way out to the edge

Even in the midday sun the contours and layers were magnificent

My boys doing some basic science: how long does it take a rock to make it back to Earth?

You will see license plates from all over the US, and hear accents from all over the world

Drier than a pan of overcooked brownies, the land below you often crumbles softly under your feet

Arid land and a topography one associates more with the American Southwest

The outer periphery of Badlands National Park has both massive buffalo and the tiny prairie dogs

Sunset at Mount Rushmore near Rapid City, South Dakota

Leaving Rapid City, South Dakota

Windmill farms on I-90 in multiple locations between South Dakota and Minneapolis

As we reluctantly left the park, we encountered a lush, green landscape re-emerging, the midwest that people are used to. We also visited Mount Rushmore National Park, which is in the western part of South Dakota, just east of Rapid City.

To learn more about Badlands National Park in South Dakota, visit this link:

To learn more about Mount Rushmore National Park, visit this link:

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