Exploring what’s on the other side!

Badlands National Park

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On our way west, we made a couple of pit stops before reaching the Badlands of South Dakota.

The first stop between Laura Ingalls Homestead and Badlands National Park was a quickie in the little town of Mitchell, South Dakota. There, you may visit the world’s only corn palace – Mitchell Corn Palace. It hosts a wide variety of events and offers a tour of it and its corn murals. But no time for that. It was a cool place to stop and walk around for a bit. It really was quite a site so we had to park and grab a photo. It had very colorful and spectacular turrets and domes. It could hold its own in Moscow’s Red Square, alongside Saint Basil’s Cathedral. Well, maybe my imagination was getting a little carried away.

Down the road we passed a bazillion signs for Wall Drug.

Wall Drug is perhaps the greatest tourist trap in history. Its billboard advertising may be the best I had ever seen. Seeing so many led to a new car game that rivaled Padiddle and Punch-bug.

“Wall Drug sign!”


You get sucked into this pit stop no matter how much you may try to resist it. Heck, it was way back in Minnesota that we spotted the first sign:

Wall Drug – 355 miles.

It was followed by periodic signs stretching across three states along I-90 West that read:

These were just some of the billboards. Quotes may not be exact. After all, we were traveling at about 75 miles per hour.

So after all that, tell me you wouldn’t roll off the exit and into Wall, SD for a peak to see what this place was all about. We did. Now it’s your turn.

Okay, after a day of driving, broken up by these little pit stops to see the Corn Palace and Wall Drug, I was ready to get out of the vehicle, stretch and walk Badlands National Park – in bits and pieces, driving from one vantage point to the next.

The long drive to the Badlands was filled with expectations. My daughter wanted to learn about the Lakota Indian heritage from this region. I think part of her fascination was that her school system back home was called Lakota. My son was enamored by outlaws and cowboys and wanted to know if gold was up in them-there hills. And my wife, she was diggin’ it because, well, she enjoys paleontology and geology. As for me, I just wanted to see the cool views and explore them up close on a hike or two.

Needless to say, there was plenty to fulfill all our interests and then some. From the get-go, I warned the kids not to get too close to the edge. I remembered a brochure stating this was one of the fastest eroding landscapes on Earth. This was after telling them to make sure they don’t step on a rattlesnake. So the next 10 minutes were spent coaxing the terrified youngsters out of the vehicle, reassuring them everything was safe.

Our first stop was faced with a “trail closed” sign.

The kids were the voice of reason saying, let’s turn back, but I saw many people beyond. Doggonit, in the Griswold spirit of refusing to obey a closed sign after coming all this way, I was pressing on. Miraculously, my wife, normally the ultra-conservative voice of reason, was hot on my heels. So we broke the Cardinal rule: Just because others are doing it doesn’t make it right.

“Better catch up, kids, or the rattlesnakes will get you.”

This was one of those panoramic landscapes where you do your best to take a picture, shift your hands steadily to the right, picking up where the last one left off, and snap another, repeat, another, and another. Before you knew it, you completed a circle.

“Not so close to the edge!”

That was my wife yelling at me. But I kept thinking that if I could get just a little bit closer, I’d be able to snap an even better shot.

“Get back here …NOW!”

Yep, she was getting hot.

One more step.


I looked around and found no sign of my wife and kids. I decided to abandon my photo-op and turned around. Getting back was a little scarier than going out on the rock limb. It was the sensation you get when you realized you climbed too high and wondered how you were going to get back down – only this was far out on a narrow and cracked rock ledge.

Back at our vehicle, I was met with more silence by my wife and a scolding by my kids – something about having no daddy mixed in there.

Anyway, the Badlands were an incredible sight. Being there, you realized that there was no way to capture the beauty on film. There was a never ending array of sharply eroded spires, pinnacles and buttes, creating 244,000 acres of rock outcrops blended with mixed grass prairie.

The Badlands were called “mako sica” by the Lakota, meaning “land bad.” This was due to the dangerous topography, extreme temperatures and lack of water sources. In the late 1800’s, bad deeds reflected its name. There were nearby events such as Wounded Knee and Ghost Dance. Ghost Dance was a spiritual movement that was needed to give the Lakota and their larger Great Sioux Nation a reason for hope as their culture was being destroyed by the gold rush and land grabs of the nearby Black Hills.

Long before people, other critters lived in the Badlands. The geologic conditions made this a Paleontologist’s dreamscape. Fossils galore have been discovered throughout the Badlands. It contains the world’s richest Oligocene epoch fossil beds dating back 37 million years. Mammoths roamed here as well as other mammals. In fact, the evolution of rhinoceroses and other animals are studied here because the elements are so kind to science.

After a very fun and educational visit to the museum/visitors center, the kids, now officially Junior Rangers, enjoyed our deep hike into the Badlands. We didn’t set out to go far but ended up feeling like we were in the Twilight Zone. It was difficult to judge depth of the landscape and our perception was that we had not wandered far until we looked back. Still, there were people hiking way beyond us. We were continuously lured from one rock shelf to another, across a ridge and down a path and then creatively weaved through a maze of outcrops of rock formations every which way. At one point, as I surveyed the tiers of rock with hikers’ heads popping up here and there, I had an urge to wield a huge Chuck E. Cheese hammer in a demented game of Whack-a-Mole.

I needed water!

My mind drifted to thinking, what if we did get bit by a rattlesnake WAY OUT HERE?

“Okay kids, time to go back.”

But which way was back?

Water. We need more water.

New worry: How long before the sun sets?

Then I wondered what kind of animals came out at night?

Once we were back at the car, it seemed the sun was shinier than an hour or so ago. There must had been some clouds before.

As we drove the ribbon of road taking us to and from scenic overlooks, I began to wonder which was the bigger workout; hiking aimlessly for hours or getting in and out of the vehicle dozens of times to take pictures.

I decided that I missed the days of actual camera film, which seemed so long ago. This limitless digital stuff enabled me to take picture after picture with no concern of film cost or developing fees.

That’s it. I have enough pictures (and video) of this place.

Nope! Gotta get that shot.

By now the kids were teasing me. Surprisingly, they weren’t in one of those perpetual “are-we-there-yet” moods.

“Daaaaaad, I think you really need a picture from that overlook (giggle).”

“Dad, check that view out, there’s a pull-off up there (snicker).”

My wife fell asleep.

This went on for quite some time and as worn out as I was, I just couldn’t resist.

So it goes.

As we wound our way out of the BADlands of photo-addiction hell, we saw a dozen vehicles parked on the edge of the road. They overlooked nothing but flat, empty, blotches of brown and green space as far as the eye could see. I couldn’t figure out why so it gave me good reason to wake up my wife.


“Grab the camera!”

By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!

Next Stop:  The Black Hills next right
last leftLast Stop: Ingalls Homestead