The Badlands of South Dakota is one of the jewels in America’s National Park System.
It combines a fauna-abundant prairie land with a moonscape of other-worldly rock formations, to form one of the country’s most unique natural environments.
Last month I hiked the length of Badlands National Park from Ben Reifel Visitor Center to White River Visitor Center. To the best of my knowledge, it was the first time that such a traverse had been completed.
Distance: 90 miles approx.
Time: 5 days
Start: Ben Reifel Visitor Center
Finish: White River Visitor Center
Getting There & Away:
- No public transport to either trailhead. To get to the NE terminus, I caught a ride from the town of Wall, SD, with an off-duty postal worker (29 miles). From the finish at White River, I hitched north on HWY 27 to Rapid City (62 miles).
- I put together the Badlands route on Caltopo. Twelve 1:24,000 maps covered the entire journey.
- For overview purposes I carried the excellent 1:55,000 Badlands National Park National Geographic map (double sided).
- Online Hiking Beta: Slim pickings. Apart from a couple of trip reports on shorter hikes (i.e. 20 to 30 miles) in the Sage Creek area of the park, I couldn’t find much in the way of useful online information. The best of the bunch seemed to be a 2013 article from Backpacker Magazine.
- Permits: Badlands NP has no formal system of backcountry permits or reservations. Simply put, not that many people backpack in the Badlands. As per the National Park Website, before starting my trip I stopped by the Ben Reifel visitor center and gave the rangers a heads up in regards to my plans.
- Trails: There is only a handful of trail miles in Badlands National Park. All of these designated pathways are situated in close proximity to Ben Reifel.
- Environmental: The Badlands National Park website has some useful information on weather, wildlife and geological formations.
- Resupply: I carried all my supplies from the start. On the off-chance that anyone else is interested in doing this hike (or something similar), there is but one resupply option that doesn’t involve a long and potentially difficult hitch. The “town” of Scenic (real population 4; Wikipedia lists it at 10), situated on the outskirts of the western side of the park, has a gas station and a post office. The former has some snacks and microwave burritos. Opening hours for the post office are limited. Give them a call beforehand to double-check.
- Water – Pre-Hike Research: I suspect that this is the principal reason the Badlands isn’t visited by more backpackers. From everything I read and heard beforehand, there is no potable water in the Badlands backcountry. As a result of this information, I started my hike carrying 12 litres. I figured this would be enough to get me through to the above mentioned town of Scenic (situated just over half-way through the hike), where it would be possible to fill up at the gas station or obtain water from a pump next to the post office.
- Water – Post-Hike Summary: I was pleasantly surprised to find a handful of places where potable water could be obtained in the Park. Three of the sources seemed like they would be fine all-year round, while another one at Deer Haven appeared to more of a seasonal proposition.
As with pretty much all of my hiking routes over the years, the Badlands Traverse was by no means a straight shot, A to B type deal. My chosen route was a sinuous affair, which took me in, out, up and over gullies, washes and mesas, interspersed with the occasional easier stretch across the mixed grasslands of the prairies.
During the hike I stayed within the National Park boundaries (see overview map above), with the exception of when I detoured out to Scenic for water and microwaveable burritos.
Walking on the Moon:
Speaking of gullies, along with the dearth of H2O, the biggest challenge in hiking through Badlands National Park was scrambling up and down those steep, crumbly, rip-the-bum-out-of-your-pants little ravines of joy.
On multiple occasions, I’d top out at the end of a gully that looked passable on my maps, only to find myself confronted with a twenty to forty foot sheer cliff on the other side. After a few choice words to the Hiking Gods, I was left to either: A. Look for an alternative; B. Suck it up and retrace my steps, or; C. Break out my cuben fiber rabbits foot and climb/plunge/shimmy/slide down the other side.
Despite the challenges, these were actually my favourite sections. Indeed, there were moments during the traverse when I felt like I was walking through a giant lunar labyrinth. An ethereal maze of buttes, spires and pinnacles. No signs, no trails, no people, no shade, no water, no guarantees that the next gully would be passable.
And you know what? I loved every second.
Notes & Musings:
“It’s the Badlands, baby………”
I started late on day one. About 6 pm. Hitching out of Wall, SD, was not easy.
The first couple of miles were on the Badlands Loop road. From there I would link up to the Saddle Pass Trail and find a place to bed down before it got dark.
Not more than twenty minutes after leaving the visitors center, a yellow and white combi van pulled up beside me. Inside were a bohemian-looking couple that looked like they were in their late fifties / early sixties.
The lady in the passenger seat asked me if I needed a ride. I replied , “no, thank you.” She then asked me where I was going, to which I gave her a quick synopsis of my plan to backpack through the park. She seemed genuinely concerned for my welfare. After a minute or two of assuring her that I knew what I was doing, her less talkative husband piped up and said in a droll, deadpan voice (with just the hint of a grin):
“It’s the Badlands, baby, it ain’t meant to be easy.”
All three of us broke out laughing. And with that memorable line, we said our goodbyes and I continued on my way.
Over the next five days I couldn’t get those words out my head. Every time I encountered a particularly challenging section – “it’s the Badlands, baby” would come into my noggin and I’d start to chuckle. It has been over a month since I finished the hike and it still makes me smile.
Funny the things that stay with you.
For a place with bugger all water, I was amazed at how much wildlife I saw in the Badlands. Highlights on the fauna front included:
- Pronghorn: I was in awe watching these fleet of foot (second fastest land animal in the world after the Cheetah) animals race across the Prairie grass in full flight. The grace and effortlessness with which they move is astounding.
- Bison: There are a lot of bison in the trailless Sage Creek Unit. They are literally everywhere. Having the opportunity to observe these magnificent animals up close and personal, was one of the main reasons I took such a circuitous route through this section of the park.
- Bighorn Sheep: I spotted a group of Bighorn sheep just south of Stronghold Table. This particular species had been exterminated from the area by 1916, however, sheep from Colorado were reintroduced into Badlands National Park in 1964, and are now once again thriving in their native habitat.
The weather during my time in the Badlands was more unpredictable than a real estate mogul/would-be politician’s stump speech. Case in point, the two photos immediately below. The first was taken just before 7am. Temperatures were in the mid 40’s F. The second shot is from 1pm the same day. The thermometer read 97°F………in the shade. It’s amazing what a difference six hours can make in the Badlands.
(Postscript: That same night I was awoken from a deep slumber by high winds and driving rain at 10.30 pm. It continued to rain periodically all of the next day and the temps never rose above the mid-fifties).
I finished the Badlands Traverse on September 14. It had been a challenging hike – “it’s the Badlands, baby, it ain’t meant to be easy” – but nothing for which I wasn’t prepared.
When I reached White River Visitor Center I felt happy and satisfied, but as much as anything else, I felt grateful. Appreciative that I was able to experience such a unique wilderness environment on foot; from the inside out rather than the outside in. Hiking has always made me feel like that.
“When you rise in the morning,
give thanks for the light, for your life, for your strength.
Give thanks for your food and for the joy of living.
If you see no reason to give thanks, the fault lies in yourself.”
IAQ’s (Infrequently Asked Questions)
How much experience would I need to do this hike?
All joking aside, quite a lot.
I’d only recommend this trip to hikers with good scrambling and route-finding skills, as well as significant off-trail experience in arid environments.
Is there anything you would do differently if you were to traverse the Badlands again?
Now that I know where I can obtain water, I would carry significantly less from the outset. I’d also purchase snacks for second half of the hike at the Scenic Gas Station.
How about route changes?
Overall I was happy with my route choices. A nice balance between rock and prairies. Scrambling and hiking.
Any specific gear recommendations for the Badlands?
- Water: Even with the additional water sources I mention above, aspirants will still want to have at least a six to ten litre H2O carrying capacity (Note: This will vary according to the hiker).
- Umbrella: There is very little in the way of shade in the Badlands. If there was ever a hike that was made for umbrellas, this is it.
- Backpack: Beginning with a total weight of around 20 kg / 44 lbs (i.e. 26 lbs water, 9 lbs food, 9 lbs gear), it was a no brainer to go with an internal frame pack, as opposed to a frameless model.
- Gaiters: Crumbly gullies and buttes. Sandy washes. Mini-cactus laden prairies. Pack some lightweight ankle gaiters.
- Gloves: I recommend bringing a pair of lightweight, durable gloves for the gully scrambles/climbs. Trust me on this one. This is some of the most crumbly terrain I have encountered, and my hands would have been shredded if not for the gloves I was wearing.
Is there a way in which a thru hike of the Badlands could be made easier, for folks that aren’t comfortable with the more technical elements of such a trip (i.e. scrambling, climbing, route finding)?
Yes. You could skirt around most of the rocky, labyrinth-like washes and gullies by sticking primarily to the grasslands. It would be shorter, faster and you would still see some great scenery.
The problem with such a strategy is that you would be observing the coolest sections from the outside looking in, and thereby missing out on much of what makes the Badlands so extraordinary.
In effect you’d be hiking from A to B, just to say you’ve hiked from A to B.
Sort of like going to New Zealand and only hiking the Te Araroa. 😉
And with that sneak preview of an upcoming post, I’ll leave it there……….