According to its National Park Service brochure, Frank Lloyd Wright visited the Badlands in 1935. He described them as a “mysterious elsewhere—a distant architecture, ethereal….an endless supernatural world…” This gets it exactly right and explains why one million+ people visit this equal blend of grassland and butte each year.
Anytime we saw a lot of cars on the side of the road, we knew that animals had been sighted. Ruth & I saw American bison, Bighorn Sheep, and Black-tailed prairie dogs but not the elusive Black-footed ferret that was thought to be extinct but wasn’t. Two years after the species was declared extinct after the last specimen in captivity died, some were found in Wyoming. In 1985 The US Fish and Wildlife Service rounded up the 18 Black-feets known to exist and 10 years later 36 of them and their kin were released in Badlands National Park. The Badlands Visitor Guide describes them as “one of the world’s rarest mammals”. Badlands literature is full of warnings about co-existing with any wild animals. I think the best advice given is to stay at least 100 feet from them. “Any time an animal reacts to your presence,” it says, “you are too close.”
If you’ve never climbed up and down the Badland’s buttes, hurry there. You have only 500,000 years until they disappear into the grasslands. Erosion is ongoing and every time it rains, which it did while we were there, more sediment is removed from them. They are eroding one inch per year and will eventually cease to exist, I was told by Ranger Emily at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, one of two in the park itself. The other is the White River VC on the Pine Ridge Reservation that is remote and only open seasonally.
There is another visitor center in the area, the National Grasslands that is maintained by the US Forest Service. There are 20 national grasslands in the United States, but this is the only one with a visitor center. Tourists flock to this part of the country because there’s so much to do. Mount Rushmore, The Black Hills, the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, the Devil’s Tower National Park, and some spectacular and dissimilar caves are relatively close to The Badlands.
The Badlands and the surrounding area are so incredibly scenic that several movies have been shot there. North by Northwest, of course, is famous for its Mount Rushmore chase scene. There was even a successful 1973 film called Badlands starring a very young Sissy Spacek whose career is once again rising. The best film I’ve seen so far this year, The Rider, was made here. I asked Emily about it and she told me that it was mostly filmed around Kyle and Kennebec. The rider of the title is a young man with a severe head injury wrestling with the possibility of returning to rodeoing. It’s a small independent movie that stars several members of the same non-acting family. Emily startled me by saying that she is related to them on her mother’s side.
Visiting the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and driving the Badlands Loop Road are essential activities. If you have time, explore more. There are 3 units, 244,000 acres, 8 hiking trails, backcountry camping, and bicycling is allowed on major roads but not park trails. There are countless vistas to see. Ruth & I stopped at every overlook and loved our time in Badlands National Park.