3 Apr
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Take a Trip: Badlands National Park

view of rock formations in Stronghold Unit Badlands National Park

We visited Badlands National Park for the fourth time this weekend. After several friends mentioned not knowing about the park, which is four hours from our home, I thought it needed some love.

Our first three visits to the park were in the summer months when it’s crowded and hot. A spring visit was much more to our liking. There were no crowds. We didn’t have to circle around for a parking spot at the visitor center or any trailhead. The weather was comfortable in the 50s with white, fluffy clouds dotting the vibrant blue sky. It was an ideal national park visit: hiking, wildlife and scenery for miles.

view from car on Badlands National Park loop road

This weekend wrapped up spring break in our school district. We’d been on a staycation but wanted to do a short road trip. The weather turned rainy and snowy at home late in the week which sealed the deal to run away from home. I’m done with winter and snow. It’s time for sunshine and hiking.

View from Sheep Mountain Table Road in Badlands National Park

Badlands is one of several national park run entities in the Black Hills and surrounding area. Mount Rushmore, Wind Cave, Jewel Cave, Devils Tower and Minuteman Missile National Historic Site are also in the vicinity and all worth a visit. Badlands is a mixture of open prairie and unique rock formations and mounds. The colors of the formations differ depending on the time of day and how the sun is hitting the mounds. Most of the landscape is white with varying shade of brown running through the hills. Several places in the park have vibrant shades of yellow with purple and pink layers throughout. Bison, prairie dogs, mule deer, pronghorn, coyotes and bighorn sheep call the park home.

Hikers walking down Saddle Pass in Badlands National Park

Our longest trail of choice on Saturday was Saddle Pass trail connecting to Castle Trail. Badlands had rain before our visit, and the steep ascent at the beginning of Saddle Pass had us slipping and sliding in the mud up the trail. There were multiple spots where we had to use our hands to aid us keeping us from falling to our knees or rumps into the clay-like mud. By the time we made our way back to the vehicle, the trail had dried and was no longer slick. The mud ensured our children will remember that hike. They’re like mountain goats with their ability to scamper up various terrains.

Boy showing muddy hands from hiking Badlands National Park

The top of Saddle Pass allows for a beautiful view of Badlands from the unique formations to vast expanse of prairie stretching for miles in the distance. It was stunning. Once you reach the top of the pass, the trail levels out through open prairie. There were several smaller formations along the trail and wide cracks intercepting the trail. The burst mode on my camera was heavily used as children jumped over crevices in the ground wanting to catch the perfect photograph.

Brothers hiking castle trail Badlands National Park

A favorite hike in Badlands is Notch Trail, a 1.5 mile trail that meanders through a canyon. Hikers climb up a ladder at one point on the trail which adds to the experience. The trail ends in a notch in the canyon wall giving a sweeping view of the White River Valley. Any trail that has a ladder, tunnel, metal rings or stairs automatically becomes one of our favorite based on uniqueness alone. Those trails are also the ones that give height-fearing me the most issues. Notch Trail doesn’t rank too high on my uneasy scale where heights are concerned. Once at Natural Bridges National Monument I had a slight panic attack complete with tears at the start of a trail. Thankfully, Craig calmed me down, and we hiked the trail which ended up being a fun, slightly nerve-wracking experience. We can do hard things when our children are watching and listening. Notch Trail wasn’t close to panic inducing.

view from car on Sheep Mountain Table Road in Badlands National Park

One of our first tasks when we visit a national park is to talk with a park ranger. I like to ask what his/her favorite part of the park is or favorite hiking trail. We have never been disappointed by following the advice of a ranger, and our experience at Badlands was no different. The ranger, after inquiring if we had a 4-wheel drive, high clearance vehicle, directed us to the Stronghold Unit of the park and the Sheep Mountain Table.

Bighorn sheep in Badlands National Park

I knew following her advice was a good life choice as soon as we came across a herd of bighorn sheep, the most we’ve seen in one location. Bighorn sheep are wildlife unicorns for me. We rarely see them, and it took years of traveling before we finally spotted some in North Dakota.

view of rock formations in Stronghold Unit Badlands National Park

The vistas off the Sheep Mountain Table road were worth the effort of picking our route over ruts on the desolate dirt road. The views there are much different from the North Unit of the park. At several overlooks on the road, the view was reminiscent of Bryce Canyon National Park minus the vibrant red colors. The road less traveled calls to me. I love standing where few people will bother to hike or drive. I’m a sucker for a pretty view.

If you’re planning a Black Hills vacation, I recommend at least a drive through the North Unit of Badlands mixed in with your zip-line adventures and Mount Rushmore viewing.

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