Badlands Loop Road is the only through artery in Badlands National Park, connecting the two main entrances and campgrounds. It is a meandering route along ridges and down into valleys, providing outstanding views of both the geology and animal life of the park.
A hiking purist might disdain what on the surface appears to be a “driving tour” of a national park, but the scenic Loop Rood is more than that. Not only does the route expose visitors of all abilities to the many animals, vistas, and colorful rock formations that the Badlands have to offer, but with the use of pull offs, parking lots, and trailheads along the way, it allows a patron to embed themselves more deeply into the landscape, if they desire to.
It was this type of experience that enticed us to hike the strenuous Saddle Pass Trail that we blogged about a couple weeks ago.
Similar opportunities were offered up throughout the drive, such as at this pull off, which led to an unofficial unnamed trail to the base of the butte.
Badlands National Park has an “open terrain” policy allowing hikers to roam just about anywhere they want to go. There were also more formal destinations with named overlooks.
People could enjoy the views from their cars, an overlook near the parking lot, or they could wander out a ridge to have a more hands on experience and perhaps even better views. Ellen and I did that here to appreciate the White River Valley, one of two rivers whose erosive forces helped shape the Badlands.
Another example of the opportunities for an immersive experience would be this long boardwalk that takes you across a prairie to a viewing platform that overlooked an expansive prairie dog town.
This also allowed us to appreciate the simple beauty of the native Common Sunflower.
The drive itself, however, is stunning with beauty out every window. Heading west from the Cedar Pass area, early in the drive, the landscape featured the striated barren geology. The road in this area tended to be a little more heavily trafficked.
Midway through the drive, the vehicles were less numerous and at times it felt that we had the place to ourselves. Here we can see the road stretching out in front of us, virtually uninhabited for miles.
After crossing the midpoint of the drive, the soils harbored expansive mixed grass prairies, but the vastness remained.
Near this location we settled into the Conata Picnic Area for lunch. Here we found these interesting, simple, but innovative shelters designed to shield the visitors from the midday sun.
Over lunch we enjoyed up close views of the landscape including some sod plateaus,
and got our first good look at the yellow pigmented soils, seen here supporting a pull over location in the distance.
Heading west from the picnic area, we became fully immersed in the yellow valleys that really appear to be something out of the Wizard of Oz or the movie Dune.
In retrospect, I regret that we did not spend some time on the unofficial footpaths noted in the above photos.
Soon Loop Road dropped down into the valley hosting the yellow mounds, allowing us to enjoy them from a different perspective.
The yellow soil is actually the bleached out blue-black shale layer, representing the oldest sediment from when the Badlands region was covered by an inland sea, as discussed in a previous post.
The further west we headed, in general terms, the more abundant plant life we saw. This probably reflects locations with increased soil moisture; enough to support tree life. The trees, Rocky Mountain Junipers, typically arose from small ravines draining watersheds. The yellow flowering plant in the photos is Rubber Rabbitbush, and the grey leafed shrub is a Sage plant (“sagebrush”).
And of course, frequently the stars of the scenic drive are the animals that call the Badlands home. The title photo, and the one below, are from a herd of Bighorn Sheep that we encountered in the Cedar Lodge area. Interestingly there were 6 males and 1 female.
Later in the day we came upon a couple groups of females (ewes), that also included some babies.
Unfortunately, as explained to us by a park ranger, the Bighorn Sheep population in the Badlands has declined 90 percent over the last 2 decades, due to a highly contagious and lethal pneumonia. This die off has also been seen in other localities in the western US and Canada.
One of the most popular sightings in the Badlands are the Prairie Dogs, and we did in fact see them in multiple locations. Some times you see the Prairie Dog town but do not see any active animals.
Other times, you will see the towns teeming with activity.
What you notice is how the Prairie Dogs build up their mounds and clear away vegetation from their homes to allow for good visibility. They are on the menu for many carnivores including foxes, coyotes, black footed ferrets, and birds of prey, and being alert is a matter of life and death. Here we have several photos of the Prairie Dogs on the lookout.
It was interesting listening to them communicate with their chirping vocalizations as heard in this video. This video was actually taken about 2 miles outside the park on another day, as the roar of the wind on the day of our driving tour drowned out the recording of the chirping of the Prairie Dogs. The other sound noted is the wind on this still somewhat breezy day.
Although they are rodents, Prairie Dogs have marketed themselves successfully, such that people overlook that classification which normally would trigger an aversion. They do have a “cuteness” factor.
One of the iconic species of the Badlands is the Bison, or American Buffalo. In 1963 Bison were reintroduced to the park with a herd of 50 animals. Today there are over 1000 Bison roaming free over 60,000 acres of park land. This herd is managed, along with herds at multiple other locations, to insure genetic diversity. It is also a source for re-population of other public lands and Indian Tribal lands. In these photos you see fencing which is in place to separate the Bison from neighboring cattle farms that border the northern boundary of the park.
Unfortunately the Bison were never near the road on this day.
This trip was the second time that we saw the Pronghorn Antelope, the only antelope in North America. In the Badlands National Park they were quite numerous, and not infrequently seen in association with Prairie Dog towns.
The final large mammal seen, but only from a distance, were these Mule Deer that were viewed from the Burns Basin Overlook.
And lastly, the Western Meadowlark, who sings what has been called “the song of the prairie”, which many describe as sounding like a flute.
In summary, a drive on the scenic Badlands Loop Road is a great experience. It exposes everyone to the beautiful landscapes of the Badlands National Park, but also offers up unique hikes to those who want to venture away from the asphalt and into the dramatic terrain. In addition, the animals of the park have become accustomed to the traffic and allow viewing at reasonably close distance.
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Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns and Ellen Burns. Video by Ellen Burns.
Location – Interior, South Dakota
Parking – Asphalt lots all along Badlands Loop Road.
Facilities – Yes
Trail Conditions – The formal and informal trails off the road are bare clay and loose gravel.
Print Map Link – None. There is a good pamphlet of all the official trails in the Badlands, available outside the Visitor Center.
Benches – At some of the stops along the route.
Picnic Tables – At designated picnic areas along the route.
Kids – Will love the frequent opportunities to get out of the car for the scenery as well as searching for the animals in the landscape.
Dogs – Prohibited