If hiking isn’t your thing, the 32-mile Badlands Scenic Loop drive gives visitors a good lay of the land. With 14 photo-worthy overlooks, the trip took about an hour by car. Had we skipped this, we would have missed one of the strangest natural occurrences in the Badlands. Colorful layers of yellow, orange and pink appear atop rock faces and mounds, creating an alluring color palette against an azure sky. Some of the oldest exposed layers in the park, which appear black, date to the Cretaceous Period, 65 million to 135 million years ago.
Camping is half the fun of visiting the Badlands. For unparalleled views, we chose to stay overnight at Cedar Pass Campground within the park. The expanse of the Badlands’ eroded rock formations lay all around us. In early morning light, the intricate play between highlighted peaks and shadowed ridges gave the landscape a rich contrast. The trade-off: no showers.
After a day of hiking and in desperate need of a good scrub, our second night we transported our weary bodies three minutes down the road to Badlands Interior Campground and its hot showers. There we took refuge in a less conventional means of accommodation: a tepee. An opening in the tepee’s top as well as the lack of a door flap proved unfavorable in maintaining warmth, resulting in a very cold and sleepless night. The trade-off: being in close proximity to what little night life the Badlands have to offer.
The campground sits on the outskirts of the minuscule town of Interior, population 67, which makes for an interesting excursion by day or night. I recommend barhopping at the town’s local watering holes, Wagon Wheel Bar and The Horseshoe, which are right across the street from each other. A subtle rivalry exists between the two similarly decorated establishments; each displays pinned-up dollar bills posing as wallpaper and large canines that double as door greeters. For a deliciously potent cocktail, ask the Horseshoe’s bartender to make you its signature drink: Sex in the Badlands.
South Dakota had captured my imagination. And I learned something. Sometimes it’s not vacationing in the hottest destinations that makes the magic; it’s allowing yourself to be pleasantly surprised by the place where you least expected greatness.