South Dakota’s Badlands: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I encountered a whole lot of good, a little taste of bad, and a few days of ugly on my trip through South Dakota’s badlands. I’ll start with the good, which was the Badlands National Park itself.

This park of 244,000 + acres exceeded my expectations. Photos I have seen in the past gave me the impression that I would be driving through some monotone beige rolling hills that undulated out to the horizon. With a name like “Badlands” one expects a certain reputation of being desolate, remote, and uninhabitable, and not entirely pleasing to the eye. That was true to a certain extent, as the panoramic views of the rugged terrain seemed to go on for miles where men dare not tread.. But once I dropped below the “wall,” it became a geological rainbow of fascinating spires and sand sculptures, colorful and delicate in their beauty.

I entered Badlands National Park at the Pinnacles Entrance, just down from my boondock spot on a gorgeous ridge of the Badlands wall. From here, the ragged edge of the escarpment just drops off from the middle of the prairie into miles of geological formations.

This has to rank up there as one of my favorite boondocking spots of all time!

This is my view out the kitchen door…

A view from the View. Can’t be a sleep walker in this boondocking spot!

My view from my bedroom window during a rarely seen sunrise.

The 24 mile scenic drive stretches the length of the park, exiting at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center where one can rejoin Interstate 90 and circle back for a loop. Traveling in this direction, one starts out above the canyons of the badlands with scenic overlooks out across the tops of the formations. As the drive continues, the road drops in elevation until one is at the bottom, now looking up at the giant formations of sedimentary layers overhead. This is a great way to gain perspective of the magnitude of the erosion while following the layers down.

Although it’s a beautiful drive with majestic views right out the car window, as with most “drive through attractions,” it pays to get out of the car and set out on foot to get a feel for the true perspective. Several short hikes like the Door and Window trails explore the natural gaps through the formations and allow one to view the erosion layer by layer.

I enjoyed my time in this national park much more than I had anticipated. Of course, having that “national park view” right outside my door sure didn’t hurt!

The scenic road starts out high, with overlooks across the badlands.

Kiosk explains that much of the sediment was windblown volcanic ash which weathered into clay and turned into rock.

I am crazy about the colors in this part of the badlands.

Soft pastels are so beautiful to study like a pastel painting on canvas.

I can’t decide which photo of the pastel palette I like best, so I am loading them all!

RV rolling down the road gives perspective of this vast area.

It is believed that erosion only began a half a million years ago…

And after another half a million years, they estimate the formations will all have been eroded.

As one drives along the scenic road, the road descends down into the canyon until you are no longer looking down, but up.

Badlands was established as a National Monument in 1939.

It was re-designated as a National Park in 1978.

Along the “Door Trail.”

According to Park brochure, it is considered one of the world’s richest mammal fossil beds.

It also has the largest expanse of protected prairie ecosystem in the NPS.

50% of the park is co-managed with the Oglala Lakota Nation.

Now on to the bad…and I do mean b-a-a-a-a-d! That would be Wall Drug. Apologies to any readers who might be fans of this famous travel icon. As my friend Gayle said, “It’s a rite of passage.” Agreed. I’m just glad I don’t have to pass that way again! Never in my life have I seen so much plastic JUNK of little to no value for sale!

Given that Wall Drug has been in business since 1931, I was expecting some quaint little old fashioned drug store with a character straight out of Archie comic books standing behind the soda fountain hand-making milkshakes. I figured it would have the obligatory teeshirts and trinkets. But what I found annoying was the room after room after room of hokey western gimmicks.

In the Wall Drug “Backyard,” you will find grown men crawling up a step ladder to “mug it up,” waving their hats while sitting astride a giant sized “jackalope” (half rabbit, half antelope) or a bucking bronco. Life-sized paper mache’ robotic musicians yukking it up to western twang that would make more than Tom Dooley hang his head.  Animatronics await beside every doorway to spring into action at the drop of a quarter or three, from penny-crushing Cowpoke Pete to tonic-pushing Dr. Feelgood. And walls lined with a plethora of dead, stuffed wildlife. “Wallcome to Wall Drug.”

Even the donuts were bad. I had long been anticipating one of their famous (or famously advertised) “homemade” donuts with maple frosting that had come highly recommended, only to find they only sell CAKE donuts. That’s not even a donut in my opinion. I bought two and threw the second one in the trash on my way out the door.

I’ve seen Wall Drug bumper stickers on vehicles from coast to coast, so I figured I was in for a special treat of “Americana.” I pulled into one of three giant gravel parking lots big enough to accommodate two million visitors per year, securing the Winnie thinking I would be in there a while…I could have left the engine idling.

Well, here we are at the famous Wall Drug Store!

Git yer cow-chip frisbees while they’re hot…and steaming!

I don’t know why I dislike the “yuk-yuk” western scene like I do…

Dr. Feelgood will tell you all about his special elixir…for a small fee.

More toy guns than I’ve ever seen in a lifetime.

Is it just me, or does this “Cowboys and Indians” fight seem a bit mismatched?

I have no words for the need to own a rabbit head with antlers attached for $119.

Something tells me this isn’t faux fur.

Wall Drug’s claim to fame is “Free Ice Water.” During peak season, they give away an estimated 20,000 glasses per day. I sure wish they would reconsider the plastic…

And finally, the downright “Ugly,” which would be the $1,300 I left behind in Rapid City to replace the Winnie’s thermostat, fan clutch, and replace the broken latch on my driver’s side door. Readers may recall my “limp mode” incident when trying to climb the 7 mile, 7% grade Rabbit Ears Pass out of Steamboat Springs. I knew the temps I had been seeing on the Scan Gauge were not typical, running about 10 degrees hotter than in the past. So it was good to find the culprit.

However, the irony is, I went in to troubleshoot an intermittent “hoovering” sound believed to be coming from the passenger side wheel well, but they couldn’t find it. I still have the sound effect after $500 of added labor costs to test drive and troubleshoot.  Like going to the ER for a sore foot, and coming out with an appendectomy you didn’t know you needed. And $1,300 less in the bank as a result.

Thank goodness I got something in exchange for my investment as Eddie’s Truck Center was kind enough to let me overnight on their lot while the work was being done. And since I arrived late on a Thursday and had to wait over the weekend for parts from Sprinter, I was grateful for the parking privileges for just shy of a week.

My home away from home. When looking up a Sprinter service center, I expected “Eddie’s Truck Center” to be a greasy diesel shop, so was shocked when I arrived. Looks expensive, doesn’t it? 😉

Spending time in Rapid City, however, made me grateful to be rolling again. Chain restaurants, big box stores, and a Cabela’s bigger than the only food store in town, (I don’t count Walmart and Target as “food stores”) it feels too much like the neighboring Texas town where we go to stock up. The biggest thing I could find going on was the AMC Classic movie theater. I respect that some people like that lifestyle, but I am not one of them. And it’s not like I needed a week-long stay to remind me.

Why we can’t have nice places. And they didn’t even have the decency to use a Cabela’s tent!

14 thoughts on “South Dakota’s Badlands: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

  1. An excellent rendition of the good, the bad and the ugly.
    I found your pictures of the badlands to be beautiful as well as fascinating. The west continues to surprise and awe me. Thanks.

  2. Can’t say much to the bad, it is as you say. But the good…those colors…frikkin yeah! We never went to the SD badlands in our many years in the US and I can now see that’s a grand mistake. We never went to Wall Drug either…lucky escape I guess?


  3. Well, we have never been to Wall Drug and now I never plan to. We did visit the badlands in ’06 and they are beautiful and your photos are really fine. You had great light for sure. We can go you a few grand better in the repairs department with our last outing at MB here in Maryland. Hope to catch up to you soon one day!


  4. Umm… Its very clear that you didn’t make any effort at all to explore Rapid City. Let’s start with…. the city has at least 5 large (non-walmart/target) grocery stores, as well as a couple of food co-ops. Downtown has many different kinds of local eateries, from fine dining, to ethnic food choices from Jamaican to Nepalese , all locally owned, and not chains. Rapid City also has a big live music scene, and there is usually never a night that a person can’t find a band playing somewhere in town. There is always something going on it might be a symphony, or it might be a rodeo….but there is always an event if you look.

    Rapid City, is special because a person can buy anything they need, get a great meal, and be on a rock climbing, hiking, caving, or mountain biking route all within 20 minutes of their house. Next time you are stuck somewhere for a week, get away from the interstate and see the place. Or, don’t write about it.

    • Dear “Count Edmond.” My personal blog, so I will write what I want to write about. If you do not like it, you can exercise your right to read what you want to read about. I made it clear that I was there to have repairs done…not tour the city. I did get away from the interstate, drove through downtown at least three times, hunted down the one and only Safeway I could find, went to three movies. It was a mirror image of the town I left behind in Texas. Again, this is my personal blog, and I call it like I see it. If you do not enjoy reading, I certainly respect your reasons for not doing so.

  5. Love your first picture of the sheep, absolutely beautiful! The Badlands are a natural wonder that everyone must see if they are in the area. Wall Drug? Well, lets just say that marketing makes all the difference and is probably a “one and done” for most of the people who stop there.

  6. The Badlands look lovely, the last time I visited I was 11 so my memory is shaky, thanks for taking me back. Wall Drug looks like hell, I cannot understand how places like that stay in business. Dealing with an aging RV that has been heavily used for multiple years is a drag, we’re hoping to find a house and get rid of ours before anything big goes wrong!

  7. Beautiful scenery! I do have one question however; why do you say (at the beginning) the sunrise was rarely seen? Is it usually foggy there?
    And yuk – Wall Drug looks like a place our Buc-ee’s aspires to be. I stopped going to Buc-ee’s 2 years ago because of the crowds & cheese factor. At least their food is decent.
    Sorry about your unexpected bill. Even if expected, that one had to hurt.

    • I am laughing, my dear cousin, because you know I am part of the Stephen and Don trio, whose only sunrises have been on the way home from the party. haha! I have never been to a Buc-ee’s, but I heard they are building a BIG one in Waxahachie, so looks like I’ll get my big chance soon!! 😉

  8. Wow, Suzanne! It’s been at least 25 years since I visited the Badlands. Thanks to your photos and report, the Park is back on the list. Thank you.

  9. I remember feeling the same way about Wall Drug when we visited many years ago. Always love the Badlands! You were so lucky to score such a beautiful spot overlooking them. Beautiful images Suzanne!

  10. Well, I reckon I’ve been reading your blog long enough to quickly figure out what you meant about sunrises being rarely seen. This one was a beauty, though, along with the other photographs of the Badlands. What pretty colors come from dirt and stone! For sure, we share one commonality: cake donuts? No, thanks! Give me a hot dozen melting Krispy Kremes to slide down my throat *any* day! 🙂

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