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This is the first installment of a new series of posts titled “On the Road,” detailing our adventures during our month-long road trip in Autumn 2016. There’s a lot of material I hope to cover from this adventure, and I hope you enjoy reading about our journey.
If you’ve read the post about our first trip to the Badlands, you might know that I have wanted to return to this beautiful National Park, do some more hiking, and do a little camping. That’s exactly what we set out to do when we started planning our road trip, and I’d call this leg of our journey a success.
We pulled into the Badlands via the Northeast Entrance just before lunch. We were eager to hit the trail, but eating came first. Then we reviewed a map (which is just good practice, whether you need it or not), filled our hydration packs, tied on our boots, and slung our Cotopaxi Luzons onto our backs. Then we got to stepping!
Hiking Notch Trail
Notch Trail is about one and a half miles round trip. It has some challenging moments, but is a moderate hike overall. Be sure to take some water with you. It’s a relatively short hike, but in the summer months it can get up to 116 degrees. The high while we were there on this trip was about 105. Winter temperatures can get down to -40, so unless you’ve made specific preparations and have some experience with cold weather hiking, it may be best to wait for spring.
Starting out at the south end of the Door and Window parking area, follow the reflective posts. These are the trail markers, and as long as you keep them in sight, you’re right as rain. It may sound silly for a such a short trail but you don’t want to get lost in the Badlands, it’s pretty stark out there. Like I said, stick to the trail markers and you’ll be fine.
The trail starts southward, meandering through a canyon. You’ll notice the walls gradually narrowing, and after a little over one half mile, the trail comes to an end. Except for a ladder leading up the side of the canyon.
You’ll have to climb the ladder to continue on the trail. The ladder, constructed of solid wood and steel cable bolted to the canyon wall, has about fifty rungs and is maybe one hundred feet high. It doesn’t lead perfectly vertical, but does get pretty steep in the last ten to twenty feet and you do need to mind your footing. Take your time, and you’ll be up the canyon wall before you know it.
Don’t be a jerk and rush people, or try to run up the wall without using the ladder. Be patient, the trail isn’t going to erode anytime soon, I promise.
Once you’ve climbed up to the next level, head left. The trail, and markers, are easy enough to follow at this point.
Soon you’ll be directed toward the right, in order to avoid a hazardous cliff. It’s a pretty steep drop off, so don’t mess around; head to the right.
Here the trail can get a little tricky; it’s narrow, composed of loose gravel and stone, and there is a one hundred foot drop off to your left. Take your time; don’t rush anyone and don’t let anyone rush you. Don’t try to pass people here.
After this brief but dangerous section, the the trail opens back up into a large ravine and you’ll find your way without any issues. Again, just stick with the markers. This does leave a little room for interpretation; you can scramble over some rocks and boulders, or you can take the path of least resistance.
Eventually, the ravine will narrow a bit and then split into a fork. Follow the trail markers to the right, and start hiking up into the notch.
In a few minutes you’ll come to a cliff. It’s pretty solid, but take care around the edge, it’s a steep drop to the Badlands below. The sweeping overlook includes a glimpse of a different trail below (I think it’s the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail), incredible Badlands landscapes, and miles of surrounding grasslands. It’s worth the hike.
Once you’ve soaked in the view, head back the way you came. But if you’re not quite ready to return to the parking lot and would like to add another half mile to your hike, take the left branch when you get back to that fork in the ravine.
This will lead upward to an opening in a rock wall looking out onto a different section of the Badlands. You’ll pass a cliff on the right, offering its own view, but keep going. We weren’t the only hikers up this way, so you may need to take turns to look out the “window” but I think it’s worth the extra steps and the potential minutes you may need to hang back.
After the additional stretch, head back the way you came. Again, be mindful of the narrow path once you get there, and take care descending the ladder. Many people warned us that they found it more difficult coming down, but I didn’t feel that way. Just take care and get down safe.
After that, it’s a relatively short hike back to the parking lot. From here, there are a few other trails you can jump on if you like. We did a little hiking on some of these when we came on our honeymoon, but not this time. What I really wanted during this trip through the Badlands was a chance to hike Saddle Pass.
Hiking Saddle Pass Trail
This is the hike that we had to bail on during our previous trip to the Badlands. We had been tired and unprepared last time. But not this time. Oh no, this time we were ready.
Saddle Pass is a short trail, only a little over a half mile, give or take, but it’s challenging. It’s steep, much of the terrain crumbles beneath your feet, and it’s difficult to get purchase as you make your way up. At times it’ll feel more like climbing than hiking, so be ready.
The trail is pretty well marked; like on the Notch Trail, just follow the metal posts. Unlike Notch, however, the elevation gain starts pretty quickly and doesn’t stop until you get up top.
The best advice I have for you is to wear good shoes (don’t wear flip flops up this trail), be ready to get dirty (you may need to sit, get on your knees, or lean against stones to get up the trail, or back down), and take your time. If the timing is such that you need to rush, bail on it. You do not want to try to climb down this trail after dark.
At the end of the trail, you’ll climb up onto a flat plain, where Saddle Pass meets the Castle and Medicine Loop Trails. Spend a few moments looking across the plains…
Then turn left, because you’ve got a little more climbing left to do for the best view of the White River Valley.
It looks a bit like Pride Rock, and you’re going to feel like a king once you’re up there. I know I sound like a broken record in this post, but take your time; just assume that there is no sure footing in the Badlands. Slow and steady clamber up, then look back across the plains that greeted you before…
Then look out beyond the trailhead where you started for a breathtaking view of the White River Valley.
We hung out here for awhile. If you’re going to make the hike, you may as well enjoy the view for a longer than a minute or two.
But, as the sun started sinking in the sky, we knew it was time to start scrambling back down the trail. It’s not a whole lot easier going down, so give yourself plenty of time and find as sure of footing as you can.
I’m very happy that we made it all the way up Saddle Pass this time. It’s not an easy hike, but it’s well worth it. Of course, it did wear us out good and proper, so even though we had a few more overlooks to stop at and a few more hours until sunset, our thoughts turned toward setting up camp.
Camping in Badlands National Park
There are three ways to camp in Badlands National Park. The first is at Cedar Pass Campground. Here you’ll be in a designated site, with a shaded picnic table at each site. There are no fire rings as there are no fires in Badlands National Park for any reason.
There are 96 sites available, but they do fill up quickly in the peak season. Here you’ll have access to running water and flush toilets, and a dump station for RVs. You’re near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center as well as the amphitheater, if you care to take in the summer evening programs put on by the National Park Service. There is also easy access to pay showers as well as the Cedar Pass Restaurant.
I can’t speak from experience, as I haven’t stayed at Cedar Pass, but it seems like a nice enough campsite. It seems like pretty standard fare for a designated National Park site, but it does have stellar Badlands views.
There is also the opportunity to camp in the backcountry in the Badlands, which I’m eager to do in the future. We didn’t have time in our schedule for it on this trip, so we compromised by camping at the more primitive Sage Creek Campground.
Sage Creek Campground
If you came into the park via the Northeast Entrance like we did, the turnoff to Sage Creek Campground is past Pinnacles Overlook. Drive past the overlook and keep your eyes peeled; Badlands Loop Road will turn North, but you’re going to turn left onto Sage Creek Rim Road. If you enter the park via Pinnacles Entrance, you’ll take the first right to get there.
The campsite is only about fifteen miles from the turn off, but expect slow going. Unlike the Badlands Loop Road, Sage Creek Rim Road is unpaved and can be a difficult drive, especially after inclement weather. Depending on your vehicle, expect about a half an hour of rough dirt road ahead; keep an eye out for Roberts Prairie Dog Town if you’d like to see an impressive rodent civilization. Prairie dogs are pretty cool little critters.
In about twelve miles, turn left onto the Sage Creek Campground spur road. Two more miles and you’ll pull into the loop that makes up Sage Creek Campground. There is an area set aside for small campers and trailers, as well as an area for horses. If you’re camping in a tent like we did, you’ll set up somewhere in the center field.
Camping at Sage Creek is free, but there are no services except for garbage and a vault toilet. There is no electricity and no water, so make sure you have what you need when you get there. We had plenty of space while we were there, and most of the reviews I’ve read indicate that the place doesn’t usually fill to capacity. If you don’t get there early, you’re probably not going to snag one of the picnic tables, so expect no shade during the day. And remember, there are no fires allowed anywhere in the Badlands.
Most people are out in Sage Creek for the same reason; they want the atmosphere that comes with the more primitive camping area. This means fewer bright lights, greater potential for exposure to wildlife, less noise, and for the most part, a quiet friendliness around the camp. So if you’re going to stay in a place like this, be a good neighbor. You don’t need bright lights and you don’t need to shout across the campsite to one another. Keep your conversations quiet and don’t play loud music. Try to get everything out of your car without having to come back and forth all night long. Don’t use bright lights.
Did I mention don’t use bright lights?
For the record, don’t use bright lights!
After sunset, most of us were enjoying the brilliant night sky. Since there is so little light pollution out this way, the stars are extraordinarily visible. The entire Milky Way will pop; Clarissa saw her first ever shooting star! She also saw her second ever shooting star. We soaked in the night sky in its magnificence, free from the bright lights of civilization.
That is, until some campers pulled in well after dark, shining bright lights everywhere, and shouting at one another.
“This light is problematic,” one guy shouted at the other. “It’s bringing all kinds of bugs over here.” Their ultra-bright LED lantern did draw a lot small insects to the area where they set it on the ground. His compatriot’s solution? Move it farther away from them (and incidentally, closer to us).
“This tent is full of crap! Like, literally full of crap!” The same guy shouted as he set up the tent and started putting his stuff in for the night.
“What do you mean?” his friend questioned.
“Crap. There’s like dirt and leaves everywhere.”
After they got set up, one of them walked over to the outhouse and he must have realized that they hadn’t locked the car, so he shouted across the campsite at his friend; “Alex! Lock the car!”
But Alex didn’t hear him, so he shouted again, “Alex! Alex! Lock the car please!”
“ALEX! LOCK THE CAR!”
I’m not writing about this just to mock or castigate these guys. I’m assuming that they acted not in malice, but rather in ignorance. That’s why I’m telling you about this part of the stay; if you’re new to camping, this will help you avoid the mistakes these fellas made. My advice, as always, is to keep your volume as low as possible, keep your lights as dim as possible, and be respectful of your camp neighbors. If you don’t have a lot of experience camping in group settings, check out my post on Camp Etiquette and it’ll help you learn to be a good camp neighbor.
After an hour or so, Alex and his friend settled in, turned down their lights, and finally quieted down. Not long after, we decided to call it a night. Soon, the coyotes started howling. Alex and his friend whispered nervously. Clarissa giggled at them and dozed off.
I awoke around 2:00 am to a snort and a stomp. I listened intently to a loud exhalation and exaggerated chewing. Bison had wandered into the campsite and were munching on grass near our tent. This might be unnerving to some people; after all, last year, while on our honeymoon, a bison shook our Sportage just by scratching it’s butt on the bumper. What if this bison tried to do the same with our tent? But, I was too sleepy to worry about the “what-if” of a bison scratching its butt on our tent, so I drifted back to sleep listening to the beasts breathing and munching behind us.
We awoke in the morning before the sun crested over the buttes to the East. Bison were still wandering around the camp, but no longer near our tent. This is a common occurrence here; the wildlife has gotten used to our presence, but do remember that these animals are still very wild. Don’t get to close to them, and certainly do not feed them. Bison will charge if they feel threatened, so play it safe and observe from a distance.
We ate a little breakfast and watched the sun rise over the butte. It was beautiful, but quickly disappeared as clouds filled the sky. It was surprisingly cool compared to the previous day, and we put on additional layers as we began to take down our camp.
As we packed up the car, a nearby camper struck up a conversation with us, inquiring about our next destination. I told the woman, who introduced herself as Willie, a traveler from Ontario, that we were on day four of a thirty day road trip. I shared our plans with her, and then she calmly and humbly told me that she was on day forty of her road trip. I was hooked and asked her about her experience; she had toured the Pacific Northwest, drove down the coast through Oregon, Washington, and California, then East through the Black Hills and there she was, on day forty, crossing paths with us in the Badlands.
I can’t express how wonderful it is to chat with people on our travels. You never know who you’re going to meet, and what stories they might have to tell. Willie was a wonderful person with whom we loved having the opportunity to swap stories. If you’re reading this, I hope the rest of your journey went well and that you’re enjoying whatever adventure you’re on now!
Heading back out of the campsite and back towards the Pinnacles Entrance (which would be our exit), we stopped at Robert’s Prairie Dog Town and Hay Butte Overlook for one last view of the Badlands.
Badlands National Park is an amazing place, and we had a good time and a great stay there, and I know that we’ll be back again. When you have the opportunity to visit, I hope you’ll take advantage of it. For the time being, however, we pressed on. We needed hot coffee and to get on the road toward Rapid City to meet up with our friends for adventures in the Black Hills.
Which is where I’ll pick up in the next On the Road post.