While living in Rapid City in the Black Hills of South Dakota, I was often asked for advice on where to go and what to do. When I mention Badlands National Park, people would silently hesitate and usually ignore the advice. Sadly, they missed an amazing, unique U.S. treasure. The name must give it a bad rap.
The Badlands can be an unforgiving place. When it rains, the water rushes fast down into the caverns, creating flash floods in the valleys. Winters are cold with little protection from wind, and the summers are dangerously hot and dry.
However, the rugged beauty of the park shines in the springtime when fresh emerald green mixed-grass prairie covers the valley bordering massive pale spikey hills that literally glow during a full moon. Here are a few more reasons why I love visiting the park in the spring.
1. Fewer Crowds
Every year, the nearby Black Hills area of South Dakota draws millions of visitors who find their way to the Badlands as a stopover off Interstate 20. Many arrive after the school year ends, so spring is the best time to take advantage of fewer crowds, especially at the visitor centers and campgrounds.
The Ben Reifel Visitor Center
The North Unit is the largest of two visitor centers and a must-stop to learn about the park’s history, amazing features, and recommended hikes for the day and to browse a well-stocked bookstore. Spring is the best time for a front seat to watch the painstaking work of cleaning fossils at the Fossil Preparation Lab in the basement.
Cedar Pass Lodge & Campground
Right next door is the Cedar Pass Lodge and café, which is extremely crowded in the summer. New eco-friendly cabins were recently built. The campground is suitable for tents and RVs but has no shade, meaning it’s much more comfortable in the spring. The very nice café has a family budget menu of sandwiches, Sioux tacos, and Junior Ranger options such as hot dogs.
White River Visitor Center
The White River Visitor Center in the South Unit of the park is only open in the spring, summer, and fall. Here, maps and Park Rangers tell the park’s story. There are no other services, which leaves Rangers with more time to chat and give advice, such as where the endangered bighorn sheep are grazing.
2. More Parking At Scenic Viewpoints
There are only two main roads in and out of this amazing place, the Badlands Loop Road and Sage Creek Rim Road. Much of the beauty of this park can be seen from a vehicle, and increased summer traffic equates to lots of vehicles driving slowly. Scenic view stopping points — perfect places to take a break, snap photos, or find a hiking trailhead — are scattered along the routes, but the lots are small and fill up fast.
3. Cooler Weather
Variable and unpredictable, the weather in the Badlands ranges from 116 degrees F down to minus 40 degrees F throughout the year. The summers are usually not only hot but dry with occasional thunderstorms with hail. South Dakota winters could drop up to 24 inches of snow. The Badlands is a beautiful place in the winter, but spring is most reliable for warm/cool weather that’s easily enjoyed in layered clothing.
4. Photography Heaven
Sunrises and sunsets are spectacular when a golden sun streaked with red literally turns the canyon the color of copper. Photographers prefer quiet and fewer visitors to get the perfect shot and have their best opportunities in the Badlands during the spring and fall seasons.
Pro Tip: For sunrises, choose the Big Badlands Overlook, the Door Trail, or the Panorama Point just west of Bigfoot Pass where the first rays of light hit pinnacles facing east. For a sunset, park staff recommend the Pinnacles Overlook, Conata Basin Overlook, Bigfoot Pass picnic area, or a walk along the Castle Trail.
5. Wildflowers In Bloom
In stark contrast to the white-washed canyon wall is the stretch of soft mixed-grass prairies flowing like rivers between canyons. Melting snow in the spring turns the waving tall prairie grasses dark green, and if you stop and look closer, tiny yellow, pink, and blue wildflowers sprout into action, aiming for the sun. They will shrink away in the summer’s harsh sun and lack of rain, but never die, returning each spring.
6. Wildlife Is Easier To Spot
Enduring searing hot summers and frigid cold winters are an inhospitable environment not for the weak, and one might think few animals live in the Badlands. But look closely, and American bison, prairie dogs, black-footed ferret, bighorn sheep, deer, coyotes, swift fox, bobcats, and pronghorn, plus 206 species of birds are just a few of the iconic animals that have cunning solutions to survive in this park. They are easier to find in the spring when they gorge on fresh grasses and insects after a tough winter.
My favorite are the black-tailed prairie dogs, sometimes called the Pipsqueaks of the Prairie, which create burrows called prairie dog towns all over the park. Over 400 plant species are found in Badlands National Park; however, grasses dominate the landscape in the spring. Western wheatgrass can grow up to 3 feet tall in the summer months, hiding prairie dog towns. Do not miss Robert’s Prairie Dog Town on the Badlands Loop Road or the opportunity to learn more about these adorable creatures at the visitor centers.
7. Wildlife Babies Abound
During a Badlands trip I took in early May one year, I saw bighorn sheep lambs with watchful mothers close by, hanging out along roads. The bighorns were almost exterminated by hunters and were reintroduced in the 1960s. The Badlands is an important and successful recovery program.
Bison roam in the distance with calves frolicking in the spring sunshine. Prairie dogs are quite noisy in the spring, trading warning “barks” between each other because babies are nesting in their burrows.
8. Hike With Your Dog
Pets are not allowed on national park trails, but the Badlands has a nice alternative. In and around the park are scenic back roads that allow dogs, providing an opportunity to hike with your dog. A popular path is the Old Northeast Road just north of Cedar Pass. However, it is highly recommended that you take your dog on this route only in the spring. These gravel roads get extremely hot in the summer, heating the rocks to a dangerous degree for pet paws.
9. Amazing Stargazing
Badlands is surrounded by a rural area. The closest town is Interior with its population of around 100 people. As a result, there is minimal light pollution, and the stars are brilliant most of the year. One year when I was on the board of directors for the nearby Rapid City-Japanese Sister City organization, I took a small group of visiting Japanese students to camp overnight at Badlands. We attended one of the ranger-led Evening Programs and Night Sky Viewings, and the students were mesmerized by how close the stars seemed to be. Their story is retold still today, almost 30 years later.
10. Unusual Full Moon Experience
Note that the stars will be much harder to see on a night with a full moon. That said, I highly recommend experiencing this amazing park in a whole new way on these nights. The canyon walls shine in bright moonlight, and the park eerily resembles being on the moon. The cool spring evenings are the most comfortable, enticing motorcycle groups for slow late-night rides through the Badlands. Hikers are not allowed on the trails because of rattlesnakes, but many drive to their favorite scenic viewpoint for remarkable photographs.
The name Badlands derives from the Lakota people, who lived in the area for hundreds of years and called the area mako sica, which translates to “bad lands.” French fur trappers trading with the Lakota agreed and passed along to those who followed the message that the area was “bad lands to travel across.”
In days of horse and wagon travel, the point was well made. Many parts of the Badlands are not mountains, but deadly hidden caverns in what appears to be a prairie that goes on forever.
Considered to be the birthplace of vertebrate paleontology in the American West, fossils that are over 20 million years old have been found in the South Dakota Badlands. Early specimens found by the Oglala Lakota Nation people are held at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Pro Tip: For more information, be sure to listen to the “Good Rangers, Bad Lands” podcast.
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