Badlands: Gateway to the West

After covering 800 miles of flat prairie land from Milwaukee, the Badlands come up on the horizon out of nowhere like a strange fata morgana. They’re glorious. Approaching them, we felt like we were crossing an invisible gateway into that mythical half of the continent collectively referred to as the west.

Traveling without time constraints or an itinerary is liberating, but also presents a lot of unforeseen challenges. Of course, adapting and improvising is the name of the game and not every possible scenario can be planned for. So sometimes, you just have to go for it. That usually means going with the flow and relying on a bit of luck when things don’t turn out how you’d hoped or expected.

Naively thinking it unnecessary, we didn’t secure a campsite at Badlands National Park beforehand and when we arrived, there were no vacancies. In the moment, this was a real conundrum since there aren’t any neighborhoods or city streets within at least a few tens of miles to stealth camp in. Also, being a desert, the park itself doesn’t offer much cover for hidden drives or any other type of secluded spot to exist. Furthermore, having no cell service and arriving in the middle of the week presented the problem of having to scavenge for wifi every day to work if we decided to chance it on the side of the road.

So, what’s a van full of travelers in a strange land to do?

Well, just a ways down the road we were fortunate enough to slip into the last available spot at Badlands Interior Motel & Campground In our opinion, this campground seemed like the cozier of the two and was less expensive, so everything worked out. The owners, Rick & Dawn Tilson were also pretty rad, and it seemed appropriate in this part of the country to stay with some nice small town folks. Their campground has tent, RV, and teepee sites as well as a motel. The view from the campground is unbeatable and the pancake breakfast made with their 100-year-old sourdough (first brought into camp on a covered wagon) is probably a once in a life time experience.

View from our campsite at the Badlands Interior Motor Inn & Campground
View from our camp site
English bulldog Molly Meatball keeping at badlands national park camp site
Adventure/guard dog… Keeping an eye on things

We stayed a long weekend in the Badlands and hiked all of their trails. We hadn’t done much hiking at this point in our trip but we’re both in decent shape, so despite some intimidation at the sound of “18 miles” of hiking, it was all pretty easy going — quite mild compared to most of the trails we’ve done since with views of a caliber you usually have to work a lot harder for.

Our first day, we started with Medicine Root Loop (which is 4 miles). Realizing that the trailheads to all the shorter trails were in close proximity to one another, we went ahead and knocked out most of the smaller trails that same afternoon. This included Door Trail (0.75 miles), Window Trail (0.25 miles), Notch Trail (1.5 miles), Cliff Shelf (.5 miles), and Fossil Exhibit Trail (.25 miles) for a total of 7.25 miles.

Kyle on Badlands National Park Notch trail South Dakota
Kyle on Notch trail
Badlands National Park Hawk Bird In front of blue sky
A Badlands local

Back at the camp site, we cooked dinner while watching the sunset ignite the Badlands’ sand colored mountains with fiery colors. The tee pees on the property made for some authentic seeming finishing touches, even if they were covered with canvas instead of buffalo hide. After dark, we stepped out of the van for a bathroom break when we were greeted by the most beautiful thing either of us had laid our eyes on at this point on our journey. The Milky Way. There it was, like it had been hung right over our heads. We both stood there in silence just staring up. The sky that night was truly magical and Kate may have even shed a tear in awe of its immense power… Truly unforgettable.

teepees badlands national park Badlands Interior Motel & Campground
Canvas (not buffalo hide) teepees
Blue 1988 Ford Econoline E-150 by campfire light
The campfire that died out to reveal the most epic night sky EVER

The following morning, we woke up feeling energized, ate a mean cowboy breakfast at the campground diner and headed out to conquer the last trail in the Badlands. At 10 miles, Castle Trail is the longest trail in the park. As we neared the end of this winding trail, the weather shifted and the winds started to get more and more powerful. Kate had already had a spill that afternoon and didn’t really enjoy getting pushed and pulled by Mother Nature. With Kyle leading the way, we finally made it back to the safety of Morty and the love of Miss Meatball.

Castle trail badlands national park south dakota
A view from Castle trail

Kate's scraped arm at badlands national park south dakota castle trail
Turns out the Badlands aren’t good for climbing

a view from castle trail in badlands national park south dakota

That evening back at the campsite, everyone hid from the elements in whatever they were calling home at the moment. Its astonishing how quickly you can adapt to a space. Only a little over a month in and the van had already become our home, our sanctuary from the good, the bad(lands), and the ugly.

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