Share |

Off-Trail in the Badlands

May 6, 2020

Explorers who venture past the White River Overlook are treated to varied landscapes and wildlife.

The White River Overlook is one of those panoramic pull-offs on the Badlands Loop Road. You stop and say, "that's cool," and it's off to Wall Drug to buy a stuffed jackalope (make sure to check out the dining room's awesome Western art collection).

But what if you could be down there, in that otherworldly-looking place? You can! There's no permit required for backcountry hiking or camping in the Badlands. You don't even have to hang glide off the Badlands Wall, though that would be pretty epic in a slightly 80's kind of way (and might require a permit). There are passes in the Wall where you can just walk right in.

One obstacle you will not contend with is the White River itself, about 6 miles south of the White River Overlook. (The only place that the White River actually runs through Badlands National Park is in a small corner of the South Unit, near the seasonally opened White River Visitor Center).

A potential point of entry is from a gravel road that runs between Interior and the Loop Road. From here you can walk along the south side of the Wall, among freestanding sedimentary temples, as the country flattens riverward. We parked at a pull off at the southern park boundary and walked northeast across the prairie toward The Castles formation dominating the northern horizon. Early spring is auspicious for crossing this country, when the snow is melted, and tender chutes of cool-season grass are just beginning to burst through the still-matted brown meadow. Each footstep is freer, and snakes have less camo.

Drawing closer to The Castles — one of those appropriately Gothic formations with spindly spires — you can hew close to the edge of the Wall. Or you can choose a passage into the Wall. Some drainages trace a climbable path to the summit, while others narrow until impassable or dead end at a steep cliff face. Gully walking through claustrophobic canyons can get muddy, though; most hikers may prefer to thread the periphery of the Wall and its outer islands.

There are little worlds in the labyrinth. A chorus frog croons from inside its tiny pond among straw and cracked alkali. How did it find this isolated place and how can it ever get out? Imagine hopping around on hot rocks in skin like a sausage casing, dodging owls and rattlers, searching for a brackish, lonely puddle.

Another approach to the White River Underlook is from Big Foot Pass. Park by that overlook and walk the road to the bottom, and you can skip the prairie prologue and slip between rainbow mounds right onto the fractal crust. At twilight, the white alkali flats glow like the sidewalk tiles beneath Michael Jackson's feet in the video for "Billie Jean."

We threaded a path through the grottoes at Big Foot Pass and spotted a porcupine browsing beneath a purple sky, a short-eared owl wrapping up the evening hunt, and a deer sentry gracefully keeping watch from a hogback butte. This is the recommended route. From here, you can hike southeast along the edge of the Wall and into the open. The Wall stretches southward in a pincerlike movement from the White River Overlook, a horseshoe-bay you can trace as you circle back, contemplating the unique Badlands geometry etched by sun and wind.

Michael Zimny is a content producer for South Dakota Public Broadcasting and is based in Rapid City. He blogs for SDPB and contributes columns to the South Dakota Magazine website.


12:29 pm - Tue, May 12 2020
Roger Myers said:

Thanks for the article.. I'm from Chamberlain originally.
After my Dad retired from USDA, he bought a used pickup camper.
and bought a tumbler and would spend time in the badlands looking for agates and semi presious stones. Would have appreciated a map. But Google Maps and other will work, but I'll need to switch back and forth.

My grandson found an large fossil. But by the time we reported officially, the summer hires were gone for the fall. We never heard back from them, but hope someone didn't dig it up and sell it.

Share your thoughts, post a comment to this story:

Your Name:
Your Email Address:  
Your Website:
2000 characters remaining
Web Design by Buildable