When I recently listed out the charms of South Dakota, I left out #8: Badlands National Park. It was our crown jewel visit in the state. This park offered a landscape so contrasting to much of its prairie surroundings. Spires of rock spring up from the earth like an ancient city weathered by time. Time, it seems, is what makes this park so unique.
Enter Badlands to discover layers of color stacked high over millions of years. Within these layers lay clues to our planet’s past, when seas and then swamps once covered these arid lands. The richest sources of Oligocene mammal fossils are found here, with some dating back to 35 million years ago.
Natural history aside, the aura of this place is breathtaking in its severity. Winds whisper like ghosts from the past, and dramatic skies deepen the mystery of the park’s quiet beauty. Only cars and traffic break the spell here, where bighorn sheep often roam into the roads, as well as bison. But that can’t be helped – how else can we enter this park? A giant natural wall cutting through the lands is what contributed to the name, badlands. All humans who frequented the area – from natives to traders – agreed: these lands are bad.
Yet there is such art here in the stonework and cliff faces.
As she has in nearby Wind Cave, mother nature sculpted here with her finest tools. Castle Trail, Saddle Pass, and many other wilderness paths invite visitors to marvel at the bizarre features at every corner. We crossed through a field of rocks strewn about as if burned-out stars dropped from the heavens. Natural tables jutted up from the ground, while towers of rock looked like giant pillars of wet sand dripped from the sky. Painted above all, the sun both showered heat and hid behind foreboding clouds, only to break through each evening to bathe the horizon in swathes of vibrant watercolor.
We saw more stars than ever before above our campsite at Sage Creek Campground. That place alone was its own gallery featuring man-made cairns on top a nearby hillside, sage brush wafting scent from the fields around, and countless spider webs woven between dew covered grasses.
The best art of all: Wildlife
The true magic came from the wildlife surrounding us. The coyote cried out here more so than in any park yet along our journey, bison were fewer but still abundant, prairie dogs peeked out ever so persistently, and bighorn sheep guided their young not far from view.
But it was the bighorn who captured our hearts in this park. We had the rare opportunity of coming close to one along Castle Trail as he munched with a frenzy from the very grasses hiding him from view. Nearly. We spent a good 20 minutes taking his portrait – after asking permission of course – so it comes as no surprise to see him star in our latest Centennial Poster.
We captured both the spirit of the Badlands geologic history and wildlife in this print, and adorned it all with typography reminiscent of days long past. We hope you’ll check it out in the shop: Hike & Draw.
#11 Centennial Poster Complete: Chapter 2 Begins
Though Badlands captured our imaginations, we were ready to end the first epic chapter of our quest to visit and illustrate all 59 natural national parks. You see, we’ve officially left the Wild West for now. Check out our route to see where we currently are, and remember to get in touch if we’re getting close to your neck of the woods!