Getting Off the Main Road: The South Dakota Badlands

Storms move across the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.
Storms move across the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.

Story & photos by Tom Croce

Typically when I mention the Badlands of South Dakota, the National Park is the first place that’s comes to mind. That’s quickly followed by a comment that goes something like “I drove through there once.” But the term Badlands has a geological definition that extends far beyond the park boundaries. The Badlands National Park and surrounding Buffalo Gap National Grasslands cover approximately 925 square miles and make up the largest protected mixed grassland prairie in the United States. Although it would take a lifetime to explore all of this vast area, it if definitely worth getting off the main road to exploring some of the more remote areas of the Badlands National Parks South Unit, the surrounding Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, and some of the surrounding small towns.

Storm clouds moving through Badlands National Park.
Storm clouds moving through Badlands National Park.

The Badlands of South Dakota as we know them today began forming about 500,000 years ago from what was the flood plain of the streams and rivers in the area. Gradually the Cheyenne River captured these smaller streams and rivers and started the process of erosion that created the dramatic land scape that we see today. The erosion of the high plateau still occurs today, and it’s estimated that the upper plateau will completely erode away in about another 500,000 years. A fairly short lifespan in geological terms.

The weather in the badlands is variable and unpredictable with sudden and dramatic changes. It is common for storms to develop and blow through very quickly. Averaging only 16 inches of precipitation per year the badlands is a semi-arid climate with little vegetation, most of which are mixed prairie grasses and wildflowers with a few trees scattered along river banks. It’s the combination of the rugged landscape and harsh climate that earned this area the name Badlands. The name is believed to have come from the Lakota people who were the first to call them “mako sica” or “land bad” and later French-Canadian fur trappers referred to it as “les mauvais terres pour traverse,” or “bad lands to travel through.”

Getting off the trail to explore the unique land formations.
Getting off the trail to explore the unique land formations.

What makes the Badlands mako sica, is also its great appeal. It is like no other place! “What I saw gave me an indescribable sense of mysterious elsewhere – a distant architectural, ethereal, an endless supernatural world, more spiritual than earth but created out of it”. Frank Lloyd Wright

The main road through the park offers many great opportunities to view and photograph the sharp ridges, buttes and pinnacles of the wall. But to truly experience the badlands one needs to get off the main road and explore on foot. There are several designated hiking trails within the National Park. For the more adventurous, the South unit of park offers a different experience, Cuny Table, Sheep Mountain Table, Red Shirt Table, and Cedar Butte are all located within the south unit of The Badlands National Park. Some areas are inaccessible without a high clearance 4 wheel drive vehicle and are pretty remote, but all have breathtaking views.. Be sure to check in with the range stations to get information on road conditions before you head out.

The abandoned structures in the town of Owanka.
The abandoned structures in the town of Owanka.

An often overlooked area is the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. An Immense grassland prairie with seemingly endless horizons and big skies. Snow melt and spring rain can create small lakes and wetlands in the low areas of the prairie and provide some very unique photo opportunities. Before heading into the prairie make a stop at The National Grasslands Visitor Center in Wall to get a map. The rangers are extremely knowledgeable with up to date information on the road conditions.

There are also a number of small towns well worth the trip. To the North of the park is the town of Cottonwood. The town is located a few miles north of Interstate 90 near the east entrance to the Badlands National Park. The highway sign for Cottonwood lists the population at 12, so if you are looking for remnants of a decaying town of the Great Plains, Cottonwood will not disappoint. About 15 mile west of Wall and located along the Cheyenne River is the small town of Wasta. The grain elevator, visible from I-90, is the main attraction but don’t skip the rest of the town. There are several old and run down buildings that make very interesting subjects. Perhaps one of the more interesting places is located about 15 miles to the southwest of Wasta. Owanka, now mostly a ghost town (one family still resides there), was first settled in 1888. The name was derived from the Sioux, meaning “good campground”. You can find a wonderful iconic wood grain elevator, aka the cathedral of the prairie, as well as a couple other decaying structures nestled among the rolling hills of the great plains.

Grain Silo in Cottonwood, SD.
Grain Silo in Cottonwood, SD.

Getting off the main roads and exploring some of the more remote areas of the Badlands will provide you with ample opportunities to make some great photographs.

Tom Croce was born in Cleveland and currently resides in Lebanon, Ohio. He works with all the compositional elements—line, form, texture, light, and shadow—to create his award winning nature and wildlife images. He believes that photography begins with the act of seeing. It is the art of noticing and seeing the beauty in nature and then capturing that moment in time, through the lens. See more of his work at tomcroce.com.