Don’t let the name Badlands deter you from visiting this fascinating area. Badlands National Park was first called “mako sica,” or “land bad,” by the native Lakota people. Resembling a giant sandcastle, the 244,000-acre park is a must-visit for photographers who will delight in nature’s artistry.
The park is also a hiker’s paradise, offering trails ranging from the accessible quarter-mile boardwalk Fossil Exhibit Trail to a 10-mile trek. The easy, accessible Door Trail offers a three-quarters of a mile round trip boardwalk path with views of the Badland's unique scenery. But it also gives hikers a surprise bonus. When the maintained trail ends, hikers can choose to let the adventure continue. Hikers are permitted to venture beyond the end of the trail. Since the park’s formations are naturally changing due to erosion, hikers are allowed to wander off the trails. Footprints will disappear as soon as it rains.
Off-trail adventuring lets the hiker become immersed in the environment and see some odd geological sights in a more intimate setting. There’s “popcorn soil,” also named “popcorn rock,” created from bentonite, a clay and volcanic ash mixture that expands 20 times in size when it gets wet. Shrinking as it dries, the unusual soil crunches strangely under a hiker’s boot. There are also armored mud balls naturally made by rainwater pushing mud through a wash, which gathers pebbles as it rolls the mixture into balls.
Off-trail hikers should bring a GPS and plenty of water. Be prepared for otherworldly scenery, explained in a quote at the trailhead by John Madson, “It’s an improbable kind of place, looking like the set of a science-fiction movie…”