Go West: Buttes and Prairie

Traveling, Camping and Hiking My Way Westward

Brown grass with a narrow, worn trail fills the foreground of the image. Further in the distance rolling hills, dotted with trees go to the horizon. A blue sky with wispy clouds is above it all.

#50 of my 2023 52 Hike Challenge

Trail/Park: Badlands National Park (Lakota: Makȟóšiča ) 

This travel, hike and camping took place on the traditional territory of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, Yankton, Tséstho’e (Cheyenne), and Mnicoujou who have stewarded this land for more than 5,000 years. I respect the histories, languages and cultures of these peoples, whose presence continues to enrich our vibrant and changing communities. Join me in learning more about the tribes and these lands, by following the links provided.

A gray sky filled with clouds is reflected in the Lake Vermillion Reserviour looking from the shore. Trees line the shore to the left and pinkish rocks are at the front of the photo.

Coffee and Corn

There is something I find so wonderful about waking up in the quiet of a campground in chilly weather. The snug warmth of a sleeping bag or my camper that keeps me lingering there until either the call of nature, the sounds of nearby campers or needing to get moving to my next place. It feels like a luxury. Eventually I reluctantly give into whatever is driving me to get up. Today it was my excitement for my next stop, Badlands National Park.

Each day lately I’ve been taking about 10 minutes to meditate before getting up. I listen to a guided meditation as I ease myself into the day. Easing out of the camper, I dug out my breakfast and coffee from the cooler and car, listening to dance music in the hope I would be inspired to keep moving. Hitching up the camper, I took a few minutes to give the campsite a look over for any trash and then slowly made my way along the lakeshore and back to the interstate.

Again, the miles rolled by with the clouds slowly giving way to bright blue skies. As I traveled along I-90 it wasn’t long before the signs for Wall and Rapid City, SD both several hundred miles ahead. Eventually signs for Fire House Brewing accompanied by vintage fire trucks became part of the changing scenery as well. It reminded me of the trip my son and I took on this same route many years earlier, which had included a stop at Fire House for food. I wondered how much they had invested in the vintage fire trucks as part of their advertising. Ah South Dakota, land of quirky roadside sights all designed to encourage folks to swing by instead of driving right through.

My first stop of the day was in Mitchel, SD at the Corn Palace to see the 2023 murals. It’s one of those kitschy roadside places which is both weird and wonderful. I mean who would ever think of covering the outside of a huge auditorium with murals made of crops like corn? Nothing says rural America like seed art on a grand scale. It’s genius. Genuis started in 1892. While sections of the corn were missing as the murals were a year old thanks to the ongoing drought, it was interesting to see the markings for which varieties would go where marked like a paint by numbers project.

Prairie Dogs and Coyotes

Before I knew it, I’d reached the Cactus Flats, SD exit. I’d head south, stopping at The Badlands Ranch Store to see the prairie dogs, including the huge sculpture of one I’d found on my gazetteer while preparing for my 2022 trip west. It’s yet another of the many slightly nutty things you can find along I-90, deposited along the route as ways to get folks to stop. I’d entered what I refer to as the land of the prairie dog, because, well, they are everywhere. If you have time at this exit you can also check out the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site too. A fascinating look at the Cold War era nuclear missile silos hidden in plain site on the vast fields of South Dakota.

What I was most looking forward to was just past the giant prairie dog. Badlands National Park holds a special place in my heart. On that trip west with my son, we made the decision to camp at the remote Sage Creek Campground on the western end of the park. I fell in love and have been dreaming of going back for years in the fall, or even winter. The time had finally come. But first I’d need to check to make sure the camp roads were passable and make the drive from Cactus Flats toward the Visitor Center and on past Interior and near Scenic to enter the campground from the south. I’d picked this route over the northern Rim Road based on my previous experience, wanting to enter the campground with fewer elevation changes and less potential traffic on the unpaved road. Before leaving the entrance gate, I confirmed the campground had dried out from the heavy rain which had fallen in the days ahead of my arrival. Getting stuck with a car, much less my camper was not high on my list of desired Type 2* fun. I was grateful to learn the road and campground were dry.

The drive into the campground was just what I’d hoped. Under the clear skies I could see for miles. The spires, buttes and surrounding fields were just starting their fall transformation. Turning into the campground I was thrilled to find I was one of a few campers who had arrived in the late afternoon. I had my choice of spots, first taking one near where I’d camped before, but soon realizing a flatter spot would be better and moving to another. In the end I realized no spot around the campgrounds’ main, circular area was level, giving me an opportunity to use the levelers for the first time, which proved much easier than I expected.

*Type 2 Fun is the kind of experience where it's not an enjoyable experience in the moment but is fun to talk about after.

With the camper situated and no bison in sight, I took one of the trails leading up a nearby hill and wrapping around back to the campground about a half mile away. The hike gave me a wonderful view of the area around the campground. As I descended the trail from the top of the hill, I found a section of trail that was muddy with deep hoof prints filled with water. I couldn’t tell if they had been made by horses or bison, they were so deep. I was grateful the road and campground had dried out because if it hadn’t I would have been dealing with similar conditions on my drive in.

On my way back to camp I stopped to chat with the couple parked next to me. As I approached the camper, I noticed one of them was watching a coyote cross the entrance road. We watched it slowly make its way into the wash nearby and disappear. It was the first time I’d ever seen one in the wild leaving me awed at the sight. I moved on to make dinner and a cup of hot cocoa. Finishing dinner, I sat watching the sun set – a rainbow of fiery colors fading to a lemony yellow before turning to the deep indigo of night sky. A bison appeared on the hillside, slowly moving along grazing.

As the sky darkened, I headed into the camper to warm up with my hot cocoa. Before long the calls of coyotes broke the silence of the night. It was a hauntingly beautiful sound. Eventually the calls faded and the campground quieted. Morning would come soon enough, with the prospect yet again of climbing out into the cold of the day. It was time for sleep.

Next Post Preview: Dirt roads and an unexpected challenge to my day make for the first lesson in going with the flow for this trip.

HOME AWAY FROM HOME: My adventure camper is a lovely little teardrop made-to-order by the incredibly talented people at Vistabule in St. Paul, MN.

GEAR: Granite Gear Crown2 38 Pack,Marmot Kompressor Pack,Oboz Katabatic Mid Waterproof,Oboz Katabic Low,Mountain Hardware Stretchdown™ Light Jacket, Mountain Hardware Stretchdown™ Pant,REI Co-op XeroDry GTX Jacket,REI Co-op Magma 850 Down Hoodie,REI Co-op XeroDry GTX Pants, Gnara Go There™ Pants, Chickfly Merino Eucalyptus Leggings,Icebreaker Women’s Merino 200 Oasis Long Sleeve Crewe Thermal Top, Icebreaker Merino 200 Oasis Thermal Leggings, SPOT GEN3 Satellite GPS Messenger, Dueter Dirtbag, Kula Cloth, Leki Women’s Micro Vario Cor-Tec TA trekking poles, Nemo Dragonfly Ultralight Backpacking Tent, Nemo Sonic™ 0 Down Sleeping Bag,Paria Thermodown 30 down quilt, Exped Ultra 7R Mat,REI Flash 3-Season Sleeping Pad, Thermarest Z Seat™,MSR Pocket Rocket Stove, TOAKS Titanium 450ML Cup with Lid, MSR® IsoPro™ Fuel.

Want to know more about my gear selections? Head on over to Gear & Gadgets or check out my posts titled “Gear in Review”.


Photo of a group of hikers on a sunny day in a field heading towards a wooded area. The photographer has taken the photo from behind the group.

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