Why Badlands is My National Park

By Robby DeGraff

Three years ago, my father and I set out on a grand road trip across the country; I was moving to a new home outside of Winter Park, Colorado. For years, we had chatted about a father and son road trip out west. I was thrilled and grateful that my best friend and adventure buddy would be joining me as I started this new chapter in my life. What better person to squeeze into a fully-packed station wagon and drive a thousand-plus miles west with?

Planning out our route to the colorful state of Colorado, we knew we’d be driving across South Dakota—both of us made it a priority to stop at Badlands National Park.  I had heard about this place before, and its eerie, unworldly scenery and tranquility.

On the second day, some eleven or so hours later after leaving Wisconsin, we arrived at the entrance to Badlands. I remember letting out an excited “Yeaaaaaahhhh!” as we pulled over to take a picture in front of the park sign. My dad snapped a photo of me standing, my arms stretched towards the blue sky and a canyon-wide smile on my face. What really surprised me, is that for whatever reason, I instantaneously just felt free. 

We continued into the park and stopped at the Big Badlands overlook along the park’s inner loop road. I remember getting out of the car, the dry, hot wind blowing strongly. I walked towards a ledge, awed. Towering layered rock formations, painted in colors that defy the imagination, blanketed the near and distant horizons, streaks of orange, red, pink, coral and yellow everywhere. At sunset, those colors exploded like fire. A vast, deep canyon below spread as far as the eye could reach; I was tempted to walk for miles into the Badlands. Raw terrain like this blew my mind. My dad and I shared our thoughts on Badland’s raw, wild beauty—I could see how this place just amazed him.

Door Trail, Badlands National Park, South Dakota, photo by Len Saltiel

Door Trail, Badlands National Park, South Dakota, photo by Len Saltiel

Wildlife is also abundant in Badlands National Park—bison, big-horn sheep, prairie dogs and rattle snakes are prolific. Riding shot-gun in my aging black Saab station wagon, my dad came face-to-face with a big-horn sheep casually walking down the road past our car. He was ecstatic. We still laugh about that roadside traffic jam to this day.

The Author and his father, Badlands National Park, photo by Robby DeGraff.

The Author and his father, Badlands National Park, photo by Robby DeGraff.

We spent the next few hours driving through a 244,000 acre wonderland, stopping at all the overlooks and fulfilling our want for wanderlust. My dad’s always collected things: clocks, records, historical documents, immaculate Toby jugs—things that trigger memories and have a unique backstory.  Before leaving, my dad picked up a Badlands National Park magnet that’s affixed to our refrigerator today. Magnets from other national parks I’ve visited soon joined that first one he bought. We pressed on toward Colorado.

Two-years later and after a complex change of life directions, I returned to Badlands on my own. In an attempt to seek fresh air, gain some understanding, and find clarity, I set-out on a solo adventure to checkout five National Park Service units in the Dakota Badlands and Black Hills. Solo travel is my desired method—it’s how I grow. It allows me fully figure out my path, break out of my comfort zone, shed my skin and test just how capable I really am. I credit so much of who I am today to the many solo trips I’ve accomplished over the past few years. After a week of crossing places like Devil’s Tower, Wind Cave, Theodore Roosevelt, and Minuteman Missile off of my National Parks Service bucket list, I decided to wrap-up my travels with a few days at Badlands.

Badlands National Park, photo by Robby DeGraff.

Badlands National Park, photo by Robby DeGraff.

I so looked forward to returning—Badlands was the park that got me absolutely hooked on touring national parks.  It’s where my dad and I adventured together. It’s where I knew I could feel free. I set up a tent in the remote Sage Creek Campground area, located in the designated wilderness section, on the park’s westernmost edge. There I met other people my age also on this never-ending quest to spend as much humanly time as possible in the outdoors while soul-searching. It was inspiring, assuring, and enlivening. That evident vagabond, nomad, transient atmosphere I seek so much when I travel added to the magic that is Badlands. On a blisteringly hot Monday, I loaded up my pack, signed my name at the backcountry registry and hiked into the badlands. I walked thirteen miles through tall prairie grass and between steep, craggy walls and towers of rough rock in curiosity mode. All I wanted to do was keep walking, and walking, and walking. Everywhere I stepped, I was intrigued by this unreal landscape. It was so quiet, and as if time had slowed to a complete halt. I scribbled in my pocket journal that I felt "At home with this place." 

I’ve always considered Badlands to be the real gateway to the west. As a twenty-seven year old who is  undecided on what I want to do with my life, I find comfort and calm in the west. It’s a place where I do my best thinking and no matter how long I’m there, I return feeling filled with knowledge, encouragement, unmatched affirmation, and confidence. To this day, I’ve traveled to nineteen properties in the National Parks Service system, but Badlands continues to be the only one I find myself often dreaming of returning to— its special, unreal magic continues to draw me in. Badlands is "my" national park and it always will be. 

Robby DeGraff is a journalist from Milwaukee, WI. On the clock he's the Assistant Editor for a hobby magazine called Scale Auto, which covers all-things die-cast and model cars. Off the clock, he freelances for automotive blog Hooniverse.com and frequently posts on his own travel blog, RobbyAroundTheWorld.com. Whether it be backpacking, hiking, camping or skiing, Robby is always trying to get outdoors and explore this beautiful planet. His goal? Visit every single national park.