A few days after my wife, MAK, graduated from college in the summer of 2012, we hit the road in our Honda Element with a pile of hand-me-down camping gear and our meager savings. We traveled for six months, covered 14,000 miles, and visited 21 national parks (among many other things).
As cliché as it sounds, “life-changing” is the only way I can describe that time. Our trip that summer became the most influential experience for how we’ve chosen to live our lives since then.
There was a tangible moment on that trip, epiphany-like, when we felt the immensity and wildness of the world for the first time together. We were in Badlands National Park. We arrived during sunset, and as we crested a hill our first view of the badlands unfolded before us. There was a warm breeze, and the sun, beginning to sink below the horizon, bathed the landscape with a pinkish hue.
The prairie disappeared off the edge of a cliff, revealing wide open terrain past that point. Bighorn sheep grazed in the grasslands as if they were planted there, waiting for our arrival. It’s a moment we’ll never forget. It took two people in the infancy of adulthood and flipped their idea of what life should be—and what it should look like—on its head.
A decade later, we still look back and recall absurd details about that road trip—smells, temperatures, sounds, even how much gas we had—as if it were yesterday. We were truly living, and those moments are imprinted on our minds permanently.
A lot changed after our 2012 road trip ended. We landed back in Atlanta, Georgia. We started our careers. We created routines, explored hobbies, found new restaurants: all the hallmarks of life in your twenties. We followed the prescribed path for success. But after a few years, something was still missing in spite of everything else. The road was calling us back.
Every day, we reminisced about that summer. It was clear we’d grown and learned more about ourselves in those six months traveling across the country than we had in the years since. That realization jump-started our planning to create the life we envisioned for ourselves—one where we could camp, hike, paddle, and explore for as long as we wanted.
It took years and a lot of research. We slowly transitioned into remote work, got a home on wheels (a brown 1985 Vanagon Westfalia), sold most of our earthly belongings, and started driving toward anywhere… and also nowhere.
In the seven years since then, we’ve seen so much more of the world and its wild places; we’ve trekked well-worn paths, discovered literal and metaphorical hidden gems, and enjoyed all manner of adventures in between.
But we hadn’t yet made it back to the place that started it all for us. We often wondered if the magic of Badlands was simply born from our small catalog of places to compare it to at the time, or if it really was that special. Almost exactly 10 years later, we found out.
We rolled towards Badlands from the west after stocking up on supplies in Rapid City, South Dakota. It was the middle of summer, and the forecast called for highs in the 100s every day that week. We were undeterred, perhaps foolishly, and drove to a remote western section of the park we overlooked the last time we were there.
As we settled into our home for the night, we looked around and saw no one. National parks are often crowded; however, this area receives few visitors and we rejoiced in the solitude it provided. Watching the light drain from the sky over the otherworldly landscape made us forget about the heat. The pale badlands absorbed and reflected hues from orange to purple. We were back.
Badlands National Park is famous for, you guessed it, its badlands. These unique geological formations are the product of hundreds of thousands of years of erosion. As water carved the landscape it revealed layers of time. The colored bands show deposits from different eras and events. You can literally see the geologic history of the land in a vertical timeline. These badland formations are found throughout the park and are, of course, one of its defining features.
The park is also home to some unique fauna like bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and black-footed ferrets. Their presence is certainly felt when you’re there. In the grasslands, it’s no surprise when you come across a roaming bison. There are several prairie dog “towns” and you’d be remiss completing a trip without a visit to these adorable little metropolises.
During a morning traverse of the park, we came across a small group of bighorn sheep and pulled over to observe them. We sat for an hour admiring, and just as we were getting ready to go, a lone female walked within 20 feet of us to graze on the grass by the road.
Badlands was also the habitat of prehistoric creatures. The area that is now Badlands National Park was once part of a giant inland sea. The rivers that fed it were significant water sources and, because of that, there was a high concentration of animals. Cat-sized deer, giant pigs, prehistoric rhinos, and even saber-toothed cats. Those animals are now a part of the rich fossil beds found throughout the park.
The visitor center has an incredible exhibit displaying many of these found fossils, and you can even chat with some of the park’s resident paleontologists. They told us that every day visitors find bones and shells out in the badlands. With that, the embers of our childhood dreams were blown back to life and we headed out for a hike, excited and hopeful that we’d find fossils ourselves, 104-degree weather be damned!
We spent an afternoon walking along the trail, scanning the ground for relics of animals long gone. I’d like to tell you it took great skill and patience to be successful, but that would be a lie. Almost immediately we found small fragments of bones, teeth, and shells. The aforementioned embers were a bonfire now, fueling us to explore deeper into the hot, barren land.
As we walked further, we found more and more. We were thrilled. Eventually, the sweltering weather got the better of us and we turned back. Then I heard MAK scream.
There in front of us was a large bone encased in a boulder. Its visible portion was over a foot long, and who knew if there was more hidden beneath the rock’s surface? It was the find of the day—no, the find of our lives. We marveled at this piece of history, wondering what animal it belonged to and what this place would have looked like when it walked here.
We reported it to the park paleontologists, who were also impressed by the find and gave us a patch embroidered with a saber-toothed cat skull and the words “I did the right thing.” Our 10-year-old selves beamed with pride. Honestly, our adult selves were proud, too.
We never lacked for things to do or see, even with the harsh summer temperatures. On one of the especially hot days, we sought refuge (air conditioning) at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, just a few miles from the park.
This site remembers the 1,000 missiles that were hidden underground in the Great Plains during the Cold War. The visitor center has an exhibit that recounts the many close calls and reminds us just how close we came to catastrophe. It’s a sobering experience but an important part of our history.
Outside of Rapid City you’ll find Wind Cave National Park, Custer State Park, and Black Hills National Forest all in close proximity. Each of these has its own unique features and each is well worth a visit. Honestly, this is just scratching the surface of what you can do in this area.
At times, MAK and I take our nomadic life for granted, but retracing the path of our first road trip and seeing the place that really started it all for us put so much into perspective. Despite the austere landscape, coming back to Badlands National Park felt like a homecoming—a reminder of why we’re out here and why we choose to live the way we do. We strive to push our boundaries and keep from ever being too comfortable, keeping in a constant state of personal growth. We want new experiences, new views, new and wild places to explore.
We’ve come so far and seen so much in the last 10 years, yet this place still affected us the same way it did in 2012. It’s somewhere we dreamed and reminisced about for so long, and it did not disappoint. Badlands National Park is truly special.
If you’d like to see the Badlands from our perspective, you can check out our video series, “A Long Time Coming,” for more. In it, we traverse the northern Midwest and hit several other locations in addition to Badlands National Park, from Montana to Michigan. Hopefully the series will get you inspired to explore this incredible world.
Plan Your Own Visit to Badlands National Park
It’s a land that ancient horses and rhinos once roamed, a land that’s made of stone and light and is home to one of the world’s richest fossil beds. Visitors from around the world come to admire the rugged beauty of this expansive 244,000-acre park. Badlands isn’t all fossils, however, and is in fact full of vibrant life, and containing a mixed-grass prairie where bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and black-footed ferrets live. Start planning your own visit to Badlands National Park by visiting the National Park Service’s website at nps.gov/badl.
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This article originally appeared in OVR Issue 03. For more informative articles like this, consider subscribing to OVR Magazine in print or digital versions here.