Introducing Badlands National Park
This otherworldly landscape, oddly softened by its fantastic rainbow hues, is a spectacle of sheer walls and spikes stabbing the dry air. It was understandably named mako sica (badland) by Native Americans. Looking over the bizarre formations from the corrugated walls surrounding Badlands is like seeing an ocean someone boiled dry.
The park's north unit gets the most visitors; the Hwy 240 Badlands Loop Rd is easily reached from I-90 (exits 110 and 131) and you can drive it in an hour if you're in a hurry (and not stuck behind an RV). Lookouts and vistas abound.
Much less visited is the portion west of Hwy 240 along the gravel Sage Creek Rim Rd. There are stops at prairie-dog towns and this is where most backcountry hikers and campers go. There is nearly no water or shade here, so don't strike out into the wilderness unprepared. The less-accessible south units are in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and see few visitors.
The Ben Reifel Visitor Center has good exhibits and advice for ways to ditch your car to appreciate the geologic wonders. The White River Visitor Center is small. A seven-day pass costs $15 for cars and $7 for cyclists.
Neither the developed Cedar Pass Campground or primitive Sage Creek Campground take reservations. Hotels can be found on I-90 in Kadoka and Wall, or stay at a cozy cabin inside the park at Cedar Pass Lodge. There is a restaurant and shops.
The national park, along with the surrounding Buffalo Gap National Grassland, protects the country's largest prairie grasslands, several species of Plains mammal (including bison and black-footed ferret), prairie falcons and lots of snakes. The National Grasslands Visitors Center has good displays on the wealth of life in this complex ecosystem you've been whining about as 'boring' while you barrel down the freeway. Rangers can map out back-road routes that will let you do looping tours of Badlands National Park and the grasslands without ever touching I-90. Hwy 44 to Rapid City is also a fine alternative to the interstate.