Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Photo: Tim McCabe, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. (USDA NRCS Photo Gallery: NRCSSD91001.tif) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Tim McCabe, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. (USDA NRCS Photo Gallery: NRCSSD91001.tif) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Starting to plan your summer trip to one of the national parks? So is everyone else. The park entrances will be backed up with traffic, the good campsites were booked months ago, and you’ll have to elbow your way between hikers to see the gorgeous views along the trails. So avoid the crowds. Bundle up. Go now.

That’s right, go to Badlands National Park in the middle of the winter. Few cars will be on the Badlands Loop. You’ll have peaceful solitude on even the shortest trails. And whether it’s because of the layer of snow or the low temperatures, the colors really seem brighter right now.

Badlands National Park is in southwestern South Dakota. The landscape—eroded buttes and sharp spires surrounded by the endless wild prairie—looks like its straight out of a science fiction novel. The Lakota people called it mako sica, or land bad, for its inhospitable environment. French-Canadian trappers agreed; they described it as “bad lands to travel across.” And 19th-century settlers continued west not long after they arrived. Just because you wouldn’t want to live here though, doesn’t mean it isn’t stunning.

Photo: Scott Catron (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Scott Catron (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
To enter the park, take Highway 240—Badlands Loop—off Interstate 90. From the Big Badlands Overlook, you have your first glimpse at the awe-inspiring landscape above the desolate prairie. The White River is in the distance. Select one of three hikes—the Door Trail, the Notch Trail, or the Window Trail—for views of the Badlands Wall, the park’s 100-mile natural barrier. The Door is a break in the seemingly impenetrable wall, while the Notch Trail, a longer and steeper hike, looks out over the top of the spires. From high above, head to the area’s lowest point, the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail. You might spot deer or bighorn sheep in the old riverbed full of juniper trees.

Stop at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to check out the Land of Stone and Light video. The park’s longest trail, the Castle Trail, begins just north of the visitor center. On the quiet, five-mile trail, you’ll see sod tables and spires, ravines and the open prairie. Prefer to continue hiking instead of returning to the car? Take the Medicine Root Trail off the Castle Trail, to see prairie dogs, badgers, and antelopes. Or walk along the Fossil Exhibit Trail to see encased fossil samples from the Oligocene era, some 37 million years ago.

You continue through Big Foot Pass, named after an Indian chief who led his warriors through here to elude US soldiers. Stop at Panorama Point for the best view of the eroding buttes. Scan the horizon for buffalo at the Prairie Wind Overlook. Drive slowly through Prairie Dog Town—you never know when the rodents will dart across the road. See the pinnacles with bands of purple, red, and yellow at the Yellow Mounds Overlook. And watch the sun set over the spires at the Pinnacles Overlook before you exit the park.

This is what’s it’s like to have a national park all to yourself. Quiet roads. Peaceful hiking trails. And uninterrupted views—and pictures. So which national park do you want visit next winter?

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