Every camping trip I take with my son begins with the same question.
“Where should we go?”
His reply has been the same since he was 6 years old.
“I don’t care.”
This response doesn’t mean he is disinterested. It genuinely means he doesn’t mind where we go, just as long as we go somewhere.
After a lengthy back-and-forth discussion, we usually settle on an agreed-upon destination.
This year, we approached the subject a little differently.
We decided to test the limits of “I don’t care,” by leaving the decision completely to chance. The idea was simple: 1) spin a Swiss Army knife, 2) wherever the blade pointed when it stopped spinning that would be the direction we would travel.
Our first spin of the knife pointed south to Nebraska. After a long silent pause, we both agreed that a second spin might be needed. Thankfully, our second spin pointed due west.
A trip west usually means the Black Hills, but in the spirit of doing something different, we thought an impromptu trip to Badlands National Park would be more fitting.
The Badlands are a place we have seen a dozen times before, but always through a car windshield. Like millions of tourists who visit our state each year, I have driven through the Badlands on my way to the Black Hills. The diversion adds an extra hour to my trip, but it is always worth it.
I am embarrassed to say I have lived in South Dakota for nearly 40 years and never spent a night in the Badlands. It was high time that I corrected this glaring omission from my camping resume.
So we threw a tent and a few essentials into our SUV and headed west on a Saturday morning. Our destination was Sage Creek Campground on the far west edge of the Badlands. It is a remote campsite that sits at the end of a 12-mile stretch of gravel called Sage Creek Rim Road. This area is popular with the non-RV crowd who prefer to travel light and backpack their way through the park.
By noon, we were camping with a herd of bison.
To be clear, I don’t mean there were bison in the general area. I mean bison were at our campsite. Two monarchs of the prairie sat twenty yards off the entrance to the campground. There were clear signs of buffalo tracks and pies right where we pitched our tent. Tufts of buffalo hair clung to the edge of our picnic shelter. It didn’t take long to realize we were merely visitors in the buffalo’s home—and this was their living room.
Once the tent was set up, there was little to do except stare back at the buffalo. Campfires are not permitted in the Badlands, so there really wasn’t a reason to sit around the campsite. This was not a s’mores kind of trip anyway. We decided to pack our gear and explore the park on foot.
For a park that tries its best to appear harsh and inhospitable, it is surprisingly accessible. Sure, there are the obligatory “Beware of Rattlesnakes” signs at every trailhead and scenic overlook, but that is to be expected. We just had to use common sense and watch our step.
I don’t know what it is like to hike in the Badlands during any other season, but I am pretty sure spring beats summer by a long shot. A cool, dry breeze from the Black Hills kept the temperature at a comfortable 75 degrees. Recent rains filled the hard, cracked soil. The combination of sun and water painted the rocky landscape with brilliant green, yellow and purple plant life. This was not the barren Badlands we were expecting.
There was new wildlife, as well. We watched prairie dog pups scurry in and out of their burrows under the watchful eye of their mothers. Bighorn lambs were learning how to maneuver around the steep, rocky terrain. Young bison, antelope and mule deer quietly grazed alongside their elders.
We were able to explore several different trails in a short period of time—some were clearly marked on a map, others were completely improvised. No matter where we hiked we seemed to be the only people who ventured far from their cars, which is exactly how we preferred it.
With no particular plan or place to be, we spent the last hour of our day watching the sun slowly set over the Conata Basin. Eventually, we made our way back to the campsite under an endless blanket of stars.
In the end, we didn’t need a knife to choose our path. All we needed was the right frame of mind.
When you don’t care where you go, the destination will almost always exceed your expectations.
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