The Badlands aren't so much an escape as a way to reimagine our terrestrial world. They're as beautiful as they're materially banal. It's a dirt pile, about as paltry a hand as nature can deal.
But dealing Nature some dirt, wind, water and a few million or so years is like giving DJ Kool Herc a couple turntables and a microphone. She's going to come up with something. Time is like Gaia's breath. Dust is her luftballons.
Exploring the Badlands is like strolling the annals of Creation, past rock colosseums that pulsate with scenes as momentous as that time the velociraptor spares the injured parasaurolophus in Terence Malick's The Tree of Life.
Can the Badlands deliver as a drive-thru experience? Maybe, but some of us need to put boots on the ground.
Badlands National Park only has a dozen or so miles of dedicated hiking trails, backcountry hiking and camping is allowed. Wayfinding off-trail can be challenging but rewarding.
Fortunately, your SDPB Outdoors correspondent is here to help. Want to escape the traffic along the wall, take in the sights from the top of Sheep Mountain Table, then descend into the foothills that surround The Castles and The Horn, into some of the least-explored, most epically Badlandian country?
Here's what you'll need. A high-clearance vehicle, some water, some hiking experience. About 35 miles West of Rapid City on the 44, you turn South at the aptly named hamlet of Scenic, on Bombing Range Road. Take a right 4.5 miles down, on Sheep Mountain Road. About another four miles down you'll see the turn off for Sheep Mountain Table overlook. You can get this far in a sedan and park at the overlook or continue in a high-clearance 4WD.
About a half mile further down, you can pull off and park somewhere around 43.68004, -102.57005, close to a line of fence posts along the table's edge. From there, you can walk east about a half mile to 43.67870, -102.56157, where you'll find a pass of sorts into the bottoms.
You'll have to shimmy through some tight spaces, under some natural arches, and negotiate some steep spots with loose scree. At the bottom you can follow a winding, intermittent creek South through a canyon filled with psychic geometry.
Be careful not to step on any unexploded ordnance as this area was once part of the U.S. Air Force Badlands Gunnery Range.
The formations labeled "The Castles" on my National Geographic map will gird your right, as you're funneled toward the Southern tip of an isthmus in the Park boundaries, which ends at The Horn, a structure which isn't so much a standout as a turnaround point. (This isn't a destination hike, more an exploration).
My route to The Horn and back clocked in at just under ten glorious, sun-drenched miles.