BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK, S.D. -- Marcia McMacken stepped off the boardwalk and took a long look at the sweeping scene around her -- bright green meadows in front, craggy tan peaks and deep forbidding canyons behind. She was clearly enamored.
"It's just so different from the normal kinds of landscapes," she said. "The beautiful formations, the colors. It's like my husband says -- you really can see where the ocean was many, many years ago.
"We love it," said McMacken, who lives on Anna Maria Island, Fla., near St. Petersburg. "We've been here three or four times."
Imagine that much enthusiasm for what's often considered a one- or two-hour diversion for travelers on their way to Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills. The Badlands are best known for a dusty, rocky landscape that's so filled with synonymous formations that you may be asking for trouble if you venture too far beyond the parking lot.
But as western South Dakota emerged from years of drought earlier this year, a new color was added to the palette: green.
"I've never seen it so green," said McMacken, pointing out delicate yellow clover growing tall next to the boardwalk. "Usually there's nothing green out here at all."
As national parks go, it's still an unusual place. Pretty rocks aside, you can experience a lot of the 244,000-acre park in a few hours, even if you don't get out of the car more than a couple of times.
"We're considered a drive-through park rather than a destination park like Yellowstone or Yosemite," said Chris Morris, a college student volunteer from Pittsburgh who spent his summer in the park. "A lot of people just drive through and get out at a few of the overlooks."
Just eight main hiking trails lead from the Badlands Loop Road, which traverses the park's primary unit. Five of those are less than a mile long. The longest, the Castle Trail, is 10 miles round trip.
So why go? Ask Marcia McMacken: "It's like being on another planet."
Trail is a generous word in the Badlands. No clearly defined boundaries mark the way through the baked spires and buttes. Looking for the Door Trail, I stepped onto the crumbling brown floor and saw yellow posts rising here and there. They marked what passed for the trail.
Fortunately, it was a short walk -- three-fourths of a mile out to the Door, an opening in a rock wall, and back. Even a direction-impaired traveler would have trouble getting lost. But what a weird, wonderful world it is out there -- sharp ridges and tall towers created by rising mountains, erosion and an extinct inland sea.
That sea began disappearing 60 million years ago as the Rockies and the Black Hills began forming.
"This seaway was about 75 feet deep and stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to Alaska," said Morris, who spent parts of his summer talking to visitors at the park's Fossil Exhibit Trail.
One look at what was left behind is all it takes to envision what was here -- the wide subtle stripes of red and brown suggest water. Differences in texture along the rock walls also point to great changes over time.
Bighorn sheep, pronghorn, buffalo, swift-footed ferrets and other animals now wander what seems like an inhospitable land. But they pale to some of the creatures of the past. Mososaurs -- like a Komodo dragon but maybe 25 feet long -- left their bones here 68 million to 75 million years ago. So did the titanothere, an ancient rhinoceros; the doglike hesperocyon; archaeotherium, a large, piglike animal; and mesohippus, a three-toed "middle horse."
Fossils show that the area even had alligators, and they weren't all that different from the modern ones.
"Only one thing has changed about alligators in the 50 million years since they lived here," Morris said. "The modern gators have thicker skins."
So rich in fossils are the Badlands that for 15 years, scientists excavated an area they called the "Big Pig Dig." In what they believe was a watering hole 33 million years ago, workers unearthed more than 15,000 fossils and 19 animal species from 1993 until late this summer. Interepretive signage remains for visitors.
The dig was named for what was first thought to be archaeotherium bones. They turned out to be fossils of a subhyracodon, a hornless rhinoceros.
As intriguing as the Badlands are, it was their sharp contrast with the gentle green prairie that really stirred my imagination.
From Interstate 90, the Badlands are but a distant distraction from the long ribbon of east-west blacktop across South Dakota. Only when you turn south on South Dakota 240 toward the park can you begin to appreciate the threat they represented to early inhabitants.
In my mind I saw weary 19th-century settlers in horse-drawn wagons, pulling sharply on reins and stopping as the otherworldly landscape appeared. "Now what?" they must have said.
The Lakota Sioux called the area "Mako Sica" or "bad land." Early French trappers said they were "les mauvaisesterres a traverser," or "bad lands to travel across."
Fortunately for today's travelers -- about a million people visit each year -- the biggest challenges presented by Badlands National Park are where to find lunch or the nearest bathroom.
It takes only a couple of hours to begin to appreciate the subtle beauties, to see beyond the harsh environment.
At the White Valley Overlook, I pulled my car into a parking space, walked out on a natural promontory and tried to count the colors of the canyon -- browns and tans, to be sure, but also reds, pinks and maybe even a hint of yellow.
A few miles down the road, people squinted in the midday sun at a small butte where a bighorn sheep was clinging to the rock. A few yards away, two more sheep had found a shady spot to rest. A few yards farther, a couple more wandered in and out of the trees.
These may have been bad lands once. Not anymore.
IF YOU GO:
Badlands National Park comprises 244,000 acres near the Black Hills of South Dakota. The park was established in 1939 as a national monument and attained national park status in 1978. About 1 million people visit each year.
Nearby attractions include Mount Rushmore National Memorial, the Crazy Horse memorial, Wind Cave and Jewel Cave national parks, the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site and Custer State Park.
GETTING IN: Park admission is $15 per vehicle and good for seven days. An annual pass costs $30.
If you're thinking about visiting several parks, an America the Beautiful annual pass costs $80 and permits access to national parks and other federal recreation areas. Call 1-888-ASK-USGS or see store.usgs.gov/pass.
A lifetime senior pass for citizens or permanent residents 62 and older costs $10. An access pass for permanently disabled citizens or permanent residents is free.
WHERE TO STAY: The Cedar Pass Lodge dates to 1928, even before the Badlands Loop Road was built. It remains open through Oct. 19 and will reopen in April. It has 25 cabins: With private bath, $75; two bedrooms with connecting bath, $90; cottage, $105.
The Badlands Inn, 1 1/2 miles from Cedar Pass, has 18 guest rooms for $80 a night. It has closed for the season and will open in April.
See www.cedarpasslodge.com or call 605-433-5460 for information about either lodge.
The Cedar Pass Campground, near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, has 96 sites for $10 a night. It has flush toilets, picnic tables and cold running water. First-come, first-served. The Sage Creek Primitive Campground, on the west side of the north unit, is free. Both campgrounds are open year-round.
Wall, about 30 miles away, has several motels and B&Bs. For a directory, see the Wall Badlands Area Chamber of Commerce site at www.wall-badlands.com.
WHERE TO EAT: The only restaurant inside the park is at Cedar Pass Lodge. The menu includes burgers, $3.95 ($5.95 with sides); buffalo burger, $4.95 ($6.90); salad bar, $7.95; chicken breast sandwich. $5.95 ($7.90); ribeye, $17.95; and buffalo stew, $9.95. Lunchtime can be very busy and service can be slow. The restaurant will close for the season Oct. 19.
For other choices, head to Wall.
WALL DRUG: If you drive west along I-90, you'll see so many signs advertising Wall Drug Store that you'll have to stop just to see what the fuss is all about. The store/complex/ tourist attraction takes up a huge chunk of downtown Wall, population 800.
Be sure to get your free ice water -- the gimmick owners Ted and Dorothy Hustead came up with in the 1930s to lure travelers off the highway -- and see the kitschy attractions such as the mini Mount Rushmore, the jackalope and T-Rex. www.walldrug.com.
TO LEARN MORE: Contact Badlands National Park at www.nps.gov/badl or 605-433-5361 .