Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Badlands

Pinnacles, gorges, buttes, gulches, ridges and canyons and spires!  How does one describe the Badlands whose geological bones are so beautiful?  

Standing at one of the park's overlooks is a spiritual experience in this cathedral of deposition and erosion, the yin and yang of its existence.

For the past two days, Tim and I have wandered through the land that the Lakota Sioux named the mako shika, "the bad lands" and later the French Canadian called les mauvaises terres å traverser.  

The park is open 24 hours a day, a plus for us since we'd budgeted only 48 hours to explore its confines. Viewing the park at different times of day and night was our goal.  Yesterday when the Visitor Center opened at 7 a.m., we were there to help unlock the doors.  We wanted to check on the times of the ranger-led programs and to view the park's excellent introductory video.

Afterwards, we hustled over to the ranger-led geology walk at Door Trail, so named for the gap between two ridges--the door--that leads into an otherworldly area reminiscent of the moonscape images beamed back to Earth by the Apollo 11 crew. 

Megan, our ranger, explained the geologic features of the park, pointing out examples that enabled us to make sense of what we were seeing.  

Wind deposits sediment and water erodes it away, leaving behind magnificent striped layers of shale, sandstone and volcanic ash in formations whose height is shrinking an inch every year.   

She told us during the Cretaceous period, there was an inland sea stretching from the Arctic Circle down to what is now Mexico, dividing the continent into two land masses and leaving behind one of the richest fossil areas in the world.  

One fact Megan shared was that alligators once lived in the area of South Dakota. Truly!  The climate and ecosystems found in the area that is now South Dakota were once very similar to present Florida.

Equipped with sunscreen, hats and Camelbacks full of water, we hiked all six of the park's front country trails.  

The longest is the ten-mile, round trip Castle Trail, a moderately difficult walk through the prairie and around the formations.  On our return trip, we veered off onto the Medicine Root Loop for fresh views of the park.

Three of the trails we hiked are shorter than a mile, but the views are spectacular--the Door, the Window and the Fossil Trail.  Replicas of fossils lined that last trail, helping us imagine the creatures who once inhabited this land.  Had we had the time to hang around for the ranger-led fossil talk, I'm sure we would have learned more.  A trip to the Pig Dig where paleontologists exhumed fossil remains from 1993 to 2008 should have been on our itinerary, too, but we were wasting daylight.  So we continued on. 

Hiking the Notch Trail meant scaling a ladder and following a ledge to view a stunning vista of the White River Valley.  This is not a trail for those who are scared of heights!  But we found the hike was well-worth the effort.

A New York Times supplement about the National Park Service's 100th Anniversary gave tips for getting the most out of a visit to a park.  One of the recommendations was to view the park at sunrise and sunset.  

So last night we returned to the park to watch the sun disappear. On the NPS web site for the Badlands is a pdf document entitled "Seeking Magic Hour: Photographing the Badlands" which lists the park's best viewing areas.  

We tried several locations on our way to the 9 p.m. Night Sky Program.  

"Hunters of the Night," was the program's topic, led by a co-founder of the Black Hills Raptor Center.  Not only did the speaker teach us about raptors (the Eastern Screech Owl, the Great Horned Owl, the Ferruginous Hawk, the Red-tailed Hawk and the American Kestrel), he also brought along live birds his assistant carried through the audience so all could get a good look.  Even the squirmiest kid in the amphitheater was captivated by the show as were we.

This weekend was the park's 2016 Astronomy Festival.  

Telescopes were set up around the perimeter of the amphitheater for viewing the night sky.  In addition, an astrophysicist using a laser beam pointed out the constellations and mentioned the classical mythology associated with each. Tearing ourselves away at midnight, we headed back to the RV. If we were going to get up in time for the sunrise, we needed at least a few hours of sleep.

At 4:15 a.m., when the alarm sounded, I groaned but rolled out of bed to struggle into my clothes.  

The best areas in the park to watch the sunrise were a 30-minute drive away, but it was worth it.  The sunrise was gorgeous, especially for the play of shadows and light against the pinnacles and ridges.

With temperatures predicted to be hover around 100 degrees, hiking soon after the sunrise was a good way to beat the heat.  

On our way to the trailhead, we chanced upon a flock of big-horn sheep. 

They were feasting on the tall grass, ignoring the avid onlookers with their cameras.  

Returning to an air-conditioned car after our hike was a well-earned relief and a leisurely drive along Highway 240's scenic loop on our way home was even sweeter!

So in the end, what are we taking away from our time here besides sore muscles and sleep deprivation?  Two thoughts!  First, it would have saved us time and gas had we planned far enough in advance to reserve a campsite within the park.  Second was the awe we both felt of the amazing creativity of God who caused all of the creatures and forces that resulted in this incredible place. 

Thanks for joining us on our tour!


  1. Very interesting. We are considering this as a stop after Brookings in mid September. Where did you stay? We are considering staying in the free no facilities Sage Creek campground within the park. It would be a chance to try out our boondocking abilities for a couple of days. We've had some quick tours of the badlands in the past, but it would be great to be able to spend a couple of days there. It sounds like the bison may actually come into the campground on a regular basis.

    1. Bison in your campground? Yikes! You both are much braver than I. We saw the gravel Sage Creek road (but no bison!). You could drive the Wildebeest down it easily but if a thunderstorm blows through, it could turn to mud. We stayed at the Sleepy Hollow campground in Wall, SD. It was nice, but being 30 miles from the east entrance to the park where the main visitor center, amphitheater and trailheads were wasn't very convenient. We wished we'd reserve a spot at Cedar Pass Campground behind the park's Visitor Center, but reservations need to be made way in advance. Have a great time!

    2. We'll have to keep an eye on the weather! Here's a picture of Chris bicycling past bison in the road in Yellowstone - she's pretty brave!

  2. We visited the Badlands several years ago, but we weren't able to stay as long as you did. Thanks for sharing the beauty!

    1. I think most people just drive the scenic loop, but if you are ever there again when they offer the Night Sky program, you should go. The Milky Way from there was pretty spectacular. Definitely rivals the view from Stafford County!

  3. What a great post. You bring a lot of interesting information to light. Don't think I've ever seen better photos of big horn sheep.

    1. I dithered over which photo of bighorn sheep to post. I caught some individual shots that were even closer but thought this showed the group of sheep best.