I’ll be honest, I wasn’t as excited as Richard about coming to Badlands National Park. It’s not that I knew anything about it, I just imagined it being sort of overall brown, I guess. After three days here, I will absolutely recommend this park as one of my favorites. And no, it’s definitely more than just brown.
Getting here meant a slog down highway 90 toward the west. We broke up the miles with two stops: Mitchell, and 1880s Town. In Mitchell, we re-stocked groceries and Richard went to a local bike store to get his handlebar tape redone. They seemed to be undergoing a full rehaul of most of their roads. As such, our drive by of the “Corn Palace” did not result in an actual visit because we didn’t want to figure out how to park.
The stop at 1880s town was what I would deem “worth it.” It was very well advertised via billboards and I guess my expectations were pretty low. But actually, the place boasts an impressive collection of actual buildings and antiques from the late 1800s to around 1920. Some of the items were actual set props from such films as “Dances With Wolves,” and they are obviously very proud of that. It was a fun break from the road and worth the $12 entry fee to stretch one’s legs in an old timey restored town.
Easily the most entertaining leg stretch happened at a rest stop where a truck we’d been following pulled over. In fact, I had steadfastly resisted the urge to drive faster than prudent in order to get a picture of the tanker. When the driver got out, we had to ask, “Ok, so what’s in there?” He laughed and told us he gets some funny reactions since the company started putting these ads on some of the tankers. He also told us a funny story about a bus full of tourists from England. As he was pumping diesel into the ground, a man came up to him and whispered, “Just go along with me here.” A few minutes later, he was assuring the man’s wife that yes, indeed, it was coffee he was pumping into the ground because, you know, Americans drink A LOT of coffee. He saw the couple later boarding the bus, the woman soundly hitting her husband on the head with her purse.
Once we arrived in the National Park, we drove down the park road to the Cedar Pass Campground. One expects national park roads to be spectacular and this one did not disappoint. Right away, I could tell I’d undersold the place in my mind. We got in two little hikes after setting up Dory and driving back to the “Door” and “Window” trail heads. Then it was back for dinner and relaxation time in Dory as it gently rained outside. Right in the middle of our chilling, I leapt up and ran outside, probably shrieking, “Oh my God!” Or something to that effect. The clouds had parted and a full double rainbow filled the sky. It was still drizzling a little, but everyone in the campground emerged from whatever shelter they had in order to photograph the spectacle. I don’t know whether it was more fun to witness the vibrant colors, or hear the general sounds of laughter and amazement from our fellow campers.
After dark, we headed over to the ampitheater to listen to a ranger talk. We don’t really do these things and I now think that’s a shame. The ranger put on a great show, filling us in on the geological significance of the park, as well as a pretty good explanation for why things look the way they do. Also, he was funny. “Just ask the people from Pompei. … What? Too soon?”
The next morning, we attended a ranger led walk to further learn about all things geological. Since I barely understood it all, I won’t try to regurgitate much information. But, I’ll list of couple of main points. This area represents the easternmost expression of what happened when an oceanic plate slipped underneath a continental plate and created all of the major national parks in the western U.S. Erosion is the big deal in Badlands. Once the particular mix of minerals in these rocks became vulnerable to erosion, the process began to happen very quickly. The natural erosion rate here is about an inch per year and the entire formation will be gone in 500,000 years. Another interesting point was that part of the make up of the rocks includes elements that absorb water and expand to 20 times their size. This results in a continuous cycle of cracking, flaking, and sloughing of surface material. As underlying layers are revealed, you can see distinctly colored bands of rock, varying in hue depending on what was happening geologically during the time the sediment was deposited. For example, the yellows in the “Yellow Mounds” get their color from a period when the entire area was a richly vegetated, swampy marshland. Fascinating stuff and we were thankful to be led by a park ranger whose primary area of study is geology. As a bonus, we spotted a herd of about ten Bighorn Sheep males near the parking area, which the ranger said was highly unusual in terms of numbers hanging out together.
Later we went on a hike along the “Medicine Loop Trail” and looped back on the “Castle Trail.” All told, this was a bit over four miles and began with a long flat stroll through grasslands. There were many clusters of plants, like wild roses, lavender, and little sunflowers, to enjoy along the way. We nearly, but didn’t, step on a snake in the path. The return trail took us right through the rock formations, offering really nice views of the eastern wall. Before we got back to the car, we ran into two guys who were obviously up to something scientific because they were carrying cool gear. Turns out they work for the park service as students and were assisting in tagging and tracking the population of Bighorn Sheep. They knew from collar and sensor data that one of the ewes had given birth and they were out checking on the calf. Using their tracking tools, they were in fact able to hone in on the general direction, and lo and behold! They appeared atop a distant rock, calf clearly healthy and grazing with mom. Talking to them was pretty cool and we learned about some of the ins and outs of managing wildlife in a national park.
Later in the day, Richard wanted to try something called the “Notch Trail.” I predicted from the description that this would not be something I would enjoy, but agreed to go as far as I felt comfortable. The brochure stated that there would be a steep ladder in the middle of the trail and that there would be sections on a ledge with steep dropoffs. But ok, I went as far as the ladder, thinking I’d tap out there. I don’t know what I was thinking, but it didn’t look too bad to me from below. I climbed the ladder like a badass hiker and it wasn’t until the last five feet at the top that I thought, “I have made a terrible mistake.” At that point, I felt irretrievably committed and hoisted myself to the top. I knew full well that if I turned around to look behind me, someone would need to call for a helicopter rescue. So I kicked into self calming high gear and stared really intently at the rock wall. Richard continued on and I ventured out a little bit. When I reached the point on the ledgey part of the trail where I was pretty sure I’d lose it, I decided to just hang out at the top, mustering the courage to go back down the ladder. The fact that I kept myself from totally freaking out is something of a major feat. I think the thing though that got me down that sucker was the little kid who kept repeating, “I am brave and strong and I can do this.” I probably owe that kid my life cause I made it down using the very same mantra. My right thigh still hurts in this very specific spot, because apparently, that is the ladder descending muscle.
Our last full day in the park was set aside for Richard to ride the national park road while I drove it. Wowie, what a road it is! Of the distinct “lands” we passed through, I’d have a hard time choosing whether my favorite was Yellow Mound Land, or Prarie Dog Land. We even got to experience Lightning Land in the form of a passing thunder storm and what was very cool about that was how the colors of the rock change with the light and rain. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen, and I can say I’ve seen some stuff. Wrapping up our stay, we got to catch a stunner of a sunset during a break in the thunder storms.
In summary, this park is far from brown. I realize we lucked out big time in terms of weather and I can imagine it being less enjoyable at 115 degrees. We enjoyed 70s and low 80s the whole time. We got to see Bison, Bighorn Sheep, a million Prairie Dogs, snakes, and deer. The campground at Cedar Pass is a very convenient jumping off point for exploring the park and I’d highly recommend a visit. 3 nights felt about right to us.
Total miles from Sioux Falls: 283.6, 16.4 mpg, 5 hours 41 min. Cedar Pass Site 9. Some sites have electric hookups and this site happened to have sewer hookups as it is sometimes used for campground hosts. Water spigots. Nice bathrooms with showers. No trees, but shade/wind shelters for the picnic tables. 1-3 bars of LTE for both of us.