I left Montana just in time to escape a snowstorm and found myself in the Black Hills, gullied by a rainstorm. However, I will happily take my few rainy days over the snow-wrecked roads back home.
The first major stop on my road trip is Badlands National Park, just south of Wall, South Dakota. To get there, I passed through Deadwood, SD, a little gambling town that begged for more exploration but was blanketed in rain. Zeus and I took a leisurely stroll down the two main drags and were amused at the amount of slot machines tucked away in some of the quaintest historic hotels and bars. I will return when I can read all the historical placards without rain dripping off my hood and obscuring my vision. From what I could gather, there are some good stories to learn at Deadwood, including shootouts, rowdy bar crowds, and of course a few “ladies of the night”.
After Deadwood, the road continued to Rapid City (where I found gas for $1.99 – I cannot remember the last time I saw a “1” on a gas station sign!), and then on Wall, SD. The Badlands sit about 15 miles south of Wall, and I drove through the sunset to reach my final destination. Once I breached the Pinnacles park entrance, spires started in earnest, the earth both rising and falling from the flat plains. The formations look like they are made of loose dirt, and with the heavy rain I half expected them to slump back to the earth in a muddy pile. Rivulets started to rush down the steeper sides, further eroding the craggy slopes, giving me an up-close view of how they were formed over millions of years.
The combination of rain and offseason travel produced a practically empty park by the time I arrived. I enjoyed the prehistoric ambiance created by the cliffs, yellow mounds of clay, deep ravines, rain, and silence. Passing an info sign, I learned that the Badlands are a hotbed for fossil research, as the clay soil helped encase and preserve many prehistoric creatures that lived during the Oligocene period (35 to 20 million years ago). I could easily envision a brontothere (ancient rhino) chasing away a hyenadont (wolf-like creature), which disrupted the hyenadont’s hunt for a palaeolagus (rabbit).
However, I didn’t run into anyone except this lady keeping watch over the road. She would be the first of many sheep showing off to the highway traffic.
Just as the sun was setting, Zeus and I pulled into our camp spot for the night and took a quick walk while the rain abated. I noticed two boot scrapers by the trailhead before we headed out, and I quickly learned why. While the ground remained hardpacked even after all the rain, the top layer was very sticky. It didn’t take long before my soles were covered and I was walking not on rubber, but rather on an inch of caked-on, gumbo-like mud. I went back and used the scapers.
The weather looked much better the next day, so I went to bed early for an early rise and hopefully a run or hike.
The morning dawned, and the clouds were still holding. I snapped a few pics of the sun trying to show through the clouds, giving the sandy hillsides a reddish glow.
The ground was much too wet to hike, so I took off on a road run and ended up getting rained on for most of it, but it felt good. I still had the park to myself, barring a few neighbors who almost came and said hello.
After two days of driving, a run felt great and I readied myself to check out the visitor center and wait for the sun to come out, which the weatherman said would happen around noon.
Once I started driving again, the vistas opened and the sun started to peek its way out. The different striations of color in the mounds and ravines started popping when light finally burned through the clouds.
As predicted, the sun came out in earnest around noon, and I finally had some light for decent photos. The spire formations were amazing, both in height and color. My camera couldn’t do justice to the white-topped formations in the background of the photo below. They were much higher and whiter in person (hint, anyone who wants to see better pictures, send me a DSLR camera of any kind, and I promise I will bag you all kinds of amazing landscape photos ;).The Badlands are a palentologists dream since the striations of earth easily read into centuries, if you know what you are looking at. Next to this combination of spires was a fossil exhibit, demonstrating where different kinds of creature remains were found at what levels of the spire. I would assume that as the structures continue to erode, scientists will continue to find more remains unearthed as time continues.
Overall, the Badlands turned out to be a very cool spot. Even if you aren’t a history or fossil buff like me, the amazing height of the spires and rough cliffs should be enough to keep you entertained. On a return trip, I’d like to do some more hiking, on a day when the dirt is thoroughly dried. While the park isn’t Glacier caliber, it is very intriguing.