Tag Archives: Badlands

Experiencing Western South Dakota

June 3, 2013

Today’s first activity was a hike at Badlands National Park. Yesterday evening, at the visitors center, I had chosen a hike for our group that was mostly considered “moderate”. Only the initial 1/4 of a mile, which started from the parking lot and took us up the side of the structures towards a plateau was considered “strenuous”. This initial part was pretty strenuous, and, had it gone on for over a mile, would have made a difficult hike. But, after the initial climb, most of the trail system we traversed on this morning, would be pretty flat, with only minor inclines and declines. This, of course, was the part of the trail that was labelled “moderate” in difficulty. I guess, the “moderate” difficulty rating was a let down because, the badlands, while a beautiful natural place, is not a place with a lot of terrain. There simply isn’t 1,000 ft. worth of incline to find.



Difficulty ratings for hikes have no set standard. How any place labels it’s hikes is completely to the discretion of the park. It reminds me of the differences we observe between ski trails labeled green vs. blue vs. black at different ski resorts. Some of the easiest black diamond ski trails I have skied in Wisconsin may even be considered green if they were to be in Colorado; certainly, they would at least be blue, not black. So, I guess it is important to understand the relative context of activities while planning them. While occasionally you will run into an activity with a standardization of sorts, like whitewater rafting, it seems like when it comes to most activities, descriptions of difficulty levels are subjective as well as relative.

The biggest waste of time today was driving about five miles out of our way to search for Bison at the Badlands. The reason being that our ultimate destination today was Custer. In Custer we saw so many Bison, and so many up close, that the search for Bison anywhere else today, well, the idea of looking for Bison anywhere else today seems utterly silly at this point in time.



We gave in to the nearly 200 (well, possibly even more) billboards we saw yesterday, and we went to Wall Drug. This place does a really good job of marketing itself, given that the main goal of marketing is to make people aware of your product. The signs, bumper stickers, and such make sure everyone is aware of the existence of Wall Drug. I had heard from others that the place was a gigantic tourist trap and not really worth it, but it is so close that it is worth going and finding out for myself.



The place was actually alright. It was a little bit cheesy. In the front , there is an actual drug store, true to its name. Behind that is a restaurant and ice cream parlor, which is pretty neat. The rest is mainly souvenir shops. Behind the store, there is this kind of old west town that many tourist traps in the high plains have. The only oddity is that they also have a really poor replica of a dinosaur there too. This was advertised on many billboards, so I am glad the delivered on this. But this does not belong right next to a replica of a village from 1880. Time periods should be consistent.

I made one key mistake there. I ate both ice cream and a donut. That is just simply too much sugar, simple sugar. A little over half an hour down the road, I got that sugar crash, and, for about half an hour could barely keep myself awake. This sucked, because the scenery was starting to become really interesting as we approached Rapid City and then drove Southwest on U.S. 16, and the 16-A.



The mountains here (I guess they are referred to as hills), are legit. I mean, the way the look, both from a distance, and up close when you drive into them, are actually not too different from the mountains of Colorado. This, I find somewhat surprising. When people make lists of states with really cool mountains, and I mean really big ones, it does not seem like South Dakota is ever really on that list. At least the association is never really made in my mind. I had always kind of known South Dakota to be kind of more interesting than the other plains states, and known that this area existed. But, it was not until now that I fully realized that the terrain in this area is significant when compared to other places in the country. It’s not as mountainous as Colorado, but it is not insignificant.





Today the sun rose at 5:30, and set at 8:30, for a total of 15 hours of daylight. I kept thinking about how much is possible with all these hours of daylight. It takes generally an hour or so to set up camp, start a fire, and cook. Today, we were able to take showers because we had extra time after cooking. This was after not arriving until nearly 6:00. In most other months, this would not have been possible. All this week, it seems like we had been less stressed, or had gotten more done than we would have in the fall, or some other time of year with less sunlight.

The problem is, June is the best time of year for a lot of things. Storm chasing is good, rafting is good, and with the most daylight possible, camping, touring, and such are all easier. So, how do we take advantage of our Junes. Should we work our asses off at other times of the year so we could get June off? That might cause too much stress at the other end of the year. How do we decide what activities are most deserving of these days? At the very least, the NBA and NHL can stop extending their playoffs into June so people don’t use up this time watching sports.

Oh, and we also saw Mount Rushmore. It was a bit smaller than I expected.

Camping in the Badlands

Today, June 2nd, started with a bang. Following our friends Jason and Allison, after only about 5 minutes of driving, suddenly a large black structure came flying off their vehicle. At first glance, the structure looked like a tire, and I became concerned that they had lost a tire. But, they continued, seemingly unaffected, so I assumed they had just run over an old tire, or old piece of rubber of some kind that was on the road. Either way, they wanted to stop to check things, which turned out to be unexpectedly beneficial. We stopped, still on some county road nowhere near the interstate, and concluded nothing was wrong with their vehicle.

After returning to the car, I suddenly see Allison running back to us with the kind of look on her face that made me think that something could have been wrong. It turns out that I had confused the sad look with the amazed look. Outside their car, sitting on some county road in South-Central (Minnesota that is), they had spotted a baby fox. This baby fox was quite cute. It actually made me think of dogs. It seemed in no way alarmed by our presence- and just presented itself to us, the same way a pet dog would. Had the fox of 60,000 years ago done the same to our forefathers, could the fox have become the pet of choice for humans rather than the evolved wolf (dog)?


The remainder of the drive across Minnesota on I-90 was uneventful. A lot of windmills, that is it. Our first stop off on our journey to the Badlands was in Sioux Falls, SD. I’ve been to this town before. In fact, whenever I see this town, I think to myself that if I were to ever run a city, this is what it would look like, mainly on the count of how many signs that say “CASINO” one encounters here. Of course, they are mainly for places that throw in a slot machine or two, not full-fledged casinos with table games and all, but you still see them. And it makes you think this town is a gambling haven. We encounter a couple of other peculiarities in Sioux Falls. First, the gas station we filled up at had the following “Free Dandelion” sign. I not sure if that was supposed to be a joke or for real. Then, we saw something peculiar from a civil engineering standpoint, an interstate highway, 229, that actually turns into a dirt road (after its’ junction with I-90). From the point of view of someone who did not even know dirt roads still existed until college, but then became all too familiar with them on storm chases. I still think of dirt roads as not belonging in areas near “civilization”.



To break up the drive, we stop at the Mitchell Corn Palace, in Mitchell, which is just over an hour farther down I-90. For over 100 years, they have been building a succession of buildings that are actually made out of corn. Since corn does not last too long, roughly once a year they reconstruct the building with a different theme. The whole practice is rather ridiculous if you think about it. It becomes even more ridiculous when you see that the town’s city hall is actually attached to this building! Imagine being able to say you get to go to a castle every day because you are the mayor of the seventh largest town in South Dakota. Talk about the life.



My party thankfully avoids making all of the corn related puns one could make when visiting a ridiculous exhibit like this. I won’t repeat any of them, but I am sure you have thought of at least four by now. I did enjoy getting my picture taken with “Cornelious”, and buying a corn dog at the concession stand.


South Dakota is pretty dull to drive across until you reach the Missouri River Valley, at the town of Chamberlin. At that point it becomes sort of interesting, but it does not become exciting all at once, the way it happens in Colorado where you suddenly see the mountains in the distance and one of the dullest most barren areas suddenly becomes a playground of infinite adventure possibilities. This transition starts with the Missouri River Valley, and then with some other river valleys that carve out of the land, as is typical in the high plains. Either way, it feels like we are in the West again.


The other gradual transition across the state of South Dakota today was in the weather. Upon entering the state, the weather was similar to the weather we left behind in Iowa/Minnesota. It was chilly for this time of year last night, and we woke up to temperatures near 50 degrees and a thick deck of strato-cumulus clouds. As we transitioned across the state, the strato-cumulus clouds gradually waned, until there were suddenly quite few clouds in the sky. It also significantly warmed across the state, and by the time we arrived at Badlands National Park, it was a comfortable 70-72 degrees with good sun.

Indeed we were in the west. The distance we can see, the dryness, the scenery, everything felt a lot more west than Midwest. I switched I to what I am referring to as “Western mode”, which basically means being more prepared for dehydration and drinking more water. As soon as we arrived at Badlands National Park, we found a couple of really neat scenic overlooks, and then an area with some minor hiking trails. Today’s hike only lasted some thirty minutes and was more of a goofy/exploratory hike. By this, I mean there was no serious burn, no real workout. But we did some goofy things, climb a few rock structures, and went off trail. I even threw a few rocks around to see if I could throw them over some of the gorges. Hikes like this can be fun, even if they don’t build anything.



After hiking we went to our campsite, which was actually within the grounds of the park. This is my first time camping at a National Park! As a result of this, we have the minor inconvenience of not being allowed to have a campfire. But, the bigger inconvenience on this day is the wind. The high plains is known to be a windy place. Sometime in the afternoon, a Southeast wind of around 15 miles per hour, with major gusts, developed. I think for a while sustained winds may have reached 20. The main issue with this has been that it keeps blowing into my tent, and knocking the rods that hold it up out of place. I wonder if I have a sturdy enough tent. They have to make sturdier ones, but, are they tougher to carry? What is truly the best tent to have for hiking, or bicycle touring? Maybe, having the tent be less effective when camping in the wind is just a fact of life. This, of course is somewhat disturbing to me, as Colorado can get windy at higher elevation.


Isn’t it strange how experience often leads us to more questions? I have some camping experience for sure, but to too much. I had never really thought of the odds and ins of these types of situations. I just know that I want the tent to be big enough and comfortable, that is all. Now, I am suddenly in a quandary of thought about a number of factors such as a tent’s weight, it’s reliability, durability, and, of course, how many people it can hold. It’s been said before that for every new question answered, two more are created. I really hope this is not right numerically, as we will never create a closed system of equations if this is the case. But, I do se the reality in answers leading to new questions. So do experiences. In a way, this is the rhythm of life. We meet people, try things, and create experiences. This leads to new inquiry, new ideas, and new methods. Which, leads to new experiences, activities, and people. The cycle goes on and on. The same is true of work, leisure, pretty much any area of life. Getting into this rhythm will create a life that will continue to perform, be motivated, and advance.


After a visit to the visitors center where we determine a good hike for tomorrow, and a brief incident that involves me actually breaking our pants, our day ends with an evening presentation at the amphitheater about the black footed ferret, and then some star gazing with some heavy duty telescopes available at the park. This activity was an unexpected possibility at Badlands National Park. I learned about why this area is called the “Badlands”, and a lot about the history of the black footed ferret as well as the prairie dog. Then, we got to look at Saturn in this telescope, which was really quite awesome. Their telescope was so advanced that you could see the ring formations around Saturn, as well as some of its moons.

Overall, it was a very productive day. It is hard to believe that so much of it was spent on a fairly boring road. Tomorrow will involve less driving and more activities, which I look forward to. But, today’s activities were so diverse and the day was so full that I hope I can absorb them all, as well as the frenzy of thought they all put me in, in time to enjoy tomorrow’s to their fullest.