‘…wild flowers should be enjoyed unplucked where they grow.’- Teddy Roosevelt
If you don’t understand the title of this post, allow me to translate: “Makhóšiča” is Lakota for – “bad land”, “les mauvaises terres à traverser” is French for – “the bad lands to cross” and the Spanish say tierra baldía – “waste land”. No matter which language you use to represent it, the Badlands of South Dakota may be ‘bad’, but are truly solitary in their spirit, tenacity and geographic location. Much like the hoodoos in Bryce National Park, the Badlands are home to sedimentary rocks that have been eroded over time to produce unique and other-worldly formations and are teamed up with the largest mixed grass prairie in the United States. The marriage between the two, vastly different terrains is a striking and beautiful pairing.
There are a few established trails by the visitors center, but the best way to see the Badlands is to drive through them. We proceeded to our back country camp site at Sage Creek, about an hour into the park on the west side. During our visit, we encountered several different forms of wildlife: mangy big-horn sheep, cattle (there is private land very close to the park road) and possibly the cutest animal in the prairie states, the prairie dog. However, none of our wild life sightings in all of our national park adventures could prepare us for what happened as we set up our tent for the night. I stood up to admire our tent-pitching handy work to see a bison walking 15 feet behind rw2! After blinking a few times to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating, I calmly asked him to turn around. At this point, the bison was between rw2 and the camera (in the car) so we waited for him to continue on before snapping a few photos. He proceeded to slowly wander through the campground and head for nearby Sage Creek. Wow.
We filled the morning with short walks along the established trail area, but soon ended up on a much different path. Notch trail is 1.5 miles of badlands hiking at its best. Through a canyon to a steep log ladder had us scrambling over rocks to the “Notch” that awarded us with a gorgeous view of the prairie from high up in the grayish Pierre shale. In the early afternoon, a ranger-lead fossil talk filled us with visions of long ago creatures that inhabited this area when it was a shallow sea.
From frightening creatures of 25 million years ago to a much more recent scare… the Minuteman Missile Historic Site just north of the park is a sobering look into the Cold War. 31 feet below the surface is the launch control center, Delta One (D-01) for the Delta Nine (D-09) missile silo located a mere 11 miles away. Several sites like this existed to deter a nuclear first strike from the Soviet Union. This complex was on alert for nearly 30 years until President George Bush and soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in 1991. All sites of the complex, except a single deactivated launch facility (D-09) and deactivated launch control center (D-01) to be preserved as Cold War historic sites, were destroyed in 1996.
Unable to push on due to rain near Glacier National Park, our second day in the Black Hills area had us seeking an alternative to hiking on top of the mountains, crawling underneath them. To me, caves are one of the coolest geologic features in the natural world and as rw2 can attest, I just can’t get enough. Wind Cave was discovered by local brothers in 1881, but the opening has been known to the Lakota (Sioux) for centuries and is still considered a sacred site. It is the 4th longest cave system in the world at 119 miles of explored cave but it is estimated that they have only discovered a mere 5% of the total cave! Wind Cave is home to 95% of a unique form of calcite formation called boxwork and it is a prime characteristic of the cave.
We finished our trip in and around the badlands with a trip to Wall Drug. We hadn’t planned on visiting, but when we found ourselves in need of a spot to flight plan and have lunch, Wall Drug fit the bill perfectly. I wouldn’t say you should make a point to go out of your way to see Wall Drug, but if you’ve been there you know what I’m talking about and if you haven’t… you probably don’t need to.