The Not-So Badlands


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Published: August 7th 2007
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Baked EarthBaked EarthBaked Earth

The dry heat causes the earth to crack after seasonal rains muddy the landscape.
A dramatic shift in the landscape from grassy plains to sharp, jagged spires which seem to rise out of nowhere announce our presence in the Badlands. With a name like 'the badlands' you would think of it as nothing more than a barren wasteland, but there is actually an abundance of flora and fauna if you keep your eyes peeled. The rains that came through last week caused the prickly-pear cacti to bloom and their yellow and red flowers dot the landscape, but now it's hot and dry. The previously muddy ground has now been baked by the sun and does not yield to our footprints.

Before we do much exploring, we try to get a campsite at the free first-come, first-serve Sage Creek Campground. It's a bit of a drive from the main visitor area (about 20 miles), but the remote setting ensures that it's fairly peaceful and quiet, if you consider a buffalo roaming around between the picnic tables when we arrive peaceful. The sound of the birds and evening sun make this place the most relaxing we've been too. It seems like we're finally here, finally settled, at least for a few more days. We cook up
Sago LilySago LilySago Lily

The root is starchy and can be eaten like a potato.
the remainder of our sausage and jambalaya from Lanesboro and sit down for a hearty meal. We can spend hours sitting and staring out over the hills. It's quiet and contemplative; there's nothing to distract us from our own private thoughts. A herd of buffalo appear on the hillside to the south. There are at least 100, maybe more, and it's an awe inspiring sight to think that just a few hundred years ago millions of these beasts roamed the grassland.

The sun sets over the hills of the wilderness area and I can feel my entire body relax. Andras isn't so lucky. He is awoken in the middle of the night by sounds of heavy breathing and soft mumbling sounds. As he sits up straight in the bed, he realizes that the herd of buffalo we had seen grazing before we went to sleep have migrated down into the camp. Before long, the soft mumbles become decipherable as the loud grunts of the massive animals communicating back and forth. A large bull sniffs under the corner as his fur brushes up walls of our tent. It's an eerie feeling knowing that just a thin layer of polyester separates us from these beasts. He prayed no one would wake up and startle them. Shortly after his thoughts, a zipper zzzzzipps somewhere in the night and they start to gallop away. He breaths a sigh of relief that his first experience with buffalo, up close and personal, is over. When he tells me in the morning I am extremely jealous that he didn't wake me up so that I could have experienced it as well as he says that he purposfully tried not to wake me up because he thought I'd be frightened, not thrilled. He has a good point; earlier that evening I had tried desperately to get him not to walk so close to the animals on the other side of the road, reminding him that the park service mandates we stay at least 100 yards away for our own safety. So maybe I would have been more scared than excited; still, what an experience!

That next morning we head out to explore the Badland wilderness. There's an off-trail policy in the area so we're free to wander where we wish. The sun beats down on the parched earth below our feet as we head south to explore the banks of Sage Creek. Aside from the soft thump of grasshoppers hitting our legs and the crunch of the dry prairie soil beneath our boots, there is no sound to be heard--no other human as far as the eye can see. All the other campers left earlier this morning. We are completely alone is the backcountry. The Badlands title can be decieving. Although the rock buttes in the Cedar Pass area of the park seem otherworldy, the majority of the parks acerage is a designated wilderness area. From the interstate, there would be no way of knowing that the grasslands that stretch out towards the horizen do not continue to do so, but here we find ourselves walking along seasonal creek beds flanked by cottonwoods and along the ridges of rocky hillsides. The silence is broken by the 'yip yip' of prairie dogs announcing our arrival. Homesteaders had dramatically altered the range and habitat of these creatures in argicultural areas but here in the wilderness, they've roamed with little population control. With the reintroduction of the near extinct Black Footed Ferret to its natural habitat, the prairie dog population should once again back under a more natural form
Paleosols at Dillon PassPaleosols at Dillon PassPaleosols at Dillon Pass

Exposed areas of the Yellow Mounds fossil soil and red interior paleosol represent the changing environmental conditions from sea to jungle.
of maintainance.

After our morning hike, we drive back to the visitor center to explore the buttes and sandstone structures for which the park is known. Several layers have been deposited here over the years, and it's estimated that as a erosion rate of up to a 1 cm a year, the entire landscape will have worn away in the next 500,000 years. The erosion isn't necessarily a bad thing; this area is the worlds richest Oligocene fossil bed and with each passing year, new specimens are unearthed and discovered. In 1993, the 'Big Pig Dig' was discovered by two tourists and today you can see the paleontological excavation taking place underneath the tents by students from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. The animal has been identified as a Subhyracodon, a hornless rhinoceros. Other fossils of perhistoric deer, horses and turtle have also been found in the area leading archaeologists and paleontologists to the conclusion that this area was a spring-fed watering hole, similiar to those in Africa.

On our way out of the park, we have to stop at Wall Drug. Some neighboring campers the other night had told us that it was nothing more than a huge over-priced tourist trap, but we'd seen roadside billboards advertising it for over 300 miles so we have to see what the fuss is about (although really, I guess that defines a tourist trap). It is nothing more than a huge over priced store, but we slide our nickels into the drop box for the advertised 5 cent cup of coffee and sit a spell. Wall Drug became a hit when the owner decided to offer free ice water to passing motorists as a way to draw them in. The ice water is not longer hand poured, and doesn't actually contain ice (it is drawn from a well and still had that soapy basic slickness that all the ground water has here) but it is still free.

Wall is also the location of the National Grassland Visitor Center, which services all the grasslands in the country. We stop in and look at the exhibits on the effects of the homesteaders, invasive species and wildlife (they're actually worth the stop if you're in the area!). Most interesting is what we learn about the importance of the native prairie. Prairie grasslands exists when water is too poor to support trees but too abudance to become a desert. When settlers moved west, they began to till the fields for agricultural use. Without the matted root systems of the grasses to hold the soil in place, the land simply dried up and blew away leading to the Great Dust Bowl. Many efforts are in place today to re-establish prairie land as a way to protect this fragile ecosystem.

We buy some buffalo meat at one of the grocery stores on the way out of town on our way towards Buffalo Gap National Grassland. We turn off the highway onto a dirt and gravel road heading towards Fairmont. Neither of us realized there were still cities in the US you had to access on a non-paved road but out here in middle-America there appear to be plenty. The road follows the dry bed of French Creek which is our only indication that we're still heading the right way. None of these roads appear on our maps and it was only based on educated guessing that I assumed a campsite was out this way. The creek was probably flowing heavily a few days ago when the rains rolled through, but already
Bison in the CampsiteBison in the CampsiteBison in the Campsite

A little too close for comfort!
it looks as though it hasn't seen water in weeks. The dry mixed grass prairie is also thirsty for water and a severe fire warning is in effect. We set up camp under the only shade tree near a fire pit and already need to rest. We're not used to this heat! We have five gallons of water to last us until tomorrow. I had initally thought this would have plenty but by the time we've set up camp, we've already eagerly consumed almost a whole gallon in effort to quench our thirst.

Another adventurer rolls into the campsite. How do people know of this place? Here we thought we'd be the only people crazy (or cheap) enough to head out here in the middle of nowhere and thought we'd be all alone. What's the big draw? Agates. We didn't know it, but we've set up camp next to prime agate beds. The walk up the road leads us to something we are completely unprepared for--mountainsides covered in chert, quartz and agate. I reach down and grab a handful of tiny sparkling quartz crystals. They glitter in the hot mid-day sun a thousand tiny gemstones scattered on a beach. These stones have been left behind by the serious agate hunters but for amateur rock hounders , treasures abound! On government land outside of national parks they are free for the taking. Out in the hills 4-wheeler tracks criss-cross the land where merchants gather huge quantities to sell; new policies are in the works to keep the area restricted to foot and livestock traffic in order to protect the minerals for enthusiasts to enjoy they way they were originally intended.

Again we find there is plenty of natural attractions to fill the hours. Sunflowers, cacti, buffalo grass, blue gramma and dozens other species lay out across the plains. As the sun sets out over the hills it's peaceful, but we have a big day tomorrow so we have to rest up. We're heading to Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills! Andras can't wait to see the monument. He's mentioned more than once it's the place he's looking forward to seeing the most so I hope it lives up to our expectations!



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