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Happy Birthday, America. This Is What We Came For.

Posted on | July 13, 2016 | 1 Comment

If there’s one piece of advice that I can give you about visiting the National Parks, it is this:

Do NOT start with the Badlands.

Maybe it’s because we had been driving for so long and come so far, surviving stinky feet, bad gas (not the kind that you get at a gas station) and eating Goober Grape sandwiches in the backseat.  It could be because the Badlands are so open and accessible and the kids can disappear up the trails as soon as their feet hit the ground.

But probably it is because the Badlands are exactly what we came for—-so different, so foreign, so “other.”  We have forests and water falls and mountains and beaches in our state.  But this….

no, we do not have this.

We drove the Badlands Loop Rd, stopping for hikes and overlooks.

The Saddle Pass Trail is a hike straight up into the steep crags that was originally used as a shortcut for settlers to reach the town of Interior.  We were hiking it backwards, starting at the Interior side and headed for the lands where the settler built their homes.

It says something about the life of early settlers that climbing through this terrain was considered a “shortcut.”  You know, an easier, quicker way.

Only when we reached the other side did we realize the Badlands was such a study in contrasts.  For up there, the burning heat and the stark crumbly rock walls gave way to cool breezes and a green ocean, dotted with pronghorn, rolled away into the horizon.

Turns out coming down is much quicker as the loose scree on the trail allows you to jog down quickly, relying on dumb luck and youthful balance and energy to keep from slipping and falling.

Unless you opt for the more careful, safe, and ever graceful crab walk.  For those of us who are old, without youthful balance and energy, and want to have all our limbs intact for hiking Yellowstone.

On the Fossil Exhibit trail we found an abundance of bunnies nibbling on the tufts of grass.

We also met the first of many tourists that did not follow the National Park rules.  Apparently, it doesn’t matter if the tourists were given a copy of the rules as they entered the park.  Or if the rules are posted at the entrance to the trail.  Or if the rules are listed on the many signposts along the trail.  We even tried making loud, disgusted comments about tourists that don’t follow the rules in their non-compliant presence.  And directly telling other tourists that they were violating park rules.  All to no avail.   These particular tourists brought their dogs onto the Fossil Exhibit Trail where they promptly chased off all the adorable bunnies.  Despite the signs explicitly stating “No Dogs on Trail”.  The National Park service is seriously considering limiting or placing visitor caps on the National Parks and I know exactly which tourists need to get bounced first.

We made our way through Burns Basin, and the Ancient Hunters Overlook, and the Yellow Mounds.  The majority of the Badlands had interesting red and grey striations in the the rock formations….

but the Yellow Mounds had their own distinct color.

We made the Pinnacles just as the light started to fade.

But we weren’t the only ones headed there….

The bighorn sheep were on their way to their sleeping spots for the night.  Some of them had closer, and less precarious, sleeping spots….

than others.

We stayed at the Pinnacles for along time.  Until the sun was gone….

and the sheep were just silhouettes with the mountaintops all to themselves.

So you’re probably wondering why, after such an amazing day, I don’t suggest making the Badlands the first National Park stop on a family trip out west.  After all, the Badlands remained everyone’s favorite park, despite everything we saw after it.  For the rest of the trip, we hiked to rock formations, sat beside waterfalls, and wandered among pronghorn and said,  “Cool.  I mean, it’s not the Badlands, but….cool.”  So maybe save the Badlands for last.  Just to make the trip to Mount Rushmore a little more worth it.  Because we spent the night in Wall, South Dakota and filled up on homemade doughnuts before heading for Keystone.

And when we got to Keystone we stood at the base of Mount Rushmore and thought that it was a lot smaller than we expected.  And we said, “Well, it sure isn’t the Badlands, but, you know, it’s cool.”

We got well acquainted with Mount Rushmore as we stayed in the adjoining Custer State Park, where Mount Rushmore could be seen from a million angles.

Along the road….

through tunnels….

through trees….

from far away….

and, sometimes, right, overhead.

At Custer we had our first hiking fail.  We set off on the trail to Little Devil’s Tower with 6 bottles of water and a backpack full of snacks.  Since it was late afternoon I figured whining for food would ensue as soon as we were at the top.   I was right about the whining.  But after a torturous ascent, everyone was complaining about the lack of extra water.  Turns out when it’s 90 degrees and all uphill, no one wants peanut butter crackers or almond granola bars.  But a few (like 10) more bottles of water would be appreciated.  There was also complaining about the view.  Because we had  no idea which rock was Little Devil’s Tower.  We saw this:

and this:

And everyone panted, thirstily and said, “Well, it sure isn’t the Badlands, is it?”

We hiked down into the shelter of the pines and to the base of the Cathedral Spires to the accompaniment of a bull elk bellowing through the woods.

I assured everyone we could refill our bottles at the Spires trailhead bathrooms.  Too bad the bathrooms consisted of a hut over a hole in the ground without any running water.  Which made us finally abandon the woods and set out on foot down the Needles Highway.  There might be little bit of shame in leaving the rugged trail for the smooth easy path of the pavement.  But it did give us an excellent close-up view of the Eye of the Needle.

And we got to stop traffic, making the cars wait, in order to pass through the tunnel.  With so many vehicles present, we thought about trading the passengers our peanut butter crackers for water, but that seemed even more shameful than walking on the road.

Thank goodness when we arrived at Sylvan Lake we found the hotel ice in our car cooler had melted into chunks just the right size for making bottle after bottle of ice water.  The crowds of swimmers and boaters had dissipated during our hike and we had the still, cold, blue water almost to ourselves for soaking our hot, tired feet.

The whiniest were left at Custer State Park Game Lodge to veg out in front of electronics while the rest of us took advantage of the approaching dusk to drive the Wildlife Loop.  We were rewarded with birds….

prairie dog towns,…

mule deer….




and, then, in a moment that finally struck the Badlands from our thoughts, we came across a hillside of bison.  Bison in the wild.  Enough bison that if we sat in the approaching darkness and listened to the wind make its way through the grass, we could almost imagine what it used to be like.  And that is what we came for.

We slept well that night.  And Custer State Park started to give the Badlands a run for the money.


One Response to “Happy Birthday, America. This Is What We Came For.”

  1. Andrew
    July 13th, 2016 @ 1:45 pm

    I was once a park ranger in a national park. Ask me about tourists who don’t follow rules or common sense.

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