One of my purposes in blogging this trip is to have a record of it, in photos and words. Our family will enjoy re-reading these posts over the years to come. I also want to give friends and family the opportunity to “travel with us” as we go. My other thought, though, is that friends and family who are planning national park trips over the coming years might enjoy learning from our experiences. Hopefully, there will be many things you’d like to copy, but there may even be a few things you’ll want to avoid based upon our experiences.
We arrived mid-afternoon in the Badlands. Wow, what an amazing sight. What struck us most about Badlands National Park is how it pops up out of nowhere. You’re driving along Interstate 90, among grassy plains and flatlands. In the distance, you begin to see some land formations rising in the southwest. You turn south and find yourself in the midst of these austere, dry, colorful (but all in the brown & red range!) mountains and valleys.
Before dinner, we spent some time hiking. For those interested in the details, we hiked an easy trail . . . uncertain at the moment if it was the Door Trail or the Window Trail. And then, we hiked the strenuous Saddle Pass Trail (further along the Badlands Loop Road)that was quite treacherous because of its incline and the sandy gravel of the mountains underfoot. Our 9 year old, by his own choice, descended entirely in a squat position, just to ensure that he didn’t fall down. The next day, he wanted to do it again!
The air in the Badlands is very dry. This is part of what makes them what they are. The ground is dry, but the area is prone to infrequent and strong thunderstorms. We were there for one of these storms. Lightning struck continuously about 10 miles away as we hiked and then the storm came in while we ate dinner. With little water most of the time, little vegetation tends to grow. This allows for easy errosion when the rains come. It is this combination that has produced the landforms that identify the Badlands.
In the midst of these desert-like mountains, we would occasionally found a flower. This is one we found at the top of our strenuous hike. You can see the parched earth underneath and imagine the roots growing deep to find water. Why the sunflower in the midst of the parched earth? A moment of grace in the midst of hardship. It reminded me of those victims I have known in my work as a social worker who have survived horrible life events. What allows some to be survivors and others to be victims? Grace.
Interestingly, the next day, we hiked a different trail that took us up the side of a mountain where a “slump” had been created. A slump is where the side of a mountain has fallen off, creating a flatter area where water has collected and allowed more vegetation to grow. The entire of this mountain was covered with vegetation, including some cacti (in South Dakota . . . who knew!) and many more and much taller sunflowers.
After our hikes, we drove the Badlands Loop, SD Hwy 240. Gorgeous. Drive slowly and make sure the kids are watching. You just don’t see landscape like this anywhere else, especially so close up. It was like being at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, driving along the basin.
We stayed at the Badlands Inn. There is only one accommodation location within Badlands National Park: Cedar Pass Lodge. It is a small grouping of cabins, perhaps about 12 of them, some 2 bedroom. This would have been ideal for us, but the cabins were all booked when we made our reservations. The Badlands Inn is also part of the Badlands National Park accommodations (cedarpasslodge.com), though it is a few feet outside the National Park. The Badlands Inn is really no more than a motel, though it does have a simple, continental breakfast from 7:00 am to 10:00 am. I would recommend either Cedar Pass Lodge or the Badlands Inn for their proximity. You’re right there. You’re surrounded by the Badlands. They’re out your window and right in front of you when you walk out the door in the morning.
We had dinner at the Cedar Pass Lodge Restaurant. The specialty is the Sioux Indian Taco. They also serve various burgers, steaks, chicken and fish. All the full meals come with a salad, roll, vegetables and choice of baked potato, rice pilaf, fruit, or sweet potato fries. The trout was delicious, as were the sweet potato fries. Not to ignore the local favorite, we got an Indian Taco to share as an appetizer: perfect for our family of 5. An Indian Taco is refried beans, cheese, and other toppings such as black olives and onions, all on top of Indian Fry Bread. Ours came with a side of salsa and sour cream. Yum.
The story behind Fry Bread is interesting and sad. In the late 1800s, as many Native Americans were being forced to live on newly formed Indian Reservations, they were not able to maintain their normal means of hunting and eating. The U.S. Government gave them rations, but those rations were often not enough to feed Native American families, partly because those rations were often siphoned before they arrived on the reservations. Fry Bread, a simple, flat bread fried in oil, was one of the foods that families created with the rations they were given. Since that time, Fry Bread has become part of Native American cuisine and culture across the United States. Definitely try some if you have the opportunity.
My word for today is beautiful. The Badlands are stark. They are harsh in many ways, both in weather and in appearance. But the simple beauty of the striated peaks is striking and memorable. Can you imagine the settlers trekking across the prairie grassland in their covered wagons and encountering these peaks? We read that some pioneers left their wagons and continued down into the valley on foot, with their horses. I can’t quite imagine doing what we did on foot, with a horse! I can imagine, though, that the pioneers were struck by the strange and mysterious beauty of these wonderous land forms.