Friday, October 07, 2005

Badlands Natl Park

“Otherworldly”. “It’s like landing on Mars”. “This must be where they do all the lunar movies”. These were the types of things we were saying to each other as we hiked the trails of the Badlands.

Even the Lakota Indians called this area “mako sica” for “bad lands to cross”. And, no wonder. With erosion having created deep crevices, limestone bridges, crumbling ridgelines, and steep slopes, it must’ve been impossible to cross this region. Not to mention the lack of water. The clay earth is cracked. Any puddles are chalky white or muddy red. And, in a rainstorm the ground would turn to “gumbo”. Our translation for this term would be a “clay quicksand”.

The one thing I found fascinating is that there is a Badlands Wall. Imagine a “Z” formation: a prairie on the lower level, then a sloping wall of limestone and clay, and then a prairie at the top. So, when we hiked up Saddle Pass, which scales the Wall, I expected there to be a back-side to this “mountain”, but that’s not the case. You are all of a sudden plopped onto the High Prairie. Hiking the upper Castle Trail and Medicine Root Trail are relatively flat hikes in the High Prairie. There are 8 hikes within the north unit of the park. We did them all in the day and a half we explored here. Most of these trails are in the eastern half which is quite dramatic. But the park is “open”. You are actually permitted to hike anywhere off-trail you would like. We did a little off-trail walking when we found something of interest to explore further. But there’s the fear of getting lost in this maze of buttes and crevices or slipping off of a high ridgeline.

We drove the Badlands Loop Road and Sage Creek Rim Road and stopped at the overlooks. The drive is nice because there are so many different types of formations in the park: spiky spires and outcroppings, grassy buttes, Spanish skirts, yellow mounds, etc. And there is quite a bit of wildlife to be seen: Pronghorns feeding on the nutritious short grasses in the Prairie Dog towns, mule deer in the prairies, and big horns relaxing on the rim of the Wall. Out of the 400 bison that are supposed to reside here in the park we saw a whopping ONE. And, we were constantly on the watch for the venomous Prairie Rattlesnake, but never came across any – I guess that’s a good thing.
Here's one of the thousands of prairie dogs...
And a baby bighorn with tiny stumps starting to grow...
And my favorite, a bighorn sitting on the edge of the wall enjoying the view.

We did find fossils, and I’m not talking about the replicas at Fossil Exhibit Trail. During a respite, we sat down and once I started to look around me I started to see small shells and things that looked like corals and sponges. Our first fossil find! We even found several of this type of critter – fish or shell, I’m not sure:

We didn’t venture into the South Unit of the park. There’s only one short scenic drive and no designated hiking trails. Considering this area was previously used by the military as a bombing range, and there are still unexploded ordinances out there, we decided to pass for now.

The battle, or massacre, of Wounded Knee was not too far away from here. It’s just a few dirt roads south into the Pine Ridge Reservation. I understand there’s talk of the Lakota building some kind of a memorial, but for now there’s nothing to see. The history in the West is very interesting, but sometimes it is hard to stomach the things that we did to each other. Wounded Knee was where several hundred Lakota Indians were massacred as they were en route to, of all places, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.


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