South Dakota’s Badlands . . .

It was a Tuesday morning, early June. We’d reached Chamberlain, South Dakota on the banks of the Missouri River the evening before, having traveled down from St Paul, MN in glorious sunshine. To the west, however, there was an ominous glower in the sky that was already beginning to darken by breakfast-time. Checking the Weather Channel we learned to expect some thunderstorms as we crossed the Great Plains towards our next destination: the Badlands.

Stormy weather? That was that half of it. At one point it was raining so heavily I had to pull off the highway (I90) at one of the designated viewpoints. Not that we could see anything. However, after about 30 minutes we were able to continue our journey, and later found out that we had skirted the northern edge of a major storm tracking across the plains from west to east, accompanied in some places by baseball size hailstones. Luckily we missed those, and by the time we reached the Badlands National Park, the storm had passed, the skies brightened (a little) and we were able to enjoy the Badlands formations in all their glory.

Having now traveled across the Great Plains for several hundreds of miles, my respect has increased enormously for the early pioneers who crossed these open spaces in the 19th century on their way to the west coast, in California and Oregon, to make a better life for themselves. Not only did they have to combat the natural obstacles of the landscape – the plains, the Rockies, and the Sierra Nevada – but also hostility from the native Americans whose land they were crossing. When the era of the building of the transcontinental railway began in the 1860s, tensions and hostilities multiplied, but by the 1890s the various native American tribes had been defeated (massacred in many instances), moved to reservations, and their nomadic way of life (along with the vast herds of bison) had disappeared for ever.

Surrounding the Badlands is the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, and one can imagine what the Great Plains must have looked like in their original pristine state. There are also some important Indian reservations to which various tribes were banished in the last quarter of the 19th century – Wounded Knee is quite close by as well, where the infamous massacre took place in December 1890.

Leaving I90, you turn south to reach the Badlands National Park Northeast Entrance, passing by Minuteman Missile National Historic Site – which we didn’t bother to visit. We were much more interested in beautiful landforms, that echoed our visited in 2011 to Arizona’s Painted Desert (although it is much warmer there). The winds really blow on the Great Plains.

In the park we took the main Loop Road, but then continued on the Sage Creek Road for about 5 miles before turning north and rejoining I90 at Wall.

All the main viewpoints (‘overlooks’) are well sign-posted, the views spectacular, and on the day we visited, the contrast between the landscapes and the sky gave us some pretty dramatic images to cherish. Stretches of grassland are home to a herd of bison, and you are left wondering what these areas must have looked like in the mid-19th century when these magnificent beasts could be counted in their millions.

All in all, South Dakota’s Badlands are worthy of anyone’s time – they are truly magnificent.

A close encounter of the igneous kind . . .

I posted my first story about our USA vacation, across the Great Plains to Yellowstone National Park, at the end of June. A lot of things have generally kept me away from my blog over the past couple of months, but once my commitments to the 4th International Rice Congress are completed by the beginning of November, then I’ll be able to turn my attention full-time to this personal blog.

I’ve decided not to write the account of our trip in chronological order. Each day was different, with new sights to see, places to explore.

On Day 4, we left the beauty of South Dakota’s Black Hills and headed north through Spearfish Canyon into southeast Wyoming. Our destination? Devil’s Tower, that iconic volcanic plug immortalized in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

While our vacation route followed I90 more or less the whole way, we could make diversions from that artery to explore various places that took our fancy. When I was planning our trip way back at the beginning of the year, I discovered that Devil’s Tower, in northeast Wyoming, was a relatively short diversion (in USA road travel terms) north of I90.

Heading west and cresting a low hill on the undulating plains, there was Devil’s Tower dominating the landscape on the distant horizon. It’s certainly a feature that you can’t mistake for anything else. And as we approached it just seemed to rise up in majesty from the surrounding countryside. This was our first glimpse of the rock, and we pulled into a viewpoint lay-by to have a picnic lunch.

Being a bright sunny day, with hardly a cloud in the sky, Devil’s Tower was quite busy as one might expect, but not as busy as it was likely to become later on in the season once the school-age children were on vacation. Parking, right at the base of the Tower, was easy and plentiful, and it was just a short 100-200 m walk from there to the Tower itself. And somewhat extraordinarily, this is as far as most visitors reached. Steph and me like to get our money’s worth, and decided to circumnavigate Devil’s Tower on the Tower Trail, a walk of about 1½ miles.

Once we were only about 100 m round the south side of the rock, there were hardly no visitors, and we had the place to ourselves. Peace and silence, generally. Just the tweeting of birds in the bushes, and calls of falcons soaring along the sides of the rock itself.

Devil’s Tower is sacred to many Native American tribes, and visitors are requested to respect any artifacts that might have been placed there. In 1906, Devil’s Tower became the first national monument, proclaimed by President Theodore Roosevelt.

I guess we must have left Devil’s Tower around 16:30 after about three hours. Distances can be so deceptive on a road map, and I anticipated it would take about 15 minutes to travel to I90. In fact it was nearer 40 miles. And then when we did reach I90 we discovered that Sheridan (our base for that night) was a further 127 miles! No matter. I put the Kia into cruise mode, and off we headed through some rather bleak terrain (it reminded me of the Pennines in the UK), and one of the world’s largest coalfields near Gillette, WY. But as we descended towards Sheridan, there to the west were the Bighorn Mountains which, at that time, we had not figured on visiting. We changed our itinerary later in the trip, as you can read soon in another post.