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  • Writer's pictureInger and Jeff Latreille

Divided Prairies

~Sunday, May 29, 2022~

Day 714

It seems quite a few campers are making their exodus from our quiet Badlands perch before the holiday weekend is over. Maybe they’re all trying to get out of dodge before the bad weather arrives tomorrow. Still a few remain…..a mix of motorhomes, sprinter vans, truck campers, 5th wheels and even tents, favoring the boondocking lifestyle.

Yes we are keeping our eye on this storm that is set to hit The Plains, starting tonight, ie. golf ball size hail, possibly a few F-2 tornadoes, ‘ya know…the small stuff. 😬Though we don’t wish these on anyone, we hope we’ll be west of its fury, or hope it’s all together a dud. But in case there are muddy roads tomorrow, we wanted to tour the Badlands Wilderness area today. For starters….the Pinnacles Overlook, and pretty crowded I might add. But it IS Memorial weekend after all. Even though we have some views of the Badland Wilderness area from our campsite, it took standing at the Pinnacles section to make me understand why it was given such a name in the first place…..endless peaks and valleys in such a desolate, sort of mysterious atmosphere.

It’s rugged, but ethereal. Yet, it holds a beauty all its own. The layers and layers of peaks look almost sand castle-like. Do you remember the classic Magic Sand Toys from the early 70’s (that is if you’re old enough to remember); you know, where you would add colored sand to a fish-bowl sized container of water and it would form these other-worldly shapes. That’s what The Badlands remind me of, minus the color. Gray skies and the Badlands really don’t mix, as they are presented very monotone. You really need sunshine and a few clouds to get the full drama of the peaks and valleys.

By late afternoon, we’d know the real story of how this unusual land was formed. It took a series of events over tens of millions of years to create what we see today. Believe it or not, about 75 million years ago, the Earth’s climate was warmer than it is now. Splitting the North American continent in half, was a shallow sea called the Western Interior Seaway covering the region we now call the Great Plains.

The bottom of that sea (the oldest rock) is called Pierre shale which we see as gray/black. This is of course where the sea fossils are buried… dinosaurs here. The next event over millions of years was the building up of the ancestral Rocky Mountains (woo-hoo..where we just came from!). With the mountains growing taller/bigger, this caused the interior “Seaway” to retreat and drain away, thus exposing the area to sunshine and air which over time, became a dense subtropical forest. It would remain in this state for millions of years until it became a dry, arid land. For close to 500,000 years (not very long in the grand scheme), rivers, rain and wind have been eroding sedimentary deposits, even volcanic ash, carving this landscape into fantastic forms. In fact, scientists have calculated that there is about 1-inch of erosion occurring annually.

But as we toured the gravel/dirt road of Sage Creek Rim, part of the 50-mile long Wall which divides the park into an upper and lower prairie, we would come to see a whole other world, one teeming with wildlife…..buffalo, prairie dogs, mule deer, and bighorn sheep.

Even the near extinct black-footed ferret is making a comeback just as the bighorn sheep and bison have. This rim road basically is what divides the Badlands from the Buffalo Gap National Grassland. The prairie dogs don’t seem to mind sharing territory with the buffalo. And we don’t mind watching them. We are so fortunate to be here in the Spring with the contrast of the neutral colored banded peaks and the rich green grasses of the prairie. Did you know that prairies in general dominate a landscape that is too dry to support trees or that is too wet to be a desert? And at one time sprawled across ⅓ of North America? Amazing!

As we made our way west in the park, on the rim road, we were eventually connected to Sage Creek Road where we were met with our first introduction to frost heaves. We might as well get used to it since we’ll be seeing a lot of those in Alaska. Should be lots of fun when towing. At least the ones here give you a bit of a heads up with their orange warning flags marking their location, to give you plenty of time to slow down. Eventually we were connected to Highway 44 (just south of the national park). This dirt highway took us right through the middle of the Buffalo Gap Grassland. The few homes that we saw, surrounded by acres and acres of farmland, likely belong to generations of ranchers. Just gorgeous.

Our goal was to get to the visitor center by 4:30 but when we pulled up, the sign said it was closed at 4:00. Ugh! What a strange time to be closed. Glad to know we at least have another opportunity. Since the visitor center and the Cedar Pass Campground are right next to each other, we thought we’d capitalize on water availability. I know it sounds strange for some of you to hear this. But water is not always easy to come by when boondocking, making us value this precious resource that much more. When we got to the campground entrance, we mentioned that we were boondocking just outside the park to which he waived the $2 guest fee. Thank you sir! I guess boondocking counts as a camper of the park!

Not being early birds, we sure love the longer days, allowing us to fit in more sightseeing. We stopped by the Fossil Exhibit Trail around 6:30, a raised boardwalk that meanders through an archaeological preservation site where they have several interpretive signs and bronze casts of prehistoric animals in the positions they were discovered during excavation; from very small to enormous. Some lived in the subtropical forests, others lived in the savannahs and grasslands that followed years later. Deerlike, sheeplike, pig-like, hippo-like and some, descendents of domesticated dogs. But they share one thing in common…..adaptation.

Our last view of the day was the Yellow Mounds Overlook near Dillon Pass. These less rugged, smooth “hills” with their jewel-toned colors sort of reminded me of Neapolitan ice-cream. It was so great to finally get our own take of this unique place, to observe and appreciate the unique landscape and the animals that live in it. As I mentioned before, being in The Plains in the Spring is ideal, but a bit risky in terms of the weather. Thank goodness, and not by chance, this will be the furthest east we’ll be for the remainder of the year.

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