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Musings From Badlands National Park

The beauty of the badlands really "pops" under the early morning, and late afternoon, sun. Lee Dalton photo.

Wind never seems to stop blowing at Badlands National Park. But in summer, that’s a good thing because it provides a little relief from the heat.

There’s no shade in the campground at Cedar Pass, save for westward facing sunshades over each picnic table. They face west to provide shade when most campers will need it in late afternoon and while cooking supper.

Folks who know this kind of country often carry personal swamp coolers with them. A little spray bottle that can be used to spritz a bit of water on the head and neck and face provides a portable personal evaporative cooler. Nice! Works well when the thermometer reads 104 and relative humidity is probably in negative numbers.

Visiting the sprawling park in an air-conditioned car sure beats the way travelers on the various pioneer trails through South Dakota and Nebraska had to do it. It’s hard to imagine wool suits and long skirts and petticoats when the mercury is crawling in the ninety degree range. It’s hard to imagine the natives who lived in this land of heat and sparse water, until you realize that they, unlike the Europeans who drove them out, had learned through centuries how to do it right.

At mid-day the pinnacles of soft stone appear a drab tan just waiting for evening sunlight or early morning to bring their colors and forms to life. For visitors patient enough to sit quietly in a patch of shade with their spray bottle handy, Badlands is a quiet place to just vegetate and listen to the wind and watch shadows shifting through the day.

Yet the wind is relentless, and it’s not hard to understand how so many of the people who busted sod in this open land commented that the wind could drive one mad. It did drive some to madness, in fact. It was a harsh land then that isn’t any less unforgiving today for those who come unprepared.

Even The Residents Struggle With Heat

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Sunflowers add a colorful contrast to the badlands. Lee Dalton photo.

A trip to a restroom turns up a small rabbit literally sprawled in cool shade on one of few patches of really green grass on the north side of the restroom. It eyes me warily, munches a few more bites of something green as its fur ruffles in the wind. It looks at me as if to say, “Look, human, I’m wearing a fur coat. Don’t expect me to move just for you.”

I head back to camp to grab my camera, but in the meantime a 6-year-old girl in a pink cowboy hat spots the bunny and heads for him with petting in mind. That’s too much and Mr. (or Mrs.) Hare jogs through the sun to a culvert under the campground road.

A little girl makes an exciting find and grouchy adults around her deliver the age-old message of don’t. Sometimes life just isn’t fair for bunnies or small kids.

Searching For Campsites

There are about a 100 campsites at Badlands’ Cedar Pass Campground. They may be reserved, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find one if you don’t have a reservation. Campers arriving without a reserved spot simply look at tags hanging at each site or ask at the entrance station if someone happens to be there. Reservation dates are shown on the tags, and any that are not reserved on dates you will need it are up for grabs.

Probably half the sites have electric hookups. They cost a bit more than non-electric sites, but on a day like today, they have to be worth it. Trouble is, all the electric sites are reserved, and before long I’ll be able to bake cookies on the table inside my portable motel.

Sometimes life’s not fair for big kids, too.

Two miles south of the entrance station at Cedar Pass is the town of Interior. It’s not much of a town, but fascinating just the same. You haven’t seen gas pumps with dials that track gallons and dollars for a long time, have you? There aren’t even slots in them for debit cards. Inside, the store’s few shelves are stocked with some basics watched over by a friendly guy with a long forky beard.

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Buffalo Gap National Grassland.  Lee Dalton photo.

There’s another store in town with a few more items in the way of groceries, but that’s it. Some trailer homes and a bunch of decaying buildings surround a massive white school building that still houses Kindergarten through eighth grades.

I ask at the store what kids do for upper grades and learn they have some options. They may choose from a couple of schools to attend on the “outside,” and may either lodge with someone in town or drive each day. The lady explains that because kids out here can get their driver’s licenses at age 14, most choose to drive. One or two cars can handle all of Interior’s students.

Back inside the park, the day’s searing heat seems to be casting a pall. The visitor center is cool and crowded. People seem almost unwilling to leave and when they do, they hurry to cars and engines and air conditioners come on very quickly.

At the campground, no one moves much except a rather wilted young ranger who wanders from campsite to campsite delivering survey forms for willing campers to complete and mail to (Park Service Director) Jon Jarvis. She appears to be well-adapted to the heat and, despite the sweat that hasn’t evaporated yet from her face and hair, she’s cheerful and even sprightly. There must really be something about that thing called acclimatization.

I ask the "Big Question."

“What effect has the S-thing had on Badlands?,” I ask, referring to the budget sequestration that forced a 5 percent a across-the-board budget cut on the Park Service.

She smiles.

“It has cut into everything,” she says. “Mostly for visitors it means a few less interpretive programs. I think there were about three seasonals who didn’t come back this summer. But most of the cuts are in places where they may not be too obvious. They’ll still hurt in the future, though.”

Then she’s on to the next site and – being a merciful sort of soul – I don’t try to detain her in the heat of day on an asphalt road.

Most of Badlands’ outdoor interpretive offerings are scheduled for very early morning or late evening. See, the Park Service has learned a few things from the animals it protects.

Tonight’s evening program will be provided by the United States Forest Service and a ranger at the visitor center desk promises an inquiring family that Smoky the Bear will be there in person. Wearing an icebag or two somewhere inside that fur suit, I’m guessing.

Why Smoky and why does the Park Service allow this kind of intrusion? Simple. Badlands is surrounded by a National Grassland. Buffalo Gap National Grassland is sort of like a national forest, except its plants are a lot shorter than most the Forest Service tends. It’s also part of the territory where black-footed ferrets are making a remarkable comeback from the edge of extinction.

Still wondering what a National Grassland is? Think of the background in Dances with Wolves. If you’re wondering why the U.S. Forest Service operates grasslands, the answer is obvious. How would United States Grass Service sound?

The sun is riding lower in the west and shadows begin to provide texture to tortured soft stone formations that are the badlands. I eat a quick supper. One that didn’t need to be cooked with heat, and pile into my truck with my camera. Even in late afternoon the air-conditioner makes this photo expedition a lot more pleasant. As I drive west along the loop road, I join a few hundred others whose cameras are clicking away at the wonders we pass.

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Look at the right time of day and you'll spot some of the resident critters. Lee Dalton photo.

The lower the sun slides in the sky, the better the photos will be. It’s cooler now, and the natives who had been shaded up during the day begin to emerge.

A bighorn ram poses in silhouette on top of a ridge and thrills a dozen carloads of cameras. A coyote crosses the road. At the prairie dog town a chorus of barks explains why the little critters were called dogs.

A detour to Wall, S.D., fills a cup with cold pop and I return to the park where a Native American lady ranger at the entrance station asks if I’m enjoying Badlands.

On farther west on a gravel road toward Sage Creek. A waterless campground awaits visitors of a more adventuresome breed. I find it a delightful place and decide that next time I come this way I’ll have to try it out.

A family slowly towing a Coleman trailer down the gravel road stop me and ask if I’ve seen any bison. I tell them that it’s the time of day when the big guys are probably shaded up enjoying a good cud-chewing and advise that they watch for things that look like large brown rocks on the landscape.

Not much farther down the road, a flock of bighorn ewes and lambs graze at the roadside. I stop with some other visitors and try for photos in rapidly fading light. The family with the Coleman in tow passes by without stopping.

I go on ahead and find a place where a herd of a hundred or so Angus cattle have been grazing. A calf has somehow gotten through the fence and into the park where it’s separated from the herd. It bawls pitifully as I pass so when I reach the paved road, I head out to the entrance station and report it to the lady. She seems to know which rancher owns the calf and promises to get word to him somehow.

It’s too dark for any more photos without a tripod so I head back 20 miles to camp. As I approach, I can see light shining on the screen at the amphitheater. Smoky is at work teaching about national grasslands. It has cooled down considerably.

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Sage Creek Campground has no water, but it has some appeal. Lee Dalton photo.

It’s almost comfortable. A good sponge bath is refreshing. It’s late and sleep beckons, but that blasted Jim Burnett has messed my evenings up for me. In Yellowstone I found his books, Hey, Ranger one and two! Blew my budget on them and now I’ve become hooked.

Gotta read some more before sleep will come. Finally, my eyes won’t read any more, so I set the book aside and close them. I’ve decided to push on to someplace where I can find an electric hookup to power my air conditioner. Tomorrow is supposed to be even hotter.

I’ll admit it, I’ve become addicted to comfort in my old age. Next time I visit Badlands, it will be in September. Unless I’m sure I have one of those electric campsites reserved...

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Lee-- Great story--- feels like I was there with you!!

Another good story, Lee. Brings back Badlands memories.

Great trip report Lee. I always knew you had talent as a writer too. Well done!

Was "Smoky" wearing the Smoky hat? I heard FS rangers aren't supposed to wear those anymore... :)

We were there 2 weeks ago and hiked up Saddle Pass trail and walked the Medicine Root loop. We didn't have much time to spend so that was about the extent of our activities but we'll go back sometime when we can really explore. Definitly not going mid July next time. It was hot but the breeze did help.

Nice story, now I know you like Edward Abbey, which is definetly a compliment. The Badlands moved up on my bucket list.

Lee - Nice piece about a park that doesn't get as much attention as it deserves, but you're right about the summer weather--and the wind :-) My wife and I spent a couple of days there several summers ago, and agree that the scenery is definitely at its best in early morning or late evening.

I suspect quite a few people just get a quick sample of the park via a short detour off I-90 en route to someplace else, and therefore tend to see it during the least appealing time of the day.

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