Thursday, June 25, 2015

South Dakota, Part 1: Badlands National Park

My first pass through South Dakota came during my cross-country trip from California to Vermont in the summer of 2000. It was late by the time we entered the western part of the state, so we passed by most of South Dakota under the cover of darkness. I remember looking out the window during that long, dark drive and wondering what the scenery looked like as I sat resolved that I'd probably never get the chance to explore this state again. Fortunately, I was wrong. 

During my most recent road trip with Mrs. Tires in the fall of 2014, I got the full South Dakota experience. I was surprised and delighted by what I saw. We set off from Chicago early on a Saturday, made our way through Iowa and Minnesota and got to South Dakota in the early evening. It was almost dinner time when we approached the exit for the Mitchell Corn Palace. We had previously decided not to stop there because the Palace was undergoing renovations (or as Mrs. Tires put it, it was under corn-struction). However, we were hungry and due for a stop, so we made a spontaneous decision to check it out. 

The Corn Palace is actually a gymnasium that hosts high school sports, but the outside features unique decor - it is covered in murals made entirely out of corn. Some of the murals were still on display, which gave us a sense of what this place is all about, though most of them had been taken down for the renovations. 

From the postcard collection - what the Corn Palace looks like in all its glory
The renovations will greatly enhance this random attraction, and I'll definitely make a second stop to see Corn Palace 2.0 if I have the pleasure of making my way through South Dakota again. 

After a few snapshots, we wandered over to the restaurant across the street, where we shared an outstanding rueben sandwich, the best I had ever tasted. 

Once we were back on our route, we pushed through the remaining three hours of driving. We had reservations at the Motel 6 in Wall, SD, so we had no choice but to keep going despite being pretty road weary at that point. The last few hours were a real challenge. Our vision was getting fuzzy. We ran out of things to talk about. We stopped making sense. We questioned our decision to drive 850 miles in one day. We pushed on.

Eventually we made it to Wall. The hotel ran out of parking spots by the time we got there, so we had to create our own spot near the outdoor pool. We were too tired to care. Our heads hit the pillow and we were out. 

The next day we set out early, as we had two important destinations to hit. The first was Wall Drug, a nearby variety store and roadside attraction. Wall Drug made a name for itself via its many billboards that featured quirky messages and offered free ice water. It's basically the Midwest's version of South of the Border. Beyond the numerous gift shops, cafes and ice cream parlors, Wall Drug features several large plaster statues, including a giant, mountable jackalope.

These are flanked by oddities such as a giant animatronic gorilla that plays the piano for a quarter, and a Disney-like dinosaur that emerges from its pen every twenty minutes to growl and spit smoke. Quite the experience. Add in some taxidermied animals and all the goofy souvenirs you could think of, and you've got the makings of a bonafide roadside attraction. 

From the postcard collection
We had a blast in the hour we were there, and could have stayed longer if we didn't have a bigger, more impressive destination in mind: Badlands National Park. 

From Wall Drug it's a short, straight shot to the Badlands. The main drag starts after a left hand turn past the main entrance, but we started by going right. We were glad we did, as we were greeted by some stunning views.

Most of the park is made up of miles of craggy white rippled hills, some of which feature hues of red, yellow, purple, green and pink. As we stretched our legs and looked out over the land through our brand new binoculars, our mentality instantly shifted. We were reminded of why we came, and finally allowed ourselves to feel like we were really on vacation. While surveying the land, we spotted some bighorn sheep. These majestic animals feature long circular horns that I had previously only seen in books. As we continued on, we saw many more of these awesome beasts. 

We took this route so we could visit Robert's Prairie Dog Town. This remote part of the park features hundreds of small burrowed holes in the ground. As we ventured into the field, we heard the distinct barking of the prairie dogs. One by one, they'd make their way out of their holes and make high pitched and adorable calls to their neighbors. Their tiny faces and high-pitched barks were endlessly entertaining. We wandered through the field and watched them for almost an hour. We tried to get as close to them as we could, but they'd dive into their holes when we got closer than four feet from them. 

While we could have spent an entire day hanging out with these tiny creatures, there was more park to explore, so we said goodbye to the prairie dogs and headed to the heart of the park. The main road is a relatively short 30 miles, but it's lined with one awe-inspiring craggy view after another. The mounds took many shapes and displayed many colors. We hiked around some of the formations and took approximately seventeen million photos. 

This one should look familiar to blog readers

The earth below us during much of our wandering was truly unique. It was as if layers of mud were caked on top of these mounds and then dried, leaving a crackly surface that felt like clay. 

Around noon, we stopped at a recreational area for one of our traditional picnics. 

A right proper picnic, with mustard
After enjoying our sandwiches, we headed to the visitor's center on the east side of the park. It was a fun stop, as it featured a few scientists methodically scraping and chipping away at giant rock formations to uncover the fossils within. Mrs. Tires and I stared at them as they worked, and as we watched, the paleontologists we each wanted to be when we were seven years old awakened from within. Like many places in South Dakota, we could have spent more time there, but we still had some exploring to do. 

The Badlands sport just a small handful of hiking trails. One is several miles long, while the others are all less than two miles each. We set out on Notch Trail right away. I had read about this hike, and knew that while it was just a mile and a half long, it was full of challenges and adventure. I figured it would be a great way to see how capable we were of hiking tough trails while also having some fun. The trail advised visitors to wear proper footwear, so I was glad for the chance to use my newly repaired hiking boots.  

The trail was rocky and winding, and was flanked by grey and white terrain. 

At one point we had to climb a steep and rickety rope ladder. We were proud of our achievement in reaching the top of the latter, and then sat watching in amazement as a couple and their dog made their way up.

We chatted with the couple and adored the dog as we continued on. The views were getting more and more dramatic as the elevation got higher. 

Eventually we reached the clearly marked end of the trail and enjoyed the amazing view. 

Part of the allure of the view was a nest of vultures in the distance. Though these creatures are rather disgusting close up, they were a marvel to watch from afar as they circled their nest. 

The couple with the dog caught up to us, and the pooch made a cameo in one of our photographs. 

Our next hikes were to the "door" and the "window," two large, smooth breaks in the terrain that looked somewhat like their namesakes. 


We still had some energy left, so we headed off on another burly hike down Door Trail, which brought us to the "baddest" of the badlands. It wasn't as adventurous as the first hike, but we welcomed the chance to get a first-hand look at the rocky formations. We were a bit nervous as we set out for this hike, as storm clouds were fast approaching and we didn't want to get stuck in the rain. The clouds added an interesting backdrop to the rock formations. 

As it turned out, we had enough time to complete the trail and get back, and we were even able to enjoy a post-hike beer at the trailhead as the storm got closer. The rain drops started falling as we enjoyed our last sips of Daisy Cutter. 

There were a few more trails we wanted to hit, including Fossil Exhibit Trail, a quick, easy boardwalk trail that passes by some petrified trees. Unfortunately the rain canceled this plan, as well as our plan to watch the sunset at Pinnacle Point. This area is supposed to be top notch for witnessing the last of the daylight, as the sun's rays beautifully reflect off the formations. Next time! As it was, we enjoyed our drive back through the park while we blared the Jurassic Park soundtrack. After exiting the park, we got a glimpse of the setting sun as we headed west towards our next destination. 

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