Around the World... One Journey at a Time. Around the World... One Journey at a Time.

Across the U.S.: Day 51

by Kathy 13. September 2009 20:49

<< Day 50: St. Paul to Mitchell, South Dakota  | Day 52: Badlands National Park to Custer, South Dakota >>

Mitchell to Badlands National Park


Genevieve and Sebastian played miniature golf this morning at the campground.

I could see some definite technique improvements since our first game together in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Our destination today was the Badlands National Park in the southeastern part of South Dakota.

We traveled the interstate highway across the state. There was road construction for miles and miles. On the first portion, the entire right side of the freeway was being torn up, regraded and resurfaced.

The concrete surface was being replaced with asphalt.

On either side of the freeway were fields of grazing cattle.

Rolls of hay:

Occasionally, there were some fields of corn and soybeans. A large corn crop was growing beyond this golden meadow.

The freeway borders contained a barrage of billboards, one right after another, mile after mile.

We crossed the Missouri River near the town of Chamberlain. The river was very wide (wow!) due to a dam far to the south.

There was a railroad bridge spanning the river to the left of the highway.

The land became very bumpy—covered in small, low hills. We could see ribbons of dark soil showing through the prairie grass.

My heart was fluttering away as I gazed at this red barn, with its peeling paint and tilting tower.

This abandoned home spoke to me of space and solitude, though perhaps it was once filled with the joyful sound of children laughing.

While the green trees, thick vegetation and rolling mountains of the eastern United States have been beautiful, I have been yearning for the wide open lands found in the west. Near the middle of South Dakota, we finally reached a point where the grassland stretched into the distance on all sides.

I felt a sense of “coming home,” as if my spirit now had room to expand a bit in the surrounding vastness.

Much of the prairie was part of Buffalo Gap National Grassland.

These lands used to be covered with tremendous herds of buffalo, until thoughtless European-Americans slaughtered them by the thousands in the name of “sport” (and “conquest”) and almost rendered them extinct.

Some of the farms along the road:

Artistic creativity, and humor, blossom everywhere.

Our first view of the “Badlands” in the distance.

The name “Badlands” comes from the Native American Lakota term “mako sica” as well as the French label “las mauvaises terres á traverse.” The Native Americans, however, never viewed the land as “bad” in a negative sense; they viewed the land as “different” from other areas and respected the wildlife that lived here. However, the landscape is undeniably harsh for humans, with rugged terrain and little water.

Entering Badlands National Park:

Our first stop was to secure a camping spot at Cedar Pass campground, past the Visitor’s Center. No advance camping reservations are allowed, and there are less than 100 spots available. We arrived in the early afternoon; the campground was about 2/3 full, and we were fortunate to find one of the last spaces along the outer rim, with a view of the surrounding terrain.

Sights on our way to the campground:

Looking down toward the Visitor’s Center in the distance.

When we stopped at the campground, Genevieve and Sebastian discovered an array of large, colorful (and dead) insects stuck to the front grill of our RV. Here is but one example:

After we had secured our camping space, we set off to explore the Visitor’s Center, which had wonderful exhibits on history, geology and wildlife. Genevieve picked up a Jr. Ranger booklet and spent a lot of time looking for information to complete the nine assignments.

We watched two short films about the Badlands region. We learned that this land was covered by a shallow sea millions of years ago. Then a dense subtropical forest developed on the land. When the climate cooled and dried, the land transformed into grasslands. About 500,000 years ago, water began cutting down into cracks in the layers of rock and soil, carving amazing shapes and exposing ancient fossil soils. Erosion is still ongoing at a rate of about one inch per year. With every rain, more sediment is washed from the rock formations. Scientists estimate that the Badlands will erode away completely in another 500,000 years.

Humans have lived around this area for 11,000 years. The Native American Sioux, or Lakota, arrived here at least several hundred years ago.  (Many historians believe that the Lakota arrived from the east after having been driven out of their homelands by aggressive European Americans.  The Lakota people, however, believe that they have always lived here as a people.) 

The Lakota culture relied heavily on the buffalo to survive, and they used horses, which had been introduced to America by the Spanish in the 1600’s. Although the Lakota entered into treaties with the United States that designated specific lands for them, the United States broke those treaties over and over because of the constant desire for new land and new riches. Eventually, the conflicts between the Native Americans and U.S. soldiers resulted in the shameful massacre of Lakota women, children and elderly at Wounded Knee in 1890. After that, the Lakota were confined to reservations. With the eradication of the buffalo herds, however, and the confinement to a small portion of inhospitable landscape, the Lakota had (and are still having) a difficult time. (At the nearby Pine Ridge Indian reservation, the residents live under conditions of dire poverty, with unemployment currently at 80%. Through the following website, you can make donations of books, clothing, school supplies, and holiday gifts for children who live on the reservation:

At the Visitor’s Center, we all admired this mural entitled “Vanishing American Prairie” by Larry Eifert.

After we had wandered through all of the exhibits at the Visitor’s Center, I was craving a good hike, and Ben desired a nap. Genevieve and Sebastian chose to hike with me. I researched our many hiking options by looking at the park map and visitor’s guide. I finally selected the “Notch Trail”, which was described as a 1.5 mile “moderate to strenuous” hike that meandered through a canyon, climbed a ladder, and then followed a ledge for a dramatic view of the White River Valley. The trail was not recommended for those with a fear of heights. Sounded great to me, and the kids are excellent climbers. Ben drove us to the trailhead, and then settled in for a nap in the RV.

Here is Sebastian pretending to nap with his dad.

Off we went!

The canyon trail provided great views of the pinnacles on either side.

The ladder was quite tall but seemed to be safely anchored.

Looking back toward the ladder:

We all marveled at the giant seams that cut through the rocks, running from one side of the canyon to the other.

The ledge portion of the hike had a couple of areas with slippery rocks, but the trail was fairly wide. I told the children to not look down and to pretend that the area to the left was flat (which is my “secret” technique when riding dirt bikes on narrow trails across steep mountain sides). It worked!

We arrived at the “Notch” lookout in half of the time estimated by the trail guide. The view was indeed spectacular!

A group self-portrait at the Notch:

During the hike back, we stopped to explore some enticing nooks.

Sebastian spied a ground squirrel whose coat of fur blended in perfectly with the surrounding rocks.

My sweet boy:

The children also watched this group of ants feasting on an unidentified substance (which looked like it might have once been a bug):

We were all drawn to this wasp with the bright green eyes.

We also came upon a skinny snake that was about two feet long, basking in the sun on the trail. As soon as I reached for my camera, it skedaddled back to the safety of the grass at lightning speed.

We could see the parking lot in the distance:

Ben hiked up to meet us near the end of the trail. He snapped these photos:

On our drive back to the campground, we saw the other side of the “Notch.” We had been standing up there in the half-circle cutout in the rock wall.

Another view of the Badlands area.

We had a relaxing dinner, eating outside and enjoying the view of the Badlands.

This evening, we attended a ranger program called “Lakota Star Knowledge,” which addressed the connection between (a) the physical land formations that the Lakota considered sacred and (b) the constellations of stars in the sky. The Lakota have deep spiritual connections to many land formations in and around the Black Hills—e.g., Devil’s Tower, Wind Cave, Harney Peak. (Their creation story explains that their ancestors first came to earth through Wind Cave.) The Lakota see the shape of these land formations reflected in the constellations, thus confirming the spiritual connection of land and sky.

The ranger discussion contained a lot of fascinating details—but the presentation was a bit . . . oh, I will use the term “dry.” There were lots of slide projections containing charts and charts of information, and the “big picture” for the talk often got lost along the way. The children jumped at Ben’s offer to return to the RV early, while I remained and absorbed as much as I could.


<< Day 50: St. Paul to Mitchell, South Dakota  | Day 52: Badlands National Park to Custer, South Dakota >>

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Comments (2) -

7/21/2012 3:50:00 PM #


Thanks for sharing your adventures! We are looking forward to our family trip in the Blackhills area very soon! I see you've never been to Wisconsin! Don't miss the riding the trolley and Laubers Old Fashioned IceCream Parlor in East Troy!

Jenny United States | Reply

7/22/2012 8:50:31 AM #

Kathy Hensley

Jenny, I hope that your family has a fabulous time in the Blackhills area.  We were so surprised at the amazing landscape and variety of activities there.  

Thank you for your tips on visiting Wisconsin.  I'm sure we'll get there one day!  Kathy

Kathy Hensley United States | Reply

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