Badlands National Park

Trip Start May 06, 2010
Trip End Oct 14, 2010

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Flag of United States  , South Dakota
Tuesday, June 8, 2010

I went to Badlands National Park in South Dakota today.  I've been to badlands before in the Painted Desert in Arizona and in Canyonlands National Park.  I expected that these would be geologically similar and would look similar.  While they did look similar, apparently, they are not geologically similar.  The badlands are steep, irregularly shaped, quickly eroding hills with horizontal stripes across them.  In some cases they drop down from the plains.  In other cases the hills are free standing.  Some of the hills have flat, grassy tops while others are all almost entirely free of vegetation and have rounded tops.

I had been told that badlands were bentonite clay formations.  Bentonite clay expands when it gets wet, which breaks the roots of most plants resulting in very few plants growing on it.  There is some bentonite clay in the badlands here but most of the hills are shales and sandstones.  There is very little growing on them but that seems to be due to the quick erosion of the hills.  They were called badlands because it was very difficult to travel through the area due to the topology.  In addition to the badlands the park contains large areas of mixed-grass prairie.  There are also federally-owned grasslands adjacent to the park.

The park has three parts, the North Unit, the Stronghold Unit and the Palmer Creek Unit.  Most of the roads and trails, and as a result, most of the visitors, are in the North Unit.  The Stronghold and Palmer Creek Units are on within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.  There are roads though a couple parts of the Stronghold Unit.  The Palmer Creek Unit is entirely isolated.  You have to ask permission from landowners to cross their property to even get to it.

Most people go to the Visitors' Center in the North Unit and then take the Loop Road, which goes through roughly half of the North Unit.  I started by doing that, stopping at all the overlooks and taking pictures.  I then continued on the dirt road to the other, less visited half of the North Unit, where you can see a Prairie Dog town and the buffalo.  Unlike at Wind Cave, the buffalo are fenced in.  They have fences around the park and along the roadway plus the badlands act as a very effective fence.

Most of the wildlife now in the park had to be re-introduced.  All of the buffalo, black-footed ferrets, Swift foxes and Bighorn sheep within the park had been killed off.  They were re-introduced at various times from various places.  The Bighorn sheep that were re-introduced were a different species than the ones that originally lived here since the original species had been hunted to extinction.  The black-footed ferret is still on the endangered species list but the park and the adjacent grasslands has been the most successful re-introduction site.  I didn't seen any foxes or sheep but I did see a number of buffalo.

After driving through the North Unit I went to the Stronghold Unit where there was a 4-wheel drive road shown on the map.  I found the 4WD road and took it.  At first I was disappointed.  I wanted a real 4WD road to try out my new 4WD Toyota 4Runner but the first part of the road was fine.  I got to a hill but I still thought I could have gotten up it in my old mini-van.  Then I got to a sign that said "High Clearance Vehicles Only".  The road did deteriorate past the sign but, at first, I thought my mini-van could probably have made it.  After a while the road got worse and I thought I was getting somewhere I couldn't have gotten in my old car.

The road lead up to the top of a mesa, the Sheep Mountain Table.  There were views off the mesa to the surrounding badlands.  These badlands were different from the ones in the North Unit and looked somewhat like the strange formations in Bryce Canyon National Park.  The hills tend to have steeper sides and to be smaller than in the North Unit.  I drove around the loop at the top of the table and took pictures.  Then just as I was finishing the loop my bubble was burst; a 2WD mini-van came driving up.  I guess I could have made it in my old car.

I may go back to the park tomorrow but I plan on stopping at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, which is on my way to the closest park entrance.  If I can get on a tour I'll probably take it.  There was also a place offering helicopter rides.  I assume they fly over the park.  I'll probably stop and talk to them too.  Whatever I do during the day, I head to Pierre in the evening.
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