Monday, September 12, 2016

Badlands National Park, SD

After an impressive, day-and-a-half at Wind Cave National Park, I headed east through the Black Hills National Forest with my sights set on the last destination of this trip- Badlands National Park. So Badlands is a very, very special place to me. A special place I'm quite familiar with. As mentioned in an earlier post or two, back in 2014 I moved to Colorado to start a new chapter in life. My father rode with me out west, along with all of my belongings that I couldn't live without for six months (seasonal gig). Adventure buddies, big Robb and little Robb stopped at Badlands National Park and spent a day driving around checking out all it has to offer. To me, Badlands is like the gateway to the west. You drive on relatively flat, boring land until you reach the Badlands and then in a flash- the horizons turn to tall, dark rows of mountains and vast open canyons dotted with alien-like buttes and rock formations. When we arrived two years ago at the entrance to the park, I was ecstatic as it was my first real national park visit. This old picture proves just how psyched I was.

Following the recent theme of matching adjectives to parks- Badlands is unreal. I said that immediately two years ago when I first traveled through it. I arrived at the park's northeast entrance around 6:30pm, close to the first series of overlooks and the park's headquarters. An intimidating, giant storm front was moving towards the west, painting the sky a dark, ocean blue. The winds picked up, temperature dropped and in the distance you could see lightning over the plains. Back home, a few friends warned of Badlands's ferocious storms. Obviously I was a tad curious to verify this. Driving through the park along the interior road, I kept smiling, reminiscing both over the great memories my father and I had here and at how good it felt to be back here. I'm a big fan of Badlands which means you probably should be too. Looking up at the storm wall, I guessed I had probably about an hour until it really hit and the sunlight disappeared. So I stopped at the main campground, filled up three Nalgenes and four Sawyer water filter pouches of water and headed for the distant Sage Creek Camp Ground, all the way on the other side of the park. From the main visitor center to the westernmost part of Badlands, where the Badlands Wilderness Area is, lies this gem of a campground. It's a community of vagabonds, transients, renegades and wanderers. It's the best way to embrace your inner dirtbag, as it's completely free to camp at, quiet, away from everything, no services except a pit toilet. The only catch, is that it's almost an hour drive and some 36 miles to the main park area and hiking trails. But that's zero problemo for me. I had an insane amount of fun at the SCCG.

As my wagon made its way along the weaving Badlands Loop Road, the sun started to set, and lit the sky up pink and orange. The Black Hills mountain range stood dark in the horizon. Coincidentally, the Jose Gonzalez station on Pandora played some classical music that put me in a true sense that I was driving through some perfect, luminescent dream. I had goosebumps and time felt like it slowed down It was just wonderful. The storms continued hurrying west across the badlands by the time the paved road ended and a bumpy, gravel road lay ahead for the remaining 12 miles. The lightning became more frequent and intense, while the winds picked up too blowing dust all over road. Around one corner I came to a full-halt, ahead of me a massive herd of buffalo had been blocking the road and grazing in the prairie grass on either side. The lightning flashes lighting up the hundreds of bodies of strong, big bison as far as the eye can see. I sat patiently and waited. At times, white-knuckled as a few buffalo ran right past my car  and stared right at me through the passenger-side window. It was unbelievable. My Saab's headlights reflecting off the eyes of a fearless bull (male bison) standing feet ahead. Sitting there quietly, breathing and listening to the wind blow up against my car for probably twenty minutes waiting for them to pass, creating a slim opening in the road. I slowly continued on. So, so, so, cool. That's a story I'll remember and might be one of my most memorable moments in a national park. It like gives me the chills writing this up weeks later.

The road descended deep into a wide open basin, the Sage Creek Wilderness. A lone buffalo walked parallel to the gravel road that led to the campground loop. It was shortly before 9pm. I found an open spot next, and fought the ever-increasing winds to get my tent up before that treacherous storm finally hits. Thunder had gotten louder and others in the campground started scrambling to their tents or campervans. "Where you from?" a retired Biologist turned traveling photographer from asked me, sitting in a chair beside his Toyota Tundra with California plates and a camper on top. "Wisconsin," I cheerfully replied as I threw my pack inside the tent. "You just get here? You're lucky because that storm is about to hit" he replied. "Yeah I got stopped by that huge herd of buffalo up on the ridge by Hay Butte Overlook," I answered. He laughed and shouted out, "That's why you gotta get down here before dark!" Winds picked up to probably 30mph, as I frantically staked down my Eureka Taron2 tent. As soon as I got my rain tarp on, the storm hit and pounds of rain fell to the dry ground. I rushed to the car, grabbed a bag of food, my notebook and sleeping bag and dove into my tent. I peeked out and saw others' colorful tents dancing in violent wind, lit up by headlamps and lanterns. I was soaked, completely soaked. And since the temperature dropped significantly, getting out of wet clothes was priority one- hanging them up to dry in the tent. The storm got worse and the west side of my tent started to blow inward, almost fully down. But I trusted my tent's strength and knew I had rigged it up extra tight before seeking refuge. Storming like all hell outside at the Sage Creek, I made dinner inside the tent read, journaled and went to bed. I woke up to bashing thunder and lightning again and again throughout the night, and at one point my tent looked collapsed. But then the wind receded and it popped back to its normal frame. Hands-down some of the scariest weather I've ever camped out in. But oh did it make for good stories the next morning.

My alarm went off at 7am, and I crawled out of my tent. Stretching and gazing out over the Sage Creek Campground, I could get an idea of what 'home' was really like. These were my kind of people and style of camping. Probably a dozen or two, sites all in one big open loop. It was like a friendly neighborhood of wanderers. No multi-million dollar RVs, no basic starter tents from Walmart. Subaru wagons caked with bumper stickers from other national parks, old VW Vanagon minibuses, a few Dodge Sprinters and comparable vehicles embracing the aforementioned 'Van Life'. There wasn't yelling, music blasting, screaming kids. The majority of the people at this free campground were my age or in their thirties. A few old timers on the endless retirement highway of adventure. I loved this crowd. A girl to the right of my tent was also out here on her own, hitting up as many national parks as she could in the time she had off work, living out the back of her Honda CRV. Two best friends from the east coast, one who had recently finished hiking the AT (Appalachian Trail), had came in the late at night after my arrival and set up camp next to me, using Badlands as a stop on their trip out to the west coast. True outdoors geeks, those craving wanderlust and wanting to check-off every national park on their bucket list. People out here by themselves, like me, trying to learn a bit more about who they really are. It was a relief. I cooked up a breakfast and as I was brushing my teeth, was able to wave good morning to a buffalo just casually passing through the campground. No big deal. I just smiled and shook my head in disbelief.

Boots laced up, water bottles filled, topo map in my daypack, I drove the 36 miles back to the main hiking trails area. in the eastern part of Badlands National Park. I parked at the Fossil Exhibit Trail lot, hiked that for a warm up and then set out on a ~13 or so mile, round-trip hike that combined the Castle Rock, Medicine Root and Notch Trails. Plenty of adventure for a full-day. So, Badlands is great to see from the numerous overlooks...but you have to go hiking to get a true appreciation for this delicate, unreal landscape. The main hiking trails are mentioned above and are all near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. Get plenty of water in your system before, during and after the hike cause it can surely be a scorcher under the sun. The hours I spent hiking on all these trails, I only ran across a few other people, maybe six at the most. And that was great because the silent solitude of the Badlands is amazing. The Castle Trail brings you up-close and personal to some of the traditional Badlands formations, while the Medicine Root takes you deep into the prairie grasslands with rewarding views of the Badlands formations in the distance. On the initial hike, I hiked the Castle Trail and took the Medicine Root trail at the split to the other trail head. On the return trip, I took the entire Castle Trail back. But, the one hike you must attempt is a semi-scramble, 1.5-mile roundtrip venture up the Notch Trail. Start by climbing a fairly long, steep log ladder, then continue along tall ledges until you reach 'The Notch'. Here, scramble a bit more to get jaw-dropping, "Whoa!" views of the entire Badlands National Park and Buffalo Gap National Grassland. If you're not a confident hiker, afraid of heights or don't have solid boots, skip it and avoid the risk of a dangerous fall. But gosh it's a very good, fun hike if you choose to attempt it.

I ended up back at the car 13 miles later, and my right knee had pretty much destroyed itself  to the point where I couldn't do any not-flat walking. Should I have hiked that far on uneven terrain with a bad knee? Absolutely not. Was it worth it? Hell yes. Getting hit by a car blows, folks. I gradually drove back to the Sage Creek Campground, stopping at a few of the overlooks on the way to again, soak up Badlands's ridiculous atmosphere. Stop at the Prairie Winds Overlook, that's one of my favorites. Back at camp, I started to cook up a hot dinner of chili with vegetables and cut-up bread as the sun slowly started setting over the formations west of us. The buffalo were out again, this time four withing staring-contest distance of the campground. Where else can you get this? Buffalo just hanging out at the campground watching you cook dinner. I chatted with a few neighbors, chowing down as we shared stories of our visits to other national parks, what we do for a living now and what we hope to someday do. I met a lot of inspiring, like-minded people. Finishing dinner, I boiled up some cinnamon-spice tea and sipped from my mug as I watched the sun continue falling and buffalo off in the distance roaming their land. I was in heaven. I could do this every, single, day. I hiked up a nearby ridge to get a view of the Badlands Wilderness Area and all its beauty. We are so grateful to have protected batches of land like this, millions of acres set aside for both recreation and more importantly- conservation.

Time to down an Earp's Sarsaparilla (oh it's so delicious) and chat with a few other travel-addicted young folks like myself under the stars. Like others have said, the Sage Creek Campground becomes a community at night. 'Tis true. Thanks for yet another perfect experience Badlands National Park, I can't wait to get back here again. Fun fact- it's only about a 12-13 hour drive from Wisco out to Badlands. I want to cue up the last 45 or so seconds of X Ambassadors "Renegades" and justtttttt drive.