November 6, 2012 – Tuesday
On this 7th day of our cross-country road trip, we traversed the state of South Dakota, again traveling mostly on I-90. We determined the night before that 4 hours of driving was just about right in terms of balancing between completely exhausting ourselves and making good time, so when JC mentioned taking a detour through a national park, I balked a little bit.
Even as we listened to election news on the radio, driving through South Dakota, my mind leaned towards staying on I-90 and traveling straight on to Rapid City. It was mostly uneventful and similar to the day before, pushing westward through the Great Plains. We didn’t know it at the time but we passed over another iconic river, the Missouri. As we closed on milepost 131 and the exit to the national park, we made stops at the Presho Rest Area (MP 221), 1880 Town (MP 170), the Belvidere Rest Area (MP 166), and a scenic overlook (MP 140). 1880 Town was closed for the season, a preview of things to come.
At this point you might be wondering why I haven’t referred to Badlands National Park by name. Well, back then I really had no idea what it was or what was there. I don’t think I even knew its name. In my mind, a national park was just a bunch of trees and nature (like Yosemite), nothing special and nothing we couldn’t go see once we were back in California. I couldn’t have been more wrong, though. After stopping at the super windy* scenic outlook and taking some photos, we soon approached MP 131. I don’t remember my thought process or if I even had one, but at the last second I decided to take the exit and head south towards the park. It ended up being the best (or luckiest!) decision I made all day.
*It’s the Great Plains after all, open space and nothing to stop the moving air
The road was pretty empty, and as we headed south on SD 240 (aka the Badlands Loop) we approached a gas station that also appeared to be empty. It would seem that the entire area was closed for the season. Luckily for us, the pumps here were still active (unlike the Shell station back at 1880 Town). We took the opportunity to fill up.
Next up, we passed by an attraction called the Ranch Store with a sign that read “Stop and feed the prairie dogs” and a big statue of a prairie dog. It was here that I finally made the connection between Great Plains and prairie dogs, remembering learning about the Great Plains in U.S. History class. Like some other things we experienced during Adventure 2012, it was pretty exciting to finally encounter something in person that we had previously only read about in a book.
Alas, the Ranch Store, too, was closed so there was nothing we could do but keep going. But, not too far down the road, there was another attraction, the Prairie Homestead Historic Site. Although this place was closed as well, the parking area was not fenced off so we stopped to take a look. We saw something moving on the ground, and lo and behold, it was a prairie dog! Soon, a whole bunch of them came out to greet us, one of them even coming up to our car and looking like it wanted to jump in. Unlike what we expected, these prairie dogs were white and not brown. They looked more like rodents than dogs to me. We spent some time taking photos and videos with them before continuing on our way.
Continuing on, we soon reached the Northeast Entrance of the park. Again, it was closed for the season and there were no people in sight, though there was a sign indicating that the visitor center was still open. We entered the park, and soon they appeared on our left side: mounds of eroded and exposed rock, dressed in horizontal bands of different shades of brown, stretching out as far as the eye could see. It was easy to see that these geologic formations used to be the ocean floor. With no cars around, we slowed to a snail’s pace to marvel. It was as if we had the entire park to ourselves.
When we parked and turned off the car engine, the silence hit us in the face. There were no people, no cars, not even birds, no ambient sounds at all. An occasional gust of wind broke the silence with the gentle sound of moving air. I don’t think we’ve ever been to a quieter place. I broke the silence with a loud “hellllllllo out there” towards the rocks. So this was what it was like for those early pioneers who came out here, seeing these wonders of nature for the first time. Pretty amazing.
Looking down at the peaks and valleys from our vantage point, I wanted to climb down and explore. They didn’t look that steep or tall. I realized there were probably rules that prohibited people from stepping on the formations, so I thought better of it. Still, the curves and pathways looked so fascinatingly intricate, like a little city or a model in some kid’s room, that it was difficult to resist the urge to explore. I made do with taking loads of pictures…
Continuing on the Badlands Loop, we stopped at various other sights along the way…
As we left the park, we finally reached the town of Wall. For miles and miles before we reached the Badlands, we had seen signs for 5-cent coffee at Wall Drug and wondered what it was. We didn’t stop to find out, but at least we learned where it was.
As we drove the last hour to Rapid City with the last of the sunset in the background, we talked about how lucky we were to have gone to Badlands National Park when we did. Because it was the off-season, the park was mostly empty, and even though it was almost winter, the weather was still clear and not too cold (and actually the temperature would drop significantly just a few days later). If it had been the summer, there would have been so many more people and so much more noise and disturbance that it would not have been the same. It was unbelievable that for one afternoon we got this natural and national treasure all to ourselves. I didn’t mind JC rubbing it in a little about my not wanting to go in the first place.
We stopped at one more rest area (Wasta, MP 98) before reaching our hotel in Rapid City. Our good luck streak still intact, there was a steakhouse right next door so we finished off this great day with a couple of nice steaks before retiring for the night.