South Dakota’s Badlands: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I encountered a whole lot of good, a little taste of bad, and a few days of ugly on my trip through South Dakota’s badlands. I’ll start with the good, which was the Badlands National Park itself.

This park of 244,000 + acres exceeded my expectations. Photos I have seen in the past gave me the impression that I would be driving through some monotone beige rolling hills that undulated out to the horizon. With a name like “Badlands” one expects a certain reputation of being desolate, remote, and uninhabitable, and not entirely pleasing to the eye. That was true to a certain extent, as the panoramic views of the rugged terrain seemed to go on for miles where men dare not tread.. But once I dropped below the “wall,” it became a geological rainbow of fascinating spires and sand sculptures, colorful and delicate in their beauty.

I entered Badlands National Park at the Pinnacles Entrance, just down from my boondock spot on a gorgeous ridge of the Badlands wall. From here, the ragged edge of the escarpment just drops off from the middle of the prairie into miles of geological formations.

This has to rank up there as one of my favorite boondocking spots of all time!

This is my view out the kitchen door…

A view from the View. Can’t be a sleep walker in this boondocking spot!

My view from my bedroom window during a rarely seen sunrise.

The 24 mile scenic drive stretches the length of the park, exiting at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center where one can rejoin Interstate 90 and circle back for a loop. Traveling in this direction, one starts out above the canyons of the badlands with scenic overlooks out across the tops of the formations. As the drive continues, the road drops in elevation until one is at the bottom, now looking up at the giant formations of sedimentary layers overhead. This is a great way to gain perspective of the magnitude of the erosion while following the layers down.

Although it’s a beautiful drive with majestic views right out the car window, as with most “drive through attractions,” it pays to get out of the car and set out on foot to get a feel for the true perspective. Several short hikes like the Door and Window trails explore the natural gaps through the formations and allow one to view the erosion layer by layer.

I enjoyed my time in this national park much more than I had anticipated. Of course, having that “national park view” right outside my door sure didn’t hurt!

The scenic road starts out high, with overlooks across the badlands.

Kiosk explains that much of the sediment was windblown volcanic ash which weathered into clay and turned into rock.

I am crazy about the colors in this part of the badlands.

Soft pastels are so beautiful to study like a pastel painting on canvas.

I can’t decide which photo of the pastel palette I like best, so I am loading them all!

RV rolling down the road gives perspective of this vast area.

It is believed that erosion only began a half a million years ago…

And after another half a million years, they estimate the formations will all have been eroded.

As one drives along the scenic road, the road descends down into the canyon until you are no longer looking down, but up.

Badlands was established as a National Monument in 1939.

It was re-designated as a National Park in 1978.

Along the “Door Trail.”

According to Park brochure, it is considered one of the world’s richest mammal fossil beds.

It also has the largest expanse of protected prairie ecosystem in the NPS.

50% of the park is co-managed with the Oglala Lakota Nation.

Now on to the bad…and I do mean b-a-a-a-a-d! That would be Wall Drug. Apologies to any readers who might be fans of this famous travel icon. As my friend Gayle said, “It’s a rite of passage.” Agreed. I’m just glad I don’t have to pass that way again! Never in my life have I seen so much plastic JUNK of little to no value for sale!

Given that Wall Drug has been in business since 1931, I was expecting some quaint little old fashioned drug store with a character straight out of Archie comic books standing behind the soda fountain hand-making milkshakes. I figured it would have the obligatory teeshirts and trinkets. But what I found annoying was the room after room after room of hokey western gimmicks.

In the Wall Drug “Backyard,” you will find grown men crawling up a step ladder to “mug it up,” waving their hats while sitting astride a giant sized “jackalope” (half rabbit, half antelope) or a bucking bronco. Life-sized paper mache’ robotic musicians yukking it up to western twang that would make more than Tom Dooley hang his head.  Animatronics await beside every doorway to spring into action at the drop of a quarter or three, from penny-crushing Cowpoke Pete to tonic-pushing Dr. Feelgood. And walls lined with a plethora of dead, stuffed wildlife. “Wallcome to Wall Drug.”

Even the donuts were bad. I had long been anticipating one of their famous (or famously advertised) “homemade” donuts with maple frosting that had come highly recommended, only to find they only sell CAKE donuts. That’s not even a donut in my opinion. I bought two and threw the second one in the trash on my way out the door.

I’ve seen Wall Drug bumper stickers on vehicles from coast to coast, so I figured I was in for a special treat of “Americana.” I pulled into one of three giant gravel parking lots big enough to accommodate two million visitors per year, securing the Winnie thinking I would be in there a while…I could have left the engine idling.

Well, here we are at the famous Wall Drug Store!

Git yer cow-chip frisbees while they’re hot…and steaming!

I don’t know why I dislike the “yuk-yuk” western scene like I do…

Dr. Feelgood will tell you all about his special elixir…for a small fee.

More toy guns than I’ve ever seen in a lifetime.

Is it just me, or does this “Cowboys and Indians” fight seem a bit mismatched?

I have no words for the need to own a rabbit head with antlers attached for $119.

Something tells me this isn’t faux fur.

Wall Drug’s claim to fame is “Free Ice Water.” During peak season, they give away an estimated 20,000 glasses per day. I sure wish they would reconsider the plastic…

And finally, the downright “Ugly,” which would be the $1,300 I left behind in Rapid City to replace the Winnie’s thermostat, fan clutch, and replace the broken latch on my driver’s side door. Readers may recall my “limp mode” incident when trying to climb the 7 mile, 7% grade Rabbit Ears Pass out of Steamboat Springs. I knew the temps I had been seeing on the Scan Gauge were not typical, running about 10 degrees hotter than in the past. So it was good to find the culprit.

However, the irony is, I went in to troubleshoot an intermittent “hoovering” sound believed to be coming from the passenger side wheel well, but they couldn’t find it. I still have the sound effect after $500 of added labor costs to test drive and troubleshoot.  Like going to the ER for a sore foot, and coming out with an appendectomy you didn’t know you needed. And $1,300 less in the bank as a result.

Thank goodness I got something in exchange for my investment as Eddie’s Truck Center was kind enough to let me overnight on their lot while the work was being done. And since I arrived late on a Thursday and had to wait over the weekend for parts from Sprinter, I was grateful for the parking privileges for just shy of a week.

My home away from home. When looking up a Sprinter service center, I expected “Eddie’s Truck Center” to be a greasy diesel shop, so was shocked when I arrived. Looks expensive, doesn’t it? 😉

Spending time in Rapid City, however, made me grateful to be rolling again. Chain restaurants, big box stores, and a Cabela’s bigger than the only food store in town, (I don’t count Walmart and Target as “food stores”) it feels too much like the neighboring Texas town where we go to stock up. The biggest thing I could find going on was the AMC Classic movie theater. I respect that some people like that lifestyle, but I am not one of them. And it’s not like I needed a week-long stay to remind me.

Why we can’t have nice places. And they didn’t even have the decency to use a Cabela’s tent!

South Dakota’s Wind Cave

It doesn’t take long after crossing the state line into South Dakota to reach the first of the state’s two national parks (Parks with a capital “P” of which there are 59 in the NPS.) A quick pass through the town of Hot Springs, and I am crossing the park boundary before I know it. Research has indicated that the town of Hot Springs is “HSINO,” (hot springs in name only) as the only source for the spring is a kids pool that is warm, at best. So I skip the pool and go straight for the park. Continue reading

On Linking the Lakes and Locating the Lost

One might think that with a name like Rocky Mountain National Park, it would be all about the mountain peaks, right? After all, the park is made up of mountain ranges with 78 peaks exceeding 12,000 ft, so one can expect a spectacular mountain view anywhere you go. In fact, that’s the difference between the west side with more heavily forested views, versus the east side marked with stark mountain cirques carved by glacial ice, deep canyons, and jagged spires. Continue reading

The Newly Wed and the Nearly Dead

After spending almost a week on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park, I still hadn’t had enough of the mountains. Steamboat was beautiful, but the ridiculously expensive RV park where I was staying was too far in the opposite direction from the hiking trails, requiring a tedious drive through traffic to get to any areas suitable for a hike. A look at the map reveals it won’t be that far to backtrack from the I25 corridor to Continue reading

A Sense that Summer’s Ending

Connecting the quiet west side of Rocky Mountain National Park with its more popular east side near Estes Park is the NPS’ highest paved road, Trail Ridge Road. The scenic, twisting, winding road traverses through the heart of the park from Estes Park on the east side to Grand Lake on the west. It’s the only way to get from one side of the park to the other. But more noteworthy, it’s the highest paved road in our national park system. The two lane road is 48 miles long, ten of those miles above tree line, topping Continue reading

Summer in the Never Summer Mountains

As I continue my northern trek up through Colorado, I sit at the crossroads. I want to visit Rocky Mountain National Park. Though I’ve been there before, it’s been many years, so I remember very little.

Besides, I am longing for some “ready made hiking.” I grow weary having to research every inch of my life. What are those noises and hiccups that the Winnie and Tracker make, and where can I get them fixed? What are the road conditions ahead?  Weather research now includes not just storm clouds but smoke clouds as well. Where are the legal overnight spots? What are my best options for campgrounds? Continue reading

Maritime Wrap-up: Prince Edward Island

As I see it, there are four areas of interest in visiting Prince Edward Island. First, they are known the world over for their mussels…any seafood restaurant or raw bar worth its seasoning will at some point feature “PEI Mussels” on the chalkboard as a special of the day. The second reason is for the long expanse of beautiful red sand beaches, some of which make up PEI’s one and only National Park. The third reason to visit is if you have an odd curiosity about potato farming, as PEI produces 25% of Canada’s potatoes. And the fourth reason would be “All things Anne.” For those who may not know (myself included up until now) the 1908 novel, Anne of Green Gables, which sold 50 million copies was based on Prince Edward Island. A large museum complex bears the title. I had mild curiosity, but no one attraction was calling to me. Okay, well, maybe the mussels. Continue reading

Carefree in Gros Morne National Park

One of the great things I have come to enjoy about Gros Morne National Park is given its popularity, it does not feel overly crowded.  It’s a treat to stop at the Visitor Center and ask the staff “What are the most scenic hikes here?” without the fear of encountering a human highway on the trail.

Of course, the Tablelands, or walking on the earth’s mantle, is considered the park’s “premier park experience,” along with the boat ride to Western Brook Pond.   But Continue reading