I squint as the sun sparkles on the aptly named, bleak expanse of Badlands National Park in South Dakota. I imagine the Lakota tribe of indigenous people setting out at dawn on their horses, spears drawn, and scanning herds of grazing bison from Badlands Wall. The ground shakes as bison scatter, stampede, and fall. The goose bumps on my arm are real. I imagine the land covered by an inland sea 80 million years ago. I envisage ancient marine life being uplifted and then compressed under layers of volcanic ash into fossils. I picture a geologist discovering the fossils, his voice vibrating with excitement. Badlands has a rich and vivid, almost magical history.
I stand at the edge of the cliff that is the Badlands Wall. One misstep and I will tumble headlong into the valley. I clutch at the ‘End of Notch Trail’ post tightly. I am sweating profusely and my hands are scraped from climbing the trail’s log ladder. 1.5 miles long, the Notch trail is a short and strenuous one. I climbed a steep ladder and hiked on narrow uneven terrain full of drop-offs to reach a dramatic viewpoint. The entire White River Valley is now spread out before me. Badlands features many distinct geological formations. The short, blunt Yellow Mounds scattered throughout the valley juxtapose the sharp multi-colored peaks of the Brule and Sharps formations. Together they cast mysterious shadows over acres of stunted prairies and the wildlife that lurks there.
Just yesterday I saw a coyote circling a prairie dog town. On spotting their predator the prairie dogs shrilly alerted the community. The dogs in the coyote’s path scrambled deep down their burrows even as the coyote hopefully pawed at empty mounds. The watching prairie dogs continued jumping up and down, whistling and alerting the town. I shudder to think of the prairie dog that can’t burrow fast enough. Such is life in Badlands; the land rewards efforts for visitors and Lakota alike.
And what reward it is! Early evening I drove along the Badlands Loop Road in search of a perfect sunset. The sky was cloudy and rain drizzled down but I opted to wait out the rain at Panorama Overlook, a beautiful viewpoint. The sun peeked out shortly and the time-immemorial tableau of rain and shine unfolded over the majestic Badlands. A brilliant double rainbow serenaded all in a postcard perfect setting. I like to think that this land which indulges no one put up the resplendent display just for me.
I visited Badlands, South Dakota in September 2012.