Badlands, Bison, and Big ol’ Presidents Carved Into a Mountain

The day started slow. We took our time eating breakfast (3$ all-you-can-eat pancakes!) and packing up camp. By the time we made it to the first trail at the Badlands the sun was already high in the sky. Fortunately, there was a nice breeze to keep us cool as we ventured around.

The sign that greets you as you enter Badlands National Park.

Pictures can’t prepare you for the magnificence of the Badlands. As you approach from the Southeast, the scenery is not much more than rolling South Dakota hills that continue for hundreds of miles. Even after you enter Badlands National Park the scenery continues, until suddenly, you crest yet another hill, and you stumble upon the beauty that is the badlands. The horizon drops off, and stretches as far as the eye can see. And, right smack in the middle of it are the formations that comprise the heart of Badlands National Park.

We started the day off easy by trekking along the .25 mile Window Trail that led to a magnificent view of the valleys of the rock formations. Next up, was the Door Trail, and was by far the highlight of our hiking for the day. The trail is a boardwalk that leads about a quarter mile along the base of the formations, which led to a nice viewpoint. However, the highlight of the trail was the “optional” portion, which led off of the boardwalk, and 900 meters further into the badlands. The trail, marked only by foot-tall yellow posts protruding from the ground every 100 meters or so, led along a plateau, which brought you over massive cracks in the formation, and along the rims of multiple valleys. The trail was not the easiest, but it led to some spectacular, unhindered viewpoints of the formations, that provided great photos and panoramas.

Andy, past the end of the Door Trail waving happily.

The view that is afforded to the adventurer who travels past the end of the Door Trail.

One of the many panoramic views of The Badlands. This was taken in the far Eastern part of the park at the foot of either the Door or Window Trails.

After we had our fill of hiking, we decided to drive along the 20 mile Badlands Loop Road, which wound through a good portion of the park. It led to many different overlooks, each providing a different viewpoint of the widely diverse terrain of the badlands, from protruding spires of multiple layers of sedimentary rocks, to rolling hills, to large flat plains, and multiple basins. To call it a scenic drive would be an understatement. After we finished up, we decided to head to Wall to get lunch and check out the world famous drug store.

A shot of The Badlands showing showcasing it’s ecological diversity.

Wall Drug was everything we expected it to be and so much more. After seeing signs for hundreds of miles, we had to experience it. It was a tourist trap taken to the extreme. Encompassing a full city block, it had everything someone with a novelty seeking personality could every want. There was a drug store, café (with $.05 coffee and awesome home made donuts), a mall with a wide variety of stores, and even a mini chapel. There was even a “Backyard” portion that housed a giant jackalope, free ice water, an animatronic dinosaur, a mini Mount Rushmore, and even more stores. After picking up postcards, a new pair of sunglasses, and some donuts, we decided to grab lunch, and head back to Badlands to finish up.

The front of Wall Drug, as seen from across the street.

Marianna, sitting proudly on top of the giant jackalope.

We only spent about an hour and a half more in Badlands. But, within that short period of time we experienced so much, and even quite possibly the highlight of our trip so far.

We knew that we wanted to see the prairie dog town. What we didn’t realize that it involved turning off of the paved road, and onto a long stretch of dirt road. Marianna looked somewhat hesitant, but I was all for it. We saw a sign that read that the prairie dog town was 5 miles up the road. So, with the wind quickly dissipating the dust cloud that we left behind us, we drove.

The title of prairie dog town is grossly misleading. It was more of a prairie dog sprawling metropolis. The turn-off for the town was only at the edge of it. From there, you could see hundreds of burrows off in the distance. There were adorable, burrowing rodents, all over the place. Fortunately, We were able to get some close up shots. We also had our first buffalo sighting. Way off on the horizon, was a large dark mass that was a little dark speck in our vision. We weren’t sure if it was a buffalo until we saw it flop over on its side. Excited by our bison sighting, and remembering the “Warning: Bison” sign we saw earlier, we decided to push on farther down the dirt road.

A prairie dog keeps a watchful eye.

With the exception of miles of prairie dog burrows, the Sage Creek Road was 10 miles of gorgeous scenery. We kept our eyes peeled for Bison, but we had no luck. However, our perseverance was rewarded. About 3 miles from the exit to the park, we had our first bison sighting. There was a pack of about 15 bison, relaxing on the side of a hill, about 150 feet off the road. We took a handful of pictures and continued on, exuberant with our find. However, our elation would soon increase exponentially. After cresting a hill, and coming around a turn, we were driving towards the flat portion of the park before exiting. A herd of bison, stood right in front of us, on both sides of the road.

There were at least 100 head of Bison in the herd. It was spectacular. After driving up the road a bit, we were completely surrounded by them. Fortunately, they didn’t seem to pay much attention to our car, seeing as how, at times, there were bison that were no more than 10 feet from the car. There were bison of all ages and sizes. These creatures can be massive. There were a handful of mothers with their calves, nursing them. There was even a bison scratching themselves on the post of the stop sign at a nearby intersection. We sat stationary for at least 20 minutes, while we just watched the herd. It was truly amazing. After, someone driving the opposite direction stirred up the herd, and they ran off, we did the same, and drove to Mount Rushmore.

A panoramic view of the majority of the herd of bison that we encountered just before leaving the park.

A bison eyes us suspiciously.

A bison calf nurses.

A bison scratches itself on a nearby stop sign post.

We arrived at Mount Rushmore shortly before dark. We had enough time to make it around the trail that leads to the base of the mountain and Gutzon Borglum’s workshop. We sat on the bleachers and relaxed for a short while before the lighting ceremony started. The ceremony was very moving, and incredibly patriotic. After a short video explaining the history of the monument, and Borglum’s motivation for choosing the presidents, they illuminated the presidents. After the lighting, they invited all the veterans, past and present, onto the stage, for the retiring of the flag. We were amazed at the number of service members that were present.

Mount Rushmore, as seen from on of the many viewpoints along the Presidential Trail.

All of the veterans present for the lighting ceremony, up on stage, for the flag retirement ceremony.

After the ceremony, we headed back to the hotel, and called it a night.

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