Badlands National Park

National Park Number: 2 of 59

We couldn’t make it all the way across the upper Midwest without paying a little visit to Austin, MN and the Spam Museum. Two essential bits of information about this place: 1) it concerns the canned ham product Spam, 2) GO TO HERE.

Seriously, this place is pretty awesome. If you have kids, it’s the perfect pit-stop. It’s free, the exhibits are fun and interactive, and there’s a full-on play place, complete with tiny farmhouse and jungle gym. Our kids were having such a great time in the play kitchen that we ended up staying for three hours. I know. We’re wild animals.

Then we were off and heading across South Dakota. I drove most of the night so the kids wouldn’t have to endure another long drive awake, and when we woke up the next morning we were at the feet of the Badlands.

The Lakota people called this area “bad land” for its extreme terrain and climate, and then fur trappers came along and also thought it was pretty lousy, and by the by the name stuck. Half the park is a stark landscape of layered geologic formations; the other half is grassland covered with bison and prairie dogs. Taken together, it’s a study in contrasts and a pretty jaw-dropping place to spend a few days.

We started at the Visitor Center and then, because we have a 3-year-old, climbed every mound within a quarter mile of the Visitor Center. The mounds here fascinated me: most of the ones we came in contact with felt and reacted much more like packed and dried mud than like rocks, and pieces broke away easily as we were climbing. Some of it was just dried mud, but the rocks themselves are also very soft: the badlands formations erode at a rate of one inch per year.

Many of the trails in Badlands are boardwalked and short; we checked out the Fossil Exhibit Trail and learned about the impressive fossil history of the area, then walked the Door and Window Trails for views of the canyons. Our hike-iest hike was at Notch Trail, which leads through a canyon, up a ladder, and along a ledge to another overlook. Graham did it all by himself and when I told him I was proud of him, he looked up and asked, “Is I’m a good little hiker?” So that absolutely exploded my heart into a thousand pieces.

Before hiking Notch Trail, we sat on the ground to pick at cracks in the mud and ended up staying an hour. We can’t always follow the kids’ lead on time use, but I love giving them a good chunk of time just to be. I have to keep reminding myself that we’re not on this trip to see or do everything; the impulse to “conquer” a place by seeing every bit of it and doing every activity available is strong with me, and I’m trying to learn to slow down, really take in what’s happening, and give up on the idea that I can somehow possess every experience. 

On our way to Sage Creek Campground to set up camp for the night, we got our first taste of the prairie portion of the park and of my new favorite thing, prairie dogs. Interesting facts about prairie dogs: they traditionally set up towns after a bison herd has passed through. Their tunnels aerate the ground the bison have packed down and provide shelter for lots of other prairie animals, plus the prairie dogs themselves are food for a bunch of other creatures, including the endangered black-footed ferret. They are considered a keystone species for all the ways they support their ecosystem, and their presence in an area is a good indicator of a healthy environment.

Also, they are adorable. 

Bison: not adorable, but so stinking majestic. We told Graham that the first person to spot a bison would get to eat the first marshmallow in camp, and he somehow took this to mean that for every bison he saw, he got another marshmallow. Nice try, kid. Several bison were grazing in our campground as we pulled up to pitch our tent, and we saw two coyotes running into the brush. David told me to keep a close eye on Margi so she didn’t get snatched; actually what he said was, “She’d be a delicious little morsel for a coyote.” And I, having no concept of wild animal behavior beyond what I’ve seen in Disney movies (bears are lovable oafs who teach you Zen mantras; lions’ main problem is their serious issue with humility), became freaked out for the rest of my life when I realized he was serious. (But really, a coyote seems way to small to snatch a child. Especially one of my 90th percentile, sturdy Scandinavian-stock children. But also I was obviously going to keep a close eye on the kids as there were bison literally 15 yards away.)

Nobody got snatched. Everybody got one marshmallow. We all went to sleep.

The next morning we were up before the sun, which was, on the one hand, obviously unpleasant, but also got us going so we could take pictures of the sun rising over the rocks. I don’t see a lot of sunrises, but whenever I do I’m struck by how clean light can be first thing in the morning, how new things can seem in that hour.

The especially cool thing about being in Badlands was getting a sense of what huge portions of America used to look like. The landscape here felt vast and untouched, and I was so grateful for the efforts of preservation that allow me to experience in 2017 what my ancestors saw while walking across the plains in 1856. There is so much history in this land, and so little impetus for us to remember it without places like this knocking us over the head with our historical and biological and essential smallness. 

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