On July 31, a Tuesday, our journey to Montana began with a 5:20pm flight from O’Hare to…Seattle. Then we’d continue on to Great Falls. Sean and I both worked from home until it was time to head to the airport. And we both were stressed tying up some final things before the trip. Our stress continued on the way to the airport in a Lyft. Traffic was extremely heavy, and we’d left later than we’d wanted to because of work stuff.
It was Sunday morning, September 7, and although we had already broken camp at Sage Creek Campground, we weren’t quite finished exploring Badlands National Park. Instead of immediately exiting the park via the west entrance, we drove east on the Loop Road one more time to see a few more sightsnear the eastern entrance of the park that we’d skipped the previous day.
While we’d finished striking camp, we’d noticed some cloud cover moving in. Now on the road it added some drama. Although a few raindrops fell on the windshield, we could see that it wouldn’t last. (Note the Black Hills in the far right along the horizon in the image below.)
After visiting the Notch, we were ready for more hiking. We drove to the Saddle Pass Trailhead west of the visitor center area on the Loop Road. Saddle Pass Trail was only 0.2 miles, but it climbed directly up the Badlands Wall. Saddle Pass then connected to a relatively flat loop combining a portion of Castle Trail with Medicine Root Loop Trail. Ultimately it would be a 4.5-mile loop hike.
After lunch, it was time to finally get out of the car and begin exploring some of the Badlands landscapes close-up. We began with the Notch Trail, a 1.5-mile out and back near the eastern entrance to the park. It begins at a major trailhead parking area for trails both short and long. It is also one of the first stops on the Loop Road for those entering the park from the east. On this Saturday afternoon, September 6, it was busy with retirees, families, and couples of various ages.
The Notch Trail is the most demanding of the three short trails starting at this parking lot. The trail began by winding its way into a wall of Badlands formations to the east.
The Badlands Loop Road, which is not actually a loop, twists for over twenty-five miles above and below the Badlands Wall, offering an almost overwhelming density of scenic views, both from the windshield and at a series of interpretive overlooks and pullouts. It is a classic example of making the wonders of a park easily accessible to motorists, a philosophy that dominated the Park Service’s thinking in its first half century. On my previous visit, Lisa and I had motored along the road from east to west. This time, Sean and I would take the drive from west to east.
After my bison encounter and after a breakfast of Mountain House Breakfast Skillet (more on this later), we set off for a morning drive on the Badlands Loop Road east to the visitor center and Cedar Pass.
The first twelve miles of the road were unpaved and were a retread of the route we’d driven in on the previous afternoon to get to Sage Creek Campground. These miles were also thick with wildlife, being both less traveled and adjacent to the largest expanse of wilderness. In addition to the plentiful bison, we spotted another pronghorn.
And then we stopped at Roberts Prairie Dog Town.
I awoke on Saturday, September 6, before sunrise, to the sound of birdsong echoing from either side of the shallow valley of Sage Creek Campground. Brilliant, hearty, melodic birdsong, which I would later realize came from Western Meadowlarks.
Sean was still sleeping, so I carefully rolled out of the tent, put on my boots, and zipped on my hoodie. The temperature had dropped quite a bit overnight.
Although legislation to establish a National Park in the White River Badlands of South Dakota was introduced into Congress by Senator Peter Norbeck in 1909, the measure stalled and was almost destroyed completely by a Park Service in its infancy after 1916. The Badlands would not be declared a National Monument until 1939 and would not become a National Park until November 10, 1978 (two days before I was born).
Badlands National Park would be the first that I would visit for a second time. I’d already spent a cold, exhilarating January afternoon there with my friend Lisa over ten years earlier. That earlier trip anticipated my move from Ann Arbor to Chicago and this one felt that it helped mark my tenth anniversary in the city.
With the exception of a lovely long weekend in Florida in March with my parents, by Labor Day 2014 Sean and I had not taken a real vacation in 2014. This was due both to the whims and vagaries of his firm and that the summer months are busy at Openlands. (For comparison, by Labor Day 2013, we’d already visited the Virgin Islands, California, and Florida and had driven around the whole of Lake Michigan.) It was past time for a vacation. It was time to sleep in a tent.
We decided upon a trip to the Dakotas (and Wyoming). We’d hit three parks: Badlands, Wind Cave, and Theodore Roosevelt, plus three monuments.
Eight years ago this week I visited Badlands National Park in the middle of January with my friend, Lisa. It was an impromptu Martin Luther King weekend road trip inspired in part by an article in that week’s New York Times about Marta Becket and her Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction, California. Lisa, who was also my supervisor, and I had been intrigued by the story of the aging dancer and the performances she gave at her inn in the Mohave Desert.
For an afternoon, we fantasized about the possibility of adding a few vacation days to the long weekend and making the 66-hour round trip drive.
After that idea was justifiably set aside, we still had the road trip bug. Both of us were going through hard break-ups at the time and we needed some space from an Ann Arbor winter with its North Sea skies. Also, we’d each be able to talk through our emotions with the only other person who was in a similar place at the moment. As the weekend approached, we decided to leave the destination unplanned, but to head south. If it came to it, we figured, we could always find a Holidome near Louisville and spend the weekend bathing our sorrows in a hot tub and alcohol.