Van camping has both advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are convenience, cost & quiet; the disadvantage is heat – if it’s too hot, sleeping in a van can be smothering (hence why spring/fall trips are preferable). Luckily, the weather has been relatively mild so far; although the evening started hot & muggy in the Sioux Falls Wal-Mart parking lot, things cooled down overnight.
I set out early once more, hoping to reach Badlands National Park midday, after a planned 4 hour drive. Unfortunately for me, the weather didn’t want to cooperate, and it rained for 2 hours of that drive. I didn’t exactly feel comfortable driving at 75 mph in the rain, so I couldn’t take full advantage of South Dakota’s very generous speed limit.
South Dakota is clearly a plains state, but there are various bluffs, hills, and so forth that break up the monotony and make it more interesting than Minnesota.
As luck would have it, I got a flat tire right outside the Badlands entrance. I had to jack the van up and put on the spare, then went to the entrance of the park, to get a recommendation for a mechanic. The two rangers conferred “All the mechanics in Wall will be closed today (Sunday). But… I’m from Philip and I have a mechanic there I can call.” She placed a phone call, and I had an appointment. The only problem: driving 30 miles on the donut (which turned out to be 40 psi under recommended pressure!).
It was a stressful drive, but eventually I made it to Philip, another tiny town that really feels like the middle of nowhere. My GPS tried to take me over a dirt road, but thankfully the ranger had given me better directions.
The car repair place was an unmarked building in front of an old gas station. The mechanic was a friendly little man, who rapidly determined the problem with the tire: the valve stem was leaking. I guess the diagnostic method is the same everywhere, cover the tire in water and see where it sputters.
As I settled the bill, the mechanic looked at my license place and said “My wife & daughter drove through your state on the way to visit Boston. They really liked it.”
“Oh, they probably went on the same highway I did, I-90, in the opposite directon.”
With that, our conversation was at an end; I think we had exhausted everything we had in common, but I was grateful for his quick diagnosis and good work, which only set me back $20. Everything’s held up so far.
Finally, I returned to the Badlands to officially enter the first National Park of the trip. Badlands began as a National Park in 1978, and receives a bit under a million visitors annually. It’s most known for its weird. indescribable sedimentary rock formations, but there are actually two landscapes in the park: the relatively rare exposed rock, and a variegated grassland filled with bluffs, juniper scrub and bison.
The park itself is composed of two units, the main unit and a rarely-visited southern unit; within the main unit, there’s a paved loop as well as a dirt road.
I entered the park and headed straight for the campground. The sky was cloudy and I wanted to grab a campsite – the last thing I wanted was to keep driving around trying to find somewhere to stay. The parks here use a self-serve system, you grab an envelope and find an empty site, then tear a tag off the envelope and attach it to a pole by the site. You put your cash in the envelope and drop that in a locked container.
I found an open spot and pitched my tent – the campground was a charmless ~100 sites in an empty field – and returned to the visitor’s center. There I watched a 30-minute video (mostly banal platitudes not specific to the park) and stamped my passport, then headed to the trails designated on the park map.
Unfortunately, there’s only one small section of hiking trails in Badlands, totaling about 7.5 miles (not including boardwalk “trails”). The longest individual trail is 5 miles straight through. I was looking for something a bit longer, so I elected to hike 5 miles out and 5 miles back, with part of the return journey on a separate trail (for those interested, the Castle Trail out and back, switching to the Medicine Root trail for part of the return journey).
As someone used to the forests of NY, hiking out here took some getting used to: the trail frequently disappeared on the dusty rock, and because there were no trees, the official path was designated with reflective poles (in NY, blazes are painted on trees and stones). When you reached one pole you’d sometimes be forced to stop and locate the next. It was a bit like a scavenger hunt, or playing hide-and-seek. When the trail meandered away from the traditional badlands rock into grasslands, it was easy enough to trace because it left a deep rut in the ground.
Finally I was able to do some hiking, something I’d been looking forward to for months. Although the wind was fierce (my eyes watered for most of the hike), and there was an occasional drizzle, I had a great time. 10 miles was just the right hike to get my legs back, and it was not at all strenuous.
Scruffy looking antelope
Rounding one corner, I surprised my first big game of the trip: two mangy antelope, grazing in a field. I snapped a few pictures before they vanished.
The trails meander along the edge between grassland and the famous badlands rock formation. At either end of the trail are large overlooks filled with tourists and huge RVs, but the trail itself was quiet (no doubt because of the weather), and I saw only 5 groups of hikers the whole time. Rounding one corner I said hello to a man with two small boys. “I’m from Missouri, it was 92 and humid when I left, and this is so much better,” he said, referring to the wind.
At one point there’s a small unofficial side trail that I saw a few people using, which led up the rock formations to a wonderful panorama of the valley below, but the wind was intense. When I was in boy scouts, I once saw a fat man rolling along a rocky mountain top in the wind. I had no desire to repeat the experience here, so I quickly retreated.
After my hike I returned to the campground to settle into my tent, but the weather finally turned and it started to pour. I decided to switch back to the van after all.