Daily Archives: July 17, 2013

First Day at Badlands National Park


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 classic badlands look

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).

An example of the trail; you can see it becomes obscured in the foreground

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.

Various trails intersect at a grasslands crossroads; a man and boy are visible in the dusty area

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.

View from top of a rock formation

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.

The Concrete Highway to Sioux Falls


I woke up early at my rest area ‘hotel’ and pulled out around 6:30 in the morning. The rest area was about 30 miles from the Indiana border and soon I had crossed the state line.

It may just have been the hour – very early for a Saturday – but the Indiana highways were deserted, except for truckers. I don’t mind driving with truckers; I know that the height of the vehicles intimidates some people, but I’ve always found trucks to be slightly slow, uniformly good drivers, and generally considerate when passing. They’re the cows of the highway. Indiana had rolling hills & small farms bordered by trees, and fog rose from the valleys as I sped by.

I’d held off refueling in Ohio, under the theory that red states would have cheaper gasoline (lower taxes). Unfortunately, that wasn’t true for Indiana. But at least I saw something interesting at the gas station – a disassembled plane! After getting gas, Indiana passed by rapidly and soon enough I was in Illinois.

Plane at gas station
Probably faster than driving…

Chicago was a bit congested, even at 8 am, but the driving itself was straightforward: stay on I-90 through the entire city. I only covered the northeast corner of the state, near Lake Michigan, but even that tiny blip on the map proved to be nearly 100 miles of driving!

Then it was on to Wisconsin. It’s interesting, each arbitrary state line seemed to coincide with a change in scenery outside the window. The elevation changes became more severe in Wisconsin, and as I went further north the soil grew sandier. This coincided with a disappearance of farms, and I was reminded of the deserted pine barrens in southern New Jersey (but… without the pines). Wisconsin also marked the start of long-distance concrete highways.

Concrete is reputed to be a far more durable material for roads than asphalt, and there was markedly less construction on roads that were concrete compared to those that were asphalt. On the other hand, the driving feels a bit rougher and the concrete causes tires to make a high-pitched whining noise. It’s a sacrifice I’ll make to avoid construction.

The Mississippi River marks the boundary between southern Wisconsin and Minnesota/Iowa. Here the demarcation between states at least has a sensible geographic origin, and Minnesota was obviously different from Wisconsin – as if the topsoil of Wisconsin had been stripped off and deposited to the west. Farms returned… lots of farms. The bridge across the Mississippi is extremely high, and the highway rapidly gains elevation after you cross the Minnesota border. It may have been an optical illusion, but low, gathering storm clouds made me feel like I was at an extremely high elevation, as though I were somehow closer to the sky. Before, when I heard of Minnesota I had always pictured dense, shadowy forests, with voyageurs silently paddling between lakes. But near the southern border, it’s much closer to Iowan cornfields than anything else. The biggest city in this area is Rochester, with a population of 108k. The next biggest, I believe, is Mankato, with 40 thousand. The state feels deserted.

The concrete highways remain in this area, and the speed limit is 70 mph, so I made good time, but the only thing to distract me was the freakish gusts against the side of the van. In Minnesota, alone among the states I’ve visited, there were huge windfarms built to capitalize on those gusts – hundreds of slowly spinning turbines were scattered across the state, extending beyond visible range.

It’s 270 miles, 5 hours across Minnesota, and by the last two I had grown desperate enough to give up on music; I switched to audio lectures and spent the rest of the drive learning about South American pre-history.

Picture of the highway
270 miles of this

I’d set my endpoint for the day as Sioux Falls, South Dakota – the biggest city in South Dakota at 163k people and right across the border from Minnesota.

I didn’t get the full Sioux Falls experience, but the area I visited looked like every suburban center across the country, and not at all like a city. I felt just like I were in Clifton Park, except the license plates had changed and the population only looked 90% white.

I found a Wal-Mart parking lot and settled in for the night. When I woke up later I took a look out the window. Nearby two huge RVs towing jeeps were parked, as well as a truck with trailer, and various other cars. So it seems that Wal-Mart is a popular campground, and I repaid them by grabbing some food in the morning.

I also discovered that charging my laptop requires more power than the van is capable of providing, and blew out the circuit breaker on the van’s cigarette lighter. This is why updates have been less frequent than I’d hoped.