Badlands and Beyond

My favorite thing to do is to go where I’ve never been.

~Diane Arbus

There is a lot of flat land out there in the middle of the country. And not many national forests to disperse camp in it turns out. But, after leaving IL, we drove up along the Missouri River corridor and stopped at a place Melissa had found – Brickyard Hill Conservation Area, in MO. Melissa used a variety of apps and web sites to search for good camping sites. Her favorite, and the one that led us to Brickyard Hill, is iOverlander.

Our isolated campsite at Brickyard Hill with the native prairie vegetation in the distance (click photos to enlarge)

This area is preserved because of its unique geology and plant life. It is part of a region known as the loess hills. Loess (pronounced in a couple of ways it turns out, Luss or Low-ess) refers to fine-grained sediment that is formed by the accumulation of wind-blown soil particles. The explanation for this long line of undulating hills along the eastern edge a stretch of the Missouri River floodplain is that during the last Ice Age, glaciers ground rock into dust-like particles in this region. With warming temperatures, the meltwater deposited huge mud flats along the river. As the mud flats dried out, strong westerly winds moved huge amounts of this fine-grained silt, forming large dune fields. These dunes eventually became stabilized with vegetation and have been gradually carved by erosion into the undulating, and often steep topography we see today.

We drove to the pond access and there were some fishermen and several RVs. We decided to give the other location a try even though it was a few miles away. But, we were glad we did. This camp area was located atop a hill with a circle of designated sites (all empty), a pit toilet, a small prairie grassland in the middle, and was surrounded by forest and a bit of a cornfield on one side. It was perfect (so much so that we stopped again on our way back). The circle of open area above the prairie also gave a great view of the night sky. We fell asleep that night to Coyotes yipping in the distance and a Barred Owl calling nearby.

At this point, we had decided to head toward a national park that would be new to us, Badlands National Park, in SD. Our route took us by DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge along the Missouri River. We drove the auto tour road and had a couple of brief wildlife encounters. We pulled into a parking lot and there was a group of three Wild Turkeys strutting across the pavement. One was doing more than strutting – it was pursuing and pecking at a small rodent (I think it was a vole). The turkey was zigging and zagging and stabbing at the scurrying mammal but looked up when it noticed us and its prey escaped. I have never seen a turkey go after a mammal!

Turkey chasing a rodent

The other bird sighting of note was a large flock of American White Pelicans. It is always a treat to see these giants on the wing (about a 9 ft wingspan!). We would see these magnificent birds in several other places on our trip.

American White Pelicans have the second largest average wingspan of any North American Bird, after the California Condor

Driving on, we passed through a lot of corn and flat land. Melissa had found a spot to camp just outside Badlands National Park frequented by RVs and other dispersed campers. It sounded like it was an area right along the edge of some cliffs and canyons. We pulled in kind of late and were disappointed to see a sea of campers spread out along the rim.

RVs on the edge just outside Badlands NP

As we would soon learn, however, the big advantage of our 4wd truck is that we can drive past where most RVs fear to tread and in doing so managed to secure a nice perch around the bend from most of the other campers.

View from our truck bed at the edge of the Badands

Views from our campsite were amazing, and a herd of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep kept us company and even bedded down less than 100 ft from the truck as we learned the next morning.

Badlands National Park is a stunning area and surprised us with a number of excellent wildlife sightings, including Pronghorn, Bison, Bighorn Sheep, and Black-tailed Prairie Dogs. We spent much of the morning driving through and taking short hikes to explore the rugged landscape. Below are some of the highlights…

The jagged terrain of Badlands NP
Layers of colors in the early morning light
Sharp features stand out in the crisp air
Bighorn Sheep lamb alongside the road on the way in (photo by Melissa Dowland)
Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep lamb and ewe
Robert’s Prairie Dog Town with a sign explaining that prairie dogs can carry Sylvatic Plague

One of the coolest animals we observed in the park were the Black-tailed Prairie Dogs. The park’s web site has a lot of great information on these fascinating rodents, but here are a few of the highlights:

  • Prairie dogs were once an integral part of the western landscape – estimates are that, before 1800, prairie dog populations may have been in excess of 5 billion
  • Original range has shrunk to about 5%
  • Prairie dog populations were greatly reduced by settlers that saw them as competing for forage (new research shows they improve the nutritional quality of vegetation by their trimming of grasses and other plants in their colonies) and due to the accidental introduction of Sylvatic Plague by shipboard rats into the U.S. in the early 1900’s. Plague is deadly to prairie dogs (and can be transmitted to humans, where it is called Bubonic Plague, by bites or fleas from an infected animal)
  • Prairie dogs live in colonies called towns with the largest ever recorded estimated to cover a land area greater than the size of the state of West Virginia
  • Prairie dogs are keystone species: they are important food for many predators, they enhance vegetative communities where they feed, and they provide shelter for other species (like Burrowing Owls) by digging so many burrows
  • Prairie dogs have a very complex system of communication, perhaps one of the most complex ever decoded. The park web site states they can apparently alert the colony to the difference between a dog and coyote approaching, and some speculate they may not only be able to communicate that a human is entering the colony, but they can get as specific as, “A tall human in a blue shirt is approaching rapidly!”
Black-tailed Prairie Dog, the most common species in the U.S.
This species exhibits grooming behavior (called allogrooming) as a way to reinforce family bonds and rid each other of ectoparasites
Melissa is dwarfed by the stunning landscape
Sunflower against the backdrop of cliffs

We reluctantly departed for the Black Hills, looking for future camping spots online as we drove. Since we were close, we drove by Mount Rushmore, but were disappointed in the “touristy” nature of the entrance and decided to pass by with just a look from down the road. We made a detour to see (again from the road) the Crazy Horse Memorial, the monument being carved in another mountain as a tribute to the Lakota Chief.

Mount Rushmore

We camped on an isolated dirt road in the Black Hills National Forest that night and headed out the next morning for our next destination – Devils Tower National Monument. When we let some friends know our location, we got back two cryptic (to us) notes about sculpting mashed potatoes and were a bit perplexed until we googled it (we watched Spielberg’s classic film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, this week to help us better understand the reference).

Devils Tower as we approached the National Monument (it seemed more majestic and mysterious in black and white)

Many American Indian tribes of the region held this geologic wonder as a sacred site and their oral histories recount many origin stories and tales of the significance of the tower. Translations of Indian names for the site include Bear Lodge, Bear’s Tipi, Tree Rock, and Gray Horn Butte. President Theodore Roosevelt set it aside as the first national monument on September 24, 1906.

The tower is 867 feet from its base to the top, about a mile in circumference, and the area at the summit is about 1.5 acres (the size of a football field). We walked the paved trail in face masks as the park was very crowded. Signage along the way explained the tower’s formation as an igneous intrusion (hardened magma) into surrounding sedimentary rock layers some 50 million years ago. Erosion over millions of years removed the softer sedimentary rock, exposing the tower we see today.

The huge columns of Devils Tower

The rock type has the strange name of phonolite porphyry derived from two characteristics – a small slab of the rock rings when struck; and its texture, containing large crystals of feldspar. The greenish cast you see on many of the columns is from layers of crustose lichens growing on the rocks. Melissa (the geologist turned naturalist) commented that she had never seen me taking so many rock pictures…I’ll agree, this trip was especially heavy on cool rock formations.

We enjoyed a leisurely lunch in the picnic area, watched some more prairie dogs along the entrance road, and then headed west.

11 thoughts on “Badlands and Beyond

  1. You’re giving me ideas for my own bucket list. I’ve never seen Devil’s Tower – yet. Too bad though that many of the parks are so crowded these days.

  2. I am enjoying this trip SO much. Thanks for the great photos and descriptions. I’ve been reading and rereading and it almost feels lime I’m right there! Love it.

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