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Badlands National Park

Visited May 24 - 29, 2021.

To drive any direction out of the Midwest is to be tantalized by the oncoming horizon.

My knowledge of the expansively flat ground begins to give way. Wrinkles form at the very brink of my faded blue vision as fields scrunch up to squint back at me. On the last three hours of the drive from Northern Illinois to the Badlands National Park, me and my partner cross the Missouri River on I-90 taking a long downward slope that showcases the most beautiful hills beyond the shoreline. This land is moving. It takes me upward to peak above the surrounding hills at valleys of cows who appear completely content with their existence. I realized in comparison that I was traveling at 80 miles and hour in a frantic search for new scenery. Was it okay to be unsatisfied with my current adventures? The grassy fields of home weren't much different, but they weren't these fields.

The hills continued to take me in. I started seeing layers of rock under the grassland as I was gradually lowered into the crinkles that had, till now, only smirked at me from a distance. But now I was with them: the White Hills, the Black Hills, the South Dakota landscape.

Drawing my first breath of MST.

Person standing center frame on a hill with arms outstretched showing off a background of white, red, yellow, and green hills made of rock and clay

Suddenly exposed and surrounded by wind, I stand atop a mound of clay and there is nothing man-made within view. Each breath traversed a great distance before I took it. The air here passes through porous stone, lives inside prairie dog tunnels, loosens the hair of spring shedding bison, and keeps cliff swallows in flight. All around are red and yellow gradients, every shade and tint of soil and brilliant green shrubs that break up any expectations of monotony.

Hiking a short distance through the backcountry to this location, I learned that the hills looked gentle from a distance but their attractive slopes can actually be quite unforgiving. I became a child interacting with my new environment: maneuvering over ledges, climbing all the large rocks I could, and following the tracks of bison as they walked down steep slides. I even pointed at everything in awe. It was important to me to take off the sunglasses as often as possible to have an unfiltered view as far as my eye could see. Depth really lengthened my field of view; the horizon hid, weaving in and out of distant rock formations. The terrain continued to disoriented my internal compass and made the pathways I traveled seem unrecognizable if not for a few key features. On our hike up Notch Trail, we passed a particular rock that we named sandwich rock (picture below) and it helped to mark the route we took going in.

Many times we found ourselves on the same trails taken by wildlife. I silently thanked them for discovering safe passage for us and marveled at the trails I could not follow.

Observed ECOLOGY

The Badlands is an area that is slowly eroding away. The landscape is actually different in small ways each time rainfall moves sediment and punctures clay mounds. Basin areas are created where water drains and dense foliage forms, which leaves drier places above that house cactus plants on their cracked surfaces. Neighboring the rock formations are vast acres of mixed-grass prairie well-known for protecting prairie dogs and bison.

Although I'd seen pictures, nothing compared to using all my senses to witness resident animals leaving tracks and basking around the unique prairie and cliff-like geography.

Within the cliff parts are a geological wonder: clastic dikes (pictured left), which are strings of rock that appear green and flaky. I found this information post-hike, and instead simply pointed in glee at each line I encountered. Following no pattern, the dikes lay in all angles and seem to stay in straight lines. These areas of strong sedimentary rock actually support the tall, lingering peaks and cliffs around the Badlands, and their ancient creation is currently unknown. Similarly, the sod tables (picture above) are saved by another geological relationship. Prairie grasses at the top of these plateaus act as a sponge to absorb the water before it can wash away the rock. These events greatly help out paleontological efforts, as layers are slowly exposed and cleaned as the land weathers.

As far as living animals, I arrived equipped with only my phone camera and binoculars shared by my partner and I. We observed most of these new animals with our memory:

  • Bighorn Sheep, Ovis canadensis (left)

  • American Bison, Bison bison (below)

  • Pronghorn, Antilocapra americana

  • Mule Deer, Odocoileus homionus

  • Black-tail Prairie Dog, Cynomys ludovicianus

  • Least Chipmunk, Tamias minimus (Badlands chipmunk has lighter gray fur)

  • Cliff Swallow, Petrochelidon pyrrhonota

  • Bank Swallow, Riparia riparia

  • Black-billed Magpie, Pica hudsonia

  • Western Meadowlark, Sturnella neglecta

  • Horned Lark, Eremophila alpestris

  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Regulus calendula

I am so inspired by the people who work toward preserving the history and sanctuary of this landscape. South Dakota unearths a complicated past, and it takes a continued effort to keep a promising environment that so many plants, animals and people call home.


We rented a cabin in a small town called Wall. It was similar to a shed shop in the parking lot of home improvement stores that, according to some of the reviews, would not be described as inspirational. However, I sat on the little porch every day and followed the patterns of resident robins and cats as they crossed the road. We drank coffee in the morning from a single serve coffee maker and little teabags of Folgers found at the local food shop: Wall Food. Calling it home, I gratefully gathered my thoughts inside cabin 44.

1 - Clear night around the cabin

Smeared to the south is the last strip of cloud

And pasted above are flecks — anciently proud,

Massively endless and heading my way

To tap on my shoulder, not wanting delay,

Desperate for attention and expecting glee.

Distracted — letting the cold grasp my tea —

I look away from those demanding night stars

To stare at a cat living underneath cars.

2 - Impression of morning

Asphalt dreams to stop the noise it wakes,

Forced to scream at the rising sun

That stirs the presence of settling dew

And quakes the breath inside my lung.

Vehicles rumble along the road

Leaving mournful tantrums in their track.

Sitting here slowly, I pity the asphalt

Holding its breath after every setback.

3 - Impression of the same morning

Watching a sun that rises is to take in the grass below;

To be folded into the way of naturally being slow.

Giving no thought to progression or past

And not even letting the moment last.

Do not wallow in the passing light or stand in cast shadow.

To watch a sunrise is to let yourself inevitably outgrow.

I wanted to take a trip long enough to not feel rushed. The Badlands (though filled with lively, curious guests anxious to take in the scenic views) offered a landscape that moves at it's own pace. The bighorn sheep and bison are not in a hurry. Rocks don't tumble impatiently; Rather, they remain nestled in precarious and probably uncomfortable positions to let plants grow around them.

This is patience: allowing yourself to erode by gradually releasing everything you absorb.


Information provided by the National Park Service educational trails and website.

Citation: Mellenthin, Faith. "Badlands National Park." Observe [blog]. 7 June 2021. Web.



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