Updated: Jul 19, 2022
Tuesday, 21 June 2022, Rapid City SD
Time for this trip's priciest adventure! We arrived at the park with time to spare, so we headed to the Visitor Center for my passport stamp and for the day's recommendations. Though the center was small, it impressed us. They have a mini-museum with dioramas depicting the prehistoric landscape that once existed here, highlighting fossils (the park contains fossil beds). In a side room, you can look at displays or watch a scientist as he/she works on fossil preparation - separating ancient bones from rocks and cataloguing them. Their intricate work is displayed on a monitor next to their work station. Rangers and paleontologists are available for questions. Fascinating!
For hiking, the Cedar Pass area hosted the established trails in the park, with most of them under a mile in length.
Heading back toward the park boundary, we chose the first one we found, the Notch Trail. It ventured up a dry gully
(remnants of yesterday's rain still formed a few puddles, but they posed no problem to avoid). After a short distance, we saw the backup of people climbing a ladder to climb to the canyon rim to continue the hike. Knowing we had an appointment, we put the trail on our list for later and returned to the car.
As we exited the park, we turned left into the parking lot of Badlands Helicopter.
When I first started matching parks to adventures, I came across an ad for helicopter flights over the Badlands. I had taken helicopter rides in the past - on Kauai, and heli-skiing in the Canadian Rockies - but those happened nearly 40 years ago. Add that adventure to the #60ways list!
The outfitter was a small company. They occupied a non-descript building just outside the park boundary, with a small helipad.
The staff attended to business, checking us in, giving us waivers to sign, providing safety instructions. Inside the four-person cabin, the pilot buckled us in and gave us headsets (so we could talk over the noise of the rotors). Then he took the controls, and after a slight tremble, the land fell away.
Our flight path took us out to Cedar Pass, passing directly over the Notch Trail (as well as the other trails there). Once we passed over the Visitor Center, Bill noticed a traffic backup on the main park road. That makes sense - signs on the road had warned us that NPS had several road construction projects going on.
Our premier-level tour took us the length of the park and back, tracking the great gash across the Dakota landscape.
We could see the terrain changing beneath us. Once we reached the end of the park, we reversed course and again flew over the big gash in the land. Finally - too soon; we hated for the ride to end - the pilot dropped low over the grasslands, made a steep bank, and lightly touched down.
After touching the heavens, it felt good to again stand on solid ground.
Heading back into the park, we noticed the next tour had taken off and skimmed across the land, gaining elevation.
Now we needed to tackle the ladder! We retraced our steps up the lower Notch Trail, rounded the bend ... and saw that the one-way traffic on the ladder had reversed to 'down'. With a line at the top still waiting to descend, we followed the lead of other hikers who scrambled up a chute to the left of the ladder.
Certainly do-able going up, but I wouldn't want to try that going down.
The park brochure rates this trail as 'moderate to strenuous' and 'not recommended for those with fear of heights'. Signs like this one reflect that:
I stepped very gingerly across the short, narrow rim, and found myself with an easy stroll over slickrock (glad it's not wet today!) to the Notch's overlook
of the White River Valley. Given what it took to get up here, the number of families with young children surprised me.
For the hike back, I decided to try an alternate descent, working my way down the dry canyon just below the defined trail. I tried to convince myself, if there were an easier way down, don't you think the park would use it? But this trip is about adventure, right? This adventure ended quickly when the dry canyon reached a 30' sheer drop with no apparent way down (and of course, no ladder). Backtrack to the official trail, where I caught up with Bill as he prepared to descend the ladder.
We sampled another of the trails in this area, leading to another view into the valley. We then drove less than a mile to reach the only established trails exceeding a mile in length. They ran over gently rolling mixed-grass prairie, with views of prominent buttes to the south.
Farther to the south, the Badlands terrain dropped to the lower elevations, but they stayed below our sightline as we began.
The Castle Trail runs five miles end-to-end; by pairing a part of it with the Medicine Root Trail, we could have a four-mile round trip. Starting on Medicine Root, we strolled west, stepping around the few puddles hidden in the grass,
enjoying the clouds dotting the sky. It ended in two miles as it reached the Castle Trail, with a side trail leading down from Saddle Pass - a steep, strenuous drop to the lower elevations. We noticed a couple of people taking the gnarly trail down - and we also noticed a couple that had climbed even higher above the Badland features. Nope, not trying that, either.
I hope they got a great view from up there!
We turned east on the Castle Trail to execute the loop. Being closer to the terrain break, we had less prairie, more slickrock and pockmarked lands that showed early signs of erosion. It also brought us closer to the buttes, opening up photo opportunities. I stopped at one point to frame my picture, and then noticed
Bill had disappeared from view. Being on slickrock, I could see no well-defined track, so I made a best guess. A few minutes later, I backtracked for another guess. After my third try, I found Bill again, and we proceeded back to the car.
On the ground, we'd covered only a small fraction of the land we'd seen from the air. Time to drive through the construction mess on the park loop, stop at the overlooks - you know, do the standard tourist things. The flight had taken us over distinctly different lands; I looked forward to seeing the variety up close. Indeed, the later pullouts did show eroded lands quite different from Cedar Pass.
The cliffs were not as sharp, and greenery filled more of the open space.
Travel notes. Anyone who has visited the Badlands know that no trip here is complete without a visit to Wall Drug. It started as a struggling business during the depression, situated in 'the middle of nowhere'. The owner then had a marketing master-stroke - he started advertising free ice water to people zipping by on I-90, and a legend was born. Now it serves as a memorial to merchandising, with billboards spread along hundreds of miles of highways from Billings to Minnesota. In addition to numerous stores hawking cowboy-themed items - leather shop, rock shop, bookstore, souvenirs (and of course a drug store), the complex houses a restaurant (the café seats 530)
and a Western art gallery with historic photos and 300 oil paintings. Call it the Kitsch National Park - call it anything you want, but it still draws over two million visitors a year. Billboards still offer free ice water, as well as 5¢ coffee.
We had seen the site on our trip there roughly twenty years ago, but figured we could afford another stop. We wandered through several shops - I even purchased a new fanny pack in the leather shop - and marveled at the nostalgic decorations. Remember the fortune-telling machine that made Tom Hanks Big in the movie? Yep, Zoltar was there. In the 'backyard', they had fountains and a mini-Mt. Rushmore, as well as a giant jackalope.
(They also lay claim to an 80-foot brontosaurus adjacent to I-90). My big regret: they advertised Wall Drug-branded wine by the bottle, and a bottle of Strawberry Rhubarb wine appealed to me. I didn't want to lug it around, though, so I figured I'd order it online later. Later I found out their online store doesn't include wine.
There - we've seen the cream of South Dakota's crop, Badlands and Wall Drug. And we'll be back for more tomorrow...
More notes. In the men's restroom at the Badlands Visitor Center, I noticed a sign: "Please do not wash your shoes in the sink. The silt clogs the drain." Sad that the park has to tell people what should be obvious...
My favorite billboard, seen as we returned to Rapid City: one for the Man Salon, where men go for haircuts. "Come in for a cut, and get a free beer!"
My favorite license plate: FINALLY