DNA-X # 7 Badlands

February 10th, 2012 by

DNA-X # 7

Canyons and missiles and floods, oh my!

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The sun had disappeared behind the steep canyon wall as we followed the narrow road weaving our way up Spearfish Canyon. A rocky stream paralleled the road tumbling it’s way down, forming deep pools where Native Americans once hunted for fish with spears. Hidden away, deep in the Black Hills of South Dakota is our destination, the Spearfish Canyon Lodge. We pulled in as darkness concealed the scenery and found a nice room and a friendly staff. Across the street was the restaurant overlooking Spearfish Creek. No other evidence of human habitation was seen and really there was no land to build on in this constricted canyon so, peace and beauty had plenty of space to thrive. The lodge is set along the 22 mile long Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway (well worth the drive) that goes from the town of Spearfish to Lead.

As the sun came up the next day, it was clear why this remote lodge has a draw, the scenery is beautiful. After breakfast we hiked along one of the trails through a pine forest and passed Bridal Veil Falls one of the numerous waterfalls in the area. There are plenty of year round activities to keep you busy but our time was short and we had to keep moving. We continued to drive the byway to the town at the other end, Lead (pronounced ‘Leed’). Their famous gold mine was once the largest, most productive and deepest (+8000 ft. deep) gold mine in the western hemisphere until it closed in 2002. The place was pretty quiet when we were there! Since we were near by Sturgis we thought a drive-by of the famous biker hangout was in order. Sure enough there were plenty of saloons in town, sketchy motels and numerous fast food eateries. Their ‘bike week’ had already passed so town was expectedly drowsy.  We had to push on; we had a more desirable destination on the schedule.

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We got on I90 and drove east for one hour to Wall and exited onto Route 240. Heading south through dry, high plains we come to one of the entrances to Badlands National Park. This route is a great side trip if you have the time as 240 loops through part of the park and drops you back off further along I90. The drive takes about one hour not including stops for hiking or gawking at the surreal scenery. Once covered by a shallow sea, Badlands National Park is a vast collection of colorful eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires separated by sections of mixed grass prairie. It is rich in fossils of ancient creatures like the saber toothed cat, giant rhino, camel and three-toed horse while modern wildlife like the bison, big horned sheep, prairie dogs and the endangered black footed ferret roam here now.
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Driving through the park with fantastic and bizarre rock formations around every corner can stun the senses. Equally stunning is the history of our national parks that can sometimes be confusing and convoluted. Badlands is a good example of the hidden history not mentioned in the tourist brochures. The many battles between Native Americans and the U.S. government have been well documented. The Wounded Knee Massacre is still fresh in the minds of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who own more than half of Badlands National Park or rather the park service declared their land had to be included in the park. That’s not all; in the 1940’s the U.S Air Force took position of over 300,000 acres of Sioux lands displacing 125 families from their Pine Ridge Reservation (south half of the park) to make way for the Badlands Bombing and Gunnery Range. For 30 years it was target practice on those beautiful spires and fossil beds and on the nearby residents and towns that received misdirected munitions. Somewhere in the fine print, some brochures may mention it’s not a good idea to venture into thickly vegetated areas and if you see one of the many unexploded ordinances sticking out of a formation, stay away. That is, if you read the fine print.
DNA-X We kept ‘G’ and ourselves on the marked trails and luckily didn’t unintentionally venture into the war zone. On the outskirts of the park we passed the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site – what?!  A quick look at the iPad revealed the site has an underground silo and an un-armed warhead on display preserving the only remaining intact component of the once 150 strong Minuteman II Missile field. Cold war relics but don’t worry, there are still 450 active Minuteman III missiles lurking around the west! With visions of the classic movie Dr. Strangelove in our minds we decided to pass on that tour. What else is hiding around here? Nearby we found a more regional attraction, a giant prairie dog made of concrete (perhaps a secret bunker?) and some real prairie dogs running around.  Of course we had to stop so ‘Pip’ our prairie dog could visit!

Soon we were back on I90 heading east and then south on I29 where the road parallels the Missouri River. Suddenly the landscape changed, sand bags lined the road, the huge trees along the river were dead, silt and mud caked the fields. Barricades funneled traffic through a maze of flashing lights and debris. The summer of 2011 brought massive floods to the Midwest closing 100 miles of bridges along this river and reducing the interstates to rubble. I29 had been closed for months but even though it was now open floodwater was a stones throw away threatening to advance again. It was a stark contrast to the desert landscape of Badlands. We kept our fingers crossed that we could continue on to meet up with I80 and keep moving east. We did find I80 and now we kept ‘G’ on the fast track back to Florida. Our time was up for exploring our great country but along the way we started conjuring up next years plan. Where to next? We never did see the bears…I suppose that bear spray is still buried in the back seat…that stuff doesn’t go bad does it…? Maybe Canada… Alaska…? ‘G’ can do it, after a well-deserved visit to the spa! A special thanks to all the readers who followed our adventures and to Land Rover Palm Beach for their great job posting the blog and keeping ‘G’ ready to go. Stay tuned!

For additional photos of ‘DNX- #7 Badlands’ visit our FLICKR slide show.

– Nelia