Saturday, May 21, 2016

Badlands National Park 2015 | Part Three

Landscapes and Wildlife
4.20.15
American bison
This segment of the trip report is best presented simply as photographic documentation of the drive through the park on Badlands Loop Road and Sage Creek Rim Road, and the landscapes and wildlife observed.  Not much narration is needed as the pictures speak for themselves, but I will of course have to include a little geology.

Recommended driving music: Queens of the Stone Age (first album) or something mystical and weird


The ever-moody weather enhanced the light and drama

The park was still almost completely deserted.  Encountering another car was rare, and the many overlooks along the road were lonely and, ironically, being overlooked.

Panorama Point
The red sedimentary layers (horizons) like these are fossil soils (paleosols) and are evidence of a warmer and wetter climate in the geologic past.

Red horizons seen from the overlook at Panorama Point
Approaching the Yellow Mounds area of the park, it looked like we were venturing into a desolate, post-apocalyptic land, where mutant warriors were lying in wait, ready to ambush us and steal our water and gasoline.   

But there was no one.
Approaching the aptly-named Yellow Mounds
Completely deserted--not a single car parked at the overlook.  The lonely interpretive sign waits for a visitor.

The yellow mounds are an odd feature in an already strange landscape.  Of these geologic formations, the National Park Service explains that when the ancient sea that covered this part of North America drained away as a result of the uplift of the mountains to the west (see the previous post), the top layers of the former sea floor became weathered over time into a yellow soil.  Creatively, they are now called Yellow Mounds.  (But I challenge anyone to name them something more appropriate.)  These mounds are another example of a paleosol.  


A couple of ewes grazing
We passed a few female bighorn sheep as we meandered along.  They were unfazed by our presence as we slowed down to watch them graze near the side of the road. Unless it's mating season, rams and ewes do not intermingle; they live separately, congregating in groups of their own sex.

A lovely lady
At the north entrance to the park, Badlands Loop Road ends and forks north to exit the park on highway 240, and west to continue through the park via Sage Creek Rim Road--a dirt road that skirts Badlands Wilderness Area, which is home to the park's nearly 1,300 bison. It is also home to a community of prairie dogs known as Roberts Prairie Dog Town. 

Here the rugged landscape abruptly ends, giving way to the vast, rolling grassland of the surrounding region. 

Camping at Sage Creek is for the self-sufficient adventurer who prefers to camp far from the busier, more modern campground at Cedar Pass. (Both were completely empty during our visit.)  The Sage Creek Campground is free and somewhat primitive; there is no water, but there are pit toilets, and picnic tables with awnings for sun protection. These awnings are unusual sights for someone from east of the Mississippi, where there are no expansive grasslands or deserts with potentially dangerous sun exposure.  

Camping at Sage Creek is also for those who don't mind living with the bison, who have the run of the place.  I had looked forward to experiencing this first-hand, but since the weather prevented us from camping, it was not to be.  My sister camped here during her trip a few years before and shared some photos of her experience:

Sage Creek Campground, May 2010
Look how warm it seems. And fragrant.
This is a good time to exhibit the difference in the weather and landscape in just one month.  My photos were taken in mid-April, hers in mid-May.  While mine look cold, with dark, dramatic clouds and bleakness; hers are all warm light, green grass, and desert flowers.

April in Roberts Prairie Dog Town:

May:
All May photos taken by Andrea
A few more examples:

Left: Yellow Mounds area in April  |  Right: Yellow Mounds area in May
Plains Prickly Pear Cactus--forlorn in April (left) / festive in May (right)
The grass--bland and beige in April (left) / bright and blooming in May (right)
The ground--featureless in April (left) / fancy in May (right)
I was so excited to see bison that I started taking photographs as soon as I spotted tiny brown dots miles away on the horizon.  I worried that I might not be lucky enough to see one up close, but there ended up being no need for that concern.  After driving for a few minutes, bison appeared everywhere.  They are huge and fascinating.  They look like enormous, old, grumpy wardens of the land, sporting unkempt beards with miscellaneous debris stuck in them. 

Also beware of birds.
The extent of park traffic during our visit
We slowly drove along the road, stopping periodically to watch them wandering around and grazing.  I wanted to stay there forever.

(Taken at a distance with a zoom lens)
Bison! Yellow Mounds! Badlands!
After winding our way through the Sage Creek area, we turned around and headed back toward Cedar Pass, where we saw more bighorn sheep, this time perched high up on the formations.


A ram strolling alongside the road near Cedar Pass

Formations across the road from Cedar Pass Lodge
Back at our cabin, I spent time watching the smaller fauna in our immediate surroundings. A flock of yellow-headed blackbirds foraged in the dry grass in front of our cabin, and a few cottontail rabbits took shelter under our picnic table and in the taller grass behind the cabin.


The striking mountain bluebird we saw earlier at Door Trail was impressive, but my favorite was the western meadowlark. Considered an archetypal prairie bird, the western meadowlark is common in this part of the country--like seeing a robin in my neck of the woods--but to me it was an unfamiliar species with an exotic song that I ended up enjoying almost as much as the amazing landscape I drove for two days to see.  

I sat outside for as long as I could stand the cold wind, watching one of these birds flit around in a tree behind our cabin, singing his little lungs out.

For a video of this guy singing, go here.

A male western meadowlark singing in a tree behind our cabin at Cedar Pass

With no other visitors at Cedar Pass, the view behind our cabin was deserted and beautiful, and the only sounds were birds and wind.


To be continued in Part Four: Castle Trail.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Badlands National Park 2015 | Part Two

Notch Trail and Door Trail
4.20.15
Formations on Notch Trail
I woke up in our cabin at Cedar Pass to gleaming sunlight sneaking through the cracks in the closed blinds and the realization that I didn’t have to hurry to do anything. Based on our experience arriving at the park last night, it appeared we were the only humans around for miles aside from the lodge employees, and since we had abandoned our plan to camp and were instead staying in this cabin for our entire trip, there was no rush to secure a campsite or get out on the hiking trails early to avoid crowds.  Plus, although the sun was shining brightly, I could hear the menacing wind outside, and a check of my phone’s weather app revealed that it was 27ºF.

I twisted the blinds open so I could see the formations behind the cabin while I continued to lay in bed and enjoy being lazy, something I’m not accustomed to doing on my usual vacations.  It was below freezing outside, the park was deserted, and as excited as I was to get out and explore the landscape, I was in no hurry to do it before 10am.
I was careful not to let my senses get me down by fooling me into thinking it was only 20º when it was actually a balmy 27º.  And yes, I took a screen shot of the weather as a memento.
Once we were ready for breakfast, we walked from our cabin to the Cedar Pass Restaurant and took in our surroundings. Ours was the only car at the cabins, and cottontail rabbits were enjoying the use of it as shelter from predatory birds. During our stay here, the rabbits hung around outside the cabins, not the least bit bothered by us, but constantly on alert for non-human threats in their exposed habitat.

The restaurant and gift shop were quiet, and we sat at a table by a window looking out on a tall pinnacle across the road.  I chose the Indian Fry Bread with berry pudding, which was very good.  We planned to take a couple of short hikes today, followed by some scenic driving within the park (details will follow in Part 3).  After breakfast we drove to the parking area where four of the park’s established hiking trails are accessed. There was one other car in the parking lot, and the wind was the only sound.
The sky was still clear and the sun was bright, but the wind was cold and intense. At the beginning of Notch Trail, a sign warns of rattlesnakes, which are common in the park. We would have liked to have seen one from a safe distance, but it was a bit too early in the season and too cold for them to come out of hibernation yet. We were wearing hats, gloves, and multiple layers under puffy jackets as we set off on Notch Trail. The trail traverses a dry grassy area to an opening in the Badlands Wall - a major formation in the park that spans approximately 60 miles east-to-west and is made up of a continuous series of buttes and spires. It was like walking into an extraterrestrial ghost town.
Notch Trail
Notch Trail is short but very interesting.  The path winds through a canyon before climbing up the face of the formation using a long, steep ladder made of logs.  The trail then continues at a higher elevation, where hikers are immersed in the dramatic alien landscape.  The trail ends at an abrupt drop-off with a view of the White River Valley. This is an out-and-back route, so hikers are given the opportunity to see everything again on the way back.  The trail is only a mile and a half round-trip, and we were done in under an hour.
The ladder on Notch Trail
Notch Trail: Looking down at the valley after climbing the ladder, which can be seen on the left.
Left: Hiking the upper part of Notch Trail.  Right: The view of White River Valley at the end of the trail.
SCIENCE How the Badlands were formed – condensed version:  Many millions of years ago, a shallow sea covered the Great Plains of North America.  Over time, sediments built up on the sea floor and hardened into shale.  The eventual rising of the Black Hills and Rocky Mountains to the west caused the sea to drain away.  Over many more millions of years, the former sea bed became a flood plain, as rivers flowing from the mountains deposited layers of gravel, mud, and sand on top of the former sea floor.  Large amounts of ash from volcanic activity west of the Badlands were also deposited onto the plains.  Around 500,000 years ago, rivers began carving through the sedimentary rock layers.  What was once a flat floodplain became an otherworldly landscape of banded buttes, jagged peaks, and colorful mounds created by the force of water carving paths through layers of geologic time. Abundant fossil deposits in the exposed layers of ancient rock provide a wealth of historical information; according to the National Park Service, the Badlands National Park area is considered the birthplace of vertebrate paleontology in North America. (https://www.nps.gov/badl/index.htm)
Up close to sedimentary formations on Door Trail
500,000 years is the blink of an eye in geologic terms, and up close it is easy to see how fragile this sedimentary landscape is.  It is eroding at a very fast pace – about an inch is weathered away each year by rain and wind.  Eventually the Badlands formations will disappear.  Scientists estimate that at the rate the formations are eroding, it will be only another 500,000 years before they are gone.  It becomes clear how short the Badlands’ lifespan is when compared with the Grand Canyon, parts of which recent research suggests may have begun forming as early as 70 million years ago.
A mountain bluebird and the boardwalk at the entrance to Door Trail
Back at the trailhead, a flash of bright blue caught our eye.  A mountain bluebird was perched at the tip of a low branch of a dead shrub, the soul inhabitant of the parking lot, swaying side-to-side in the strong wind (hence the blurry photo). I have never seen a bird that blue, and its color appeared especially striking due to the change in the sky. Steel gray clouds were gathering, providing a dramatic backdrop for the scenery on our next adventure:  Door Trail.  Here, visitors are led at first along a boardwalk through a “door” in the Badlands Wall.  The boardwalk was installed around 2000 to protect the path from rapid, human-caused erosion.  Once through the “door,” impressive layered buttes and turrets rise in the distance, and hikers can venture out onto the rugged desert terrain, with yellow trail markers as a guide to prevent getting lost.  
Photo taken by Craig on Door Trail. Note the firm stance and the fabric of my pants plastered against my legs by the intense wind.
Scenes from Door Trail
If the wind hadn’t been so overwhelming, I could have spent most of the day wandering around this area.  It was spectacular.  The striking features against the dramatic sky resulted in many of our photos looking fake, like an intensified cloudy sky was Photoshopped behind the formations, and our brightly-clad figures digitally dropped in front. 

After Door Trail, we drove north to take in the view at the nearby Big Badlands Overlook before returning to Cedar Pass and embarking on the scenic driving we had planned.  The first overlook when driving east-to-west through the park, Big Badlands Overlook offers a panoramic view of miles of banded rock formations.
Big Badlands Overlook
As we returned to Cedar Pass, we noticed movement in the tall grass ahead of us.  It was a group of four male bighorn sheep, and I pulled to the side of the road to watch them, thinking maybe I would be lucky enough to get a few photos from far away with my zoom lens before they disappeared. Because the park was all but deserted, there were no other cars on the road, and we didn’t have to worry about holding up any traffic.  (Not a single car passed us during this time.)  The rams walked slowly through the tall brown grass toward the road, where they began grazing on the short green grass that grew along the road’s edge.  

Of the four, one appeared more mature; he was larger, with more substantial horns showing some dark age rings.  We did not intend to purposely get closer to them, but as we sat quietly watching, the rams strolled along the edge of the road toward our parked car, heads down and grazing most of the time.  They came closer and closer, eventually walking past us just outside the passenger door, paying us no attention whatsoever.  Being able to stop the car and observe animals was one of many pay-offs we would receive as the park’s only human inhabitants during this cold visit. 

For a video of these rams walking past our car, go here.


To be continued in Part Three: Landscapes and Wildlife