Saturday, August 13, 2016

Badlands National Park 2015 | Part Four

Castle Trail/Medicine Root Loop
Castle Trail
It was still a ghost town at Cedar Pass Lodge when we left our cabin on our third morning at Badlands National Park. Once again we walked over to the Cedar Pass Restaurant for breakfast before heading to the trailhead. We planned to hike Castle Trail, an out-and-back hike by itself that can be combined with another trail—Medicine Root Trail—to make a loop of 6.6 miles.  It’s a nice day hike provided the weather isn’t too hot, know.

Left: Indian Fry Bread with berry pudding   Right: Cedar Pass Lodge
Castle Trail/Medicine Root Trail loop combo
The weather today was actually much better. Although it was still windy and freezing in the morning, it was sunny and the temperature would eventually rise into the 60s in the afternoon. We started out hiking in warm layers and wool hats, but eventually we were able to take our jackets off as it warmed up.  

We returned to the parking lot where most of the park’s trails are accessed and found only a single car parked in its long expanse and no other sign of human activity.  Two turkey vultures were perched high on the Badlands Wall. Lurking. Waiting.

It happened to be Earth Day.  I hope everyone took a few minutes to show their eroded sedimentary rock formation how they feel.  
At the beginning of Castle Trail, there is a bulletin board with trail descriptions and safety information regarding heat, dehydration, the lack of shade or water on the trails, cacti, and rattlesnakes. There is also a backcountry registration box for those venturing into the backcountry. Backcountry camping does not require a permit here, and backpackers can set out off-trail and camp anywhere in the park.  There are no trails to follow in the backcountry, and due to the severe nature of the landscape—extreme heat in summer/cold in winter, violent summer storms, non-availability of water anywhere within the park—exploring far into the backcountry should be attempted only by experienced, well-prepared hikers.

Left: Cautionary messages  Right: Red stakes mark the way along Castle Trail
The backcountry registration box had been defaced—with good intentions—by other hikers.  Scribbled notes regarding Castle Trail offered pointers on how to avoid getting lost immediately. This appears to be a frequent occurrence; messages scrawled with escalating urgency gave advice like “Go left,” “Look up,” “Don’t go down river bed,” and “Don’t proceed until you see red marker,” and were accompanied by “Listen to these people,” and “Pay heed people!” with arrows pointing to the previous notes. This stood out as not run-of-the-mill graffiti, and it grabbed our attention.  

Paying heed as directed, we took a minute to look around, stopping ourselves from proceeding to the right, down what looked deceptively like a trail but was likely the riverbed mentioned in one of the cautionary notes. We looked to our left and eventually spotted the first red trail marker up a hill in the distance.

Castle Trail starts out in a dry grassy area, winding past the occasional rock formation. Before long the formations become more frequent, sometimes appearing majestic, rising in pyramids and turrets, and other times looking decrepit, like an unearthed, ancient crumbling canyon.

The trail itself follows pretty easy terrain; there are some rolling hills, but no steep climbing. The ground can be a bit rough, and prickly pear cactus grows within the grass in some areas (not to mention rattlesnakes can be present when it’s warm), so appropriate hiking shoes should be worn.  We saw several female bighorn sheep throughout the hike, and they watched us with cautious curiosity. Only four other hikers crossed our path. 

Around three miles in, at the intersection of three trails—Castle, Medicine Root, and Saddle Pass—we headed northeast on Medicine Route Trail to begin the loop back.  This trail guides hikers through a flatter, grassier area, with Badlands formations to the south, and prairie to the north.  It is interesting hiking between these two extremes; the jagged peaks and spires of the Badlands formations in the distance on one side, and on the other side, a mostly empty, flat grassy expanse.

Green stakes mark Medicine Root Trail

Standing out oddly in a landscape otherwise devoid of such features, fields of a variety of rocks suddenly appear in a few locations on both Castle and Medicine Root Trails.  These rocks do not look like they belong; it is as if they were dumped here from another location and then spread out across a few open areas.  After doing some reading of the geological information available on the NPS website, it appears this actually is the case.  If I understand correctly, these rocks are part of what is referred to as “Medicine Root Gravels”: rocks that were carried here from the Black Hills and deposited in this area a few million years ago by fast-flowing rivers.  (If anyone knows of another explanation for the existence of these rocks, let me know.  But I will probably cover my ears and not listen because this scenario is mind-blowingly fascinating to me.)

There was still just one other car in the trailhead parking lot when we got back.  When we returned to Cedar Pass Lodge, we discovered another cabin was now occupied.  This place was getting far too warm and crowded; it was time to go.

We decided to stay at our cabin for dinner, and we dug into the contents of our box of camp food for various meal options.  I chose my favorite dehydrated meal, Mary Jane’s Farm Chilimac, which I prepared on our front porch with our Jetboil stove.  It was still windy, but the sun was warm, and I stayed outside on the porch for as long as I could tolerate the wind and I started developing a nice sunburn above the v-neck of my t-shirt to compliment my windburned face.

Sunset at Cedar Pass

As was the pattern on this trip, the wind died down in the evening, and I walked around the Cedar Pass area, enjoying the surroundings on our last night in the park.  The grassy area across the road from Cedar Pass Lodge was a good spot to watch the sunset, and I watched the sky turn magnificent shades of orange behind a silhouette of Badlands peaks. Afterwards I returned to our cabin and sat outside as the sky darkened and the crescent moon rose, and watched stars break out across the black expanse of the big sky.

I don't have proper equipment for night photography, so this is the best I could do.
We left Badlands National Park the next morning, taking a northern route home through South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and finally Michigan.  I fell in love hard in Madison, WI with a huge black Labrador retriever that was waiting patiently outside Gotham Bagels, wearing the most solemn expression I’ve ever seen on a dog.  A year and a half later, I’m still not over it.  

Left: Lonely road in South Dakota.  Right: This dog tried to mesmerize me into buying it a lox bagel in Madison, WI.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Badlands National Park 2015 | Part Three

Landscapes and Wildlife
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:

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.