Smog filled the horizon as far as the eye could see. The sun lit up the haze basking the land in an orange glow. Forest fires were exploding across the west coast as well as the rocky mountains, blowing smoke as far as Minnesota with South Dakota sitting in the middle of its path. I had jumped back on the road a couple of days previously, headed to see the Cascades before winters grasp tightened on the north. Luckily, I was passing Badlands National Park and even though I had been there multiple times, I always jump at the opportunity to drive through. One of the best decisions I make every year is getting a National Parks Pass ($80) which makes it free to drive through any park, offering spectacular detours close to many highways. This time, I was headed west past the park which offered me a new opportunity to see the park from a different perspective.
With just driving through, I didn’t have too much time to explore the Badlands, yet I still wanted to take a hike or two and the first trailhead I came across seemed like the perfect place to set off. There were three hikes that used this as a starting point, each one seemingly pretty moderate in difficulty, and each taking just enough time to distract me while still pushing into areas of the park I hadn’t seen before.
I was pleasantly surprised to see a decently full, but not packed, parking lot. Coronavirus still had taken a hit on the amount of people traveling, but I thoroughly enjoy the ability to spend time in public outdoors at a distance from each other. Suddenly, the air was filled with the laughter of families, the sight of children jumping rock to rock, all in awe of the grandiose scenery laid out in front of them. I automatically felt eternally grateful for this moment and a smile crossed my face, pushing off into the wilderness.
Exiting the boardwalk, I looked to my right to see a group of girls taking pictures for Instagram. Each one taking turns posing against the pristine backdrop and I could feel the joy exuding from them. I sat watching them for a minute, patiently waiting to not disrupt their shots. It’s moments like these that I really cherish, seeing happiness in it’s full and wonderful splendor. It’s a unique type of happiness that happens when people are unplugged and out in the world. Not necessarily out in nature, but out in the world interacting with it and with other people. It’s almost a humility that is caused by being in areas that feel grand; a humility that pushes us to look at our own life with more perspective, seeing something bigger than ourselves. Soon enough, the girls saw me standing there and got embarrassed, immediately making excuses for why they were acting so giddy. I assured them they need not worry, that I felt the same way they did, even if it didn’t seem that way.
Pushing further, I was happy to see groups of photographers crawling across the rocks in the distance, all searching for that perfect shot, that perfect landscape to add to their portfolio. Having been out in the rocks multiple times, today I wanted to stop and look at the details that are usually missed. The wildlife that stays hidden between the giant crags and out in the flowing amber grasses. It consistently amazes me how much life surrounds us when we stop to take a look; when we take a moment to focus on the details. I often find that that is a way to bring constant appreciation into my life, by stopping and looking at the little things around me. I focused on this line of thinking while searching for rabbits and birds and couldn’t help but feel content as I clicked away.
With one hike done, I crossed the parking lot to find the next trailhead, pushing further into the rocks than the previous path. There was definitely more action on this hike, at least for the beginning mile. Eventually, the trail came to an impasse where a slope lead up to a cliff and the towering rocks above. For most travelers, this was the point of turning back, but for the adventurous, the path ahead may be a bit tricky, but is definitely worth pushing past your comfort limit! A ladder built out of metal chording and logs gradually leads up the slope to the cliffs above. Sitting back to wait for my opportunity as explorers pushed themselves further, I reveled in the laughter and struggles I was witnessing. Elderly groups struggled slowly up and down, paying detailed attention to their balance, young couples rushed up, seemingly unperturbed by the challenge. Then you have my favorite where a father picked up his son, threw him over his shoulder, and pushed forward, the son screaming in delight.
Not much later I found myself sitting at the edge of a rock face looking out over the vast world in front of me. A shaggy chipmunk scrambled across the rocks, searching for its breakfast. A black billed magpie clung to the side of a cliff, taking any opportunity it could get to ride a thermal and then come back for a rest. The park was alive and active all around me, but one had to stop for a minute and look for it… search for it… appreciate it. I cherish the privilege of experiencing these moments, those in which the details stand out and I blend into the background.
Back in my car and headed for the exit, I came upon a herd of bighorn sheep coming up from the valley. Almost as if I wasn’t thinking, I swerved to the shoulder and hopped out to get shots of these magnificent animals. Totaling about 50 sheep in all, they filled the valley, road, and then field in the distance. Young rams with their horns just beginning to grow frolicked and played while the others sat on far away rocks, content to just observe. No matter how many times I encounter a herd of these guys, I am always astounded by how graceful they are. How elegant they seem while running across the horizon in ways that seem like they can defy gravity. The pure beauty of nature is encompassed in their being.
Will this park ever not be magical? I thought to myself as I drove into Wall to charge. I hope it always retains its splendor, but we can never be certain. Public lands are constantly under threat and what seems like a protection today can be overturned tomorrow. I hope that the Badlands always remain though, a constant reminder of what lies in what we humans view as nothing. A constant reminder that there is life everywhere, even when we can not see it. A constant reminder that even the roughest edges can contain the softest souls.
Closest Supercharger Wall SD 7.7mi
199-101 W 6th Ave, Wall, SD 57790
Badlands National Park
25216 SD-240, Interior, SD 57750