Blue skies with puffy white clouds and rolling green hills lined the two-lane highway that cuts across the state. Wind turbines and cows populated the window scene until we traversed the bridge across the river, and the endless miles of farmlands turned into prairies and roadside attractions, like the famous South Dakota Corn Palace.
We talked a lot about the Oregon Trail and what it must have been like to make this trek across the state—how a miscalculation could mean running out of water or dying of starvation. And then, we hit the Badlands.
I cannot fathom what it would have been like to have crossed so far into North America, weathered and exhausted, only to hit this foreign patch of soil, where layers of colored sediment lay before you, rising up into challenging terrains. A land where coyotes roam and rattlesnakes reside.
We pulled into Badlands National Park around dusk our jaws set ajar feeling like we’d just crossed into extraterrestrial territory.
After setting up camp we cruised along the Badlands loop to find a good place to watch the sunset, where we pulled off to watch the sun dip down into a banner of pink.
A starry night
We drove back to camp at Cedar Pass as the sky faded into starlight to concoct a quick camp gumbo and wander over to the Ranger’s sky talk. Using his green laser pointer beneath a clearly defined Milky Way, he walked us through some of the highlights of this night’s sky.
As he talked several shooting stars illuminated the sky. And when he finished, he let us peer through the telescope to take a look at Saturn.
We walked back to camp as the full moon began to rise, slowly fading the lights of the Milky Way, and after delighting in our macarons that we’d purchased at Sioux Falls earlier that day, we settled in to sleep beneath the stars.
We left the fly off, so we could enjoy the speckled view.
Rumbles in the distance
I woke with a rain drop and the rumbles of thunder—not a single star was visible. The warnings that I’d read about jolted me awake – violent thunderstorms can come in fast in the summer in the Badlands, and if they do, get in your car. I shook Josh, and we made quick work securing the fly and tossing our bags into the Jeep, where we settled in as the sky lit up repeatedly throughout the night, each flash punctuated by the crash of thunder.
We woke as day broke to a damp, cool morning in the Badlands—little evidence of the violent storm from just hours prior. We unhitched the road bikes and saddled up for a ride through the foreign landscape without the windshield.
We peddled past where we’d seen coyotes and mule deer just the night before and began a brutal climb up the pass.
A place to catch your breath
When we reached the top, I had to pause for quite some time to catch my breath. Luckily, steep climbs tend to lead to stunning views, so I had a pleasant place to pause, while my body caught up.
We continued on to the pull off where we’d watch the sunset against the hills the night prior, we stopped to take a self-guided interpretive fossil tour, and paused at overlooks to take in the views.
To our right, it looked like what I’ve seen of photos of Scotland, and to our left, layers of colored sediment stacked into various formations, eroding rapidly each year. It is such a foreign and spectacular view, I struggle to find the appropriate words to give it justice.
As the sun began to rise higher in the sky bringing with it the summer heat and the rising tourists, we turned around to pedal back and grab breakfast at the Cedar Pass lodge, which featured unreasonably large Sioux-style meals (if you go, share). Even after a tough ride, I could only consume a small portion of my flat bread with eggs, beans, and salsa.
We broke camp and wound our way back to finish the loop, stopping at nearly every overlook to observe the inimitable formations.
Towards late afternoon, we made our way out of the park to continue onto another park – Mount Rushmore—and find our next campsite nestled in the South Dakota Black Hills.