If it's Friday after about noon, I'm probably wondering what kind of road trip I can get away with that weekend -- what destinations I can tick off, how far I can get, and whether the skies there are dark.
Sometimes these little schemes develop into adventures, and sometimes they don't. This time: The Badlands!
Badlands NP has been on my list for years, because I love a good rock formation, and it seems so appealingly right down I-90 from Chicago. Well, it's a 12 hour drive, so it's not quite right down the road, but I've done worse, and it was one of my favorite road trips ever.
Hurtling into the sunset down I-90 isn't a terrible way to start a weekend, and it was great fun to rush past rural Minnesota farm towns at 2am blasting Bad Bunny or some such. Momentum kept me going until Valley Springs, SD, just short of Sioux Falls, where I pulled over for a few hours' sleep in the driver's seat.
The next morning I pulled into the park, paid my entry fee, and immediately got a breathtaking view to share with my truckstop coffee at the aptly named Big Badlands Overlook.
After one of my all-time great morning cofees, watching the morning unfold at the end of the Great Plains, I took what was honestly my first look at a map of the park (I plan things professionally, I'm allergic to it in my personal life, it tends to work out well enough). I found out the best place to find bison -- and I've been on a search for a wild bison all summer -- is by driving down the Rim Road, about an hour into the park at 25mph. That's just fine, this is a road trip, this is what we do!
And I found bison! After shaking my poor, poor sport sedan to it's spiritual core for about 3 miles of rutted, dusty misery, I turned a corner and found a field where a few dozen bison were grazing. This was only the second time I'd been out of my car for about a full day at this point, and I watched them in absolute contentment for about 20 minutes, with the prarie wind blowing and not much else going on. Soon enough, someone saw me stopped by the side of the road, and one became two, became five, and it was time to get moving.
Eventually I couldn't make it any further in my car...the ruts were just too serious, and even going about 2-3mph (not super easy uphill in a manual on gravel) was actually causing me to fear for my ride home. But turning around, I noticed a lone bison perched on top of a rock on the other side of the road, exactly where I would have missed it completely had I not moved exactly when I did. I pulled over at a respectful distance and watched it calmly, slowly -- sloooowly -- wander back across the road, to the field I'd been watching earlier. Absolute peace.
I spent the next few hours crisscrossing the park looking at prarie dog towns, incredible views, and taking in the warm breeze in some of the most beautiful country I've ever seen.
I've realized that my favorite part of almost every adventure involves climbing some geological feature to its very top. So: enter Saddle Pass Trial. It's about a quarter mile to the top, and then maybe another few hundred feet to an even higher, adjacent, climbable-if-you're-a-little-creative outcropping. But what a quarter mile. There are a couple of pitches where I was laughing out loud at the pitch, which reminded me of climbing a ladder to hang Christmas lights. The rock is grippy, though, it's great fun, and rewards you with a very amazing view.
I did need some snacks after that -- I can't emphasize enough how I bundled myself and my camera into my car back in Chicago on Friday afternoon and hit the road, with absolutely no preparation -- so I headed back to the visitor's center for some Cliff Bars or similar fare. On the way I noticed a very amazing view I hadn't seen before, as clouds sweeping in from the southwest blew across a sunny plain, casting an amazing light on a huge formation of rocky pinnacles a few miles away.
I had to wait for a family to take a (presumably adorable) photo, which gave me a few minutes of calm in a whirlwind few days.
It was about 5pm now, Saturday afternoon, and I was becoming aware that I had to make a choice whether to stay another night. I had work on Monday, and about 16 hours including some sleep between me and home. The skies around the park are extremely dark in stretches, but it was going to be a stormy night as weather blew in from Wyoming. So, I decided, sitting in a parkling lot with the view in the photo right below this, it was going to be a one day trip. It was already worth it, and the real adventure is the friends we make along the way, or something.
On my way out of the park, I got one last surprise: one of my favorite sunsets I've ever seen, just as one final part in the clouds passed overhead before the rainshowers came. What a drive.