Badlands National Park
The blue skies from yesterday have gone as I walk across the hotel parking lot to breakfast by the reception area. It’s quite a limited selection on offer but there’s enough to fuel me up. Departing at 10.25 am, Chamberlain is only about 3 miles off I-90 so I’m soon blasting west again. I chose to stop there because it was one of the towns that helped split the distance from Chicago to the Black Hills into about three equal sections.
The speed limit is now 80 mph probably because there’s so little traffic in these parts. And so little of anything to look at. But that should change soon. The Interstate bypasses whatever towns there are in these parts but the landscape is always green. It looks like grasslands rather than cornfields. The road is still very straight but not totally flat. What they have got a lot of though is roadside billboards advertising all sorts of attractions and other stuff. I change time zone mid-state on the way this morning, which is unusual, it’s usually the state line. I’m now on Mountain Time, 7 hours behind the UK.
At exit 131 I turn off I-90 onto SD-240 W towards the Badlands National Park. A few miles later the Park’s NE Entrance comes into view, I pay my entry fee and quickly come across the first viewpoint. Wow! Amazing, strange, weird – yet wonderful – is the only way to describe the Badlands.
The dramatic landscapes of the Badlands consist of layered rock formations, steep canyons and soaring spires of rock, all carved and eroded by the elements into some incredible shapes. Many of them almost look like huge pieces of art. The overcast weather is not ideal, as I’d read that the sun could make the different coloured layers of rock change colour, depending on how the rays struck them. And I suspect under blue skies the whole of Badlands just looks even more spectacular.
“Time is running out” *
You can clearly see the rock layers, the colours of which indicate different types of rock such as shale, sand, gravel, iron oxides and volcanic ash. This is especially true on the latter parts of the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway (Highway 240).
Erosion of the rocks is an ongoing process that started 500,000 years ago, and they reckon it’s about halfway through. So in another 500,000 years, the Badlands will gone, ‘disappeared’ by the constant forces of nature. In places the rock formations look like they are from another world, like an alien landscape in a science fiction movie. As the erosion is a continuous process, you could visit in a decade’s time and certain rocks could look completely different. Go see them!
My plans changed however whilst in the Park. Pre-trip I had a route worked out that took me through most of the Park, double the distance of the Badlands Loop Road. But when I enquired at the Visitor Center, having picked up from a leaflet that my route was “not recommended”, the lady told me Sagecreek Rim Road is a dirt road, unpaved. “Perfectly OK though,” she remarked.
This, however, concerned me. So I checked the car rental agreement and discovered I can only drive the car on paved roads. Now I need a Plan B for later. I drive slowly along the Loop Road taking in these marvellous sculptures and landscapes, stopping frequently at the numerous turn-outs and outlooks. I entered the Park at 11.30 am and three hours later I’m approaching what has become my new exit, the Pinnacles Station. The Rim Road turn off is just before Pinnacles Station so I slow down as I approach it. It is indeed a dirt road, with, as it happens, some quite large stones clearly visible along the road surface. Driveable for sure but also I think a huge puncture risk in an ordinary car. Whatever, the Badlands really are amazing. Make sure you visit them one day.
I exit the Park and continue north up SD-240, which brings me back to I-90 at the town of Wall. When researching the Black Hills area, Wall Drug kept coming up. But it wasn’t rated a ‘must see’ and it didn’t end up on my planned route anyway. But it was one of the most persistent billboard advertisers on I-90 so I decided to stop by and see what the fuss is all about.
Wall Drug is about a quarter of a mile north of I-90. It is a drug store. And a whole lot more. They claim to be the largest drug store in the world, but it’s also a place full of shops selling all sorts: tat, food, clothes, hats (including Stetsons), 5 cent coffee, free ice water – and, not for sale obviously, a chapel as well! It’s a kind of large, bizarre department store with cowboy boots, donuts, art, pottery, T-shirts, kid’s games, jigsaws, jewellery… all sorts. Interesting to stop by at and it killed some time. I also bought my wife a small Sioux Pottery vase. 🙂
Back onto I-90 W again but now I’m in the foothills of the Black Hills and the road is up and down, curving and twisting – as much as an Interstate is allowed to do – and heading towards Rapid City. I shall be staying there in a couple of days but for now I turn off on Hwy 16, destination Keystone in the heart of the Black Hills. Just off the Interstate I stop off to fill up with gas, not being sure what’s available in the (maybe) wilds to come.
It’s getting cold. At the gas station it’s only 48º F. The problem? Tonight, snow is forecast and tomorrow’s predicted high temperature is only 41º F! I however have an early start when the temperature will only be 32º F – freezing point. Will I be snowed in? Who knows.
Overnight In Keystone
There’s a severe warning on The Weather Channel for the Keystone area tonight forecasting 1 to 4 inches of snow. Could be fun in the morning. Apparently this is unseasonably early. They do get snow here, but what do I care if it’s unseasonable? I’ll just have to deal with it – if I can.
I arrive at the Quality Inn Hotel in Keystone at 4.15 pm in some filthy weather: constant heavy rain, low cloud and misty. I don’t know my elevation but the clouds are covering the tops of the surrounding mountains as the road snakes through valleys between the peaks. The visibility is really bad and it’s getting colder. I think to myself I do need to be sensible in the morning depending on the conditions, even after driving 2000+ miles to come and see my ‘event’. If I’m snowed in, I decide there’s nothing I can do.
I figure that 1 to 4 inches is probably nothing serious to the locals and that they know how to deal with snow properly, clearing roads with snow ploughs and the like. So I’d planned a route tomorrow using highways and decide that I will make an attempt to venture out if it looks reasonable. But if it’s clearly dangerous en-route, to be sensible and return to base, hopefully in one piece.
BaRLee’s For Dinner
I’d asked the hotel receptionist for bar recommendations. She offered up two, one I knew about, the other I didn’t. So I try the latter, wrapping up warm before setting off. It’s very cold outside for September, I think. At BaRLee’s the bar lady was initially aggressive towards me when I entered for no reason. I also see this later when some dodgy Europeans came in. I couldn’t figure out where they were from but definitely dodgy.
Anyway, I play the nice boy and she comes around. Women, eh? Half-busy when I arrive, the bar soon clears out when the early crowd leaves, which leaves just little old me and Brenda (I overheard her name, she didn’t tell me) who I discover later is the owner. We chat a bit, about baked beans and soccer as she once lived in the UK. But she never asked about me though. I order a country fried steak, which comes with a bowl of soup and the latter was excellent. The steak is accompanied by mash and gravy and is quite good. Simple, nothing fancy, and good value for what it was. No complaints from me.
Directions For Tomorrow
Someone else had wandered in at some point and comes to the bar to ask Brenda about getting to the Buffalo Roundup tomorrow – which is where I’m going. She then tells this guy a different route to that I’d planned. He goes away and I say I’m also going there but I was going to go ‘this route’. She then explains why her route is better than mine, and I decide to bow to local knowledge, and will use her directions. She said my route was OK but gave me some clear reasons why her’s was better, and I could see that. It was all to do with the potential snow fall. Her route used roads that she knew would have priority for snow clearance, if it fell in any great quantity.
Time to leave. I pay my bill and bid farewell. I guess Brenda was OK in the end but I sensed she could be difficult. There are a number of bad TripAdvisor reviews about the place and having met her, it doesn’t surprise me. She was very ‘off’ with me when I arrived as I mentioned yet the bar was practically empty. She was busy, and on her own, but her initial attitude to a new customer was bad.
What was also interesting was that when two new parties came into the bar during the evening, she immediately asked them if they were looking to eat, and when they said ‘Yes’ she directed them upstairs to the restaurant area. But when I arrived there were lots of bar tables occupied by people eating. And as I said, when I walked in and sat down at the bar, and started looking at the draft beer menu, she obviously didn’t want me there, initially. But I just ignored her. 😉
(NB. When writing this up, months later, I see that BarLee’s continues to divide opinion, with many Poor and Terrible ratings.)
As I walk back to the hotel it’s still very cold. Whatever, I’ve resolved to get up early – you need to get into the Roundup viewing areas early, as they close them at 9.30 am. Let’s see what the new day brings.
* Time Is Running Out by Muse