A Wind and Water Sculpture Masterpiece – South Dakota’s Badlands
After being wowed by the lesser-known North Dakota Badlands, we began our southward trek and spent two weeks in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Steve’s parents were from South Dakota, and growing up he heard a lot about the Black Hills area and the many exciting things to do here. So he was fired up that we were finally going to experience them, and I was about to unknowingly fall in love with the area myself!
There was so much to do here that I’m getting seriously behind in my posts, and we barely had enough time to see everything on out list. But I’m trying to keep my priorities straight – fun and fitness first, then blogging as time permits!
We began with one of Steve’s bucket list items, the popular and rugged Badlands National Park. I decided to post this one immediately following the one about the North Dakotas Badlands, for a better appreciation of the erosive forces of nature and the sculpted land it leaves behind in both areas. They were created about the same time, 65 million years ago, but we saw more spires and pinnacles on this stop. The rock layers contained hues of green, gold, buff and pink, which made them very colorful.
The park protects 242,756 acres of badlands, blended with the largest undisturbed mixed grass prairie in the United States. We entered from the west on highway 44 past the town of Scenic through the Buffalo Gap National Grassland. Our first stop was at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center near the town of Interior.
At the Visitor’s Center we were advised that driving the Badlands Scenic Loop Byway was the best way to learn the science behind its barren landscape, and at the same time enjoy the breathtaking vistas and quiet atmosphere it provides.
From the signs and plaques at several overlooks we learned that the badlands were formed by the geologic processes of deposition and erosion. The land was forced up, and the sea slowly drained away. A jungle developed on the exposed seabed, transforming the mud and shale into a bright yellow soil.
During the Oligocene period, the warm and humid climate slowly became cool and dry. As the lands to the west rose even higher, sediment-loaded floods washed over this level region, depositing layer after layer of mud, volcanic ash and sand. Under pressure of successive layers, these sediments became soft rock.
Continuous water and wind erosion have sculpted soft sedimentary rock into intricate mazes of narrow ravines, V-shaped gullies, ridges, buttes, and colorful pinnacles. The result is rock layers that reveal subtle hues of sand, rose, gold and green. Erosion continues to carve the badlands buttes today, and scientists speculate that in 500,000 years it will be flat again.
The main geological feature of the Badlands National Park is best described as a long ridge, or “wall” that extends nearly 100 miles south into the panhandle of the State of Nebraska. This wall divides the park into the upper and lower prairie.
The Scenic Loop Byway followed the wall, snaking through passes and sometimes dipping to the lower prairie. We enjoyed looking up at the spires and multi-layered ridges with a beautiful blue sky above to provide stark relief.
We climbed to the rim at one of the overlooks to view the cliffs and canyons below:
Hiking the Notch Trail, we had a good view of the badlands dropping down to the lower prairie, with the White River Valley below:
Then we followed the Door Trail to a landscape that made me feel like I was on another planet:
We did not see big wildlife, but I captured these little amphibians along the trail:
At the end of our badlands visit we saw an area where yellow and red were the colors on the hills. They were called Yellow Mound Paleosols, and they are evidence that a jungle resided here covered by a shallow sea which left behind its shale-exposed signatures.
The yellow soil is a result of tree roots that broke up the shale and chemicals from decaying plants. Then 37 millions years later sediments from the west washed over the jungle. The jungle rebounded, converting the new sediment into red soil. Buried once again by later sediment, both yellow and red soils were fossilized – and that’s what we’re seeing today. Amazing!
I could go on and on (as you probably suspected), but being in the badlands, also known as the White River Badlands, is a study in fascination. Nature continues to amaze us, and we’re very thankful that these areas are being protected for future generations.
On our way out of the park I caught a glimpse of this house sitting on top of the layered badlands, painted in a color that blended well with the colored rock layers. Pretty cool, but would you build your house on top of an eroding badlands?
Steve was happy to check this one off his bucket list, and I have to admit I did the same!
Next Up: Critter Alert! – Black Hills, South Dakota