Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Stunning South Dakota. No, really.

From Winner, SD, we headed West on Route 44 to get to Rapid City, planning to make a quick stop in Badlands National Park, on the way. (Never mind the 4 other stops we would have to make along the way to warm up in gas stations with watery, but hot, 50 cent coffees. For those of you wondering why on earth we didn't plan to ride through the Dakotas, pre-snow, we encountered a visa-related delay in Canada... fully detailed a few posts back...)

Roel had commented while packing up the bikes that it felt like snow was in the air. Sure enough, as we were about to ride into the Santee Reservation, bits of white came flying through the air at my helmet and quickly turned to water. Fortunately, that was the extent of the snowfall that day, but as we rode west, we began to see more and more unmelted remnants of the catastrophic snow storm that had dumped up to 4ft of snow in some areas of South Dakota only a week ago.

As we got closer to the Badlands, the riding began to get more interesting and the hilly winding highways gave way to beautiful rolling prairie vistas. But when we arrived at Badlands, it was unmistakable and breathtaking. The jagged, yet graceful multicolored peaks of Badlands National Park rose up out of the flat prairie before it and seemed to beckon to us. The age of these peaks is really stunning… the darker base layers date back 75 million years. The grey-ish layers date back to 37 million years ago. The red layers date to 34 million years ago. And the white-ish layers date back to 30 million years ago and were created when 30ft of volcanic ash fell over the area, killing everything it covered, hence leaving behind a wealth of fossils for today’s paleontologists.
 We stopped at the Visitors Center, to get warm, as much as anything else, but stayed for about an hour as it held such a wealth of information. After making a quick lunch of peanut butter and jam (yes, I have finally convinced Roel of this American delicacy) we headed up the Norbeck Pass. We stopped for a quick walk and then spent the next hour making movies and taking photographs. 
Around every turn in the road there seemed to be yet another feast for the eyes. There were dark storm clouds rolling overhead, but every once in a while the sun would peek out and light up the spears of rock, making for some incredible lighting. We got back on the road that would take us to Route 44 and then on to Rapid City, fully intending to make it there by dark.
But then there was a herd of big horn sheep making their way up one of the cones, appearing to dance on air as they mounted summit after summit of the peaks. 

Then the road wound through an area where the elements had eroded the peaks down to soft mounds with the reddish layer exposed at the top. On top of the plateau, we stopped for a while to watch the prairie dogs play amongst themselves, running from hole to hole.

When the option came to make it to Rapid City that night, or take the 22 mile gravel track that would give me the opportunity to practice my off-pavement riding skills, we made the right choice… as we were duly rewarded when we looked out over the plains below the track to see four buffalo grazing. Our first Tatonka sighting! 
(4) Tatonka! Tatonka!
And it really was good for me to “get comfortable” with allowing my front wheel to “find” it’s tracking when all of the sudden it would begin to wobble to and fro in the loose gravel. As if seeing buffalo wasn’t “exciting” enough.

The track led down into a valley where the National Park Service had designated a nice camping area, complete with toilets and picnic tables… AND a herd of 8 bull buffalo just over the hill in another small valley.

It had been so cold all day that we had avoided taking off our helmets, even when we went for our short hike (no, we didn’t care how ridiculous we looked), so we made quick work of setting up the tent and having dinner. Just as we were getting into the tent, coyotes started up their chorus, calling to one another from the hills surrounding the campsite.

Our amazing luck continued through the next morning: we had a excellent nights sleep, woke up to sun streaming through the thin material of the tent, AND the herd of buffalo that had been grazing in the next valley over, had decided to check out the grass around our tent. Badlands National Park is truly one of the most captivating landscapes I have ever laid eyes upon and I am so grateful to have traveled through it.

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