Friday, September 18, 2015

Adventures in South Dakota: The Badlands and Rapid City

Having already explored the Black Hills by ATV and climbed to South Dakota's highest point, my recent visit to that state was filled with plenty of interesting adventures. But with just one day left before I'd have to return home, there were still other things to see, most notably the incredible landscapes of the Badlands National Park.

For those unfamiliar with the Badlands, it is a place that is otherworldly. Beautiful and stark, the national park stretches out across more than 244,000 acres that upon first glance appear desolate and bleak. But upon closer inspection, you'll see a place that is teeming with life, as very hardy plants and animals have evolved to live in a place that is extremely challenging to say the least.

We set off well before dawn and reached the Badlands in dark of an early Saturday morning. Our hope was to catch a sunrise over this amazing landscape, as the first light of the day illuminates the reds, pinks, and oranges that are so prominent in the rock formations found there. Unfortunately, the wildfires from the western U.S. had created a smoky haze that hung over the area which muted the suns effect to a degree. But while the sunrise didn't have the chance to show us its full glory, spending the early hours of the day in the park were still something to behold. There was a quiet stillness to the place that brought a strong sense of peace and tranquility. Sitting there silently, as thousands of acres of canyons and rock formations stretched as far as the eye could see brought a zen-like calm that bordered on a meditative state. It was certainly a wonderful way to experience the Badlands, and a great way to get the day started.

After that, we went in search of a trail to hike, and found it in the form of the Medicine Root Loop. This 4 mile (6.4 km) round-trip hike starts with a challenging climb up Saddle Pass, but upon reaching the top, it turns into a mostly flat walk that provides impressive views of the surrounding area. The trail is very clearly marked and easy to follow, passing through a surprising amount of vegetation as it meanders through the Badlands. In fact, when I was there in late August there were thousands of sunflowers in bloom, bringing a nice touch of color to the landscape. If you do go hiking in the park however, be sure to bring plenty of water. The Badlands are incredibly dry, and during the summer months they can get quite warm too.

We finished our hike and it was still mid-morning, so we dropped by the Badlands National Park visitor center to learn more about the region. It was fascinating to learn not only about the geological history of the place, but the numerous prehistoric creatures that have wandered the area in the past too. The park has several places where fossils have been discovered, with new ones being unearthed all the time. Sharp eyed hikers might even spots some while walking the trails, as even I managed to come across an exposed bone at one point along the way.

Following a full morning in the national park, my companions and I set out for a return to Rapid City, the most prominent city in western South Dakota. It is a thriving metropolis with its own unique history that offers great dining, plenty of entertainment, and a jumping nightlife. If you plan to visit the area, than Rapid City would make a great base camp for your trip.

But before we could explore the culinary delights of the city, there was still more to be seen. For instance, we took a tour of a new trails project that is being conducted just on the edge of town where new mountain biking paths and hiking routes are being built. Many of Rapid City's residents are outdoor enthusiasts, and as a result there are numerous opportunities to hit a trail either within the the city limits or close by. In fact, we were told that there are roughly 300-400 miles of single track mountain bike trails within a half-hour drive of town. That's an impressive number, and should give you an idea of what the terrain is like too.

Following our short walk along the new trails project, it was off to the South Dakota Outdoor Campus located in Rapid City. This state-funded organization offers classes and seminars that provide outdoor education, information about wildlife and conservation efforts, and a place for both kids and adults to commune with the outdoors. The campus features a beautiful building that gives visitors a chance to learn about the different environments found in South Dakota, allowing them to walk through each of them and discover what plants and animals thrive in those places. It is a wonderful space for sure, and it is available to host events like a birthday party or family gathering. I can't imagine what it would have been like to visit the campus when I was a child, as it would have been like heaven.

The Outdoor Campus is unlike any program I've ever heard about in any other U.S. state. It provides classes for hunters and anglers to learn more about those activities, and gives outdoor enthusiasts a chance to practice some important skills. For instance, there is a small lake on the premises that is used to teach basic kayaking. Beginner paddlers can jump into a boat and get acquainted with the sport in a safe environment. We took the opportunity to spend a short time the water paddling around the lagoon ourselves, and while experienced paddlers wouldn't find it very compelling, it was certainly a fun way to get on the water.

With my South Dakota visit quickly coming to and end, we left the Outdoor Campus behind and headed to our hotel for a quick shower before a night out on the town. That included a stop by the Firehouse Brewing Company for a great dinner and some locally made craft beers, followed by a stop at the Independent Ale House, where they keep 40 fresh beers on tap at all times. Both where a great example of the opportunities that Rapid City offers to visitors, and a fun way to wrap up the visit before heading home.

The following day I caught a very early flight as was on my back home. We had packed a lot of great experiences into just a few short days, and I left wishing I had more time to take it all in. But South Dakota is such an approachable place, I knew I'd be back again in the future to experience more of what it has to offer. For anyone who loves the outdoors, it is certainly a place to keep on your radar.

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