And just like that (after 150 miles) we arrived at the Cedar Pass campground in Badlands. We’ll be here for the Memorial Day weekend. Not the ideal situation, but we feel lucky to have gotten a site. It’s mostly reservation based now – administered by a private concession. When we checked online, we found only 2 RV sites available, and while we were discussing it, one disappeared. We took the last one. It was a little confusing because there were RV, tent, RV or tent sites, and no descriptions of who can go where. We assumed we could fit into any but the tent sites. Online, there was no way to discount the $37/night camp fee (with electric) – even with Mary’s senior parks pass. We figured because it was a private concession, perhaps they didn’t offer it. That didn’t sit well with Mary. After we got set-up, we went up to the “lodge” and asked at reservations about the discount. “Oh yes”, she says, “You just have to come in and ask for it. We will credit you $10/day”. Mary was a happy girl.After all the driving the past several days, we really were not up for more, but all the weather reports say today will be the only sunny day for the next 5. This park photographs most spectacularly around sunset – but only if there is sun. It will probably be our only chance to see one this time, so we rested up a while and got back in the car.We didn’t need to go far. Taking the main road out toward the Northeast entrance, we only had to go 8 miles to get to the Big Badlands Overlook. Before that is arguably the best sunset spot, just 2 miles from the campground, but it is best visited just before sunset. It is the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail. It is short, but the views out over the plains are unsurpassed, with large fins of badlands mud piercing the surface. No mountains block the sun, so these mud fins light up and glow orange and red just before last light. But to our chagrin, roadwork in the area of the nature trail had claimed the use of the parking area. It was closed and the entire area was closed to visitors. You can’t even park elsewhere and walk down to it. Although I did, but more on this later.So our only other short term choice was to go to Big Badlands Overlook. Not a bad second choice. We were greeted by the Relentless Prairie Wind again, but this time not so fast or cold. For the next couple of hours, we walked the rim, stopping for photographs as usual. When we lost the sun behind clouds, we returned to the car until it returned.We stayed till just before sunset. Just because I couldn’t help myself, we drove back to Cliff Shelf to see if the workers had left yet. They had, so I parked us at the closed off entrance and we walked in. The trail itself was roped off with plastic netting and I didn’t feel like tearing through it. All that was left with any kind of view was one small area at the lower corner of the parking lot. Only here could we get a glimpse of the hoped for view. I had just enough time to set up the tripod and compose 2 decent shots before the sun went down. But that will be all I get here this time.
Friday, May 22We expected rain in the morning turning to showers later, but we only got heavy clouds. It looked to be clearing so we headed out in late morning to do 30 odd miles of the rim drive. The road continues beyond that, but we have our limits. There are plenty of turnouts, viewpoints and picnic areas to stop and look around. We hit most of them, often waiting for light to change – or even appear. We got lucky a few times, but it was largely another gray day. As we came around one bend in the road, we were surprised by a small group of Mountain Sheep grazing on a rock outcropping. The group seemed to be tending to a small lamb. We were in a pretty good position to photograph and watch some of their behaviors. We drove as far as the Badlands Wilderness Overlook which is on Sage Creek Rd. We had hoped to see Mountain Sheep around here, but none were to be seen. We made our way back, revisiting some of the stops we made on the way out to see if conditions had changed. It was a good day out, but we were again tired by the end of the drive.
Saturday, May 23Early morning we were out hiking one of the few trails of any length. We worked out a loop trip using portions of the Castle and Medicine Root trails. In all, about 4 miles. It is accessed by way of the Saddle Pass trail that leaves from the base of the plateau. We’ve never done any of these – it’s usually been too hot for long hikes. Today is gray and cool, not great for pictures, but should be a nice hike. Saddle Pass trail starts with a very steep incline, rising 150’ through a colorful mud hill and spire section to the top of the plateau. It looks slippery, but surprisingly it wasn’t. This would be a nightmare in wet conditions but not bad now. Mary would probably disagree and she approached the climb up (and down) with extreme caution. I found it easy enough to walk mostly straight up, then later, down with little problem. Hiking poles would be very helpful here, but once on top it is very easy level hiking. Thunder showers were supposed to form later today, but all we got were clouds of varying degree again. Maybe twice did we see sun break out, but the formations were enough to keep us interested. We chose to do the Castle Trail portion first which brought us past several different areas of badlands formations – and some fun human altered landscapes. The trail eventually runs into Medicine Root Trail, at which time we realized we could have started our hike at this end and avoided the cliff climb. The Old Northeast Road dirt road crosses the trail about a mile from where the trail starts on the main road, and you can hike from that point. I still like the climb to the plateau because the views are nice, but it’s good to know we can get here another way. The Medicine Root trail runs out into the prairie a ways before it heads back to our starting point. It is less interesting for landscape, but is as easy to walk as any trail I’ve been on. On the way back, we passed several large areas that looked like strong winds had blown down the grasses – all in one direction. It reminded me of those “mysterious” crop circles that used to pop up around the country.Another nice hike and the weather held. Tomorrow is supposed to be nothing but rain, so it may be a forced down day for us. Then it’s on to Spearfish and Devil’s Tower.