Badlands, Part 2

After lunch and siesta, we traveled a few more miles down the east entrance road to reach another set of trails. The rock formations in this area were eerily beautiful, and looked like the backdrop of a million Western films:

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We opted for the Notch Trail, a short but intense hike up through a small canyon to a viewpoint looking out on badlands and prairie. The highlight of this hike was a log ladder – a ladder made of logs suspended between thick wires running up the side of a cliff. At first you could walk up the ladder like a flight of stairs:

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Soon, however, the ladder turned steep enough that it required real climbing:

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The ladder takes you 30 feet (9 meters) up into the canyon, where you can then follow a series of cliffside paths along the canyon wall.

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Anna discovered to her delight that the rocks in the canyon were soft enough to break in her hands:

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With a bit more hiking and scrambling, we reached the Notch itself, which is the southern end of the canyon looking out onto the prairie. The view was amazing:

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The hike back through the valley/canyon was equally impressive:

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And soon we found ourselves heading back down the ladder:

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Maria seems to have decided to raise the degree of difficulty by descending with her eyes closed… though in truth I think I just caught her blinking:

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Back at the trailhead, Anna took a few minutes to break some more rocks:

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Our timing in coming back was fortunate, though we didn’t know it at the time. Soon after returning to the campground to get ready for dinner, another line of storms approached:

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Maria and Anna went over to the bathroom building. Nick and I were heading there as the girls started back. Suddenly, hailstones the size of golf balls were crashing down on us. Anna and Maria, unable to reach the camper, took refuge under the picnic table shelter, while Nick and I were pinned under the awning of the bathroom building. You can get a bit of a sense for the hailstorm’s intensity in this video:

It only lasted about 15 minutes, but in that time the storm did terrible damage. We were very lucky – no serious damage to our van or our camper. The campground looked like there had somehow been a snowball fight without snow on the ground:

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Anna and I were both hit on the head by hailstones, which left us both tender for days afterward, but the rest of the gang was unscathed. Chelsea was in the camper the whole time, waiting for a hailstone to come through the canvas. But the old camper turned out to be plenty tough.

Others were not so lucky. We saw cars with smashed windshields and RVs with damaged roofs and awnings. We had been planning to have dinner in the Cedar Pass Lodge restaurant, but the kitchen at the restaurant had suffered a shattered skylight, and they were not able to cook. The nearby town of Interior has no restaurants – though it has at least two honky-tonk bars – and so with a little reluctance we set out for the tourist trap of Wall, about 30 miles (48 km) to the northwest.

I forgot to bring my camera with me, which is a real shame, because Wall Drug is a national landmark of sorts. In the 1930s, Ted Hustead was running a rather ordinary drug store in the small town of Wall, South Dakota. His wife, Dorothy, suggested advertising free ice water for visitors to Mount Rushmore, 60 miles (96 km) away. That idea eventually transformed Wall Drug into a block-long retail juggernaut, with a chapel, multiple restaurants, and every claptrap souvenir item you can imagine.

Naturally, we loved it.

The kids bought some souvenirs, and we got a Wall Drug bumper sticker for the camper. We ate dinner at a restaurant down the street. The Weather Channel was on a TV in the restaurant, and we got some more information about why we were seeing so many storms. Turns out that warm, moist air was being pumped from the Gulf of Mexico into the Plains states, where it was running into unusually strong west-to-east winds coming from the West Coast. The result: warm, strong, violent thunderstorms barreling across the Midwest after forming up in South Dakota.

Tomorrow: Destination Wyoming.