Badlands, Part 1

Chicago to Badlands

So we had traveled on Day 2 from Chicago to the Badlands, and we arrived under a huge bank of dark, scary clouds. What followed from there was a memorable first experience of summer on the prairie. It stormed that night. Hard. Wind gusts of 60 mph (100 km/h) combined with a driving rain to make us wonder whether our little camper could withstand the assault.

It did, but the campers around us in tents were not so lucky. When we woke in the morning, we found that our area of the campground had been flooded out with 6+ inches (15+ cm) of rainwater:


We were staying in the Cedar Pass Campground, on the eastern side of the Badlands National Park. We stayed on a tent loop, and barriers along the road kept us from setting up in the grass. That was just as well, since the grassy area was obviously very vulnerable to flooding.


There are very few trees on the Badlands prairie, at least in this area, so the campground is a strange sight. It’s completely open and mostly flat, with one loop sitting on the flat top of a small rise, and the other loop extending down the rise to lower ground. The picnic tables on the campground each have their own sun shelters over them, a detail which actually turned out to be crucial to our daughters’ safety later that day.


One other important detail – this was the view from the campground:


Not bad, eh? After going to the Grand Canyon earlier this year, visiting the Badlands felt like we were getting to traipse around inside the Canyon, without all the perilous hiking. The kids weren’t with us on that trip, though, so all of these wonders of nature were new to them. Anna offered up her usual reaction, or at least her usual reaction to me and my camera:


It’s also worth noting that Anna concluded before we left Philly that the Badlands must be “where bad people hang out”, so I think it’s fair to say that she was a little nervous about the place when we first arrived.

Chelsea had made excellent preparations for the trip, so we had rain gear at the ready, and we were determined to hike as if we were mailmen: neither rain, nor snow, nor gloom of night would stop us. We drove a couple miles back down the entrance road to Medicine Root Trail, which would take us through open prairie and into some of the rock formations.




We hiked into the prairie about a mile or so on this trail, and came to a point where a small creek had flooded a valley to the point that we simply could not find a way across. It was on our way back to the trailhead that we had our first… exciting encounter with nature.


Nick was out ahead of us, as usual, when he came bounding back up the trail, with Anna in tow. “A rattlesnake rattled at me!” he said. Where? “Um, up there a little bit,” he said with a vague gesture ahead.

We then made the slowest, widest circle around the snake that you can possibly imagine. It’s hard to see in the pictures, but our travels off the trail were slowed down by the considerable amount of small cacti that are scattered across the prairie. (I did not ever imagine we would see cacti this far north, or so many of them.) I never saw the snake myself, and I didn’t need to.

Back at the trailhead, we fixed some lunch for ourselves. After all that excitement, we also needed to have a little siesta:


Tomorrow: Hiking the Notch, and the wonders of Wall Drug.

The start of an epic adventure

Ladies and gentlemen, good to see you again. It’s been a long time.

We left for our great voyage out West on Friday, June 24th. We had ambitious plans to reach Chicago the first night, and the Badlands National Park in South Dakota by the second night. We did indeed reach our destinations, and it was a relief to know that we could cover the long driving distances we had planned for a few key days during the trip.

Here’s our faithful Sienna, with its new best friend, the Starcraft, just before departing on Friday:


Our route took us up I-476 to northeastern Pennsylvania, where we picked up I-80 to make the long drive across PA. We stayed with I-80 all the way into Chicago, crossing the width of Ohio and Indiana. At the end of Day 1, we passed through Chicago proper and stayed in the northwestern suburb of Schaumburg.


We saw intermittent rain throughout the day, and long stretches of heavy rain in Ohio, but for most of the time we were just racing west under cloudy skies.


Lots of people took the opportunity to sleep. The kids did great with all of the driving throughout the trip. They are definitely at the right ages for us to be ambitious with road trips.


Day 2 saw us head north, into Wisconsin on I-90, and turn west toward Minnesota and then South Dakota. We passed through Tomah, a town of some minor fame in the Sperger clan for its proximity to the family’s roots in western Wisconsin. If you’re heading for Eau Claire and the Twin Cities, you branch off at Tomah from I-90 to continue on I-94. We stayed with I-90 as it makes its long, straight, lonely run from Chicago out to Seattle.


We stopped along the way for lunch in Austin, Minnesota, where we were delighted to discover the SPAM Museum. Alas, there wasn’t time for a tour:


Your intrepid reporter, who had only ever towed a trailer on that weekend trip back in May, quickly logged over 1,000 miles (1,600 km) of towing experience, and started to settle into the routine.


The weather on Day 2 was pretty nice from start to finish. We crossed the Missouri River in South Dakota on a gorgeous early-summer evening:


We stopped for dinner in the riverside town of Chamberlin, South Dakota, which was an unexpectedly charming town. None of us had ever been to South Dakota before, and what fascinated me about the place was how it really contains the transition from Midwest to West. On the eastern side of the state, it looks like Minnesota part two – same farmland on rolling hills, same stores and restaurants. By the time you reach the western side of the state, you’re seeing cowboy hats and towns with Western-style storefronts.

Trouble started brewing overhead just as we reached the Badlands National Park at sunset.


In hindsight, that ominous line of storm clouds was probably a fair warning for what we were about to experience. I’ll tell you all about that tomorrow.