Friday, April 21, 2017

An American Moon Landing

I had climbed the unnamed peak to get a sense of this alien landscape. From high up on my vantage point – a skinny crag jutting out into oblivion – a dreary moonscape tumbled in every direction.

Jagged crests and plunging valleys, stratified by varying shades of reddish-beige, crisscrossed and zigzagged in every direction. It was a haunting and barren panorama, but the otherworldly simplicity made it undeniably beautiful.

The enormous, deep blue sky around me dropped precariously into shadowed gorges, punctured by odd rock formations and irregular peaks. There was no noise, no breeze, no movement of any kind save my own shuffling in the celestial dust.

In the silence and the beating sun, I was exhilarated. My heart was still racing from the rugged, arduous climb that winded my lungs and pained my hands, but also from the extraordinary extraterrestrial terrain my eyes now feasted upon.

With all of the beauty and tranquility, I had to prevent my mind from wandering, lest I sway and stumble from this precarious outcrop. I peered over the edge and the sudden lurch in my stomach reminded me I was not on an alien planet, I was still very much on earth. Gravity still worked here in the Badlands.

The 244,000 acres of Badlands National Park is the stuff of fantasy. The park is possessed with an ethereal mystique, but all the while offering visitors of all ages, all interests and all abilities a chance to experience natural splendor and more than a few thrills.

Located in the southwest corner of South Dakota, The Badlands boast some of America’s most stunning and unique topography, inside and out. Underneath, these hills of geological deposits encase one of the richest fossil beds in the world. Where prairie dogs and bison now roam, used to be the home of saber-tooth tigers.

Hop off Route 90 and head down to the Park’s main road that runs straight through the length of the prairies, plateaus and high, dry hills. Plenty of overlooks afford the roadtripper ample opportunities to stop and stroll out over the rocky terrain, or perhaps encounter roaming wildlife like bighorn sheep and bison. The visitor’s center is a good jumping-off point, where you’ll find tours, exhibits and information about the vast frontier you’re about to explore.

Venture further into the rugged terrain of The Badlands and you’ll begin to wonder how any living creature could survive here. But many spots will remind you that this is very much a wild National Park. I passed a sign that read “Beware of Rattlesnakes,” which only added to the excitement and sense of pioneer adventure. The warning also kept me on my toes, which helped as I traversed The Badlands’ rugged, serrated surface, one of the strangest and most exhilarating hiking destinations in the country.

Near the eastern entrance to the park not far in from the Cedar Pass Lodge, the park’s only on-site lodging option, is the trailhead for the Saddle Pass Trail. Only a quarter mile long, Saddle Pass is no walk in the National Park. The steep climb will take around thirty minutes to reach the top, where you can continue on further into the Badlands at the Castle Trail junction or skirt the plateau and scramble up to the tallest peak for the unmatched panoramic view.

Although Badlands National Park is a destination in itself, its neighbors are just as astonishing. This cozy corner of South Dakota is also home to two other American treasures: The Black Hills and Mt. Rushmore, making it an area worth trekking to.

The Black Hills live up to their name and offer hiking vastly different than what you find in the dusty crags and grass prairies of the Badlands. Deep forests cover the Black Hills and the inclined trails bring you up to the top of big sky country. The trees expand in all directions like a dark emerald ocean.

While you’re gazing out over the majestic Black Hills from atop one of the scenic vistas, don’t be surprised if you see someone staring back at you. Nestled in amongst the undulating, tree-lined mountains are South Dakota’s four most famous residents: Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln.

Less than two hours from Badlands National Park towers the Mt. Rushmore National Memorial. No matter how many photos or snow globes or cartoon iterations of it you have seen, this awesome feat of artistry and engineering will assuredly drop your jaw.

Seeing the four presidential busts head-on is enough to satisfy any visit, but follow the horseshoe trail that leads from the surrounding exhibits up to the base of the mountain and back again. What looks like a rockslide around the base of the mountain is actually the chipped of pieces of stone, loosed by daredevil artisans to form the mammoth likenesses under which you now stand. It’s hard to imagine that looking up someone’s nose could be so remarkable, but it is.

From Mt. Rushmore to the Badlands, South Dakota’s southwest corner is unlike anywhere else in America. Whether you gawk at gigantic heads or traverse the lunar landscape, a visit here is certainly out of this world.

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