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Wyoming Wanderers : Badlands National Park, Northwestern Great Plains

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Kylee Warren
  • 90th Missile Wing Public Affairs

South Dakota shares many traits with Wyoming, and I don't mean just a history with missile silos. As I rediscovered during a road trip in mid-September, Wyoming and South Dakota also share the high and northwestern Great Plains, highlighted with shallow braided rivers and scarred with ancient badlands. Many people overlook the Great Plains as a vast expanse of nothing, better fit for grazing, plowing or flying over on a cross-continental flight. When you pause to observe, though, you can see the plains are dramatic, rugged and complex keepers of history. Their past tells many stories to those willing to listen. These include epic battles between massive herds of bison and other megafauna and the sagas of shallow seas that teemed with archaic life. This history is no more evident than in South Dakota's Badlands National Park.

Before the weather turns, I encourage you to jump in your car and drive the five and a half hours northeast to this unique and otherworldly landscape. You will travel through the high plains from Wyoming into Nebraska and South Dakota to get to the national park.

There, the exposed rocks in South Dakota's Badlands reveal the ongoing deposition and erosion episodes that span over 75 million years. The formations show vibrantly colored layers in ivory, sand, coral, mustard, copper and sometimes even burgundy. This colorful quilted tapestry of sandstones, clay stones, siltstones, mudstones, limestone, shale, and volcanic ash assemble the rich rock formations. These layers disclose the eons of ocean, glaciation and volcanism. Mosasaurs, ammonites, and baculites leave their legacy here in fossils found at the bottommost layer of the landscape's geology. The rock formations are as diverse as they are colorful and historic. The creatures fossilized once lived in a seaway from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic. If you want to see geology and paleontology up close, consider hiking the Fossil Exhibit Trail. This family-friendly trail allows you to explore the paleontological history of the park and you're more than welcome to touch the exhibits.

By skimming the horizon, you can see how the ancient sea and eons of winds gave these great plains their soft rolling dunes and hills. The grasses on this terrain are a mixture of the tall grass that once dominated the Mississippi River Valley and the short grass that dominates Laramie County here in Wyoming. This mixed-grass has a unique feathery quality and glistens on the range like soft cougar fur.

The best way to see the Badlands and the surrounding plans is with your own eyes. Light and shadow ebb and flow over the grass-swathed slopes with such an elegance that the camera cannot quite capture it. The camera also attempts to flatten the true dynamic range the hills and edifices have to offer, both visually and in height. Wander up one of these hills, especially at 3,000 feet, and you'll find yourself as challenged as you may be hiking from a trailhead in the Rockies. It's a fun exercise both in fitness and resilience.

A wander into the Badlands and their surrounding grasslands also introduces you to a crew of surprising characters that live with us today. You may see Bighorn Sheep graze near the road, Pronghorn loaf against hillsides, and prairie dogs thump, chatter and play in villages of tiny burrows revealed by small white sand dunes no higher than your ankles. If you're lucky, you might even glimpse an endangered black-footed ferret. The iconic great American Bison also graze and wallow near Sage Ridge, though we encourage you to stay in the car and admire these giants from a safe distance.

Listen for Western Meadowlarks, Mourning Doves, Redwing Blackbirds, and Cliff Swallows. If it's migration season, you may hear the call of sandhill cranes and Canada Geese flying up high. Take a deep breath and smell sage, juniper and western wheatgrass. Spend the night nearby in a tent or room with an open window, and coyotes will sing you to sleep. Consider staying up with them to see stars amidst one of the darkest skies in the country. The coyotes will remind you that you are not alone.

You can even visit a retired missile silo a few miles north of Badlands National Park. While all of Ellsworth’s South Dakota missiles are offline now, you can get a glimpse of their history at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. There, you can  tour the now-retired Delta-09 launch facility just north of Highway 90.

Getting to Badlands National Park also provides a feast of views. You'll travel through Nebraska's Sandhills, a destination unto its own. The Sandhills are the largest sand dune formation in the Western Hemisphere and one of the world's most extensive grass-stabilized sand dune ecosystems. You'll pass rolling grass-covered dunes and small pools of water that offer sanctuary to several bird species. Several ornithologists have identified the Sandhills as the best place to see bird biodiversity in the country during the fall and spring migration seasons. If you have the time to travel to the Badlands, consider pulling over to search these pools for birds and other wildlife.

If a drive to South Dakota's Badlands seems too daunting at the moment, consider taking a shorter trip to Hell's Half-Acre west of Casper, Wyoming to get a sense of what they're like.We hope to see you out and about on America's beautiful high plains close to our home base!