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High Plains Drifting

Bighorn Canyon, Devil's Tower, Short Cuts and Badlands

sunny 44 °F

The high plains of the U.S. are found in North and South Dakota, Wyoming, eastern Montana, and western Minnesota. In March, this landscape is a vast sea of dried grassland, with long rolling hills, coulees, and eroded gullies formed by the rivers and creeks. Occasional trees can be seen, usually surrounding ranch houses which provide shade and block the wind. Cottonwoods also grow along the creeks and rivers, the only place for reliable water. I think a fitting motto for the high plains would be, “Up, Down & Brown.“ Driving through the high plains can be mind numbing, and most of the people I’ve talked to hate driving through the daunting plains. The boredom gets to them, and the dull landscape causes them to delve into their own minds, a scary place. I don’t mind driving the plains. It’s so very different than the thick forests of the upper Midwest where I call home. I believe it’s a good experience for everyone to drive across the great plains. We have the luxury of paved roads and automobiles. Imagine the settlers of the 1800’s, crossing in horse drawn wagons. It took them weeks and weeks of steady travel, while modern travelers can cross in about 2 days depending on how fast and how long you drive.

While it’s true that most of the land is rolling grassland, there are a number of amazingly beautiful areas hiding sporadically through the high plains. To break up the monotony, I like to string together several of these scenic areas to visit and explore. On this particular trip, I visited the Bighorn Canyon of Montana and Wyoming, Devil’s Tower National Monument, and Bad Lands National Park. Along the way, I drove over the high rugged Bighorn Mountains and the Black Hills. Traveling this way, I find I enjoy the drive a lot more than driving straight through bored out of my mind and hating the relentless plain.
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Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area is found north of Lovell, Wyoming. It is bordered on the west by the rugged Pryor Mountains which are home to herds of wild horses. The region is very rugged, gravelly, and rocky land, dotted with Juniper, Yucca, Sage brush, and desert grasses. The main canyon is very impressive. The Bighorn River winds through like a giant blue snake slithering through the desert. It doubles back on itself, as it winds deep in the earth. The sheer cliffs that rise 1000 feet above the river are of a soft sedimentary rock, very crumbly and not to be trusted. The canyon is home to a variety of animals. Big Horn Sheep, horses, coyotes, mountain lions, snakes, lizards and birds among others all live in the region. The river runs steady and strong, a popular rafting destination during the summer. The total sum of all these parts of the landscape make the Bighorn Canyon a dramatic beautiful, and haunting region to explore.
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It was my first visit to Bighorn Canyon. I didn’t know what to expect, but I had hopes of seeing the wild horses of the Pryor mountains, and maybe some Big Horn sheep. I paid my entrance fee, and started driving north into the park. I passed a sign that informed me that I was now in the Pryor Mountain wild horse refuge, and 100 feet further up the road, there they were. Three horses stood contentedly in the grass of a roadside meadow. They ate the grass, unconcerned with my presence. I watched them for awhile, then moved on. Before seeing these horses, I had images of wild stallions galloping in herds through the desert. Perhaps I was a bit romantic in my thinking of these horses. These ones acted like regular ranch horses.
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The views from the canyon rim are fabulous. I hiked around at Barry’s Landing, the Devil Canyon Overlook, and the Ranger’s Delight trail during my visit. The Devil Canyon overlook offers an eagle eye view over the river. From 1000 feet over the river, the canyon bends and curves as it twists its way along. As I was alone, so I hollered out a long “ECCCHHHOOOO” and was rewarded by my voice bouncing off of the sheer rock walls and fading into the distance. Montana has excellent echoing canyons. I ate my lunch at Barry’s landing, a wide bend in the river, which has a boat launch and picnic area. I scrambled down a rocky swale to the edge of the river. The water was cold and blue, reflecting the sky. There was still a thin layer of ice on over half the river. I finished my visit by hiking the Ranger’s Delight trail. This aptly named short hike leads to a rock outcrop high over the river canyon. I loved the views from here. It’s one thing to drive through a park, but to really get a feel for it, I like to hike far into the scenic areas off the beaten path.
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Some Views of the Bighorn Mountains.
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The Devil’s Tower in north eastern Wyoming has been a landmark since man has first discovered it. I wonder about the name. It seems to me that the Devil gets a lot of awesome places named after it. For instance, I’ve visited The Devil’s: washtub, tower, seven spires, gulch, canyon, den, slide, and cauldron to name a few. All of these places have the same thing in common. They are amazingly beautiful, and are usually a very unique landform of some kind. Why is it the devil gets all the good stuff? I figure he must have a better agent.
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Anyway, I’ve visited the Devil’s Tower several times before. It had been a few years since my last visit, and since it was right on the way, it was pretty much a given that I would stop by. I hoped for a sunny day. On all of my previous visits, the sky was overcast and dull. I bought a National parks pass for $80. This pass will allow me entrance to any national park, monument or recreation area and will pay for itself many times over in the course of a year.
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I drove up to the parking area, put together my back pack, and went for a walk around the rock tower. I was the only one on the trail, a situation I relish. The sun was shining and the sky was blue. Wyoming generates an amazingly azure sky, and I’m always amazed with it. I followed the snowy track of the paved trail around the tower walking in a counter clockwise direction. I enjoyed the quiet of a deserted ponderosa forest. Birds chirped merrily, and white tailed deer could be seen foraging in the clearings. I stopped often to gaze up at the immense rock tower. I had to crane my neck to see the top of it as the trail followed close to the base of it. It was a very pleasant morning walk.
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I got back to the van, and drove off to a parking area with a distant view of the Tower. The tower rises over 1200 feet above the Belle Fourche river that runs near it. From where I was at, a snow covered meadow led to the forest around the tower. It made a beautiful back drop for lunch. I was feeling Spring, and it was time to break out my grill. A grilled lunch in a picturesque setting is one of my secrets of a fulfilling life. Food for my belly and views for my soul, a perfect combination. After lunch, I read for awhile and got sleepy. A nap was in order, I cracked the windows to let in the breeze and zonked out on my bed. Ahh, I love a good siesta.

I ended the day by driving over the Black hills and taking the scenic route through the Bad Lands National Park. By the time I got near the Bad Lands, it was dark. I planned on staying in Wall, some 60 miles away by paved roads. As I drove, I saw a sign that said, “Wall 30 miles” and an arrow pointing north. I didn’t think much about it, I just turned my van north and decided to take the short cut. Short cuts however, don’t always work out like you figure.

The road I turned on was a gravel road with a lot of mud mixed in due to the spring thaw. I didn’t think much about it, I just drove on. It wasn’t long before I began to question my decision. The road wasn’t in great shape, it’s muddy goo was pulling my van around, and I had to concentrate fairly hard to stay on the road. The road also began to get skinnier, it wasn’t long before I couldn’t turn around on it without sliding into the ditch. The road wasn’t particularly well labeled, there were side roads intersecting with the road I was on, and I wasn’t confident I was on the right road. My fuel level was getting low, I knew I could make it to Wall on the short cut, but I wasn’t sure I could make it if I turned around and drove the long way around. It was soon evident I was in the middle of nowhere. No lights could be seen in any direction, and it was unlikely I would meet another driver. It was kind of unnerving to be alone in all that country. I crossed the cattle grate crossing into Bad Lands National Park. The first thing I saw was two Buffalo bounding onto the middle of the road 100 feet in front of me, they faced me and stood there ground. It was as though they were challenging me, demanding to know why I had entered their territory. Who was I to disturb the peace?

They stared at me, I looked at them. A stalemate. I couldn’t drive around them, and they weren’t moving. I couldn’t turn around, I just had to wait. Then, one of them bolted off of the road, jumping over the ditch showing off its athletic ability. What an awesome animal! The other one, decided to jump the 6 foot ditch as well, only this one after it landed recrossed the ditch and once again stared me down from the middle of the road. I began to wonder if these buffalo were thinking about exacting revenge against me for all of the buffalo that were needlessly slaughtered by men in the 1800’s. Not a pleasant thought. I decided to see if I could coax him off of the road and started slowly driving toward him. It caved, and finally bounded out of my way and rejoined the nearby herd.

After that welcome to the park, the road conditions worsened, adding large puddles and snow drifts to the mix. The road began to twist and turn, dropping down and climbing up the small hills of the grassland. I took it slow, one mile at a time, wondering if I would ever get off of this hell road. I was sick of it, I had driven almost 300 miles already that day, and now I was in a situation that required total concentration with no guarantee of deliverance at the end. A self inflicted nightmare of a road that I had volunteered for, and I rued my decision. Sometimes on the road, you find yourself in bad situations. As Edward Abbey said, “When the situation is hopeless, there’s nothing to worry about.” As I drove, I thought about this and relaxed a little. I was still making progress, and the worst case scenario only meant that I would be sleeping out in the prairie. Definitely not the end of the world. I decided I was WAY too uptight, and rolled down my windows to let some fresh air in. It helped relax me, and I settled in now digging the free adventure I had given myself. Who crosses 30 miles of the nether regions of the South Dakota bad lands in the middle of the night? I do. I rallied and it wasn’t long before I saw the twinkling lights of Wall and drove onto the reassuring pavement once again. Sometimes you’ve got to drive some really bad roads to appreciate the good ones.

I pulled into my motel for the night, exhausted and road weary. The clerk at the motel was very cheerful and happy to have a customer. She smiled as she handed me my key, appearing to have been chewing tobacco not long ago. Since I was new to the area, I wasn’t sure if this was common among the women of South Dakota. At that point, I didn’t really care. I happily went to my room, took a hot shower and crawled into my bed.
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The next morning I awoke early. Before driving through the boring parts of South Dakota, I made a loop through the Bad Lands National Park. This time, it would be in the daylight and on paved roads. I drove southeast on Hwy 240 the scenic loop that gives you a good look at the interesting features of the park. It was a nice day for a drive, partly sunny, and cool out. The skies were blue, and made the badlands really stand out. The biggest attraction to the badlands are the eerie dried mud formations that have been eroded away forming into the fantastic shapes. I stopped for breakfast at a scenic turn off, I really enjoy taking my food in a scenic location. Then I drove on, stopping at many of the pull outs to walk around and take pictures. The badlands make for some interesting shots, I love the striated lines forming into the eroded buttes and sharp spires. The only wildlife I saw were a lot of deer. They were grazing in the fields alongside of the road.
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It was a quick trip through the park for me. Usually I take my time in our national parks, trying to find its hidden secrets. Not this time. I realized that I had run out of neat places to visit and all that was left was the long prairie of South Dakota. I wanted to get it over with, to get back to Minnesota, to see my friends and family once again. With that motivation, I hadn’t the heart to stay very long in the badlands, and I was soon burning rubber east over the monotonous plains.

Posted by Rhombus 21:31 Archived in USA Tagged photography

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Thank you for writing about your trip to South Dakota and the west! It was interesting to read about the experiences you had.
Thank you,
Katlyn Richter
Office of Tourism
katlyn.richter@state.sd.us

by Katlyn Richter

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