Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Day 3: Badlands National Park, SD - Mill Creek Cabin, MT

Coyotes and the Bison that Weren't
Spending the night camping in Badlands National Park was strange. Rolling grasslands surrounded our campsite so you couldn't start a fire, and there were no visible barriers between campsites as there were no bushes or trees. The wind rustled the tent until 1am (Colleen knows - she couldn't sleep with the tent moving).

It got eerily still at 1am and you could hear coyotes in the distance. Colleen was all excited in the morning to tell Steve about the coyotes and bison she heard while he was sleeping, but it turned out to be a herd of cows just over the plateau as we were on the boarder of the park. She was terribly disappointed to learn that she had spend hours of non-sleep time listening to cows.

Sunrise Hike on Notch Trail
We woke up just before sunrise at 4:30am in order to be on the hiking trail for sunrise at 5am. It was just starting to get light when we reached the trail head but the parking lot was deserted. 

Colleen was armed with hiking poles as this hike was 4.5 miles return and involved some climbing. The trail was listed as moderate/strenuous but she seemed confident that with the poles her post surgery knee was up to the challenge.

We meandered between the towering spires through canyons beds until we encountered our first obstacle - a wooden and wire ladder to help you up a 45 degree slope.

Steve ascended first to test if he thought it was a climb Colleen could achieve.
 (added benefit was that he could check for rattlesnakes)

Colleen proved a skeptical Steve that she could indeed handle the climb - albeit slowly at a craw reminiscent of a woman 60 years her senior. 
Descending would be questionable but we thought it best to press onward and tackle that problem when we returned.

The first view over the land formations was certainly worth the climb as this photo was taken from the top of the ladder to the left towards sunrise. 

Photographing the rock formations at Badlands National Park is best done at sunrise to get depth of shadows on the rocks. Our shadows on the rocks proved just as interesting.

After the ladder the trail followed a ledge (with no safety fences, which is how we like it!). The trail used to go to the left of the sign but erosion (one inch per year!) had made it dangerously impassible. 
The detour to the right was a little more tricky for gimpy Colleen but navigable with the support of Steve for harder inclines. This trail would have been impassible if it was wet.

We located The Notch and eagerly approached for our view.

The climb was well  worth our 4:30am wake up time. From The Notch we were able to take in the dramatic view of the White River Valley as the morning sun slowly crept across the landscape.

The landscape was so alien that it was easy to superimpose roving dinosaurs traversing the grasslands between the buttes and spires - though the landscape was a large sea then and dinosaurs were never known to roam in the sea, let alone rove.

Success - man we look tired.

Having seen the remarkable view we weaved our return hike through a winding river bed for an easier walk back.

The return view was more striking as the sun had risen high enough to illuminate our canyon. You can see the wooden ladder on the left if you enlarge this photo.

We could see the canyon we were to follow to return to the parking lot.

But first we had to descend the ladder... 

It was surprisingly easy 
(though Colleen's non-surgery leg did all the work and was INCREDIBLY sore the next day)

By 6:30 am, The sun had risen to illuminate the area that was in darkness when we arrived.
Time to return to our campsite to cook breakfast, pack up and get on the road. 

This was a road trip after all.

From Inland Sea to Prehistoric Mammals
The Badlands are arid today, but an inland sea once covered this area (hence the lack of dinosaur fossils).  

65 million years ago the sea drained away and an inland rain forest developed. 38 million years ago, The Badlands became home to species such as saber-tooth cats and elephant sized mammals (2/3rds as old as the most recent dinosaurs).  30-34 million years ago this area dried to a savannah and herd mammals began to dominate. 
This area has one of the highest concentration of fossils in the world - yet for some reason we neglected to take photos of any of the ones on display.

Young Badlands are Young
The serrated Badlands terrain owes it's formation to two processes: deposition and erosion.
The towering spires, and deep canyons of the Badlands only began forming 500,000 years ago when water began to cut through what was a flood plain, carving out this dramatic landscape and revealing the the layers of ancient fossil soils. Each band of soil represents a different geological time period for this area.

 Due to the high rate of erosion every storm, the Badlands are estimated to exist for only another 500,000 years.  Certainly long lived in human terms, but a tiny blip of geological lifespan of 1 million years on a planet that is 4.5 billion years old and considers the 70 million year of Rocky Mountains youngins.

 Good thing we stopped to see it!

Journey to Wounded Knee
On December 24, 1890, Minnecnjou Chief Big Foot with a band of 350 men, women and children cleared a pass with axes and spades and descended down the Badlands Wall.
They were fleeing units of the United States Army, disillusioned by the broken promises of Whites and by the lack of unity among American Indians. Five days later, Chief Big Foot,  nearly 200 of his people , and 30 soliders would die in the massacre at Wounded Knee, 65 miles to the south.

Prairie Doggin'
We're driving the Badlands Loop, enjoying the scenery and suddenly the road in front of us appeared to be moving. As we approached the movement resolved itself into droves of prairie dogs.

Once we pulled over to take pictures, they had all sought refuge in and around their holes. 
Surprisingly Andy refused to acknowledge their existence.

Jungle on a Seabed
We weren't really sure why only this area of The Badlands contains layers that are green, yellow, and red while the others are only banded with the red. We were certain there is a geological explanation that exists. We certainly couldn't find the sign for it other than a non-explanatory sign entitled "Jungle on a Seabed".

The sign talks about the ancient sea's ammonites, baculites, and clams entombed in a fossil mud called the Pierre Shale - green/black layer. The yellow layer is formed from the chemicals of decaying plants broken up by the roots of trees when the jungle replaced the sea 65 million years ago. The red fossilized soil is from a jungle rebound at which point we started getting confused.
We're wondering if the layers of yellow and green exist elsewhere everywhere but simply aren't exposed from erosion yet because if the green layer is from the fossiled mud from the drying sea bed, wasn't the whole area once a sea bed? (searching online our hypothesis was correct, this area is simply eroded further down to the sea bed layers)

Whatever - it's beautiful and one of our favourite stops on our adventure.

Go West - with a Slight Detour North
We left The Badlands behind at 9am after a final and disappointing stop where Colleen was convinced she could see a herd of Bison in the rolling grasslands that turned out to be bushes after about 5 minutes looking at them through binoculars. Bison sightings were going by-way of her "Loose Moose" sightings on her Gypsy Tour.

No time for Mount Rushmore, it was time to skirt the north-east corner of Wyoming and head to our stopping point in Montana. Throughout the day rolling grasslands gave way to snow capped mountains - though they were scattered sparsely.

We refueled in Little Big Horn, MT where we discussed how we knew there was a Battle of Little Big Horn but were ignorant as to it's events beyond a likely slaughter of American Indians and the term "Custer's Last Stand" - where we felt safe to assume Custer did no survive. We didn't realize our route took us through this area so we had not allotted time to find out. The internet could provide.
We had ground to cover.

Mill Creek Cabin - Somewhere in the Mountains South of Livingston, MT
Colleen did most of the logistical planning for our route as well as choosing where we would spend our nights. With that in mind Steve only had her vague commentary that we had booked a cabin for the night "in the mountains" and "I think there was a section on the website warning about having 4 wheel drive, I'm sure we'll be fine". Armed with vague google map instructions based on the cabin's GPS co-ordinates, we were fairly confident we got at least the turn from the main highway correct.

Andy is ready to stop for the night and does not notice the large majority of the deer we pass as we drive towards our mountain.

 After a false turn further in the forest we finally found the proper road and Andy enjoyed sniffing the mountain air at the slow speeds that only a pot-holey gravel road can induce.

We approached the location, looked good from the road.

Steve enters the 4-digit combination code we received by phone a week before. The chain unlocks, this must be the place.

We arrived at our cabin between 6-7 pm and spent half an hour airing it out then disinfecting surfaces as a hantavirus precaution.

Andy spent this time sampling Montana's mountain grass and deems it acceptably delicious.

Our view from the front porch of the cabin.

Andy eagerly waits for dinner as we prepare our own.

As the sun set, the temperature started to drop. With a fully stocked wood shed, Steve started a fire in the stove to keep the cabin warm. Andy patiently waited while it warmed up. With another eventful day planned for the Day 4 of Operation Seize the Andy we didn't stay up. After making sure the stove was locked down to keep smoldering for most of the night, we tucked into our sleeping bags at 9:30pm and passed out.


  1. Cabin in the mountains looked awesome!

  2. It was fantastic and affordable at $45 per night!

    Discovering old ranger cabins and fire watch towers for rent through the government was one of my best discoveries while planning this trip.