National Park Series - Badlands
Dakota Digest - 09/22/2009
By Johanna Sailor
South Dakota Public Broadcasting begins a new series this week as we visit our National Parks. This weekend marks the release of a new Ken Burns documentary about the history of the national parks. There are seven national parks in South Dakota and over the next several days we will take you to all of them.
SDPB’s Johanna Sailor takes us along with her to the Badlands.
The pressure to turn the badlands into a national park came from constituents. Locals encouraged the State Legislature to petition the federal government in 1909 to protect the areas pinnacles, spirals and eroding buttes.
The effort didn’t go anywhere though. U.S. Sen. Peter Norbeck is known for his work to create Custer State Park. His influence also helped preserve the Badlands. In 1924 the National Parks Service agrees to name it a National Monument – later to become a National Park.
Driving through the park is hugely popular with tourists passing through South Dakota now. But the old route was dangerous and some considered thrilling because of its steep and narrow passes. The old route brought people from Kadoka to where the Cedar Pass Lodge now sits. People then drove onto Interior and what was once a booming railroad town of Scenic. Tourism blossomed and locals started offering tours. The route is different now and not as treacherous. Park rangers like Sara Feldt give the tours and field questions.
One child asked if Ranger Sara Feldt has a gun. “Not unless you’re a law enforcement ranger,” she responds.
Whether or not Ranger Sara gets a gun is not that common of a question. But Ranger Sara thinks it’s funny how many similar questions she does get. Questions like, where are the buffalo? Even though the questions are repetitive, Ranger Sara finds the visitors refreshing.
“Working here day in and day out, you know it’s an amazing place, but it becomes so commonplace to you to see this scenery around you. And it becomes just like living in a regular town. When people first come in the park and you see that fresh, first time to the park, that amazement, that awe, it’s so nice to have that remind you how lucky you are to work where you work,” says Feldt.
Ask five-year-old, soon to be kindergartener from Minneapolis Leena Tyler for a review and everything is fun, including camping in a tent with Grandpa.
A storm that moved through the area was also fun for Leena, especially a double rainbow that formed shortly after the rain stopped.
This storm wasn’t fun for all, since some motorists ended up stranded. The Axel family from New York stayed in Kadoka, instead of camping at the Badlands as planned. They are just a few days into a month-long tour of national parks. 10-year-old Michael Axel so far is enjoying the Badlands.
“It’s good. It’s nice, I like It,” says Michael Axel. “It’s interesting how all the shapes are formed and that there’s buffalo here.”
His father Mike Axel enjoys the cool 70 degree temperatures along with many other visitors. After about a two mile walk up the Castle Trail, I meet Robin Cooper and John Stone. They’re loving the cool-breeze traversing through bluffs and spirals. The last time Cooper of Madison, Wisconsin was here, she remembers sweating through 90 degree temperatures. Even in heat, Cooper encourages people to get off the road.
“Get out of the car. That’s my advice,” says Cooper. “Even if you’re not super fit or anything there are flat walks. Just walk 10 minutes, just walk, go somewhere on your feet if you can. You see it up close. When you’re driving past in the car you don’t see the beetles, you don’t see the raptors, you don’t see the prickling pear cactus blooming, you don’t see the deer prints by the water hole. You don’t see all that stuff that makes this a wonderful, spectacular experience.”
Cooper talked John Stone also of Madison to take the South Dakota route on their way to see family in Montana, just so they could stop at the Badlands and hike Harney Peak in the Black Hills. Stone is happy with their choice.
“Particularly the light,” says Stone. “Sseeing the formations against the sky, again the intense blue of the sky is absolutely amazing. And I haven’t been out in the big prairie like this, so we can see a little bit of that in the distance. That’s absolutely, absolutely beautiful.”
Wildlife is another attraction for tourists. Seeing the prairie dog towns and buffalo is popular, plus deer, bighorn sheep, swift foxes, black footed ferrets and a range of birds.
Ranger Sara Feldt leads classes on wildlife for kids and their parents. Today’s topic is on the birds found here.
Tourists can also take guided walks including one on the many fossils found here. The badlands’ fossil beds are one of the world’s richest for finding vertebrate fossils. Keep a look out after heavy rains too, the Badlands’ are always eroding and rain helps the process of uncovering more fossils.
Ranger Sara encourages visitors to not miss the Sage Creek area and be sure to get out and experience all the park has. There’s one question she often gets asked – but sorry the answer is always no.
“Yeah a lot of people want the hat. They ask if they can buy it from me. But can’t. Gotta be a park ranger to wear it,” laughs Feldt.
The badlands are open year-round. Although in winter services are limited, including finding fuel, so be sure to have a full tank.
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