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  • Writer's pictureScott Carnahan

Dakota: Legend Country (Part 2)

Badlands National Park, SD - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

Up before the sunrise, 307 miles of Dakota between me and the next stretch of badlands. Overnight frost had formed inside my Jeep, signifying the decision to wrap camp the night before was paying off. Early October in the plains - for the first time in years I used the ice scraper on the windshield, spitting snow dancing salsa in the dim light of the morning. As in Montana and now North Dakota, old man winter pushes me forward: today I’ll drive due south, but first instant coffee and granola.


Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

There was a tinge of sadness in leaving Cottonwood Campground and Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I made sure to say goodbye to the bison and prairie dogs - don’t ever forget the prairie dogs because they won’t forget you. Word travels fast in the community, and they tend to hold a grudge.

Up the onramp, back on I-94 — the northernmost east-west interstate in the US. I watched Medora, ND fade in my rearview, bummed I missed the Medora Musical ``Greatest show in the West”. A sure reason to return to North Dakota, who doesn’t love a Western musical?

Passing enough Minnesota license plates to be momentarily confused, I went East on I-94. My gas light’s illumination made it abundantly clear I drove the Theodore Roosevelt National Park scenic loop too many times. Luckily only 15 miles down the road was Belfair, ND.

Legendmobile: Belfair, ND - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

South on U.S. 85, through the sunflower fields of North Dakota long faded after their summer prime, dried and dead flowers with their heads pointed down humbling themselves as winter approaches, hoping that soon a storm will topple them over. It was clear they’d soon have their wish, the fields were white with frost. Winter was imminent.

I was lured off my route by the ‘Enchanted Highway,’ and found myself cutting east again on North Dakota State Highway 21 into Regent, ND: The home of the Enchanted Castle. The ‘Enchanted Highway’ was started by local legend Gary Greff as an effort to save Regent from “becoming a ghost town”. The ‘Geese in Flight’ art installation along the highway is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the Largest Scrap Metal Sculpture in the World. A worthy detour.

Enchanted Sculptures: Regent, ND - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln were smiling, welcoming me to South Dakota, “Great Faces, Great Places”. Down along the Standing Rock Reservation via South Dakota Highway 73 through Faith, SD, and eventually to Interstate 90.

Past the interstate shimmering in the light bursting through a crack in the clouds, were The Badlands. South Dakota’s Badlands are the most dramatic large scale of any Badlands I have ever had the luck to encounter, and I am a HUGE fan of the Badlands. Not just the geography...

Badlands National Park, SD - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

It is proper custom while in Badlands National Park to roll down all your windows and crank the radio to full volume while playing Bruce Springsteen’s “Badlands” on repeat. Trust me, it is written in the Department of the Interior’s book of rules. Some people must have known that fact as they cheered me on, fist pumps and rocking heads, indeed a proper welcome to Badlands National Park.

Besides a picturesque background to belt out the lyrics of a legend, the Badlands are home to an impressive variety of wildlife. Bighorn sheep, Buffalo, and the same Troubadour Birds that can be spotted in the state’s northern neighbor. Ferrets, frogs, and turtles scamper below the hooves of pronghorns, while snakes lurk for a bite. But of course we can’t forget the prairie dogs and their parliamentary procedures.

Badlands National Park, SD - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

I made camp amongst the prairie dogs of Sage Creek Campground, a free site down a well maintained dirt road in the heart of the Badlands. The hills all around are marked by Bison trails. There are two herds of Bison that roam Sage Creek, which has carved its way through the otherworldly geographic formations.

The first night, my tent seemed certain to fly away. “Wizard of Oz” dreams: floating buffalo, bighorn sheep battling in mid air as my tent barely dodges an RV. Luckily the stakes held, and I awoke to a wet rainfly and blue sky smiling between fingers of rain. Moody weather in the Badlands is the perfect weather. Springsteen blasting I sped down the dirt road, camera at the ready.

The predominant species in the area, Humanus Tourista, was everywhere - clogging up the park roads and trailheads with their steel beasts. They could be seen waddling to pit toilets and inundating the Visitor’s Center; a look of confusion on their faces with a speed slower than a roaming bison. The looming storm was making everyone crazy as they tried to see the requisite sights before the next downpour.

Bighorn Standoff: Badlands National Park, SD - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

Near the ‘Prairie Wind’ overlook there was a standoff. Three bighorn sheep, fighting over a patch of grass with one hell of a background. It appeared to be a two against one situation, the loud knocks of their horns sounding like football helmets crashing together after the hike of the ball. The battle occurred between grazing breaks, the duo working together to eat more while the solo male defended. It was an interesting dance to watch for myself and for the crowd that formed, but for the sheep it appeared to be a normal day of ramming and snacking in the cold prairie wind.

Bighorn Battle: Badlands National Park, SD - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

Not long after I left the sidelines of the sheep battle, winter decided it was tired of flirting and made the first move. In a moment, the badlands were transformed into a winter wonderland. Huge snowflakes rolled in, making the tourists flee the park; bison watched them leave with stoic indifference as they continued to chew their entrees. The prairie dog towns were undisturbed in their business, birds flitted amongst the monoliths of the badlands without notice; snow returned the park to nature.

First Snow in South Dakota: Badlands National Park, SD - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

My tent was completely covered by snow by the time I got back to camp. While I was debating either finishing the beef jerky or making instant ramen for dinner, I was greeted by my new neighbor: the culinary genius behind The Funky Noodle, Zach Lewis. He invited me over for proper ramen with him and his amazing storyteller buddy Alexander Metzfield. Though I have zero qualifications as a food critic—it was hands down, the very best ramen I have ever had. Michelin star quality.

Ramen became whiskey, which became a light-up frisbee in the snow. Zach and Alexander are from Buffalo, NY, on an open ended journey westbound, and were living out of a storage trailer converted into an epic bar/domicile pulled by a Toyota 4runner. Painted on the back of the trailer: ‘The Longest Journey’. Legendary new friends in South Dakota’s Badlands.

People to celebrate the first snow of the season with...there isn’t a word for the gratitude I felt. These are the perks of a nomadic lifestyle, the mystic timing of travel as timelines collide to form unexpected experiences that make the journey form its own character.

Dakota Cowboys: Badlands National Park, SD - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

The morning brought the joys of wrapping up a tent in snow - luckily the sun momentarily beat back the storm for a good morning bright white. With a “See you down the road” to the Buffalo boys, I rolled out of Sage Creek Campground, bound for Nebraska via the Pine Ridge Lakota Reservation. Back out through the park, one last joyride with Springsteen.

On the dirt road leading back through the park I rounded a turn and found myself face to face with a herd of bison as they meandered across the road. They kept a wary eye on me as their calves frolicked through the snow. Apparently, nothing makes instant coffee taste better than sitting in the middle of a herd of bison on a snowy morning. It was a powerful moment, a kind farewell from the Dakotas, truly a legendary countryside.

Bison and Bison Junior: Badlands National Park, SD - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan

Driving east toward Interior, SD I watched as a storm wiped the Black Hills from the horizon and thought back to a trip in 2015. Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Wind Cave National Park, and Custer State Park. A thunderstorm over Custer, SD—the Black Hills are full of gems and amazing experiences. But in my opinion, nothing compares to the Badlands blanketed with snow.

The huge skies, vast prairies, and otherworldly badlands give North and South Dakota a unique sense of freedom and adventure. You may call the Dakotas flyover states, but that just shows you’ve got the near-sightedness of a bison. Don’t fly over Dakota next time, make it your destination, and embrace the adventure of the great prairie wind.

Snow on Badlands Cactus: Badlands National Park, SD - Photo Credit: Scott Carnahan


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