October can be a wonderful time for national park visits. The crowds and heat of summer have faded, and the colors of autumn brighten the landscape. Sadly, this year’s government shutdown has closed all 401 national park sites around the country. How long the shutdown will last is a great unknown. So what do you do if you pull up to the gate of a national park on your long-planned vacation, only to find the way is barred?
There are no substitutes for our national parks. They are set aside and protected as national parks for a reason: these lands are of national or international significance. But knowing that doesn’t help much if you’re in your rental car on your vacation, trying to figure out where you should go when your plan has been foiled. Here are a few ideas for alternative destinations. Read more
As a park ranger, I’ve lived in lots of beautiful places … but I don’t think there’s anywhere in the world that can match the Badlands of South Dakota for the beauty of its sunsets. This brilliant pink sky is from two weeks ago, the night before a major winter storm hit the area. Though all sunsets are the same, in that the earth’s rotation brings the sun slowly out of view behind the horizon, every one is different.
Badlands National Park is not famous for its trees. But in the winter months, when the prairie grasses are dormant and dry, the park’s dark green junipers stand out against a landscape dominated by shades of tan.
Junipers line a shelf on an otherwise steep slope in Badlands National Park.
Work for one day in the visitor center at Badlands National Park, and someone is sure to ask, “Why is it called that?” The term “badlands” is a translation from the Lakota “mako sica” and the French fur traders’ “les mauvaises terres à traverser”—which is to say, “bad lands to travel across.” The rugged terrain is part of the problem, of course, as is the harsh climate. Winters can see the mercury plummet to well below zero, while summer temperatures can reach triple digits (in Fahrenheit, of course). Winds over fifty miles per hour can occur at any time of year, and the starkness of the prairie affords little shelter from the gusts.
But I often think that the lack of potable water in the badlands is what really made this area earn its name. Read more
It might seem strange that a park ranger is making a New Year's resolution to spend more time in nature, but my job involves a lot more sitting in my office than you might think. Yes, I do have an office of my own—but my tiny space was originally a storage closet, and doesn't have any windows. The beautiful Badlands are right outside, but I can't see them.
The isolating effect of working in my closet is stronger in winter, of course, when I go to work just after sunrise and return home after the sun has already gone down. I get very little natural light. Yesterday, it started snowing, and I didn't know about it for three hours. If a fireball were headed for the Earth and everyone looked to the skies, screaming in terror, I would still be tapping away at my workstation, oblivious to my impending doom.
The New Year dawned cold in the badlands of South Dakota. Temperatures in the low single digits at sunrise on January 1 warmed to a balmy 30°F by midday. The sunny, calm conditions were perfect for my first hike of 2013. I hadn’t walked fifty feet from the trailhead, however, before the sun glinting off the surface of the snow captured my attention. I commonly see delicate sparkles on the snow in the morning sun, but these were bold flashes coming from platy ice crystals the size of my thumbnail.
I knelt to see better, and exclaimed in delight. Even with my naked eye, I could see fine growth ridges running parallel to the edges of each plate, forming beautiful facets. My first thought was surprise that such big, perfectly hexagonal snowflakes could have persisted since the last snowfall, several days ago. But then I realized that the ice crystals weren’t old snowflakes at all: they were a beautiful example of surface hoar. Read more
I didn't give much thought to America's prairies until I moved to South Dakota. I grew up loving the hardwood forests of the Mid-Atlantic and New England states, then discovered the great western mountains as a college student. The grasslands of North America were something I skipped over, believing them flat, unvarying, and dull. What little I knew of prairie came mainly from childhood. Fourth-grade geography lessons, Little House on the Prairie, and the favorite Apple IIe game of eighties educators, Oregon Trail—these were the sources of the vague impressions I had about an ecosystem that historically occupied more than 1.4 million square miles of North America.
When I first came to work at Badlands National Park in 2008, the prairie took me by surprise. Far from being a pancake-flat plain with a boring lack of biodiversity, the grassland teems with life.
The Badlands just disappeared. From where I sit next to my kitchen window, I can usually lean slightly to my right and have a nice view of the formations to the north. They have been fading for some time now, first veiled by fog, then whitened by falling snow. The big flakes, carried nearly horizontally by the prairie winds, are now falling thickly enough that the buttes and spires a quarter of a mile away have vanished.
Townsend's solitaires are fairly common in Badlands National Park and the surrounding areas in the winter months. You don't see them just anywhere, though. They tend to hang out in places where juniper trees cluster. In Badlands, that generally means places like Cliff Shelf or Deer Haven—areas where the steep badlands formations have slumped, leaving a ledge of relatively level ground. The gentler topography of the slumps retains a bit more moisture, allowing the growth of a shrubby woodland. This is a rarity on the prairie, where the climate is generally too harsh and dry for trees.
Art and I have an uneasy relationship. I enjoy looking at art. I admire people who create original works. I often wish I could draw, or paint, or sculpt; I long for the artistic ability to capture the beauty I see in wild animals and plants. Every now and then I take a stab at sketching in my nature notebook ... but I always fall back on words to describe what I see. Writing is far easier, for me. It comes more naturally. Drawing is mildly scary. Painting or using pastels, or introducing color in any way? Terrifying!