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
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.
I’ve been in my new home in Badlands National Park for just over two weeks now. I arrived here in summer, and within a week the autumnal equinox carried us over into fall. On cue, the cottonwood trees turned from green to gold, and the nights became crisp and clear. Read more