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
In keeping with my pledge to spend more time in nature this year, I made my first visit to the Outdoor Campus – West in Rapid City this past weekend. Run by South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, the Outdoor Campus — West opened in 2011. The facility features a LEED Gold building (one of only eight structures in South Dakota that have attained this level of certification from the U.S. Green Building Council) situated on 32 acres that include two small ponds, a stream, and 1.5 miles of trails.
The windows lining the front of the Outdoor Campus – West building look out over a pond that’s home to ducks and muskrats. View a map.
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 eastern yellow-bellied racer is a common snake in the grasslands of western South Dakota. True to their name, racers are speedy snakes, long and slender. They’re nonvenomous and, in my opinion, beautiful: the archetype of what a snake should be. I was delighted to see this blue-green adult racer, roughly three feet in length, as I walked home for lunch today. Read more