Badlands and bad weather

Badlands-15_edited-1On Monday night, I was sitting in a campground on an Iowa interstate, swatting flies, monitoring the radio for tornadoes, and wishing we were back in the Badlands.  It had been a stressful day and the Badlands already seemed like a sweet, distant dream.

We took the back route (Route 44) from the Black Hills, through ranch land, prairie, and the southern reaches of the Badlands.  Our campground was our first KOA experience–in years anyway–and it was a good one.  It was laid out in a loop of the White River, surrounded by an earthen dike and filled with birds.  Swallows had mud nests under the overhang of the river bridge and swarmed up every time we drove the bridge. Thunderstorms moved in that night but they weren’t severe and made the trailer seem cozy with the rain on the roof.

Early the next morning, we set out to drive the Badlands loop but got hit with some gusty winds and rain. It was actually quite lovely for a time, but when the lightning got closer and we climbed up to the prairie, we had to pull over and wait it out. I pulled up next to a tall van so that we wouldn’t be the highest thing around for a lightning strike. I know, ridiculous, but it made me feel better.

Overcast when we set out

Lowering skies when we set out

The weather continued to deteriorate that morning

The weather continued to deteriorate that morning.  But the cloud patterns were a pleasure to watch.

When the rain let up a bit, we turned around and headed back to the campground. In the hour or so we had been out, more than an inch of rain had fallen and the previously dry draws and creeks were rushing with water. It was an in-your-face demonstration of how quickly a flash flood can develop, and fascinating to watch the transformation from arid, rocky gullies to gushing waterways in such a short time.

This small creek turned into a milk white torrent after the rain

This formerly small creek turned into a milk white (or more cafe-au-lait?) water highway after the rain

By noon, the rain had passed and we set out again. The weather became exquisite, with the fresh-washed quality of air and light that you only get after a storm. The main loop road was filled with weekend tourists and we decided to take the Sage Creek Rim Road, a dirt road that was in excellent shape despite the recent downpour.

Lots of people on the main loop road

People everywhere on the main loop road


badlands in every direction

People are allowed to walk among the rocks and cliffs.  No dogs allowed, though, even on the trails.

The vivid yellow-green color is from the yellow clover that covered everything.  It's a pest species, but was gorgeous.

The vivid yellow-green color is from the clover that covered everything. It’s an invasive species, but a gorgeous one.

Sage Creek Rim road

Sage Creek Rim Road

There were several groups of bison right next to the road, grazing and lying around. Startling to see them up so close.


It was one of the nicest drives of our trip so far.


We left the Badlands on Sunday and had a beautiful drive across South Dakota, with a brilliant blue sky and small puffy clouds all along the way.  We camped that night at Lake Vermillion State Park near Sioux Falls and enjoyed a warm, clear evening, oblivious as to what Monday would bring.

Peaceful Lake Vermillion near Sioux Falls, SD

Peaceful Lake Vermillion

We planned to get an early start because thunderstorms were forecast for Iowa (where we were headed) on Monday afternoon and we wanted to avoid hitting the bad weather. Ha.

When we woke up, there was a low overcast, which progressed to a very low deep gray schmutz hanging over everything as we drove further south.  It just looked odd.  The Sioux Falls radio stations continued to give the same chirpy forecast of increasing clouds with a possibility of thunder showers in the afternoon.  Nothing to give us pause.

We stopped at the post office in Onawa, Iowa (right across the border from Nebraska) at about 9:30 to pick up our forwarded mail and the first weather alert came across the radio.  A severe thunderstorm cell had hit Nebraska, southwest of Onawa, with reported 60 mph winds and–I kid you not–baseball-sized hail.  It was headed in our direction.

What to do?  We are living in a tin can and extremely vulnerable to high winds and enormous hail.  On the other hand, we can move.  And that is what we did.  After consulting with some locals at the gas pump, we hightailed it out of there and headed east and then south to avoid the storm front.  It was a little dicey but we outran it and arrived at a campground near Iowa City in mid-afternoon when it looked like we would be safely out of the worst of it.  About half an hour after we set up, a massive wind came out of nowhere and slammed into the park.  From a minor breeze to a 50 mph gale in about a minute.  It did not last long but, to use my mother’s expression, it scared the living daylights out of me.

That rogue wind hit us at about the same time the two tornadoes hit Nebraska, just west of Onawa, in the same general area as the morning hail and wind storms.  All of this mess arose out of one ugly storm front (deep red on the radar), which had hung around eastern Nebraska and western Iowa all day,slowly working its way northeast.

As the evening progressed, more and more Iowa counties came under tornado watch.  We had moved far enough southeast to avoid the tornado danger (we hoped) but were smack in the middle of the severe thunderstorm area.  We had one storm cell move through at about 11 pm, which wasn’t too bad.  But we went to bed with everything prepared to take shelter in the campground bathroom if necessary.  Another storm hit at about 2:30 am and it was really frightening.  I generally enjoy thunderstorms.  This one was not fun.  And the speed with which the wind arose was unbelievable.  There was no time to do anything.  We watched the red headlights of one, then two, vehicles drove over to the bathrooms, but I didn’t want to even run to the truck, the wind was blowing so hard.  It blew down branches all over the park, and kept us awake for quite a while, but there was no damage to the truck or trailer, fortunately.

We got out of there as quickly as we could in the morning and continued to head southeast, out of the worst of the storm zone.  We were buffeted by strong winds all day driving, but finally arrived at a peaceful Indiana campground next to a cornfield.  It was very hot—in the 90’s—“good corn-growing weather,” as they said on the radio, and sunny.  A nice respite.

Indiana cornfield, our neighbor for the evening

Indiana cornfield, our neighbor for the evening

The Mottled Hills

Years ago, on a trip with the kids, we traveled through the Black Hills.  We did not have a burning urge to return on this trip.  But there they sat, between Devil’s Tower and the Badlands–two new places we wanted to visit–so we decided to explore a bit more.

The hills are not so black now.  Years of pine beetle infestations have left large swaths of dead reddish-brown trees, or the infested trees have been taken down, leaving clear cuts alternating with the dark forest.  As a result, the hills have a mottled, mangy look.

We left the trailer at the RV park in Custer and drove the Needles Highway, a narrow, twisting road carved through an area of rocky pinnacles, with one-lane tunnels hacked out of the rock face.

Along the Needles Highway.

Along the Needles Highway.  Some of the rocks resembled people or animals.


I guess it's stating the obvious to say that the rock formations were unmistakably phallic.

I guess it’s stating the obvious, however, to say that most of the rock formations were unmistakably phallic.  Hard to avoid that perception.

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Blind curves and narrow tunnels through rock spires.

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Notice the trees growing out the side of the rock face.

Pull in the side mirrors.

Pull in the side mirrors.

No scrapes.

Halfway through. A car is waiting on the other side.

We wanted to do some hiking and chose the Sylvan Lake area so that Zoe could swim. The hike provided more rock pinnacle Rorschach tests.

To me this one looks like a salmon pointing to the sky next to a dog.

To me this one looks like a salmon pointing to the sky next to a dog sitting on its haunches.

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Zoe’s in her element–a swim and a hike.

Sylvan Lake

Sylvan Lake

Fishing and a wedding on the shore.

Fishing and a wedding on the shore.

Our favorite activity in the Black Hills was deer watching from our campsite.  We stayed at a tiny private RV park, the Roost Resort, which overlooked a large field with a herd of whitetail deer, including a young fawn.

Our camping spot at the Roost.

Our camping spot at the Roost.

The deer were active all day, jumping and running, with their white tails flying high at the sign of any danger.   George caught some nice shots of the mother and baby.





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The bushes at our campsite were inundated with bumble bees and a few honey bees.


We also enjoyed a pair of mountain bluebirds that were unusually social.

Nothing lovelier to find on the dump station water hose than a bluebird.

Nothing lovelier to find on the dump station water hose than a bluebird.

Off to the Badlands.