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Sunrise in the Badlands

Sunday, June 26 2022, 4:15 am, Chamberlain, South Dakota. The evening's storms and their 70 MPH winds have passed, as we battled the last leg of the night's drive from Southeast Michigan. A glimmer of sunrise appears in the shadow of Dignity, a 50-foot statue honoring the Lakota and Dakota Native American cultures of the region.

Dignity's stainless steel statue overlooking the Missouri River glances down where Native American nations fought and Lewis and Clark sailed on their adventure to find a continuous water route to the Pacific.

My wife Mary and I headed west from Chamberlain to catch the sunrise at Badlands National Park, a two hour drive on Route 90. I was delighted to drive at (and above) the 80 MPH speed limit across the tall grass prairies of South Dakota, searching for the first Pilot gas station for a cup of coffee. None appeared. There is not much going on in this portion of Route 90. Super 8 is the best motel. There is no Ritz in Wall, South Dakota. But you can't miss the signs for Wall Drug, an iconic tourist magnet outside Badlands National Park.

Exit 110 heading west on Route 90 brought us to the entry road to the Badlands National Park. We arrived at the unstaffed entrance gate shortly after 6:00 AM, and headed along on the wet road to a parking area on the left, where we found a trail, walkway, steps toward a sunrise vista, and signs cautioning visitors about rattlesnakes.

"Badlands Sunrise," 12x18 pastel. One could not imagine the variegated strata of rock and landscape features across South Dakota. Amazingly, horizontal rivers of yellow, pink and bold green embraced the sunrise. A cool, damp morning was followed by sun and 90 degree heat as the day wore on.

The temperature quickly scaled to 90 degrees in this otherwise windy and arid climate. The loop road through the park, Highway 240, takes the traveler through a twisted path between towering kaleidoscopic, ancient rocks. These stone edifices capture millions of years of history, as portrayed by the variety of colored rings in their exposed facades. The oldest rock is the Pierre Shale, the bottommost layer, deposited up to 79 million years ago. The youngest, top layer is the Sharps Formation, a mere 30 million years old. Rock structures such as this haphazardly dot the South Dakota landscape in this western portion of the state.

"Badlands Vista, 9x12 pastel. The ground was a muddy, pasty surface following the previous night's storms. Try getting that stuff off of your hiking boots! The early morning sun shining on the rocks created deep shadows of maroon and purple. Tall prairie grasses graced the landscape, a bison's delight.

The Badlands contain one of the world's richest fossil beds. We visited the Museum of Geology at the South Dakota School of Mines in Rapid City, which houses a rich collection of fossils and dinosaur bones, most of which were discovered in the Badlands.

By late afternoon, the lighting on the rocks becomes warmer as we continue along the Loop Road. Along the way we discovered a gathering of bighorn sheep. There is also an abundance of prairie dogs in and around the park. It's hard to imagine that this area was a shallow sea. The Badlands began eroding when the Cheyenne and White Rivers began carving the landscape 500,000 years ago.

"Badlands Symphony," 12x16 pastel. Bold prairie grass greens and yellow contrasted with the deep shadows in the rocks and the red and pink hues. Bighorn sheep lounge on these grassy hills.

Not all of the Badlands was about the rocks! On the open road, an expansive landscape of green grasses and a dramatic sky added to the awe of this unique landscape.

"Prairie Storm," 9x12 pastel. There is plenty of "big sky" in South Dakota. The varied landscape of ancient butte outcrops and grasslands where bison graze, combined with fascinating skies, made for beautiful vistas (and landscape painting opportunities).

Enjoying the grasses were groups of bison. Late afternoon and early evening is when the bison tend to roam along the roads and park entrance areas. Sage Creek Rim Road can be accessed off Route 240. This winding, dirt road passes herds of bison grazing in the Sage Creek Wilderness area. There are a number of overlooks and pull-outs, and make sure you stop at Robert's Prairie Dog Town.

After the Badlands, we headed west into Wyoming to Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park. We arrived at one of the lookouts at the Tetons just as the sun was rising.

I guess we are hooked on reaching National Parks at sunrise!

More national park landscape paintings to come! I will revisit the Badlands again, as each photo has its own hidden subjects worth capturing in the pure color of pastel.

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