Ballistic Badlands: Avoiding a Nuclear Winter

Long stretches of telephone totems tethered as far as the eye can see…

Free-ranging livestock sprinkled across the flatlands…

Barbed wire perimeters surrounded by pastureland and littered with cow pies…

From 1963 to 1993, one thousand Minuteman II missiles (ICBMs) capable of delivering a 1.2 megaton nuclear warhead to a Soviet target in 30 minutes were housed in underground silos like Delta-09 that stretched across the Great Plains,

(Library of Congress)

with 150 launch sites dispersed throughout South Dakota, transforming the serenity of the prairie into a hibernating military zone.

(Library of Congress)

The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site commemorates a period in America’s history when “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) imperiled the world, and delves into the birth of the Cold War, the nuclear arms race, and development of ICBMs.

At the height of the Cold War between Soviet Union and United States there were more than enough nuclear missiles in both arsenals to destroy the planet 5 times over.

As I walked through a maze of interactive exhibits, childhood memories came flooding back.

While growing up in an era of “duck and cover” mindfulness, we were acutely aware of the danger outside our global window.

With the school claxon sounding in 3-clang intervals, my classmates and I responded by hunching under our desks in silence until the principal gave us the “all clear” over the PA. It was our way of showing the Commies that we were prepared and doing our part in the recurring struggle to keep ourselves safe from a political bogeyman.

Of course, as we got older (these drills lasted through middle school), we doubted that “duck and cover” would ever protect us from a nuclear firestorm or subsequent fall-out.

Because of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the realization that Pittsburgh’s steel mills were a likely military target, my father’s master plan in the event of a nuclear attack was to convert our basement closet filled with dusty canvas awnings and rusted paint cans. We painted the concrete blocks a putrid shade of green under the glare of a single dangling light bulb swinging from the ceiling, and filled the 6 x 6 closet with mattress slabs, jugs of water, and a box of batteries for our flashlights. I always wondered how our family of four (at the time) would survive inside this moldy space.

After touring the Visitor Center, we rode 15 minutes on I-90 West to a decommissioned missile silo roughly the size of a football field, and the feeling was ominous.

Locked beneath a sliding 9-ton hatch…

was a vertical rocket in-waiting. I pressed against the tinted, transparent armor and peered into a hole 185 feet deep for a first look and a photograph.

Despite being disarmed,

it was no less unsettling to consider that humanity holds the power of mass destruction, and the Badlands backdrop–75 million years in the making–could vanish in an instant.

Badass Badlands: a Surreal Landscape

Pillars and spires, pinnacles and hoodoos, canyons and gorges, ridges and ravines, bands of colors and beds of fossils, mixed-grass prairies and resilient wildlife…the Badlands of South Dakota are a scenic recipe so fantastic that I sometimes wondered if my camera could adequately capture the range of strangeness that surrounded me.

But I was up for the challenge!

What follows is a visual diary of Badlands National Park…told in 3 parts.

The Yellow Mounds of Dillon Pass

From a distance, this mustard-colored landscape qualifies as the perfect location for a film shoot on an alien planet.

Leah and I were casually driving along the Badlands Loop Road near Dillon Pass,

when the Yellow Mounds popped into view…

and I knew that I had to explore this phenomena more thoroughly.

I climbed atop one of the mounds…

which overlooked a network of foot paths…

to the Pinnacles on one side of the hill,

and offered an outstanding overlook of the Conata Basin to the southwest…

and beyond.

And as I surveyed the scene below,

I realized that the scope of South Dakota’s Badlands defies framing.

The Badlands cannot be contained, and the sheer beauty and colors transcend any exposure.

Way Back in the Day

On the recommendation of a film school buddy who’s been Canadian all his life, we doubled back east of Calgary to tour the Red Deer River Valley, hitting many of the Badlands hot-spots before immersing ourselves in Drumheller dino-madness.

We drove for nearly two hours along prairie roads, wondering when the landscape would eventually change from grasslands and rolling hills of yellow flax to familiar slopes of striated colors separated by narrow gullies and ravines.

It wasn’t long before we descended into Drumheller Valley and celebrated a welcome change of scenery.

horseshoe canyon

Badlands mounds

Badlands swirl

“I’m guessing that this would seem amazing if you’ve never seen the Badlands of North and South Dakota,” opined Leah. It’s true that while it didn’t quite measure up to our recent experiences at Theodore Roosevelt National Park (see Oddities—North Unit) or Badlands National Park (see Battle Lands), it was still an improvement over miles upon miles of farms and ranches.

All of which brings up an interesting question about Badlands semantics: When comparing two Badlands, is the substandard Badlands better or worse than it’s counterpart, or are we just spiraling down an oxymoronic rabbit hole?

Anyway, we picked up the Hoodoo Trail toward East Coulee and pulled into a busy parking lot across the road from a “protected area” where interpretive signs and steel railing surrounded what was left of a few limestone columns.

hoodoo group


A forty-something mom was telling her pre-teen son and adolescent daughter that this site was one of her favorites to visit when she was their age, but it was her recollection that there were many more hoodoos at the time.

“What happened to them?” asked Sonny Boy.

“Well,” Mom began, “the weather wore them away, and I guess people vandalized them by too much climbing around, so don’t wander off.” With that, the kids broke free and ambled up the steep slopes with the finesse of bighorn sheep. “Don’t go too far up,” Mom yelled after them, but the kids would not be denied.

Most of the visitors were content to stand on the viewing platform looking up, but I was keen on a closer look.


And while the hoodoos appeared drab in color, the possibility of getting close enough to feel the flaking texture was enough of a reward.

Hoodoo texture

It was while I was working my way back to the viewing deck that I heard a distant cry from the top of the mesa.

mesa top


Mom wondered aloud to herself, “Now what am I supposed to do?”

“Maybe you should call 9-1-1,” Leah offered.

Not wanting to stick around to watch the drama unfold, we headed to a nearby historic site just pass East Coulee on the other side of the Red Deer River.

Atlas Coal Mine

Atlas Coal Mine now serves as a stark reminder of the energy heyday of the early 1900’s, up until the last lump of coal was quarried in 1979. Atlas is also home to the last wooden tipple in Canada,

tipple profile

Atlas Mine tippet

Mine chute

and the source of several recorded unexplained occurrences that have led visitors and paranormalists to conclude that apparitions and voices are as much a part of the physical space as the graveyard of discarded machines that line the entrance to the museum.

On our way back, we passed the hoodoos in time to see an ambulance pull away with who we suspect were the stranded kids on the mesa.

After enjoying lunch nearby at Star Mine Suspension Bridge,

bridge sign


bridge cable

we stepped into the F-150 way-back machine, set the controls for the Cretaceous Period, and transported 67 million years back in time when being a vegetarian got you killed if you were a dinosaur.


We were overwhelmed at the rich assortment of skeletons…


and fossils…


on display at the world reknown Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology.

Apparently, Southern Alberta boasts some of the richest bone-beds in the world for which experts give two simple reasons: it was a good place to live and a better place to die!

The museum goes on to explain that large herbivorous dinosaurs thrived on the abundance of lush vegetation available to them,


which in turn supported the carnivorous dinosaurs’ huge appetite.


And so many dinosaurs during the Cretaceous Period were preserved intact, since the region’s floodplains provided the perfect burial grounds, only to be revealed by Ice Age erosion, and later exhumed by the hard-working staff at the museum.

prep lab

At times, taking five years to prepare an exhibit of a prehistoric crocodile.

ancient crocodile

But despite all the serious science to be found at the Royal Tyrrell, dinosaurs can also support the town economy of Drumheller, and dinosaurs can be fun!

world's biggest dinosaur

Battle Lands

It was 103 degrees outside and we were melting. “Where are the trees? There aren’t any trees here,” moaned Leah. There were no shadows to hide from the relentless sun. Even the clouds had forsaken us. Fortunately, they had drifted into the distance, providing the coveted contrast that landscape photography almost always requires.

Cedar Pass peaks

With the mercury steadily rising over the Black Hills of South Dakota the past few days, and the forecast not cutting us any slack from the heat, we bit the bullet we dodged in Belle Fourche, and decided to leave early the next day for Badlands National Park.

Except it was almost noon by the time we got underway. We really did try to get leave on time, but life got in the way, and in a small way it was a small blessing. We mapped a route to our destination with a way-point to Walmart, since we needed an assortment of groceries and dry goods, and I needed a new camera chip, having filled the last chip with nearly 4000 shots–half of them from StreamingThruAmerica locations.

“Make sure when you format this chip, that it’s compatible with your camera,” the associate advised. “Otherwise, you have three days to return it.”

“When are you planning on doing that?” Leah asked.

“As soon as we get back to the truck,” I answered, “I’ll insert it into the memory card slot, and I’ll know right away if it’s working.”

That’s when I discovered that I left the camera battery charging in the Airstream.

So we rode back to Rapid City to retrieve the battery and stow the groceries. “But if I hadn’t bought the chip in the first place,” I rationalized, “then we would have driven all the way to Badlands, and realized that the camera was useless. No battery, no camera; no camera, no photos; no photos, no blog.”

“Right! Meanwhile, it’s cooking outside! And we’re going to get there, and not be able to do anything. Why don’t you put that in your blog?” Leah announced with a healthy dose of sarcasm. The heat had definitely taken a toll on human relations. From that moment, neither one of us felt like making the trip, but we also couldn’t imagine missing a National Park, so we d(r)ove into the fire, hoping to adapt to our inhospitable surroundings, much like Badland’s earliest pioneers.

We drove across a 45-mile stretch of I-90 East, counting 60 Wall Drug billboards and road signs along the way.

“We should go there,” Leah informed.

“It looks like another South of the Border,” I hedged.

“But it looks like fun,” she tempted.

“We’ll see,” I relented.

We arrived at Badlands National Park during the hottest part of the day. Even the bugs were in hiding. Crossing into the park at the Pinnacle Entrance, we took an early side-road to Sage Creek Basin Overlook in the hopes of spotting wildlife along the prairie. But the animals had better ideas other than baking in the blistering sun.

Instead, we admired the scarred lunar landscape of Pinnacles Overlook,

Hay Butte Overlook

and claws of vulcan mounds crawling across the Hay Butte Overlook. It resembled a box of burnt streudel.

fields on fire

We backtracked through Roberts Prairie Dog Town–mindful not to pet a varmint potentially infected with bubonic plaque–and continued along Badlands Loop Road to Ancient Hunters Overlook, trying to imagine early tribes scouting the lowlands for buffalo,

Ancient Hunters Overlook

much the way I was location-scouting for worthy photographs of black Pierre Shale.

rock brittle

We continued our air-conditioned trek to Yellow Mounds Overlook, where the surrealism was so profound, we had to leave the comfort of the cab to explore by foot…

yellow mounds

receding yellow mounds

leaving us to wonder how 35 million-year-old fossilized soil could weather into something so beautiful, yet other-worldly.

Burns Basin Overlook, while stunning in its desolate vastness, was beginning to look like every other overlook. I feared we were becoming “geo-jaded”.

Burns Basin Overlook

But that feeling quickly faded after we sighted a bighorn sheep lounging on a breezy slope, surveying the best way to Wall Drug.

bighorn sheep look out

I stealthily walked around the cliff edge as far as I could to score the best possible angle without falling into the abyss.

bighorn profile

It was a standoff–both of us locked into position. She remained frozen as a statue, but I held my crouch under the blazing sun until my subject finally cooperated.

Bighorn CU

Leah was waiting in the truck with the air conditioner running. “I can’t take much more of this,” she vented. “It’s just too hot out there, and I can’t even bother to get excited about any of this. You’re out there taking pictures while I’m stuck in the truck, and it’s not fun for me.”

“Tell you what,” I negotiated, “We’re at the point of no return, so we have to finish the park drive. But I’ll make it quick, and I’ll buy you an ice cream at Wall Drug on the way home.”

Fortunately, the road opened up to grasslands on both sides, and a 45 MPH speed limit. We made good time until we arrived at Panorama Point, and the light was perfect.

“Go ahead,” she conceded, “we’re already here.” I tight-roped across a knife-edge ridge as far as I dared…


to capture the enormity of the jagged peaks.

Panorama Point

Just around the bend, I discovered the Big Foot Pass Overlook, on the right side of us,

Big Foot Pass Overlook

followed by the White River Pass Overlook on the left side of us.

White River Valley Overlook

Cedar Pass Fossil Area (2)

It was overwhelming.

We ended our tour at the Ben Reifel Visitors Center, where Leah enjoyed the film presentation, while I strode across the prairie grass for a closer look at The Wall.

The Wall detail

I kept my promise to Leah, driving to Wall just as the weather was quickly changing.

Wall Drug silos

The silos at the end of town re-created an ironic juxtaposition to the Badlands scenery.

Rain clouds gathered against gray skies, and the temperature dropped enough to cool rising tempers. But after a diet of Badlands drama under theatrical settings, I found it nearly impossible to buy into the Wall Drug über-kitsch experience.

Wall Drug Frontier Town

Occupying 76,000 sq. ft. of retail space in downtown Wall, it’s a fascinating rags-to-riches story from the Great Depression, and it stands as a titanic testament to American consumerism.

But it’s really a shit show, with “wall-to-wall” tourists.

Still…the donuts were fresh, and the 5⊄ coffee was hot,

…and most importantly, it brought a smile to Leah’s face.

Oddities—North Unit

Sixty-eight miles north of Medora lies the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Leah and I had agreed that we would visit the North Unit on our second day. Although not nearly as inconvenient as reaching the North rim of the Grand Canyon–getting to the north from the south was an easy drive.

We wondered whether the North Unit of the park could possibly compete with the equine event experienced earlier within the South Unit. Many say the North Unit is more beautiful than its southern counterpart, but that’s too subjective for my tastes. And ranger consensus says there are more animals in these parts, but that’s arguable. And typically, the North Unit sees fewer visitors because its more remote, but today nothing seemed normal. In fact, the day was filled with oddity and  irregularity.

First of all, it’s odd that the two units of the park are disconnected. There’s plenty of fertile land between Medora and Watford City, ND. An infinite carpet of crops and pasture land is periodically punctuated by scattered herds of grazing cattle. But it’s what’s below the surface that really matters.

The Bakken Formation sits between the two park units, and is considered one of the most important sources of oil in the country, having already exceeded 1M barrels a day, and primarily responsible for the 2nd lowest seasonally adjusted unemployment rate across America at 2.5%. Oddly enough, oil derricks are actively pumping at the edge of the park, reaching two miles down and then across two to three miles to tap and sweep through the shale layer that holds the oil.

Green area represents TRNP and National Grasslands

It’s also odd that five miles from the South Unit along I-94 East, the park service operates the Painted Canyon Visitor Center, which also doubles as an interstate rest stop with grazing bison. Weary truckers and families can stretch their legs along a log fence with protected views that will keep them from returning to their rigs.

Painted Canyon Overlook

The saturated red hue atop the butte comes from bentonite clay having caught fire from a remote lightning strike. It burned for years, fueled by the coal vein within, eventually turning the clay to brick.

PC butte

Another oddity: the two park units are in two different time zones! After driving north for half an hour, we lost an hour moving from Mountain time to Central time. Thanks to the transcontinental railroad, the southwest corner of North Dakota is caught in Mountain time, while the rest of the state operates one hour later. Nowhere is this more apparent (and confusing) than inside the park, and it’s weird.

Once at the North Unit, we came upon twin trailers taking the place of the regular visitor center. Ranger Jeff explained that “Badlands soil unpredictably shifted from drainage, and caused the foundation to slip and crack.” Consequently, the building was condemned and demolished in 2015, only to be replaced by a double-wide until new construction has been completed. Not exactly inspiring parkitecture.

Jeff and us

Unlike the South Unit’s scenic drive, which loops around for 36 miles, the North Unit road terminates after 14 miles with fewer turnouts. The first half of the road traces the Buckhorn Trail and intersects with Battleship Butte…

battleship butte vertical

…where round concretions (compact aggregates of minerals leached from Little Missouri groundwater) called “cannonballs” have eroded out of the mountainside and accumulated at the base of the cliffs. I think they’re oddballs and wildly out of place, but nature put them there to be admired.



2 cannonballs

However, the oddest part of the journey was driving 1800 miles from home, only to run into our ex-neighbors at the River Bend Overlook.

Riverbend Overlook

Marjorie and Bruce, who lived just a few doors down the street from us in New Jersey had come to visit her sister Patricia and husband, who live in northeast Montana most of the year, but winter in Delray Beach, FL, around the corner from my dad’s residence–making this the smallest of small-world stories.

Upon completing the scenic drive to Oxbow Overlook…

Oxbow Overlook

we saw no animals–only traces of what gets left behind. A demonstration herd of Longhorn steer was nowhere to be found; a band of bighorn sheep went missing; there were no elk; and not a single bison was sighted.

From Oxbow, we hiked along a very narrow trail to Sperati Point, avoiding bison poop every step of the way, yet thinking that a photo of bison on a cliff against a blue sky would make a perfect National Geographic cover. But when we arrived, it was only the distant hills before us…

Sperati Point

And that would have to be enough, as we contemplated what’s been normal about our trip up until now.