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.

What Time Is It?

Camping inside Guadalupe Mountain National Park is notable for the dramatic setting presented to travelers sharing the trail head to Guadalupe Peak, the highest peak in Texas at 8751 feet elevation–fronted by El Capitan, it’s foremost surveyor’s point.

El Capitan

Access to the park is available to limited numbers of tents, trailers and RVs behind the Pine Springs Visitor Center, where the Guadalupe Mountains fan out in a protective panorama. Reservations are unavailable, as it’s first come, first served dry camping that is best described as boondocking in narrowly aligned asphalt stalls, where utility hook-ups and dumping stations are non-existant.

It was a crap shoot, but after a four-hour drive from Marfa, we score one of twenty available RV sites that are quickly filling up around us. An abundance of solar cell arrays dot the parking lot-with thirsty batteries soaking up sun rays needed for later use–while I, in turn, crank up the Honda 2000i generator to attend to our personal energy needs.

Our new neighbor, Mr. and Mrs. Salt and Pepper from the Sunshine State pull up beside us just as I disengage the F-150 from the Airstream, in search of the turn-off from the Guadalupe Pass that services the McKittrick Canyon Trail.

During our late-day hike, our marginal shade is supported by occasional juniper pines and Texas madrone…

Tree of Lifeas we cross several dry river beds…

canyon wallalong the arroyo to Pratt Cabin, a Depression-era structure built entirely of stone.

Pratt CabinRocking chairs under a cool porch provide perfect respite from the simmering sun.


Upon returning to the Airstream, we follow parking lot protocol with dinner preparation plans en masse, prompting Mr. S&P to cautiously knock on our screen door.

“Howdy, neighbor,” I announce through the screen with all good intentions. “What’s up?”

Holding back, but clearly annoyed, he addresses me in a veiled voice. “I hope you’re aware of the rules about running your generator,” he reprimands.

Gauging his tone, but uncertain of the point he’s trying to make, I answer, “Okay?”

“So were you planning on turning that thing off anytime soon?” He is more ordering than asking.

“Well, sure,” I try to reassure him, “but it’s only 7:30. I still have half an hour before quiet time.”

“I don’t think so,” he challenges, pointing to his watch.

He’s now flanked by his wife, who’s approached the Airstream to reinforce her husband’s position, and it becomes clear that he’s been put up to the task.

“Did you tell them about the rules?” she intervenes. “Tell them to read the rules by the bathroom.”

“I did, dear. He knows all about it,” her husband relents.

Now looking pointedly at me, she asks, “So why’s that thing still running? It’s 8:30, you know, and you’re out of time.”

“Look,” I start out. “I think you’re mistaken about the time. As I mentioned to your husband, I still have half an hour to go.”

“Not according to my phone,” she insists, waving her iPhone.

Leah joins me at the door to even the playground odds. “Then you must’ve forgotten about the time change,” Leah interjects. “We just crossed the border from Central to Mountain time, and you forgot to turn back your clocks.” Rubbing it in, “Didn’t you get the park memo?” she says smugly.

“Sounds reasonable,” she shrugs. Are you certain?” doubts Mrs. Salt and Pepper.

“You can’t rely on your phone,” Leah tutors her. “For some reason it’s not showing up yet.”

Mrs. S&P nudges her husband, teasing, “I can’t believe you didn’t know that.”

“Shit happens,” I announce, side-stepping the S&P’s on my way down the Airstream stairs. “While time is still on my side, please excuse me while I tend to the chicken on the grill.”

Walking away, Mrs. S&P mutters to her mate, “I feel like such a fucking idiot!” Then, calling out to me, “By the way, that smells sooo goood.”

Returning to their RV box, I overhear Mr. S&P lament, “I told you not to bother them.”

I remain exalted in my vindication. At precisely 8:00 pm, I cut the generator din, restoring tranquility to the campground community where I’m no longer the menace of Guadalupe Mountain.

And I am absolved when the quiet of the thin mountain air carries the collective sigh of my next-door neighbors through their hollow RV wall.

Dune Not Disturb

White Sands National Monument can only be described as other-worldly.

yin yang dune

The thrill of scrambling through the dunes,


and leaving temporary footprints in the soft white sand…


is humbling in the presence of its vastness.


The ethereal gypsum dunes sweep across 275 square miles of the Tularosa Basin,

dune and sun

forming a complex yet delicate ecosystem…


…that supports the constant shape-shifting caused by precipitation and wind.


But the surrealism that surrounds the spectator…approaching sunset

intensifies when the sun dips below the horizon of the Sacramento Mountains…

mountain silhouette

quickly cooling the sand beneath one’s feet,

desert glow

awakening the magic that ignites the desert glow.

cactus glow