Western Hiking Trek: Fantastic Falls and Fossils, Alien Plants, and Painted Ladies

Guest poster Keith Shaw wraps up his stay in the Badlands, discovering and exploring some hidden gems of nature among the tourist traps. It seems likely that few people these days are enjoying these particular trails. Too bad!

Bolded text in his reports are emphasis mine, highlighting what I find to be particularly interesting. I have also edited for length and to fix typos.

Day Four – Supposedly Taking it Easy

My legs had not forgiven me for the trauma suffered on the Notch trail, so I decided to drive to several cities. Lead, Deadwood, and Spearfish were all boom towns during the gold rush days. The greed for gold made them a haven for gunslingers, gambling, and loose women.

The continuing greed for gold in the modern era have turned these towns into performing memorials. Wild Bill Hickok was killed in a Deadwood gambling saloon, and it is re-enacted several times a day for the tourists, much like a bizarre Disneyland ride. In between buildings dedicated to the lore of the Old West are modern-day casinos.

I inquired at the Deadwood visitor center if they could recommend any nature trails in the area. After a moment of stunned silence followed by some furious behind-the-hand conversations, they thought there were a couple in Spearfish Canyon that led to waterfalls. Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway seemed a good place to start, and within 20 minutes I saw a sign leading to the trailheads.

The three mile (round trip) trail to Roughlock Falls was mostly level, with impressive views of the canyon walls and peaceful glades. However, the path to the top of the falls was very steep, making my already sore legs even worse.

I returned to the car [and] instead of taking the hint, I walked the short distance to the other trailhead. Gee, it is only 3/4 mile round trip to the base of Spearfish Falls. How hard could that be? That was answered by a series of steeply descending switchbacks, followed by a walk through tall pine trees to the base of the falls. It was definitely worth it as the falls were surrounded by a riot of color from fall foliage, making a near perfect picture suitable for a postcard. I hope the image shows this.

I spent about an hour sitting on a bench, mesmerized by not only the beauty of the scene, but also the peaceful symphony of sound. I noticed many Monarch butterflies flitting about. It was only when one landed next to me that I realized that it was a moth sporting the same color pattern.

Predator birds steer clear of Monarchs because of their terrible taste, so in true Darwinian tradition, other species have adopted similar color patterning. Querying the Oracle (internet), it turns out that they are Painted Ladies. Seemed somehow appropriate considering the proximity to the local gold rush towns.

Day Five – Travel and Training

Today was travel from Rapid City to Scott’s Bluff, Nebraska. I decided on a way less traveled down Route 29, featuring endless open expanses of prairie and pasturing cattle. Not a tree in sight.

Along this road is the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, one of the largest fossil finds in the US from about 20 million years ago. Thousands of bones were found from early ancestors of wolves, rhinos, micro-camels (2′ tall!), prairie dogs and boars. This photo is a representation of one of the first pits to be uncovered. Talk about a challenging jigsaw puzzle!

Continuing south, the boring flat plain is interrupted by a 500-foot tall sentinel known as Scott’s Bluff. It was a famous landmark along the Oregon Trail for emigrants who chose the Conestoga Wagon for their conveyance. It may be explored fairly easily as there is a drive to the summit. The road is narrow, twisty and has several tunnels, but is well maintained by the Park Service.

Several trails adorn the top of the bluffs, leading to overlooks of the scenery below. The thing that interested me most was the abundance of strange plants I’ve never seen anywhere else. Here are two of the more bizarre ones.

I was going to just walk two trails and head for dinner when I noticed a side branch going down the side of one of the bluff faces suddenly disappeared. Some distance farther down it reappeared by coming through a TUNNEL. I was hooked. I’ve never seen a trail like that. So it was back to the car for hiking boots, water bottle and energy bar, and hiking hat.

If you look dead center on this photo, you can just make out the opening and the trail that continues all the way down to the valley floor at the ranger station. I “just” wanted to go down to the tunnel.

This photo shows the opening from a better point of the South Rim Trail. There are about four long steep switchbacks down this side of the bluff, then it goes out between the teeth at the right end. It then continues down four more long switchbacks on the other side before getting near the tunnel.

Here is the final length of trail and you can just see where the tunnel opening is.

This one is in the tunnel looking out at the world, and the final photo is the exit from trail level.

Surprisingly my legs didn’t hurt as much as I expected, so maybe the training is paying off. However, my feet were barking loudly from all the ankle exercise on the steep grades. After taking a shower and getting cleaned up, I went out to a recommended BBQ place for dinner. By the time I returned to the motel my legs and feet felt fine.

Which brings up an observation and irritation. Country and Western music is EVERYWHERE, motel lobbies, gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores and even on the sidewalks in town. C&W is without a doubt my least favorite musical genre. Fortunately I loaded my iPad with Zappa, The Who, Pretenders, Stooges, Pixies and many Punk Rock groups that I like, so I have a musical antidote on hand when the C&W level gets too toxic.

Time to do laundry…

 

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