Saturday, September 15, 2012

Badlands National Park - 09/15/12

We got off to a late start today at 12:30 p.m. Our stargazing from last night made for a late bedtime resulting in a late wakeup at 9:20 a.m. We decided we would do a routine nonstop tour of the Badlands, scouting areas we would revisit later. We would also do our obligatory visit to Wall Drugs.

Our first stop was at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. This a wonderful place to visit to get a perspective on the history of how the Badlands were formed and the wildlife that existed here thousands of years ago. This center is much improved from our last visit in 1996. It now features a 97-seat theater with a short film on the history of the Badlands. The center also features paleontologists working on fossils in the center’s laboratory. Our visit to the laboratory really highlighted how tedious this profession is and the level of concentration required.

Deep canyons, towering spires, and flat-topped tables are all found within the 244,000 acres of the Badlands. They are largely the result of two basic geologic processes: deposition and erosion.

Millions of years ago the Badlands were part of a shallow sea. About 500,000 years ago the Badlands evolved into a flat flood plain. The receding waters began to cut down through the rock layers, carving fantastic shapes. Many of the layers are gently warped and faulted due to the mountain building activities that formed the Black Hills, 70 miles to the west. Erosion is ongoing. Every time it rains, more sediment is washed from the buttes. While the Badlands are permanent in human terms, they are short lived on a geologic time scale. Erosion rates suggest that they will erode away completely in another 500,000 years

At one time the Badlands had a subtropical climate similar to that of Florida. Fossil remains show that alligators were prominent here during the time this area was a floodplain. This area was also home to a variety of prehistoric mammals and sea creatures that did not survive the climate change that evolved when the Badlands were being formed.

There is a Badlands Loop Road that visitors take to view the magnificent rock formations throughout the park. From the Ben Reifel Visitor Center the western leg of the Loop Road runs 29 miles north connecting with I-90 at Exit 110. The eastern leg runs 8 miles north connecting with I-90 at Exit 131.

The western leg of the Loop Road exits at Wall, South Dakota, famous for Wall Drugs. Billboard signs posted on I-90 as far away as 400 miles, east and west, from Wall advertise Wall Drugs. It has been a required tourist stop along I-90 ever since it opened in 1931. The main street in downtown Wall is one very long block in length, running south to north, with Wall Drugs occupying the entire block on the east side of the street. Souvenir stores and bars occupy the west side of the street. They have a wide main street with angled parking on the east and west sides of the street and two rows of angled parking in the center of the street. They have several other large parking areas dispersed throughout the town to handle the influx of RV’ers during the summer and fall seasons.

At I-90, Exit 131, on the eastern leg of the Loop Road there is a Minuteman Missile Visitor Center. Visitors can view a short film on the development and deployment of the Minuteman Missiles as well as a brief history of the Cold War with the Soviet Union that began in the 1960’s. Both countries developed an arsenal of nuclear missiles capable of reaching and destroying the other side in just 30 minutes.

Due to innovative solid-fuel rocket technology, by the late 1960’s the United States had deployed 1,000 Minuteman missiles in the Midwest and the upper Great Plains, including 150 in South Dakota. All of these missiles were housed in underground silos built to withstand a nuclear blast and could be launched by crews stationed at launch control centers miles away. In 1991 the U.S. signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Soviet Union to reduce the number of nuclear missiles. All of South Dakota’s missiles were deactivated and 149 silos imploded. Delta –09 remains intact to help tell the story of the Minuteman’s role in deterring a conventional war and preserving peace.

Visitors can view the Launch Facility Delta-09 site. It is open daily from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. A self-guided cell phone tour is available to guide your visit. The location is on a gravel road just south of I-90 at Exit 116. During the period of time this missile silo was active, traffic on I-90 was not aware that within a short distance from them was a missile loaded with a 1.2 megaton warhead. Designed to travel over the North Pole at a top speed of 15,000 mph, it could arrive at its target over 6,000 miles away in 30 minutes. The warhead carried the explosive equivalent of over one million tons of dynamite.

Visitors can also receive a ranger-guided tour of Launch Control Facility Delta-01 and have the opportunity to go into the underground Launch Control Center to learn how Minuteman nuclear missiles could have been launched during the Cold War. The Launch Control Facility is located north of I-90 at Exit 127, just 4 miles west of the Missile Visitor Center and 11 miles east from the Launch Facility Delta-09. For every ten missiles, there was a Launch Control Facility where Air Force officers constantly monitored and remained ready to launch the missiles. In addition an Air Force plane known as the "Looking Glass" could remotely launch the missiles from the sky. During the Cold War this airplane remained airborne 24/7, landing only for crew changes and routine maintenance.

Having completed a full day of travel (61 miles) through the Badlands and to Wall Drugs we retired to our campsite for our evening ritual of cheese and crackers with a nice glass of wine, to view the magnificent sight of the sun setting in the Badlands.

A wonderful day spent exploring the wonders of the Badlands.

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