Badlands National Park

20180610_091043Have you ever wanted to travel back in time? The striated mounds and formations of Badlands National Park will take you there—75 million years ago, to be exact. The Badlands are a rugged landscape formed through deposition and erosion. Deposition began 75 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period. As time passed, the landscape and climate in western South Dakota changed, dictating the types of sediments that were deposited in the area. Over the years, the place we know as Badlands National Park transformed from ocean to rainforest to swamp to open grassland.

Today, the differing sediment types that accumulated across millions of years are visible thanks to erosion. Beginning around 500,000 years ago, the Cheyenne River flowing out of the Black Hills, a mountainous region to the west of the Park, began to wash away all of those deposited sediments, forming the incredible landscape we call the Badlands. The Badlands are eroding at an astonishing rate of one inch per year, exposing fossils that offer insights from an earlier time. The lowest portions of the Park are the oldest, while the highest peaks are more recent. By and large, the most common fossil found in Badlands National Park is the oreodont, a deer-like herbivore, but rhinoceros, alligator, and ancient sea creatures are also uncovered annually.

I spent two nights in Badlands National Park in June 2018 as part of a longer trip through western South Dakota. We made the most of our time there by attending two ranger-lead programs, embarking on a long loop hike, and stopping at the many overlooks to enjoy the scenic landscape. Along the way, we spotted bighorn sheep and bison and there was no shortage of prairie dogs; we even saw a coyote in camp one morning. We were also reminded by one of the park rangers that half of the Park is after dark! We saw Jupiter and its Galilean moons through a telescope while the ranger explained that when we look up at the stars, we are peering back in time. It can take light thousands of years to travel from a star to earth, so what we see in the night sky reflects a previous time. The lack of city lights in the Badlands makes for ideal star-gazing.

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The best part about Badlands National Park? It is a giant playground! The staff know that human disturbance can’t cause more damage to this quickly eroding landscape than a heavy rainfall. That means you are free to run, jump, and climb off the beaten path, weaving your way through the park any which way you like. In the grand scheme of earth’s existence, the Badlands will only be around for about one million years. You don’t want to miss this vanishing geological treasure!


I’m knocking all 60 National Parks off my bucket list. Be sure to follow Summer, Scientifically for some behind the scenes science and fun from my trips.

Hot Springs National Park

When I arrived at Hot Springs National Park, I parallel parked on the side of a relatively busy city street and dropped a few coins in the meter on the curb. As I strolled to the Visitor Center, I passed fountains with steaming water and people, weighed down with as many jugs as they could carry, waiting in line to take their share of the resource.

A fountain in front of Hot Springs National Park office space.

A fountain in front of Hot Springs National Park office space.

A truly unique Park, Hot Springs is the only National Park with:

  1. A town in the middle of it.
  2. Its own brewery.
  3. A resource you can take with you—the water.

The town and National Park are centered on bubbling spring waters, which historically brought people to the site. Native Americans believed the hot springs had healing properties and business minded individuals built the first bathhouses in the early nineteenth century to monetize the resource. Bathhouses competed for customers by offering spa-like services and claiming to have treatments for specific ailments. Sick and sore Americans traveled to Arkansas to bathe in the healing waters, many making multiple trips. But where does the water originate?

Rainwater falling in the area surrounding the hot springs spends thousands of years slowly seeping to somewhere between 6000 and 8000 feet beneath the surface. Here, it is heated by the earth’s fiery hot interior. Cracks in the rock created by several large faults located near Hot Springs offer water collecting deep underground a chance to rapidly escape. The escaping water reaches the surface at a temperature of 143°F. The steaming, safe-to-drink water pouring from fountains scattered throughout the town is at the end of a 4000-year journey.

The Fordyce Bathhouse was transformed into the Park Visitor Center, while another became an art studio and cultural center, one a brewery, and yet another is still functioning as a bathhouse and spa.

The Fordyce Bathhouse was transformed into the Park Visitor Center, while another became an art studio and cultural center, one a brewery, and yet another is still functioning as a bathhouse and spa.

Today, the National Park Service protects the historic bathhouses on Bathhouse Row as a cultural treasure. Visitors to the Park can still bathe in the healing waters, but I thought the brewery located in Superior Bathhouse made best use of the water. I tried six brews over my visit:

  • The Beez Kneez
  • McClard’s Barn Burner Farmhouse Ale
  • The Killer Irish Red
  • SPA (Superior Pale Ale)
  • Chaudfontaine Houblon
  • Palomino Extra Pale
The Superior Bathhouse Brewery offers flights of four beers each.

The Superior Bathhouse Brewery offers flights of four beers each.

Naturally, I came to the Park to spend some one-on-one time with nature. Though the Park hub is in the middle of a city, I found some time to hike the 9.6-mile Sunset Trail, the longest trail in the Park. I camped at the only provided campsite, which also offers RV hookups. The town is within walking distance of the campsite.

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If you are looking for wilderness, backcountry camping, and multiple days of hiking, Hot Springs National Park is probably not your best option. But, I found it refreshing and fun and it certainly offers amenities unlike other Park System sites.


I’m knocking all 59 National Parks off my bucket list.  Here’s my latest road trip map, which started at my home in Columbia and ended where I work in Houston, hitting Mammoth Cave and Hot Springs National Parks along the way. #FindYourPark

Mammoth Cave National Park

Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky conserves the world’s longest known cave system with 405 mapped cave miles. If outstretched, the caves could reach Chicago, IL or Charlotte, NC from their starting point in Kentucky, but in reality, they weave in and among one another like spaghetti.

Mammoth Cave maintains a constant 54°F temperature year round. New air cycles into the cave every day, seeping in through minute fractures in the rock and pouring out again through openings to the surface. Likewise, water reaches parts of the cave by dripping in through cracks in the sand- and limestone ceiling. When water reaches the cave at an exceptionally slow rate, it helps form wonderful cave structures like stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and popcorn.

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The cave continues to grow today as underground river ways deep in the earth eat away at the limestone walls. The cave’s sandstone roof protects its oldest tunnels close to the surface from rapidly collapsing due to surface waters, making it safe for people and wildlife to enter. Once inside, it is possible to experience complete darkness and complete silence. But, wildlife wouldn’t want to live in such a gloomy place, right? Actually, caves support an array of awesome animals.

When I took the Domes and Dripstones Tour at the Park, the first animal I saw was a cave cricket. The most abundant species in the cave, cave crickets have stocky bodies and spindly legs and only visit the surface about two weeks out of the year. The cave offers protection from insect-loving predators that could be skulking above. But, the blind cave beetle that specializes in finding and devouring cave cricket eggs and the cricket-hungry cave salamander are inescapable.

Cave crickets are the most abundant animal in Mammoth Cave

Cave crickets are the most abundant animal in Mammoth Cave.

Lurking in the subterraneous streams are another specialized group of animals. Eyeless cave fish adapted to life in total darkness by losing their pigmented skin and useless eye structures. The endangered Kentucky cave shrimp can also be found deep underground in cave waters.

A fan of fuzzier critters, I enjoyed hearing about the bats that call Mammoth Cave home. Eastern pipestrelle, little brown bats, and big brown bats all use the cave as a refuge while hibernating in winter or during the daytime when they are not outside foraging for food. Indiana bats and gray bats were once common in the cave, but are now listed as endangered species. All species of cave bat that inhabit Mammoth Cave are present in fewer numbers than they were historically, mainly due to an epidemic called white-nose syndrome.

At the Park, white-nose syndrome was first confirmed in a northern long-eared bat.

At the Park, white-nose syndrome was first confirmed in a northern long-eared bat. (Image credit: Steven Thomas, National Park Service)

On the surface, the Park proudly protects 37 square miles of backcountry and several miles of frontcountry trails. I observed deer, songbirds, vultures, hawks, and a black racer while hiking on over 17 miles of maintained backcountry trails.

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Nestled into the hills of south-central Kentucky, Mammoth Cave National Park is worth a visit. With front- and backcountry camping, a hotel, miles of trails suitable for boots, hooves, and bike wheels, and adventurous day-long or shorter, less strenuous cave tours, Mammoth Cave has a little something for everyone.


I’m knocking all 59 National Parks off my bucket list.  Here’s my latest road trip map, which started at my home in Columbia and ended where I work in Houston, hitting Mammoth Cave and Hot Springs National Parks along the way. #FindYourPark