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.

A Weekend in Rio

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A marvelous view awaits those who travel to the top of Sugarloaf mountain on the sky trams.

In Rio de Janeiro, mountains come straight out of the ocean. My flight flew in over the ocean with mountains and city views on both sides and before I even landed, I was sold on the incredible natural scenery, which instantly became, and stayed, my favorite part of the city. The mountains in Rio are part of the Serra Do Mar mountain range, which stretches along the southern and southeastern coasts of Brazil. The range initially rose when the South American and African continents split, and continued to rise and shift during two major magmatic, or volcanic, events. Today, the drastically-shaped formations rising from the ocean in Rio are a result of constant erosion from wind and ocean waves.

These incredible formations form the basis for many tourist activities in Rio. I happily jumped at the opportunity to ride a train to the top of Corcovado, where the world-famous Christ the Redeemer statue resides. As one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World,” the statue is a can’t-miss in Rio. It was cloaked in fog when we arrived, but the large restaurant and gift shops at the top of the mountain kept us occupied until the sun exposed the statue’s true height and the sprawling city below. After riding the train back down the mountain, we traveled to the base of another famous, rocky formation: Sugarloaf. A series of sky trams will take passengers to the top of Sugarloaf, but we decided to hike to the first station along a rugged and steep, yet well-maintained trail that winds through classic Atlantic forest vegetation, complete with furry, squirrel-like marmosets. Visitors can purchase snacks and souvenirs at both sky tram stations. Atop Sugarloaf, we watched the sun set beyond Christ the Redeemer and the Serra Do Mar mountains.

Alongside the mountains of Rio are the classic beaches. On a tip from a friend, I stayed in Ipanema and it was there I rented a bike to explore the sandy shore. I biked north the length of Ipanema Beach and continued on to the end of Copacabana. Even in winter, beach-goers are plenty. Between the surfing, swimming, innumerable food and drink stands, and crafters selling products, anyone can kill a day at the beach in Rio. After my bike ride, I took a dip in the Atlantic, the same ocean I grew up visiting some 4000+ miles (~7000+km) south of my childhood vacation spots. The water was warm, but turbulent, a characteristic attributable to Rio’s foundation; parts of the city were built directly on top of marshy, wet areas, placing it exceptionally close to open ocean. This proximity means the waves are great for surfing, but can be quite strong for swimming. A walk along the Ipanema shoreline at dusk concluded my beach day.

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The Candelária Church is the site of several historic events, including the movement to give citizens the right to elect a president through popular vote and the site of the 1993 massacre of eight children by police, which shone a light on police brutality globally.

As the outdoorsy type, it is hard for a metropolis to beat out a natural area when it comes to vacation spots for me. But, I had to do my trip to Rio justice by exploring the city center. Rio was founded in the 1500s and its first city square sits near a port along the coast. In this area, it is easy to catch an Uber, street train (originally built for the 2016 Olympic Games), taxi, or metro to major landmarks in and around the Santa Teresa and Lapa neighborhoods, including the Selaron Steps, Candelária Church, and the newer Museum of Tomorrow. Running through the center of Lapa are its famed arches, which once served as an aqueduct. Today, visitors can ride a trolley on top of the arches for an excellent view of Lapa; the trolley stops in Santa Teresa where several restaurants serve up the city’s most popular dish: feijoada. A stew made with black beans and pork, feijoada is a deliciously rich and filling dish best known in Rio. This area of the city is also well-known for its colorful night life, with live music around every corner.

With its rich culture in dance and art, charming architecture, and sprawling beaches with mountain views, Rio de Janeiro has a little something for everyone. There’s a reason it lives on every travel junkie’s to-visit list; it’s utterly beautiful and simply impossible to get bored in the Marvelous City.

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