Hot. Humid. Stormy. Those are the summer conditions that impact outdoor activities — especially in the Badlands. The reflective rocky hillsides add to the bake of the day.
And storms? There are few places on earth where storms can be as nasty and unpredictable as in the Badlands.
But this isn’t about storms, it’s about hot weather hiking.
When it’s hot, you do not have to spend the day hiding in air-conditioned comfort. Just make a few alterations to your plans for exploration. Then, a hot weather hike can definitely be on your summertime list of things to do.
For us, we don’t give up, we just alter our plans to explore the interior of the Badlands and Grasslands. Summer hot weather hikes are an equal balance of challenge and reward.
Hike the Grassland
A hot day is a time to hike the Badlands hilltops or the Grasslands. Just beyond the edge of the massive beauty of the Badlands are the Little Missouri River National Grasslands. It is the largest national grasslands area in the nation. So, hot weather is a time to use them. Explore the transition area between the Badlands and the Grasslands.
There are several advantages for skirting along the top of the Badlands in the grasslands. One is, of course, the view from the top. Sky, horizon and deep cuts below are visually memorable.
Go early, go late.
When we camp in the Badlands, we usually sample the trails after breakfast with plans to lay low mid-day when the temps soar. Then, we go back out in the early evening.
One recent hot day, we finished our writing and photo work early in the afternoon. If we didn’t have those demands to tend to, the morning would have been good to dive into the wilderness.
On this particular day, we only had time for a hike in the late afternoon. The temperature in town had topped out at 85. Out in the rocky and reflective Badlands, it was even hotter. In the ’90s. That’s good weather for a heat stroke. So, we altered our time to go after the thermometer peaked. A reward to see the Badlands change color during the golden hour.
To do that, we had to put into play hot weather hiking techniques.
Plan where to go
To make our hot weather hike safe and enjoyable we used a National Forest Service map to target the transition ridges between the Grasslands and the Badlands.
A second option would have been to use follow the brown signs along the highway that indicate grassland roads and trails.
Hilltop Hike on Summit
For this late afternoon hike, we chose a public area that surrounds what used to be Summit Trail. It’s just south of Watford City along Highway 85, south of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park north unit.
The trail is closed – too many slides, slumps and erosion washed away much of the trail. It’s public ground, but it’s not groomed like many of the trailheads in the Badlands.
Some trail markers or posts still remain. So, if you know the general direction of the trail, or if you spot another marker post across the way, you can make your own trail across the top of the Badlands, through the Grasslands.
A couple of the markers we spotted took us out and around knobs, rises or hills that we could shortcut. Long stretches of the ridge had no markers at all. In some places, we could see where the original trail and its markers had washed down to the bottom of the valley. Most of the time, we followed a wild animal or cow path.
The path eased down a hillside past large areas of mid-summer flowers. We were drawn to stop at each patch of purple bergamot. We weren’t sure what the plant was until we got home and then looked it up. https://gf.nd.gov/sites/default/files/publications/prairie_wildflowers_grasses.pdf
Someday we’ll plant our own and try making tea from them. Have you tried tea from purple bergamot? Plains Indians made tea from these plants to treat intestinal ailments and skin eruptions. Its leaves are used to scent closets, drawers, pillows, and are used in the popular Earl Gray tea.
Look for shade
The day got hotter. Very hot. That’s why we zigzagged off the trail a few yards where we could find shade
We find the best shady cooldown areas were not just shady but also on the rim of a steep and wide valley. That allowed a northeast wind to reach and comfort us. So, we got both shade and a breeze.
After a cooling drink of water in the shade and breeze, we headed deeper into the Grasslands, staying on the ridge, the summit. I guess that’s why it used to be called Summit Trail.
Take it easy
This is the toughest rule for me. I tend to have a cadence and speed to my hikes, but that works against me in bad weather — snow, rain or heat.
So, I have to remind myself it’s important not to overextend myself. That’s why on this hot weather hike, we took more frequent cool down breaks until we reached our favorite spot on the hike – a narrow pass between two hills.
The narrow pass or ridge is probably no more than 10 feet across, and the steep drop on either side is 80 to 120 feet down. It’s a miniature “Devils Pass” (Which is in the neighborhood, but a long hike away. We’ll return to Devil’s Pass another day.)
The deep valleys of the Badlands are hotter than anywhere else. Reflective surfaces of the sandstone and mudstone are like a radiant oven, first absorbing the heat and then reflecting it back. That means a double heat effect. Also making the steep valleys hotter is the lack of air movement. Wind does not easily reach the bottom of valleys. That makes the hilltops a much better option.
Here on the barren pass, the rock surface the heat made an obvious 5 or 10-degree jump. The breeze made it tolerable. We headed back to the trees where the shade could cool us down.
In all, we stopped at each of the three shaded rest stops, but the best was the one facing the steep drop off below us because that’s where the wind scampered across the prairie to reach us.
Leave a cooler with ice where you park as a reward
Once we returned to the jeep, we moved it to hide a bit of it under the tiny sliver of shade offered by the erected shelters at Summit Campground. Next time, we’ll bring a tarp to dangle from the shelter roof to provide a bit more shade.
It took nearly a half hour of “cool down” time to bring our body to normal temps. So, here’s another tip. Bring a cooler full of ice and cold drinks.
Prepare for summertime gratification. It’s worth it.
What did we learn?
Here are 7 tips:
- Plan your hot weather hike to stay on top
- Take both sunscreen and insect repellent.
- Water. If you’re exploring the Badlands or Grasslands for more than 10 minutes you need more water than you think you need.
- Light clothing – both light in color and weight. The sun is relentless, but you can reflect the rays with light-colored clothing. (One advantage is if a wood tick tries to feed off of you, you’ll see it easily on the light color). Lightweight clothing not only protects you from the sun but allows your skin to breathe and stay cool.
- Frequent shady rest stops. In the grasslands, the region on top and above the Badlands you’ll find occasional shade.
- Don’t push it. There’s no reason to race. Think of it more like a stroll than a hike. Enjoy the flowers, the trees, the grass and especially the views.
- Have a recovery period after the hike.
Check These Options
√ If hot weather hiking is not your thing, keep this post bookmarked for fall when it’s cooler. Or you can read about Summit Trail when it’s cool.
√ In the meantime, stay posted for a story about a much cooler evening stroll along the river bottom. That’s coming up this week.
√ And if you’re an exercise junkie who likes extreme conditions, we’ve got an exploration just for you. It’ll give you a whole new view of the Badlands. That’s coming up in one week.
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