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Rain clouds over the Sage Creek Wilderness Area.
Rain clouds over the Sage Creek Wilderness Area.
Mid-morning sunshine breaking through over Badlands National Park.
Mid-morning sunshine breaking through over Badlands National Park.
Raindrops on Beeblossom buds.
Raindrops on Beeblossom buds.
A burrowing owl looking like I feel early in the morning.
A burrowing owl looking like I feel early in the morning.
Blue sky badlands.
Blue sky badlands.
Western kingbird with a beetle it caught for lunch.
Western kingbird with a beetle it caught for lunch.
White milkwort at Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.
White milkwort at Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.
I love the color on the outside wing of these little butterflies.
I love the color on the outside wing of these little butterflies.
A common blue butterfly at Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.
A common blue butterfly at Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.
A bee on a what I think is a flowering Missouri milkvetch.
A bee on a what I think is a flowering Missouri milkvetch.
Northern lights in the Badlands.
Northern lights in the Badlands.
The Milky Way rising in the Badlands.
The Milky Way rising in the Badlands.
A scene of serenity at Custer State Park, near the new visitor center.
A scene of serenity at Custer State Park, near the new visitor center.
An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail dining on the last of the year’s lilacs.
An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail dining on the last of the year’s lilacs.
One of my favorite birds found in the Black Hills is the Western Tanager.
One of my favorite birds found in the Black Hills is the Western Tanager.
A bison calf hanging out alongside Custer State Park’s Wildlife Loop.
A bison calf hanging out alongside Custer State Park’s Wildlife Loop.
Missouri pincushion cactus just beginning to bloom.
Missouri pincushion cactus just beginning to bloom.
Downy paintbrush in Wind Cave National Park.
Downy paintbrush in Wind Cave National Park.
Raindrops on a flowering Spiderwort.
Raindrops on a flowering Spiderwort.
Spring thundershower over northern Wind Cave National Park.
Spring thundershower over northern Wind Cave National Park.
A wet coyote after the rainshower.
A wet coyote after the rainshower.
Another storm brewing over a few bull bison at Custer State Park.
Another storm brewing over a few bull bison at Custer State Park.
Western Meadowlark surveying his territory after the sun re-emerged.
Western Meadowlark surveying his territory after the sun re-emerged.
Sunset over an old corral north of Oacoma.
Sunset over an old corral north of Oacoma.

West River Paradise

May 31, 2017

I spent the 2017 Memorial Day weekend immersed some of our state’s most iconic scenery. Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, Badlands National Park, Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park are inspiring any time of the year, however there is something even more special about these places in spring. The grass is greener, the sky is bluer and the clouds seem to move faster. The heartbeat of renewed life on the high plains is simply more intense. 

That said, I wasn’t so sure about my decision on Friday when I arrived in the Badlands. It was cloudy and overcast. The only interesting scene I found was a lone bull bison grazing along the Sage Creek Wilderness Area rim road. Saturday morning was chilly, cloudy and didn’t seem a whole lot better for photo opportunities, so I slept in. By the time I got back out into the Badlands, rays of sunshine starting poking through the clouds as they raced east. I saw six burrowing owls in the Badlands and grasslands that day. The closest was a bit sulky. He was stooped over and voicing his mating call. It had rained overnight, which left the early wildflowers bejeweled with small raindrops. Things were looking up. The sky soon turned deep blue with happy white clouds sailing across from the northwest.

That evening, just as the crescent moon was setting, the Northern lights began to flare. It was clearing to the southeast and the Milky Way rising above the pinnacles of the Badlands provided amazing views one way, while the pale arc of Aurora in the north added an eerie, but beautiful view to the north. I was on the leeward side of the pinnacles for most of the time, and I can’t remember the last time I’ve ever heard such silence. It was almost a revelation to hear nothing whatsoever under the starry sky.

I slept in again the next morning. Chasing the stars will make a guy sleepy. I arrived at Custer State Park about mid-morning and wandered around the new visitor center. The sound of the creek running and birds singing made the sunny morning one of those times where you just want to sit down and watch the butterflies go by. Later, I looked for pincushion cactus blooming along the Red Valley Road in Wind Cave National Park. I’ve checked for the last six years and always seem to miss the bloom by a week or so. This time, I found three or four just starting to bud. My grandmother loved these plants, and would sometimes take my brothers and me on expeditions along the Moreau River breaks looking for them. When we found some, she would delicately transplant them into her garden.

As I was down amongst the flowers a spring thundershower arrived with thunderclaps that echoed along the valley. The smell of rain on the breeze signaled that it was time to get in the truck and find a nice spot to sit out the shower. I can’t decide if I prefer the smell of rain before or after in West River country. If anybody can figure out how to bottle that smell, I’d be the first in line to buy.

That evening, I began the trip home chasing more rain showers. I took a side trip north of Oacoma at sunset to capture the last sunset of my quick trip to paradise … I mean West River.

Christian Begeman grew up in Isabel and now lives in Sioux Falls. When he's not working at Midcontinent Communications he is often on the road photographing South Dakota’s prettiest spots. Follow Begeman on his blog.

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