Badlands create a landscape that resembles a miniature mountain range carved in weak shales and clays by running water and wind in arid and semi-arid climates. The agents of erosion, instead of carving gentle hills and broad valleys as they will in wetter climes, sculpt the sedimentary layers into colorful intricate mazes of buttes and ridges separated by narrow rills and ravines.
Many people are familiar with the badlands of Badlands National Park in South Dakota and the ones preserved in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, but lesser-known badlands occur in other parts of the western Plains. In October 2009, as part of preparation for a new multimedia course on the Geography of the Great Plains, I travelled to a few places that I had somehow managed to miss during previous research expeditions. One of these was the Paint Mines Badlands on the western edge of the Plains near Calhan, Colorado.
Once on private land, but preserved since 2006 as the 750-acre Paint Mines Interpretive Park by the El Paso County Parks and Leisure Services system, these badlands could be the most colorful ones on the Plains region. With the right sun, the landscape appears much like a half-eaten melting multi-syrup ice cream sundae from the local Dairy Queen. The Paint Mines name comes from the use of the colorful clays by Plains Native Americans in their pottery and ceremonial paint and Euro-American settlers in the early 1900’s “mined” the clay for brick-making.
The scene at the trail entrance is deceiving. One hikes through an expanse of short-grass prairie broken occasionally by hints of the dissected landscape hidden up ahead. Soon, however, one rounds the bend and is greeted with a stunning badlands panorama below. The trail then descends into the heart of the Paint Mines for a more intimate encounter with the rugged splendor.
As a geographer out in the field, I look to document aspects of the geographic environment for the books I write and for my classroom lectures. Of course, I photograph the common markers, but my eye is always searching for the slightly out of the way scenes that also illustrate the place’s “personality”. One of my favorite regions of the Great Plains to explore is northwestern Nebraska where the Sandhills, Pine Ridge, High Plains prairie, and a “subsidiary” of the White River Badlands juxtapose. Not only is it a physiographically interesting region, it is an area rich in history with the imprint of the railroads, the homesteaders, the cowboys and the Cheyenne. Everytime that I visit I seem to find something that intrigues me. The Western Sandhills and Nebraska Panhandle photos were taken from 2008-2012.
Tony Dzik, Ph.D., is Professor of Geography at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio. His research specialties are Medical Geography and the Regional Geography of the Midwest and Great Plains. He is co-author of the book Badlands of the American West: A Primer and has published several articles on Great Plains topics in North Dakota Quarterly and The South Dakota Journal of Medicine