It's like discovering flowers growing on the moon. Yet here they are, scattered over cracked gray clay hills like random jewels. The Gumbo Lily, not a true lily but a member of the evening primrose family, has four large heart-shaped petals in a dense white blossom, heartbreakingly lovely snuggled against this impossible, murderous soil, the stuff of cat litter. The western Dakotas are the easternmost limit of this flower's range, and what a lovely symbol for the many surprises a spring trip to Badlands National Park offers visitors.

My friends and I arrived at the Circle View Guest Ranch, a year-round bed-and-breakfast operation near the heart of Badlands National Park, in the flowering of mid-May. Six miles south of the main park entrance at the tiny town of Interior, we were greeted by owners Phil and Amy Kruse, their two young children and the family burro, Duster.

The approach to the ranch is anything but prepossessing, the low-slung modern ranch house disappearing over the far rim. But inside all is warm friendliness, pleasant rooms, great views, delicious breakfasts cooked by Amy while managing to nurse her youngest, and engaging conversations with Phil, son of two generations of hardy ranchers. Those talks sometimes turn to the government's maddening protection of the endangered black-footed ferret and the prairie dogs it preys upon, which has made ranching "impossible" around here. Which is why he and his brother and friends hand-built the Circle View on the family's 3,000 acres.

The arrangement allows them to remain living on the land they love by soaking up the dollars of very happy guests like my group of four and others from as close as Iowa and as distant as Boston and Arizona. After three breakfasts together, and post-dinner bouts of foosball and pingpong in the game room, we were all firm friends.

Outside, the eroded moonscape of our arrival gives way past lily-dotted clay humps to the surprise of the White River Valley below, named for its white clay sediment, coming alive with greening pastures and budding cottonwoods and willow, evening serenades of coyotes and a dawn chorus of lark sparrows, a rooster, bellowing cows and wild turkeys gobbling for mates, a working bottomlands farm.

Our guide is David Astin, my Minneapolis birding guru, a retired wildlife science teacher and skilled nature photographer who recently spent nearly two months living in and photographing the park. He knows every nook of the park's spectacular wedding cake geology and where to find abundance in a place architect Frank Lloyd Wright called, in 1935, "a revelation." For the next two days we drove and hiked the park's varied landscapes, discovering the proof of Wright's assertion over and over, beginning with geology and ending with astronomy.

Up to now I had never wondered about the odd name of Wall, S.D., the town famous for its drugstore a short drive north of the park. Now I know. It is located on the treeless plain just above the dramatically eroded "wall" of the ancient White River watershed, a steep descent of gullies, pyramids, organ pipes and other unusual formations that are the famous Badlands scenery, still eroding an inch a year.

In fact, the generic geological term "badlands" originated from the name given this region by early French trappers. The White River Badlands, approximately 100 miles long and 3 to 5 miles wide, form the core of Badlands National Park sandwiched between Buffalo Gap National Grasslands and the Pine Ridge Ogalala Lakota Nation, which has a joint management agreement for the southern section of the park.

Unique landscapes, diverse animals

A specific geological oddity found here are "sod tables," mesas with tops as small as a dining room table or as large as a big cornfield, covered with blowing prairie grasses because the sod resists the erosion below. In the old days, farmers would haul a disassembled mower up Hay Butte and reassemble it to cut hay -- until the hay blew away in a rough Badlands wind.

Since the end of the "sod busting" era, the Badlands and surrounding mixed grass prairies have become a haven for reintroduced wildlife species. Bison and bighorn sheep flourish, impossible to miss; the black-footed ferret impossible to see but subject of the most talk among the locals. Reintroduced to the park from a remnant population captive-bred in Wyoming, the ferret's survival requires prairie dogs as its primary food source, therefore prairie dogs are also locally protected. That's bad news for ranchers, as prairie dog towns make nasty hoof traps for grazing cattle, but good news for tourists with binoculars.

We viewed with delight several large prairie dog towns where furry families emerged from burrows with blinking babies into the spring morning. And, thanks to Dave's sharp eyes, we saw the tops of the heads of burrowing owls staring back at us with oval yellow eyes from their pirated burrows. We visited all of these on our first morning trip through the park, accompanied by a flock of lark buntings cavorting along the road.

Then back to the Circle View for lunch from our cooler in the arbor.

That afternoon we set out past another prairie dog town thriving inside the human ghost town of Conata to the spectacular Sage Creek Wilderness Area, overlooking views of distant eroded bluffs like medieval cities. We continued into the 66,000-acre buffalo grasslands, where groups of 100 bison grazed against bluffs striped pink and yellow and gray. On the way home on Sage Creek Rim Road, a giant bull sauntered by, his winter fur shedding in ragged clumps.

Hawks, stars fill the skies

After a robust breakfast the next morning, we departed for a quiet day of meditation on Sheep Mountain Table, rising into the South Unit of the park 36 miles west.

We took our time along the way, pausing to marvel at a red-tailed hawk clasping a 3-foot snake in its talons, and a magnificent ferruginous hawk, the largest in North America, its dark feathered legs forming a V against its white breast.

At roadside sloughs green with spring runoff (dry in summer), we found pairs of long-billed curlews and the striking black and white American avocet busily sweeping its needle-like upturned beak over the mud shallows.

The road up Sheep Mountain Table is not for the faint of car springs, and the deeply rutted track requires all-wheel drive. Along the slow way, we drank in the waving prairie grassland and singing meadowlarks. We parked in a scrub oak thicket and set off individually for an hour of private mediation along the rim with hawks soaring below. In the Lakota tradition, we tied colorful strips of cloth onto branches and let the clear winds carry our thoughts with the passing mountain bluebirds.

On our way back to an early dinner at the Red Rock Cafe in Wall (and an obligatory peek into the carnival known as Wall Drug), we toured the back roads of the Sage Creek Wilderness Area, sighting flocks of white pelicans and pied-billed grebes in the spring ponds and sloughs, 20 antelope passing at full run, and a magnificent golden eagle hunting overhead.

Returning to the rim road with towering clouds building over the Black Hills to the west, we were dazzled by late sun streaming golden light over bison grazing so near to us that we could see symbiotic cowbirds hunting for insects among their fur. Then a lone antelope dove under a nearby fence at full speed: "What they do out here," said Dave, which is why their backs look like they've had a haircut.

On the Badlands Loop Road back toward "home" at the Circle View, Dave had one more treat for us. He pulled into the final overlook parking lot before the road plunged down the "wall." With the sky now in full darkness, he invited us out of the van, then said, "Now look up."

I have seen stars before, and the Milky Way flowing overhead, but nothing -- ever -- like this. In what is said to be the continent's clearest air, the stars were indeed a "revelation," a blanket of white hot starlight containing roving bands of satellites and shooting stars, one of which broke in two before us in full Fourth of July fireworks celebration.

In a way, mid-May in the Badlands felt like a national holiday, a time when we could celebrate a place still distant from the pollution and lightscape of encroaching civilization. A place not at all the Badlands of early explorers, but, instead, as many Lakota call it, Mako Washte, the Goodlands.

James P. Lenfestey is a former editorial writer at the Star Tribune.