They’ve been called “the vest pocket Rockies” and “the West’s most intimate mountain range.” But it was the Lakota who deemed them sacred and named them Paha Sapa, or “Hills of Black,” because of the dense, dusky pine forests that cloak their stony crags and canyons. Indeed, despite their modest size, the Black Hills have always loomed large in the American mind. Rising from the austere beauty of the Badlands and the South Dakota plains, this land embraces a remarkably diverse wonderland of domes, needle-like spires, rolling prairie, endless caverns, old-fashioned mining towns, and monumental works of art.
1. Prairie Homestead
The settlers who laid claim to the Dakota Territory were a resourceful bunch. With few trees to supply lumber, they built houses from the only material at hand — the earth itself. Most of these structures have long since washed away. A rare exception is the sod-and-log home of Edgar and Alice Brown, who homesteaded 160 acres near the Badlands in 1909. Built of logs and bricks of buffalo-grass sod, the house is partly dug into an embankment to shield it from the prairie winds. Crude pioneer furnishings, many of which belonged to the Browns, decorate the dim interior, lending it a homeyness. To reach the site, exit I-90 at Cactus Flat and head south two miles on Rte. 240, which also leads to the northeast entrance to Badlands National Park.
2. Badlands National Park
French fur traders who explored the West in the early 1800s called them mauvaises terres — that is, “bad lands” — and the name stuck. The Badlands are truly awe-inspiring — a moonscape of ridges, spires, and precipitous canyons stretching as far as the eye can see.
The terrain was formed over millions of years as wind and rain sliced into volcanic ash and the soft sediments left behind by an ancient marshland. During the Oligocene epoch (between 37 and 23 million years ago), early mammals roamed these plains in vast numbers, and today their fossilized remains peep from the walls and sandy ridges.
All of Badlands National Park’s 244,000 acres are open to hiking, but the topography is treacherous and, lacking easy reference points, can be disorienting. Novice hikers and anyone without a topographic map should stick to marked trails. Many are clustered in and around the Ben Reifel visitor center, a wise first stop to orient yourself to the terrain and discover its geology, history, and wildlife. Door Trail, a quarter-mile, open-access round-trip, shows off the Badlands. Beginning at the northern end of the Doors and Windows parking area, the trail passes through a hole in the rim wall and ascends to a startling panorama of canyons and buttes. The quarter-mile, wheelchair-accessible Fossil Exhibit Trail, five miles west of the visitor center on Rte. 240, the Scenic Loop Road, showcases fossils under transparent domes.
Despite scorching summer temperatures and icy winter winds, nearly 50 different grasses, 200 types of wildflowers, and many wildlife species thrive here.
3. Sage Creek Rim Road
A number of overlooks — 13 in all — along Rte. 240 provide rich opportunities to view the Badlands wildlife and landscape. About 22 miles beyond the visitor center, the highway veers sharply north, but the drive, trading blacktop for gravel, continues west on Sage Creek Rim Road. Immediately you enter the Sage Creek Wilderness Area, a 64,250-acre subsection of Badlands National Park. Hikers who venture off the highway into the grassy lowlands will find no trails to guide them. Some five miles west of the turn onto Sage Creek Rim Road, look for Roberts Prairie Dog Town, an underground community for the endearing rodents housing hundreds of the Badlands’ most sociable and industrious inhabitants.