Badlands and Black Hills

They’ve been called “the vest pocket Rockies” and “the West’s most intimate mountain range.”

Mt. Rushmore National Memorial
Mt. Rushmore National Memorial immortalizes four U.S. presidents.

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. 4. Buffalo Gap National Grassland
Where the gravel ends at the town of Scenic, the drive turns onto Rte. 44 and heads northwestward across a sprawling sea of mixed prairie grasses. Early in the 20th century, settlers flocked to this part of the plains to become ranchers, only to see their hopes dashed either by drought or by the Great Depression, when homestead after homestead was abandoned.

Today, Buffalo Gap — one of three national grasslands in South Dakota — embraces more than a half-million acres of grassland restored to its original lushness. Though it may be tempting to rush through this wide, wind-blown expanse, slow down to savor one of North America’s most striking landscapes.

5. Rapid City
Today it’s the state’s second-largest population center, but Rapid City nearly disappeared before it had even begun. The city planners who founded the town in 1876 as a supply depot for the Hills’ prosperous goldfields were dismayed to discover that the lure of mineral riches a few miles farther on was so great that no one wanted to stop here. Luckily, residents soon persuaded the railroad to build a line through town, and nearly overnight Rapid City’s future was assured.

For a bird’s-eye view of the town and a glimpse of the Black Hills beyond, take a quick jaunt up Skyline Drive, cresting the hill that bisects the town.

Buildings in the old commercial district have been restored, and many street corners feature life-sized bronze statues of U.S. presidents. West Boulevard Historic District includes stately Queen Anne-and Colonial-style homes. North of Historic Downtown, on New York Street between Fifth Street and E. North Street, visit the Journey Museum — filled with exhibits that tell the story of the western Great Plains.

6. Black Hills National Forest
On Rte. 79, jog south to the town of Hermosa and then west on Rte. 40. The drive rises gently through foothills, then begins a sharper climb into the pines that make up Black Hills National Forest. Though not the most imposing mountains in America, the Black Hills are ancient, thrust upward from the plains some 60 million years ago, just as the dinosaurs exited the stage.

7. Mt. Rushmore National Memorial
Like a magnificent mirage, the four presidential faces that gaze out from Mt. Rushmore — Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lincoln — first peek through the trees just south of Keystone. It isn’t until you reach the site itself and stand on the viewing terrace 1,400 feet away that the full dimensions of this man-made marvel hit home. Each face, carved with consummate craftsmanship, measures a full 60 feet from brow to chin. The eyes alone are masterpieces: granite columns inside each pupil catch the light in such a way that they seem to twinkle.

Credit for this triumph of artistry and engineering belongs to Gutzon Borglum, an Idaho-born sculptor. Two South Dakotans, Doane Robinson and Peter Norbeck, shared his vision and gained permission from the federal government, authorization from the state legislature, and the donations of citizens to match federal funds for the million-dollar project. Beginning in 1927, Borglum and his crew of unemployed miners — who became accomplished during the succeeding years — blasted, drilled, and hammered away, removing 800 million tons of rock from the granite mountainside.

Tragically, Borglum himself did not live to see his vision fully realized. His plan was to carve each of the four presidents to the waist, but in March 1941, after 14 years of labor, the sculptor died suddenly. Borglum’s son took over and declared the project completed later that year. Even so, Mt. Rushmore remains one of America’s most durable icons. Borglum chose his medium well; the granite of the sculpture erodes, on average, less than an inch every 10,000 years, and his creation will stand for ages to come. 8. Custer State Park
From Rushmore, the drive pushes south toward Custer State Park on Iron Mountain Road, part of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway. Challenged to make this section of road one of the most visually pleasing in the state, engineers pulled out all the stops: the highway vaults from ridge to ridge on spiraling bridges, and the openings to three strategically placed tunnels frame views of Mt. Rushmore. As you ascend to Norbeck Overlook, the highest point along the route, look to the west at 7,242-foot Harney Peak — the greatest of the Black Hills’ many domes and, in fact, the loftiest mountain between the Rockies and the Swiss Alps.

From the overlook, the road descends to Lakota Lake and Iron Creek (lined with 300-year-old pines and a lush understory of ferns and berry bushes) and then continues on to Custer State Park’s 71,000 acres in the heart of the Black Hills’ gold rush country. When Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his men discovered gold nearby in 1874, a party of would-be prospectors pitched camp here, violating a treaty that had kept the Hills in Indian hands. They were escorted out of the Hills by federal officers less than a year later. A replica of their encampment (named the Gordon Stockade, for the party’s leader) offers an intriguing glimpse into the lives of the first white settlers in the area.

The park is best known for its wildlife, including bison — at 1,500 head, one of the largest public herds in the nation. To view these imposing creatures (watch them from the safety of your car), drive the 18-mile-long Wildlife Loop Road through the grasslands where they graze.

9. Needles Highway
No less intriguing than Iron Mountain Road is Needles Highway (Rte. 87), named for the fingerlike spires that line the road. Twisting and turning, the route threads a course through formations of billion-year-old granite, said to resemble everything from praying hands to pipe organs. To the north, Harney Peak punches the skyline with its robust dome. From idyllic Sylvan Lake, where Rtes. 87 and 89 meet, a challenging three-mile trail leads to the summit and sweeping views of the Black Elk Wilderness Area.

10. Wind Cave National Park
After looping south on Rte. 89 and east on Rte. 16A, the drive breezes down Rte. 87 to Wind Cave National Park. Here a rich assortment of wildlife large and small — prairie dogs, coyotes, elk, bison, pronghorns, mule deer — share more than 28,000 acres of mixed-grass prairie and pine forest.

The main attraction, however, is underground. Wind Cave may have been known to local Indians for centuries, but it wasn’t until 1881 that white settlers learned of its existence. Lured by a strange whistling sound, brothers Jesse and Tom Bingham stumbled upon a small hole, the cave’s only natural entrance.

Word of the men’s discovery spread quickly. In time it became evident that the Bingham brothers had stumbled upon not just one cave but an entire network ringing the hard granite core of the Black Hills — a vast subterranean labyrinth that, scientists believe, remains 95 percent unexplored. A variety of guided tours — one is lighted by the flickering glow of handheld candle lanterns — offer enticing glimpses of the delicate calcite formations (given fanciful names as flowstone, frostwork, boxwork, and popcorn) that adorn the cave’s multitude of narrow halls and enormous chambers.

11. Jewel Cave National Monument
After swinging north almost to the town of Custer, the drive spurs west on Rte. 16 across a high mountain valley to the next stop, Jewel Cave. As intriguing as its geological cousin to the south, Jewel Cave is so named for its resplendent calcite crystals. Once you return to the light of day, the hillsides and wildflower meadows of the park’s Hell Canyon offer a warm contrast to the cave’s chilly depths — just right for a picnic.

12. Crazy Horse Memorial
A massive sculpture-in-progress, the Crazy Horse Memorial honors the Lakota warrior who helped defeat Custer and the U.S. 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The idea for this Herculean undertaking originated in 1939, when Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear wrote a letter to sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski (then assisting Borglum at Mt. Rushmore) and asked him to design a similar monument to Indian culture. “My fellow chiefs and I,” he explained, “would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, too.” Ziolkowski set to work and continued until his death in 1982. Today his work honoring the great chief is overseen by his wife and seven of his children, using the detailed guidelines he left behind.

The Crazy Horse Memorial is slated to be a three-dimensional sculpture-in-the-round that depicts the warrior charging out of the mountainside atop his galloping horse. When completed it will stand 56 stories tall and more than two football fields in length. So far, the warrior’s face and outstretched arm have emerged, with the upper half of the 22-story horse’s head roughly blocked out. A scale model at the visitor’s complex shows how the monument will appear when it is finished. In June, an annual volksmarch is held to ascend to the top of the outstretched arm.

13. Hill City
So authentically Western is this old gold-rush town that the cars parked along its Historic Main Street seem truly out of place. More in keeping with the town’s character is the Black Hills Central Railroad, offering two-hour excursions to Keystone and back aboard a vintage 1880s steam train. Just a few miles north on Rte. 385, Sheridan Lake Recreation Area makes an ideal camping spot, with good swimming from its sandy shores. There’s superb hiking to be found on the Flume Trail, following an old flume bed strewn with artifacts from mining days. Hill City is a trailhead for the 109-mile George S. Mickleson biking and hiking trail with four hardrock tunnels and over 100 converted railroad bridges.

14. Pactola Reservoir Recreation Area
Embraced by a heavy growth of oaks, birches, and ponderosa pines, Pactola Reservoir is a local favorite for water sports, camping, and hiking. The reservoir is a haven for fishing; it is stocked with 200,000 rainbow-trout fingerlings each year. A state-of-the-art visitor center located on Rte. 385 is open daily from Memorial Day until Labor Day.

15. Deadwood
The history of white settlement in the Black Hills offers no shortage of colorful characters, and many can be found right here — six feet under. Laid to rest in the Boot Hill section of Mt. Moriah Cemetery are the mortal remains of any number of hard-living real-life legends, including Calamity Jane and James Butler Hickok, better known as Wild Bill Hickok.

Visitors to the Deadwood of today will find that the spirit of the town has changed little since gold-rush days. When gambling was legalized in South Dakota in 1989, investors were quick to capitalize on Deadwood’s notoriety, and more than 80 gaming establishments now call Deadwood home. The town is no Las Vegas, though; Deadwood is listed as a National Historic Landmark, and the casinos are housed in lavishly restored period buildings that double as museums. (At the Old Style Saloon No. 10, for example, look for the chair that Bill Hickok was sitting in when he got shot.)

The gold that enriched Deadwood actually came from a nearby town called Lead. You might not know it to look at them, but below these tilted hills lie the 8,000-foot-deep shafts of the Homestake Gold Mine, which at one time was believed to be the longest continuously operating gold dig in the world. The Black Hills Mining Museum, the Homestake visitor center, and the Adams Museum and House combine to offer visitors a complete course in the history of gold mining.

16. Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway
Soaring limestone palisades enclose this cozy canyon byway on Rte. 14A as it runs for some 20 miles along serpentine Spearfish Creek (named for the angling technique used long ago by the Lakota and Cheyenne Indians). Scenic in all seasons, the canyon is especially so in autumn, when the display of color in its forest rivals any in New England. Two crystal-clear cascades, Roughlock and Bridal Veil falls, punctuate the serene gorge, used as the setting for the final scenes of the film Dances With Wolves. At the end of the road is the town of Spearfish, founded in the 1876 gold rush. Tinged as Spearfish is by both history and scenic beauty, it seems an apt spot to bid farewell to the Black Hills. Length: About 360 miles.

When to go: Popular year-round.

Words to the wise: Some sections of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway are closed in winter.

Nearby attractions: Bear Butte State Park, northeast of Sturgis. Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming. Wounded Knee, south of Badlands National Park.

Visitor centers: Badlands National Park. Mt. Rushmore National Memorial. Wind Cave National Park. Jewel Cave National Monument.

Further information: South Dakota Office of Tourism, 711 E. Wells Ave., Pierre, SD 57501; tel. 800-732-5682,

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest