South Dakota’s White River BADLANDS could be considered a pocket-sized relative of Arizona’s Grand Canyon, or even a grass-swathed cousin to Death Valley in California. More than 35 million years ago, there was an ancient saltwater sea here, which subsequently dried up; over the last few million years, erosion has slowly eaten away at the terrain revealing rippling gradations of earth tones and pastel colours and unearthing the remains of prehistoric mammals such as sabre-toothed cats and three-toed horses. The crumbly earth is carved into all manner of shapes: pinnacles, precipices, pyramids, knobs, cones, ridges, gorges – or, if you’re feeling poetic, lunar sandcastles and cathedrals. The Sioux cherished these incredible contortions of nature for harbouring bighorn sheep, mule, deer and other prairie fare, but early French trappers didn’t share the natives’ enthusiasm, dubbing them the Mauvaises Terres à Traverser (“Bad Lands to Travel Across”); they have also been described in more brutal terms as simply “hell with the fires out”.
Spectacular formations can be found within the northern section of Badlands National Park, where the state’s “White Hills” seem to dominate every vista. Elsewhere nearby, the enormous, impoverished Pine Ridge Indian Reservation encompasses the park’s supremely remote southern stretches, while clean-cut Wall, along heavily travelled I-90, is the region’s most visited commercial centre.