The wide-open spaces of the Great Plains seemingly roll away to infinity on either side of I-90 in SOUTH DAKOTA. The land may be more green and fertile east of the Missouri River, but vast numbers of visitors speed straight to the spectacular “West State”, home of the Badlands and the adjacent Black Hills – two of the most dramatic, mysterious and legend-impacted tracts of land in the USA. The latter is home of that most American of icons, Mount Rushmore, and equally monumental Crazy Horse Mountain, though it’s the wildlife, hiking trails, mountain lakes and memorably scenic highways that often make the greatest impression.

Badlands National Park

The spectacularly eroded layers of sand, silt, ash, mud and gravel on display in BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK were created more than 35 million years ago, when there was an ancient saltwater sea here. The sea subsequently dried up; over the last few million years, erosion has slowly eaten away at the terrain revealing mesmerizing gradations of earth tones and pastel colours. 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 rainbow hues that colour these formations are most striking at dawn, dusk and just after rainfall (heaviest in May and June).

Among the best of the park’s marked hiking trails is the Door Trail, a less than one mile excursion from the large car park about two miles north of the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, which enters the eerie wasteland through a natural “doorway” in the rock pinnacles. A longer hike along the gently undulating Castle Trail, which winds through buttes and grassy prairies for ten miles (return), begins from the same parking area. Remember to carry more than enough water (particularly if you venture into the backcountry), as none is available beyond developed areas.

The park is most accessible via I-90, which skirts the northern edge; a paved forty-mile road (Hwy-240, between exits 110 and 131) through the park is peppered with scenic overlooks.

The Black Hills

The timbered, rocky BLACK HILLS rise like an island from a sea of grain-growing plains, stretching for a hundred miles between the Belle Fourche River in the north and the Cheyenne to the south. For generations of Sioux, their value was and still is immeasurable, a kind of spiritual safe place where warriors went to speak with Wakan Tanka (the Great Spirit) and await visions. Even though they’re mountains in the classic sense – the highest of the lot, Harney Peak, rises 7242ft – they were dubbed Paha Sapa, or Black Hills, as the blue spruce and Norway pine trees blanketing them seem black from a distance.

Assuming the Black Hills to be worthless, the United States government drew up a treaty in the mid-nineteenth century that gave these mountains (along with most of South Dakota’s land west of the Missouri River) to the Native Americans. However, once the Custer Expedition of 1874 confirmed rumours of gold in the hills, it wasn’t long before fortune-hunters came pouring in. Today much of the region is protected within the Black Hills National Forest, and is easily the biggest attraction on the Great Plains (though it’s really more part of the American West). South Dakota’s second largest settlement, Rapid City, is the region’s commercial centre, but apart from visiting family-oriented attractions such as nearby Reptile Gardens (reptilegardens.com) and Bear Country USA (bearcountryusa.com), there’s little reason to base yourself here. Indeed, though there’s plenty of kitsch fun in the form of theme parks, crazy golf and the like throughout the Black Hills there’s also plenty of history, and no place is much farther than a ninety-minute drive from the show-stoppers of Mount Rushmore and its ambitious work-in-progress counterpart, the Crazy Horse Memorial. Yet it’s the outdoor activities, rich wildlife and extraordinary scenery that make the Black Hills special, from the bison herds of Custer State Park to the magical caverns of Wind Cave National Park.

Deadwood

Few places encapsulate the mystic of the American West like DEADWOOD, a Gold Rush town with a spectacular setting and a pantheon of iconic former residents such as Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. Yet the truth is that Deadwood was only briefly the wild town of legend (the Gold Rush was over by 1877), and by the 1880s it was a prosperous trade and supply centre. Only in the 1920s was it consciously developed into a parody of the “Wild West”, but by the 1980s Deadwood was virtually bankrupt; it was only the legalization of gaming and casinos in 1989 that saved it. Though its handsome buildings are now wonderfully preserved (most of the Wild West tack is long gone and the whole town is a National Historic Landmark), and elegant houses line the slopes, casinos now dominate business here, making it something of a year-round resort – adjust your expectations accordingly and Deadwood can still be lots of fun.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

One of America’s best-known monuments, the Mount Rushmore National Memorial is unarguably the linchpin of the Black Hills’ tourist circuit. It’s a beautiful fifty-mile drive south of Deadwood, though by far the most impressive approach is to follow Iron Mountain Road (US-16A) from Custer State Park. This gorgeous route runs seventeen miles up via three curly twists in the road called “pigtail bridges”, each an engineering and design triumph.

The memorial was created by sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who chose the faces and heads of four certifiably great American presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and his idol, Theodore Roosevelt.

Sixty years old when the project began in 1927, sculptor Borglum died shortly prior to the dedication of the last head – Roosevelt’s – in 1941. An incredible engineering feat, each head is about 60ft from chin to crown – by way of comparison, the Statue of Liberty’s head is just 17ft. The best times to view Rushmore are at dawn or dusk, when there are fewer people and better natural lighting.

The Great Sioux Nation

Some 62,000 Native Americans call South Dakota home (10 percent of the state), almost all of them Sioux; no surprise that the movie Dances With Wolves was filmed here in the late 1980s. Known to themselves as the Oceti Sakowin (“seven council fires”), the Great Sioux Nation can be loosely divided into three dialect groups (Santee-Dakota, Yankton-Nakota and Teton-Lakota), and further divided into bands such as the Oglala and Hunkpapa (both Lakota), though there are nine official tribes (each with a reservation) in the state today.

For decades after Wounded Knee, Sioux history and culture were outlawed; until the 1940s, it was illegal to teach or even speak their language. Today, more Sioux live on South Dakota’s six reservations than dwelled in the whole state during pioneer days, but their prospects are often grim. Native American traditions are still celebrated, however, at powwows, held in summer on or near the reservations (especially big in Rapid City); local tourism offices offer annual dates and locations. Check also sdtribalrelations.com.

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Andy Turner
10/2/2020
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