The Badlands are the most physically dramatic spot in South Dakota if not all the Plains states, so far from other major national parks and major transport centers – 635 km from Denver, 800 km from Minneapolis – that they escape most international itineraries – and most domestic itineraries, for that matter. In 2012 around 830,000 people visited the park, a number that pales in comparison to visitor tallies enjoyed by the Great Smoky Mountains (9.69 million) and the Grand Canyon (4.42 million).
Geologically, the Badlands’ distinctive buttes and pinnacles are the result of millions of years of deposition followed by a mere half million years of erosion. The erosion process began as the Cheyenne River came to capture streams and rivers from the nearby Black Hills. Geologists believe that the Badlands are at the midpoint of a one million-year lifespan.
At midday in the summer the Badlands feel almost bleached out, its pinnacles and spires consigned to dusty browns and greys; it is at dawn and at sunset that a richer range of colours is revealed. Browns become red and purple and orange, and greys take on a strange greenish mist in places and a bright yellow glow in others. We watch the final streaks of sunset at Circle View Ranch, a family-run working ranch and guesthouse in the town of Interior, on the edge of the national park. The following morning fellow visitors and ranch workers eat a delicious, hearty home-cooked together. On a big flat-screen television inside, Fox News berates Obama for something or other or more likely everything; outside easy conversation is a backdrop to the sunrise, a white-yellow strip between grey clouds on the horizon.
A long leisurely drive along the Badlands Loop Road permits views of the Badlands in all their variegated glory. There are twelve overlooks between the Interior entrance and the Sage Creek entrance, and all of these provide monumental views. The Badlands are vast and dramatic. The Black Hills, where we overnight the following evening, present an entirely different vision. This landscape is wooded and green and hilly, with much cooler temperatures. We stay at the State Game Lodge in Custer, a rambling property that did duty as the Summer White House for Calvin Coolidge in 1927.
Between Custer and Rapid City, on the far western edge of the state, are two big tourist attractions: Crazy Horse Memorial and Mount Rushmore. Both involve the massive-scale carving of rock, and both are worth a detour. Rapid City beyond is scattered and expansive, a true sunbelt city, though its little downtown, with its bundles of two- and three-story buildings dating to the 1880s and 1890s, is charming.
The final objective of our trip is an excursion on to Devils Tower in Wyoming, 175 kilometers to the west of Rapid City. Devils Tower was declared a US National Monument – the first ever – in 1906. The laccolith stone formation was made famous in 1977 as the site of the alien landing in the science fiction film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Its enormous cultural and spiritual significance to Plains Indians, however, predates both of these events by centuries. Six tribes (Arapaho, Crow, Lakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Shoshone) have historical connections to Devils Tower, and different tribes tell similar origin legends about it. Devils Tower remains an important spiritual site. At the base of the stone formation, prayer bundles are tied to the branches of trees.
The best way to take it all in is by walking the 1.3-mile (almost 2-km) trail around the base of the tower. We proceed along the trail in a southerly direction. About a quarter of the way around, the wind begins to blow ever so slightly and the pines around the tower make an extraordinary noise, something greater than a whisper yet gentler than a wail.
The back roads leading away from the national park back into South Dakota roll through massive valleys. Though it takes just 70 minutes to reach the prosperous town of Spearfish, by the time we idle up to its antique and curio shops it feels as if we have traveled a great distance.
Disclosure. South Dakota Tourism provided a National Park pass and a very good media rate at the State Game Lodge in Custer (Black Hills).