I had the best day yesterday at the Badlands. The weather was cooler, there was a nice breeze, and clouds gave a break to the solstice sun. I saw bighorn sheep, bison, prairie dogs, and a ton of swallows. My favorite sensory moment was hearing the sound of the wind through the grass.
The Lakota gave this land its name, “Mako Sica,” meaning “land bad.” Located in southwestern South Dakota, Badlands National Park consists of 244,000 acres of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires blended with the largest protected mixed grass prairie in the United States. It is desolation at its truest, where you can look for miles and see no sign of civilization.
This land has been so ruthlessly ravaged by wind and water that it has become picturesque. The Badlands are a wonderland of bizarre, colorful spires and pinnacles, massive buttes and deep gorges. Erosion of the Badlands reveals sedimentary layers of different colors: purple and yellow (shale), tan and gray (sand and gravel), red and orange (iron oxides) and white (volcanic ash).
Badlands National Park also preserves the world’s greatest fossil beds of animals from the Oligocene Epoch of the Age of Mammals. The skeletons of ancient camels, three-toed horses, saber-toothed cats and giant rhinoceros-like creatures are among the many fossilized species found here. All fossils, rocks, plants and animals are protected and must remain where you find them. Prehistoric bones are still being uncovered today by park officials.
Beneath the Black Hills of South Dakota is the intriguing underground world of Jewel Cave. With over 202 miles of explored passageways, Jewel Cave ranks as one of the longest caves in the world. The cave was discovered at the turn of the century by brothers passing through Hell Canyon. Brilliant color and fragile rocks reveal an amazing ecosystem not visible anywhere else. The third longest cave in the world has much to offer to a wide range of those interested in its natural glory.
I’m camped right across the street from Reptile Gardens. I couldn’t resist its charm, so I walked over to check it out. The origin story tickled my fancy, so I’ll share a little with you.
America’s largest reptile attraction isn’t in a Florida swamp. It’s Reptile Gardens, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and it’s there because local boy Earl J. Brockelsby (1916-1993) really liked slithery things. As a teenager, Earl would stand at the side of the road and stop cars by pretending to bite a live, wriggling rattlesnake (although he never really did). Another of his tricks was to politely lift his cowboy hat and reveal a live rattlesnake contentedly curled up on his head.
Visitor reactions to these antics convinced Earl that he was on to something, and on June 3, 1937, he opened Reptile Garden (The “s” was added years later). It was a stucco-fronted roadside shack that Earl built at the crest of a steep hill where cars often overheated. “They’d pull into the parking lot to let the car cool down,” said Johnny B, “and that’s when Dad would pop out of his little building and try to get them to pay ten cents to watch him jump in a pit and play with snakes.”
Reptile Gardens now has the largest reptile collection in the world — roughly 225 species — as well as tropical parrots, birds of prey, thousands of exotic plants (the “gardens” part of Reptile Gardens) and an entire prairie dog town with pop-up plexiglass bubbles for close human interaction. “He wanted to add a lot of things for people that might not be fans of snakes,” said Johnny B.
I saw painted Cowboy Boots in Cheyenne, WY, Custer has painted Bison. The idea was born with the Custer Stampede, an auction that gave artists the chance to showcase their talents through buffalo sculptures. “They all have such different personality and so that’s what we were honed to,” said Hennessy. The herd is 16 head but only half the herd lives in her yard year-round. The other half migrates downtown.
Five hundred years ago, American Indian tribes began driving bison into a natural sinkhole bordering the northern Great Plains and the Black Hills. This perfect trap allowed the people to acquire large amounts of meat and hides to be used for their own survival.
The site was discovered just west of the Wyoming-South Dakota border about halfway between Sundance, WY. and Spearfish, SD, during construction of I-90 in the early 1970s. In 1989, the family of Woodrow and Doris Vore donated the site to the University of Wyoming, and today, the sinkhole is known as the Vore Buffalo Jump.
Archaeologists estimate that at least 4,000 bison were killed over a period of about 250 years at this place. The Vore site is known for its massive quantities of bison bone and stone artifacts, which have been remarkably preserved in discrete layers. The sinkhole contains hundreds of layers of sediment, known as varves, which have washed into the depression annually. Scientists count varves like tree rings and combine this information with other dating methods to estimate when each bison jump occurred.
There are several stories about Devils Tower. This one is my favorite: Seven little Kiowa girls were out playing, spotted by several giant bears, and were chased. The girls prayed to the Great Spirit, and sure enough the ground rose beneath them towards the Heavens. The bears tried to climb the rock but only managed to leave their deep claw marks on the sides. The girls reached the sky and were turned into the constellation Pleiades.
Today, visiting Devils Tower offers a journey full of Native American cultural discovery. The area is still an active, sacred location and is considered a place of spiritual significance and cultural history by over two-dozen Native American tribes! The monument is off limits to climbers during the month of June to respect the tribes’ cultural traditions and rituals that are still performed there. Some of these include sun dances, vision quests and prayer offerings.
I was surprised to find Wind Cave National Park on my little tourist map. I had never heard of it. I was excited to tour another cave. This one featured descending 300 stairs. Luckily my knees held out.
In 1903 Wind Cave was designated a national park by President Theodore Roosevelt, it was the 7th national park and the 1st cave to be designated a national park anywhere in the world. The cave is notable for its calcite formations known as boxwork, as well as its frostwork. Approximately 95 percent of the world’s discovered boxwork formations are found in Wind Cave. The cave is recognized as the densest cave system in the world, with the greatest passage volume per cubic mile. Wind Cave is one of the longest caves in the world with 149 miles (240 km) of explored cave passageways, as of 2018. Above ground, the park includes the largest remaining natural mixed-grass prairie in the United States.
Sylvan Lake is probably the most recognizable of the five Custer State Park lakes, and of any of the Black Hills lakes for that matter. Its definitely my favorite. It is featured in the Nicolas Cage movie “National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets” (although the location may seem off). There is a 1 mile path around the lake that is mostly easy and accessible near the front. It gets a little rocky and steep along the backside of the lake, but the vistas are beautiful and well worth it.
I spent much more time here than I did Mount Rushmore. I was very interested in the process of how the monument was being built}. I first came here as a child, and then could not see what the monument would become. Now, half a century later, the vision is clear.
The sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski is quite the character. Without him there would be no Crazy Horse Memorial. Korczak arrived in the Black Hills on May 3, 1947. He worked on the project until his death on October 20, 1982, at age 74. During his nearly 36 years of working on the Mountain, he refused to take any salary at Crazy Horse Memorial. His wife Ruth, and then their descendants carried on the work.
Pros: Very nice staff, very organized. Great site, lots of open space. Full hooks ups. Flat level sites. Free WiFi and Cable. Great Verizon Coverage. Clean spacious bathhouse with great water pressure and plenty of Hot water. Easy access from I-80, Great recreation center. A few blocks from the Laramie Greenbelt.
Cons: Traffic can be noisy.
Worth Noting: I was delighted to visit and reconnect with a friend I’ve know since 7th grade.