We spent over a week exploring the western end of South Dakota, because we kept finding interesting things to see and do, especially as we’d never been there before.
Badlands National Park
This area got its name as being a ‘bad land to travel through’ – not surprisingly, given the deeply eroded nature of the landscape and the fissures and towers that you continually encounter. We did a 10-mile return hike through the park and were amazed at the profusion of white stone towers that we walked among. In other areas the rock has pink stripes through it, while in places it’s really yellow!
Further to the west, the famous ‘Black Hills of Dakota’ create a different, but equally stunning landscape. Instead of white towers of soft rock, granite pinnacles soar up surrounded by pine trees. We hiked here as well, including an 8-mile round trip to the top of Harney Peak, with spectacular views of the sculpted granite pillars. Another walk took us to Cathedral Spires, with towering needles of rock that did resemble the spires of some Gothic edifice.
The roads through this landscape are exciting. The so-called Needles Highway is the most awesome. At one point it passes through a narrow tunnel which is (barely) wide enough for a tour bus to get through with just millimetres to spare.
Sculpture on a massive scale
The most famous site in the Black Hills is Mount Rushmore, where in the 1930s a sculptor called Gutzon Borglum began to carve four enormous heads of past presidents on a granite cliff. It is now a National Memorial, a place of pilgrimage for Americans as well as a tourist attraction for overseas visitors. The four heads – of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt – are each 60 feet high, and amazing to see, not just for their size but also the quality of the sculpture.
We visited the site three times: in the late afternoon, at night (for the light show), and the next morning (because the light was different). Each view was different, but all were breathtaking. Ian was reminded of the moai on Easter Island, giant images of ancestors set up to watch over the village. These giant images of America’s founding fathers likewise keep watch over the nation.
On a smaller scale, in Rapid City (just north of the Black Hills) they have set up statues of past presidents on many of the street corners – over 30 so far. They range from George Washington to George W. Bush, though for some reason where Bill Clinton should be there is just a gap in the pavement.
Even more massive in scale than Mount Rushmore is the nearby Crazy Horse Memorial, where for the past 65 years they’ve been carving a mountain into a statue of the great Indian leader on his horse. So far they’ve done his face and the outline of his outstretched arm – no-one can guess when it will be finished. The original sculptor is dead, but his large family is carrying on the work.
In the course of our wanderings round western South Dakota we have spotted a fair amount of wildlife, though not quite up to South African standards. The biggest is obviously the bison, of which there are many. However, they can be elusive. We drove right round the so-called Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park and saw only one or two far off, but then we found a group of them on the main road. Later on, while we were on a hike across the prairie, five or six crossed our path and came too close for comfort, so we had to detour round them. Be careful about wishing for close encounters with wildlife!
We also encountered pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, rare white prairie dogs, and an industrious woodpecker, as well as many small birds and animals that scuttled off before we could photograph them.
In addition to living wildlife, we also encountered extinct ones, in particular mammoths. In the town of Hot Springs is the mammoth site, where dozens of mammoth skeletons are being excavated. We did a tour of the site, and were impressed by the scale of the endeavour as well as the size of the mammoths they’re digging up.
We visited two caves in the area. Wind Cave National Park is so called because of the air which is either rushing in or out of its tiny natural entrance. The cave’s most distinct feature is the formation called ‘boxwork’, which is found in few other places.
Its nearby rival is Jewel Cave National Monument, where the main feature is dogtooth spar, which covers most of the walls. It is one of the longest in the world, currently reckoned at 166 miles, but the known length increases as caving enthusiasts crawl through narrow passages to discover more and more chambers.
The real Wild West
We stayed in a lot of funny little towns during our time in South Dakota (Wall. Interior, Custer, Hot Springs), but the one which gave the clearest impression of the Wild West was Deadwood. We drank in the bar where Wild Bill Hickok was shot, and saw his grave, next door to Calamity Jane’s, on ‘Boot Hill’ (Mount Moriah cemetery). The strongest impression we had, however, was that every establishment (hotel, café, gift shop) was dedicated to gambling and filled with slot machines. So these days the Wild West is just a poor man’s Las Vegas.