We started our day at our normal time, but within ten minutes on the road we gained an extra hour to explore. Wish we could do that every day!
Mona decided to drive all day today. She’s been to all the places we plan to visit and she wants to maximize my enjoyment of the day. How sweet is that!?! About 30 minutes into her drive we start seeing strange rock formations on the south side of the interstate…sharp peaks jutting out of the prairie with an occasional glimpse of a canyon. Soon, we see spires of banded stone….castles. This is it…The Badlands.
Virtually, as soon as we enter the park there is a stop and a trailhead. We eagerly set out on our first trail; however, the first sign we see reminds us that even though it’s beautiful you must still be cautious. No matter! Off we go! We soon catch up with a ranger who is leading a group and providing geological explanations for the strange beauty we see around us. This was an inland salt sea, then a swamp, then covered by volcanic ash; all leading to layers upon layers of different colored sediment. Then about 500,000 years ago erosion began its work, stripping away the softer elements and leaving the harder ones behind to create this incredible fantasy land.
After our hike, we begin further exploration of the park. There is a 24 mile loop you can drive through the park and you see wonder after wonder…we must have taken over 100 pictures on this loop. Every few miles there is a trailhead or a pull-off with information on what you’re seeing. Each view is a Kodak moment, perfect in its own way! This is not a fast drive-thru type of place!
One pull-off overlooks a pass where Chief Big Foot and his people passed through The Badlands on their way to Wounded Knee. You can only imagine the struggles they must have faced as they moved their families and household goods through this impassable maze! They must have been so relieved to make it through….not knowing the tragedy they would face only a few days later at Wounded Knee.
We finish driving through the park proper and are at the exit. However, in good weather, such as today, you can take a dirt road a few miles farther to the west to see a few other sites. You know Mona, she can’t pass up a good dirt road so off we go!
|Friendly Prairie Dog!|
The first thing we see is another cautionary sign. Buffalo? Harrumph! We’ve just driven 24 miles of the park and have seen nothing bigger than a bluebird. We’re not worried about buffalo! However, we almost immediately see a bighorn sheep in the distance. Too cool! We drive about 5 miles further and see a pull-off…..A prairie dog town! Mona virtually jumps out of the car because she loves prairie dogs…as she will repeatedly state over and over as we watch their antics. They are cute…in a rodent sort of way, and it’s funny to see them suddenly leap into the air and yip! We wander around the maze of the village for some time and then notice black “humps” just over the hill. Buffalo! About 100 yards away!!!!
This is thrilling for me! My first time seeing wild buffalo!!! We get in the car and get closer…a couple of hundred feet away. There are about 40 of them….pretty much ignoring us and doing their buffalo thing: eating, staring off into space and making buffalo pies. I was hoping for the thunder of a racing herd, but this is cool enough! We take picture after picture and finally tear ourselves away. We’ve heard numerous warnings about bad weather tomorrow so we want to maximize our day today!
We head out of the park and come to Wall, South Dakota, home of Wall Drug. Of course we have to stop here; it’s a tourist requirement! What started in the 30s as a struggling little drug store has now blossomed to a huge emporium of tourist delights:gift shops, cowboy and saloon girl statues, cafes, jackalopes, and dinosaurs. All this because of a free glass of water! In the 30s the drugstore was struggling…no one came to Wall. The proprietor’s wife thought that if they offered free water to travelers then they might pick up a little more business. The proprietor went out to put signs up on the highway…and before he returned his business was already starting to boom as travelers came in for a free drink of water. The rest is Wall Drug history! And yes, we had a free glass of water….delicious!
Next stop, Mount Rushmore! As we turn into the park we immediately see this huge masterpiece. I’m thrilled and we haven’t even gotten out of the car! We walk through the Avenue of Flags and get closer…what a masterpiece of art and dynamite!!! Seeing a picture is nothing like seeing it in person! What kind of visionary can look at the granite spires of these mountains and see far enough to imagine four presidents carved into stone?!?! Lucky for us, Gutzon Borglum had that kind of vision and after 14 years this was the result!
Next up is The Crazy Horse Memorial about 17 miles away. Whereas, Mount Rushmore was federally funded, this project is privately funded and is still very much a work in progress. Once again, one man had the vision to turn a mountain into a work of art. What are the odds of two such men working in such close proximity?
|Foreground: To-Be Model
Korczak Ziolkowski, an apprentice to Gutzon Borglum on the Mount Rushmore project, was approached by a Lakota elder, Henry Standing Bear, to create a memorial to the American Indians. Ziolkowski was immediately intrigued by the project and chose Thunder Mountain to be the site of the memorial. He began work in 1947 and worked alone on the project for the first five years. As time went on, he got more funds to hire helpers and he “grew” a of family of ten children to help with this monumental effort.
Monumental effort indeed! When completed the sculpture’s final dimensions are to be 641 feet wide and 563 feet high. The head of CrazyHorse will be 87 feet high; by comparison, the heads of the four U.S.Presidents at Mount Rushmore are each “only” 60 feet high.
Ziolkowski died in 1982 and his efforts are being carried forward by his widow and seven of their ten children. Judging from the current status, it’s going to take at least one more generation of Ziolkowskis to complete this effort!
|One of the Needles|
Now, it’s time to visit Custer State Park! We decide to get there via the Needles Highway (thanks to a suggestion by Chris!) The turnoff to this highway is just a couple of miles from Crazy Horse, so off we go!
Needles Highway is named after the granite “needles” that it threads its way through. The highway is very narrow with many sharp turns and incredibly small tunnels. Luckily, Mona is still driving so it’s a pretty easy drive for me! Not so much for her due to 5 MPH turns and 8’4”wide tunnels. The scenery on this drive is incredible with granite spires reaching to the sky and sheer cliffs dropping off to the pines below. We are both loving this drive!
After about a half hour we reach the wildlife trail of Custer State Park. We were hoping to see more wildlife, and we were not disappointed. A doe with her newborn fawn, barely able to walk. A turkey hen with her chicks chirping behind her. Antelope grazing beside the road. And Bill.
|Our first glimpse of Bill|
We’ve rounded a curve and there on the road immediately ahead is this HUGE buffalo just standing there! (We’re certain his name was Bill….he just looked like a Bill, ya know?) Mona stopped the car about 30 feet away from him. Bill doesn’t move. We don’t move. After a few minutes a car approaches from the other way and suddenly stops at the sight of Bill. Bill doesn’t move. We don’t move. The other car doesn’t move. The universe is in perfect balance and there really is no point in moving to upset that balance.
Finally, Mona decides it’s time…she’s moving first. We slowly creep forward. We get close enough to Bill that he can check our odometer! Okay…we’re past him and now we can breathe again!
|Bill looks at Mona. Mona looks at Bill.|
We continue to drive the wildlife loop seeing more creatures along the way, but no more Bills. However, we did see another herd of buffalo bedding down for the night. We get within a hundred feet of them and marvel at their primitive beauty. (Judging by their behavior they thought we were pretty boring!)
Finally, we make our way back to our hotel in Keystone. We wander down the boardwalk and climb the stairs to the veranda overlooking Keystone’s main street. There we relax the evening away, enjoying a quiet dinner, sipping wine and listening to the patter of rain and the occasional gunshots in the Red Garter Saloon below us. Ah…..a quiet night in the great west!