Our adventure-loving contributors gear up and fan out to experience the West on wheels.
Get Out To:
South Dakota Black Hills and Badlands.
Gear Uo For:
Mountain-face memorials, bighorn sheep, spectacular sunrises, starry nights, Deadwood 2.0.
Wildlife and landscape lovers, young and old, fit and not-so.
It’s just basic Badlands etiquette.
When a herd of bighorn sheep is thoughtful enough to be posing this majestically on the edge of a landscape this extraordinary, humans in passing vehicles are obliged to reciprocate accordingly. We all know the drill:
1. Point excitedly from car window and quickly pull over.
2. Trot briskly but quietly to safe, optimal viewing point near cliff.
3. Raise camera phone and keep murmuring “wow” to no one in particular.
Doing otherwise would just be rude — and don’t think the indigenous fauna in these parts won’t notice.
“Do you think they know we’re here?” whispers a young voice in a crowd of wild-sheep paparazzi gawking at a bonanza of bighorns perched by a roadside bluff in Badlands National Park.
Oh, they know. Just check out any Gary Larson cartoon from the early ’90s if there’s a shred of doubt in your mind that these studly ungulates will be cracking open some beers and lampooning all of us bright-eyed humans the second we get back in our cars.
But right now, we’re all dutifully playing our given parts. Moms, uncles, and grandkids. Rams, lambs, and ewes. All gathered here on one of the more remarkable fringes of the old, sufficiently still-wild frontier. Backdropped by a breeze-dried sea of South Dakota Badlands rolling to infinity between dusty Sage Creek Road and a horizon of wispy clouds. Snap and stare all you want. It’s too much to get your lens and retinas around.
Soon enough, the next convoy of wildlife watchers is relieving us — pulling over, trotting up from the road, and reaching for their phone cameras. Our shift is done here. Goodbye, bighorns. Thanks for your time.
“Lotsa bison and prairie dogs down the road if you’re heading in that direction,” a new arrival congenially points out as we’re walking away.
Of course we’re heading in that direction. Bison and prairie dogs, please assume your positions. Here we come.
Great Faces, Great Places.
If there’s a more inevitable official state slogan than South Dakota’s — invoking, above all, those four presidential headliners carved into America’s most iconic granite memorial on Mount Rushmore — it has yet to be coined by a tourism marketing firm.
More than 3 million pilgrims from all over the nation and globe head to the Black Hills every year to see those solemn silver faces in person. And, finally, so was I.
But, all due respect, my pressing meeting with the presidents would have to wait a bit during this first overdue trip to southwestern South Dakota. Great Faces, Great Places. As the catchphrase reveals after several close readings, George, Thomas, Theodore, and Abe aren’t shouldering the entire greatness banner alone in these parts. Poke around and other great places (and faces) show up at several turns — along with enough spectacular imagery and Wild West street cred to contend with any back roads trip through Colorado, Montana, or Arizona.
Wedged between rolling prairies and the Rockies, South Dakota’s rambunctiously designed lower left corner is and always has been its own thing. Rugged, removed, and rife with history and legend, here’s where one might naturally sense that the West really began — and still does. Here’s where the plains meet the hills, where the bison roam in greater numbers than in any other state, and where Dances With Wolves was shot nearly 30 years ago already. Here’s where 19th-century westward expansion and gold-mining mania ran their fateful collision courses through sacred Lakota lands. And where those faces — Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and Spotted Elk; Custer, Calamity Jane, and Wild Bill Hickok — converged with those places — Deadwood, Keystone, and Wounded Knee.
And here, on a warm, new-moon summer night in the peaceful present, is where a galaxy of constellations and a few stray planets are illuminating a group of visitors gathered at an amphitheater at the headquarters of Badlands National Park. Long after the bighorns, bison, and yipping prairie dog colonies have turned in for the evening, one of the more underappreciated parks in the West is still craning heads, featuring a star-strewn equation too immense to solve.
But Chuck Schroll, tonight’s volunteer stargazing interpreter, is tackling it anyway.
“All right, let’s head back to the Big Dipper for a second,” Schroll says, gliding a green laser pointer across the universe to the most recognizable stew ladle in the sky. “Now if you’re a kid, or if you’ve got eyes like a kid, the middle star of the handle has a faint little ‘buddy star’ right next to it. Can any of you with good eyes see it? Because a lot of us here tonight probably can’t.”
Little voices pipe in from all directions — I can see it! I can see it! — while their myopic elders strain in vain.
“Well, the nickname for those two stars is ‘The Horse and the Rider,’ ” Schroll continues. “And if you can see the little rider on the horse, congratulations: You made it into the cavalry while the rest of us are stuck in the infantry,” he quips. “But we also use the Big Dipper for its ‘pointer stars.’ Which point to where? Anyone know?”
“Santa Claus!” belts out a young cavalryman.
Close enough. And on it goes. From Polaris to Arcturus and Antares. Cygnus the Swan, Lyra the Harp, and Leo the Lion — and tonight’s featured planets.
Inviting everyone for a peek at Jupiter and Saturn through a pair of powerful telescopes, Schroll explains that the word planet means “wanderer.” Schroll’s probably asked it more times than he can number, but he hasn’t lost a bit of enthusiasm: “Can anyone guess why?”
So many little specks in the sky, so many big questions. How did Schroll, an avid outdoorsman from Alabama, end up in the Badlands of South Dakota fielding them all? I ask our star guide while peering at the rings of Saturn and murmuring my umpteenth “wow” of the day.
“I was in Utah at Bryce [Canyon National Park] with a bunch of other volunteers for this stargazing initiative,” Schroll recalls. “They were launching programs in several national parks, and everyone was choosing where they wanted to go.”
As expected, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion, and the other A-list parks all got snatched up fast. Badlands did not. “Nobody wanted to come here,” Schroll says. “I said, ‘I’ll go.’ ”
Schroll wasn’t disappointed. That was nine years ago. He’s since been coming back here to volunteer for a month every summer — flying up in his own plane, living in a cabin, and savoring one of the best stargazing outposts in the national park system. And sunrise spots, for that matter.
“Most people cruise through this park for an hour or two in the middle of the day when the light is flat, and they’re gone before all the really good stuff happens,” Schroll says. “If you can, come back here just before dawn,” he advises. “It’s like watching another world being born.”
Overnighting at the nearby Circle View Guest Ranch, a rustic retreat perched above an expanse of rolling plains just outside the park, I’m already sold on this stay-awhile advice. Especially in my very authentic digs here: the aptly named 1880 Homestead. Nestled between a trickling river and a massive pile of haystacks in a large empty field, the property’s original late 19th-century domicile hides about a mile down a dirt road from the main lodge’s Wi-Fi-ready guest rooms — and a solid 138 years from anywhere else.
No electricity. No plumbing. “No Service” on my cell. A skillet and a couple of dream catchers hanging on the wall. Two double beds, an old wood furnace, and a 1902 edition of the Sears Roebuck catalog within easy reach if you need one. It’s perfect.
“We still do Christmas in the homestead — it’s kind of a family tradition,” says Circle View owner Phil Kruse, dropping me off at the simple one-room structure built nine years before South Dakota statehood. Kruse grew up on the 3,000-acre working cattle ranch with seven older siblings before heading off to college in Texas. Gravitating home, he would eventually launch and co-run the guest ranch with his wife, Amy, an Arizonan who came to South Dakota to intern at Badlands National Park and fell in love with everything here, including Phil.
“You’ll probably hear some coyotes in a bit,” says Kruse. “If you’re lucky, they may even swing by for a visit,” he adds before hopping back onto his ATV and driving back to the ranch and the 21st century.
Standing alone in the breezy, starry dark outside a preserved homestead dating back to the Rutherford B. Hayes administration is a swift bit of time travel. Suddenly, I have the whole Dakota Territory to myself. Just me and a zillion chirping crickets on the far side of the interminable prairie with a pack of wild canine guests due to arrive at any moment.
The coyotes never show. Or maybe they do and the dream catchers drown out their incessant knocking on the front porch. After a brief but deep sleep, I’m awakened shortly after 4 a.m. by the 1880 Homestead’s natural alarm clock: urgent coo-cooing of mourning doves on the roof reminding me of my date with the Badlands at dawn.
In the waning minutes before a 5:09 a.m. sunrise on a weekday in midsummer, you can be pretty sure that very few of the visitors to Badlands National Park’s signature Door Trail will be turning up here at this hour. There are just seven of us at the trailhead, entering a boardwalked portal to the park’s namesake geological feature. Up ahead: one of the wilder rock shows at dawn one could ever attend in these parts.
Born from a muddy floor of a long-gone inland sea, sculpted in turn by half a million years of erosion, the Badlands got their name from Lakota inhabitants who referred to the parched rockscape as mako sica (“land bad”). Stymied early French trappers agreed, calling them les mauvaises terres. With the first trickles of sunlight turning this expanse of crumbly canyons and jagged peaks, rambling pinnacles and buttes into a color-infused Mars-scape, now it’s our turn to try to bend our minds and words around it.
“You can see here how architects get inspired by nature,” a morning hiker muses, gazing out from the end of the boardwalk, where visitors can then descend into this desiccated former seabed and wade, like open-air scuba divers, along their own circuitous trails.
“I haven’t seen any buildings quite like this,” someone else says.
“This is my favorite place on earth,” marvels a silhouette, watching the sun rise.
“I believe you,” another says.
Soon, the talking stops and everyone disappears deeper through a break in the Badlands wall known as “The Door.” They fan out in myriad directions into a mess of eroded rock glowing from the day’s first rays, with a complimentary air show of swallows darting in and out of every crevice.
It’s true. Being here at the stroke of dawn feels like briefly experiencing another world being born, and then slowly, inexorably dying. Within minutes, the rising sun is erasing its own pastel hues while a mild but ceaseless wind carries on its own slow-but-sure demolition job. In another 500,000 years, geologists predict that erosion will abrade these Badlands back into nothing.
In other words, don’t put off seeing this one for too many more millennia, folks, or it’ll all be gone.
No, they’re not mere hills.They’re bona fide mountains, an outlier range that tectonically is part of the Rockies. Nor are they made of coal, carved from ebony, or spray-painted anthracite.
South Dakota’s fabled Black Hills — appearing like magic out of the Great Plains about 100 miles west of Badlands country — were named Paha Sapa (“hills that are black”) by the Lakota. Not so much metaphorically or for their gray base color of metamorphic rock. It was the trees. Those dense pine forests shrouding the broad flanks of this 125-mile-long hermit range. When first spied by the prominent Plains tribe arriving here in the 18th century from the east, the trees made the mountains look black.
Gaze up at the shadowy tilted forests of the Black Hills today (or down — they’re described by NASA’s Earth Observatory as “the dark, pine-covered slopes [rising] from the Great Plains like an island from a sea of grass” and the original thinking behind the name still makes perfect sense. But it hasn’t stopped bucket-listers hoofing to the top of 7,242-foot Black Elk Peak from overthinking why they’re called the Black Hills anyway.
“They do look sort of black if you squint,” suggests a day hiker in our group, perched at a dramatic lookout featuring the Needles, a striated rock formation rising like coral between row upon row of slate-gray cliffs and dark woodsy slopes.
“They look really black if you close your eyes completely,” says our guide, right on cue.
Three summers ago, Black Elk Peak — the highest summit in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains — was renamed for Nicholas Black Elk (1863 – 1950) after long being known as Harney Peak. Gen. William S. Harney, a career Army officer, in 1855 led his troops against the Sioux in the Battle of Ash Hollow, also known as the Harney Massacre, in which the Army brutally killed Brulé Lakota men, women, and children in present-day Nebraska. For obvious reasons, the Lakota worked for decades to have the peak’s name changed to honor someone they saw fit to commemorate. Black Elk was an Oglala Lakota spiritual leader and medicine man who had a literal vision of world unity. In the 1932 book Black Elk Speaks, John Niehardt recounts the story of the holy man’s life and times as a witness at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, as a traveling performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, and as a spiritual leader on the nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the aftermath of the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890.
In the book, Black Elk describes receiving a great vision on his future namesake mountain as a 9-year-old boy in 1872: “Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.”
It’s a vision reserved for the chosen few, even at these inspiring heights. As for the rest of us, ambling to the top of Black Elk Peak on a sunny 70-degree day along a boulder- and forest-flanked trail adorned with spectacular vistas, wildflowers, and vibrantly colored Native prayer cloths ceremoniously tied to little saplings is, at the very least, an exalted step in the right direction.
So is witnessing the whole hoop of the world from the stone deck of the summit’s iconic lookout tower, where panoramas stretch to Wyoming, Montana, and Nebraska on a clear day. But it’s the Black Hills foreground that is the biggest Rocky Mountain-ish high of all.
“I feel like I’ve been transported to Colorado,” I can’t help gushing, within earshot of a local South Dakotan in a cowboy hat who sets me straight.
“Well, next time you’re in Colorado,” she says with a smile, “you can feel like you’ve been transported to South Dakota.”
Back at the Black Elk Peak trailhead by pretty Sylvan Lake, it’s a quick (and, of course, mandatory) drive to nearby Mount Rushmore National Memorial to join a late-afternoon throng of visitors filing in along the Avenue of Flags to finally see, with their own eyes, those four venerated faces who need no introduction. As for that other fellow — Mr. Rushmore — I’ll bet I’m not the only one moseying under George Washington’s 21-foot granite nose along the Presidential Trail with a vanilla ice cream cone (based on Thomas Jefferson’s original 1780 recipe, I’m told at the Memorial Team Ice Cream counter) who has no idea how such a treasured American peak comes by this name, or who exactly it belongs to.
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As the story goes, Charles E. Rushmore, a Manhattan attorney, came to the Black Hills of Dakota in 1885 to secure options on a tin mine for some New York investors. During his stay, he noticed a particularly attractive granite peak and asked some local prospectors he’d befriended what it was called.
The 5,725-foot mountain didn’t have a name. So the prospectors decided to name it after Charles E. Rushmore. A nice enough New York lawyer on a mundane business trip with an eye for mountains. Why the heck not?
Amazingly this impromptu dedication stuck. Even after the arrival of far more nameworthy 20th-century Mount Rushmore figures, including state historian Doane Robinson (who conceptualized a giant sculptural memorial here) and sculptor Gutzon Borglum (who took the project on). Started in 1927, Mount Rushmore would take 14 years to complete, require nearly 400 workers, and blast more than 800 million pounds of stone to create its four presidential heads, each of them the height of a six-story building.
Dwarfing some of those stats is the also remarkable Crazy Horse Memorial, a colossal granite mountain carving of the legendary Lakota warrior. Occupying its own sacred space on Thunderhead Mountain, that as-yet-unfinished project rises impressively just 16 miles away from Mount Rushmore by winding road. Or even closer if you splurge on a “Mount Rushmore Loop” helicopter tour with Black Hills Aerial Adventures, which includes a flyby of the world’s largest sculpture in progress. The nongovernment-funded memorial dedicated to the living heritage of the North American Indians (financed solely by admissions and contributions) began 71 years ago this June and comprises a carving plan more than 560 feet tall.
“It probably won’t be completed in any of our lifetimes, but it’ll eventually get finished,” promises our young chopper pilot, as we whirlybird around the work — at present, a bold 87-foot face of Crazy Horse — minutes after hovering at eye level with the Mount Rushmore men. If there was ever a stark juxtaposition of legacies etched onto a pair of neighboring oversize granite canvases, this is it, somehow coexisting, one might envision, among “the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.”
“Those little chocolate chips down there are bison,” says our pilot, pointing down at other shapes herded in pockets of grass between Lego-size boulders and toothpick pines as we curl south near Custer State Park. “If you see a little cotton ball, that’s a mountain goat.”
Deadwood. If ever there were a perpetually cursed 19th-century Black Hills boomtown destined to have long since given up the ghost, you can bet it would’ve been this one.
And you would’ve repeatedly lost that bet.
Named inauspiciously after a gulch full of lifeless fallen trees near an 1870s mining camp and bedeviled by one of the Old West’s last relentless gold rushes, Deadwood managed to outlive every cataclysm it was dealt: devastating fires, biblical floods, shuttered mines among them — and the world’s most ominous poker hand.
That would be aces and eights (aka the Dead Man’s Hand), held by none other than gambler, gunslinger, and Western folk legend James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok while seated in the wrong chair at the wrong card table at the wrong time with the wrong nut case sore loser shooting him in the back of the head at Nuttall & Mann’s No. 10 Saloon on August 2, 1876.
Buried in a hilltop grave at Deadwood’s Mount Moriah Cemetery and brandished from the moment you enter town (Welcome to Deadwood: Final Resting Place of Wild Bill Hickok), the name has found an enduring afterlife in a diehard Old West town that the real Wild Bill wouldn’t likely recognize. One with throngs of summer tourists, trolley tours, and thousands of Harley-straddling Legends Riders rumbling from here to neighboring Sturgis during August’s annual motorcycle rally.
Today’s Deadwood 2.0 has charming brick-paved streets, cute bed-and-breakfasts, period-esque casino-hotels, historic museums, tchotchke shops selling Western purses and chocolate-covered bacon, and of course a re-created Saloon No. 10 (down the street from the original one) — complete with a beautiful wooden bar, an oversize aces-and-eights poker hand framed on the wall among countless Wild Bill portraits, and the man’s “Death Chair” perched above the front door in its own glass encasement.
“If you believe that’s the actual poker chair Wild Bill Hickok was sitting in when he was killed, then I have some real estate you may be interested in as well,” chides a woman seated at a sidewalk ticket kiosk on Main Street during an otherwise far more genial walk through downtown Deadwood than what Hickok and friends would’ve experienced nearly 150 years ago. “There were three fires that destroyed the town between then and now. So how his chair was preserved after all that is what you might call ‘a very well-kept mystery.’ ”
But it’s a real nice bar, she adds, suddenly perking up and remembering where we are. In the new Deadwood. The 21st-century Old West. “They have a great whiskey selection in there,” she chirps. “And a fun little shootout.”
Fun little shootout?
A restaging of the Wild Bill incident will be happening inside Saloon No. 10 later today, she says. Along with several more lively gun battle reenactments throughout the afternoon on Main Street.
“They’re not 100 percent historical,” she says with a shrug. “But if you’re here, it’s definitely something to see.”
Of course we’re here. Yes, it’s definitely something to see. Nineteenth-century Dakota Territory good guys and bad guys, assume your positions. Here we come.
Photography: (Lead and Middle Image) Darwin Mulligan, (All Other Images) Courtesy South Dakota Tourism.
From the April 2019 issue.