This is the first in a series of stories about our May, 2017 trip to South Dakota.
We drove west out of Rapid City on Route 44 for miles. Flat prairie turned to rolling hills turned to grey, grass-topped formations jutting out of the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. After correcting for a wrong turn onto the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, we arrived at the back door of Badlands National Park via a desolate dirt road. The landscape was at once beautiful and inhospitable.
From Inland Sea to Bad Land
About 80 million years ago, an inland sea and a bed of shale covered the area. After the sea disappeared, rivers from the Black Hills and volcanoes from the Rocky Mountains deposited many layers of sediment and ash.
Eventually, the deposition slowed, then erosion from wind and water began. Over thousands of years, this erosion formed the buttes, spires, and crumbling walls of today’s Badlands National Park.
Stopping on the side of the dusty road, I understood why Lakota Indian explorers called this place mako sica, or bad land. Brackish water, bone-dry air, and cracked earth provide little sustenance.
Yet, flora and fauna were within sight. Bits of grass and wildflowers, and even a few trees, clung to many of the formations. We easily spotted Bison, Prairie Dogs, and Bighorn Sheep. Birds flitted across the road. Each time we stepped out of the car, Rock Wrens welcomed us with joyful song.
Five Cent Coffee, Prairie Dogs, and Fossils
The dirt road turned to pavement, and we headed north to the tiny town of Wall. After lunch and five cent coffee at the famous Wall Drug, we returned to the park to visit Prairie Dog Town on Sage Creek Rim Road.
The tiny, adorable Prairie Dogs squeaked and dove into their underground burrows whenever we tried to approach. I didn’t get an up-close photo, but the World Wildlife Fund website has great pictures of these charming little brutes.
We turned around and made our way along Badlands Loop Road past numerous overlooks, stopping at the Fossil Exhibit Trail. The extensive fossil remains of the badlands have provided paleontologists with much information about ancient animals and climates. The Fossil Exhibit Trail is a short boardwalk loop with signs showing replicas of mammals, reptiles, and fish that once called this place home.
There is Greatness Here
It’s difficult to imagine, but humans have also called the badlands home for 11,00 years. Early inhabitants hunted mammoth. Later, native tribes hunted bison. The Lakota dominated the area for about 100 years. Then came the Europeans. Fur trappers, miners, farmers, and homesteaders scraped a living out of the lands surrounding the park.
The rest, as they say, is history. Today, the Oglala Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation, which includes the Badlands National Park Southern Stronghold, is one of the poorest parts of the United States. “But, as Ian Frazier writes in On the Rez, “there is greatness here, too, and an ancient glory endures in the dust and the weeds.”