BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK, South Dakota — As far as sunsets go, it had to be one of the best I'd ever seen.
Bands of vibrant colors stretched across the horizon — each taking its turn at center stage. First came gold in the form of a starburst that dazzled the eye, followed by hot pink that slowly melted away like a glob of strawberry ice cream. Soft lavender and blue gave way to purple and eventually, all-encompassing black. It was nothing short of magical.
A moonscape on Earth is the best way to describe the 380-mile Badlands National Park, whose 243,000 acres make up the largest grass prairie in the United States. These rolling grasslands are punctuated by buttes, spires and pinnacles constituting a landscape so inhospitable that the native Lakota Sioux dubbed it Mako Sica — bad land. Other than the Lakota, it was once home only to jack rabbits, rattlesnakes and the occasional desperado fleeing a sheriff's posse.
The most obvious manifestation of this inhospitable terrain is The Wall, a 100-mile ridge of crooked cliffs so eroded by water it looks like a giant's maw filled with broken teeth.
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It has taken 37 million years of erosion to carve the deep canyons, razor-sharp ravines and saw-edged spires in crayon-box colors ranging from shell pink to cobalt blue.
The lunar-like landscape offers a stark and savage beauty of the kind that graces postcards, but visitors must treat it with respect. Hikers should be sure not to venture off the well-marked trails, and to take along plenty of water.
If you're a history buff, you should know that the southern part of the Badlands, known as Stronghold Unit, belongs to the Oglala Lakota Sioux, and preserved within it is their most sacred site — Stronghold Table — where the last of the tribe's Ghost Dances took place in 1890, just before the massacre at Wounded Knee some 25 miles to the south.
If you're into anthropology, know that the Badlands has one of the richest fossil beds in North America, and that the fossils of both rhino and saber-tooth cats have been found. Today's fauna — a bit less exotic — include antelope, deer, bison, bighorn sheep and the rare black-footed ferret.
Don't just drive through
The Badlands should serve as a message to those who think of South Dakota as merely a state to drive through en route to someplace else. That message: stop and stay awhile. True, South Dakota appears to lack the requisite attractions that make a location a tourist magnet. It has no sea coast, no Disney-style theme parks, no large cities (its two largest, Sioux Falls and Rapid City, have a combined population less than that of Lexington). Its mountains, while lovely, lack the grandeur of ranges in neighboring Montana and Wyoming.
So, just what does South Dakota have that makes it worth a visit? Plenty — not the least of which is a passionate devotion to its Western heritage.
The Black Hills, about 55 miles west of the Badlands, and once home to the Lakota nation, is a 1.2 million-acre national forest that stretches from Rapid City to the Wyoming state line. The Black Hills have been described as a vest-pocket edition of the Rockies which begin about 300 miles to the west. But just because they're smaller (average elevations are around 7,000 feet compared to 14,000 in the Rockies) doesn't mean they are any less beautiful. A drive through Spearfish Canyon or to Bridal Veil Falls will convince you of that.
Deer, antelope and elk are common here. Buffalo, once so depleted they took on the guise of mythological beasts, are plentiful in the Black Hills. Streams teem with trout, bass and walleyed pike.
History surrounds you. Gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874, leading to an influx of white prospectors and settlers to an area the Lakota had claimed as their own. This, in turn, led to the last major Indian War on the Great Plains — the Black Hills War (1876-77), which included the Battle of the Little Bighorn in neighboring Montana.
In the midst of all this natural beauty are manmade monuments that manage to become part of the environment, rather than to intrude upon it. The most famous, of course, is Mount Rushmore National Memorial, where sculptor Gutzon Borglum spent 14 years carving massive granite profiles of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, measuring 60 feet from forehead to chin.
Mount Rushmore is quintessential Americana, but I was more drawn to another Black Hills monument — that honoring Lakota chief Crazy Horse. The world's largest sculpture in progress, it was commissioned in 1948 when a Lakota elder, Henry Standing Bear, approached sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski and asked him to create something "that would let the white man know that the red man has his heroes, too."
Ziolkowski, impressed with Standing Bear's earnestness, began carving the sculpture from the side of a mountain. It was to show Crazy Horse on horseback — long hair streaming behind him and arm outstretched — capturing the spirit of a great warrior. He worked on it until his death in 1984, at which time he implored his wife Ruth "to continue the work but go slowly so you do it right."
Ruth died in 2014, but work continues through the efforts of six of the couple's 10 children, assorted grandchildren and a dedicated foundation. The project receives no government funding and depends entirely on visitors' fees and donations.
To give you some idea of the scope of this magnificent sculpture, Crazy Horse's head is 88 feet tall and that of his horse, 219 feet. When completed, the 564 foot granite sculpture will be 100 feet taller than Egypt's Great Pyramid at Giza.
Deadwood — as wildas the West got
As a living monument to the Wild West, the Black Hills have no equal. Among those who contributed chapters to their history: Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Red Cloud and General George Armstrong Custer.
It's easy to spend several days exploring the near-mythical town of Deadwood, which began as a mining town and developed into a mecca for gamblers and gunslingers. The gamblers are still there (witness the casinos that line both sides of the main street), but the gunslingers are confined to Mount Moriah Cemetery.
The cemetery is the final resting place of local legends such as Preacher Smith, prospector Potato Creek Johnny and madam Dora DuFran. But most visitors head immediately to the adjoining gravesites of the notorious Calamity Jane and her "maybe he was/maybe he wasn't" paramour Wild Bill Hickok. Hickok was dispatched by a bullet in the back at the nearby Old Style Saloon, his famous Dead Man's poker hand still laid out on a table there. Today, the Old Style Saloon #10 may be the only museum in the world with a full bar.
After leaving the cemetery, take a walking tour of the town, which in its entirety is a National Historic Landmark. For a look at Deadwood's colorful past, visit the Adams Historical Museum, and for frontier ambiance, check into the Bullock Hotel, built in 1895 by Deadwood's first sheriff (whose ghost is said to walk the corridors), or the historic Franklin Hotel, which has played host to distinguished guests from Teddy Roosevelt to John Wayne.
And those who want a little Hollywood glitz with their gambling can try their luck at the Midnight Star Casino, owned by Kevin Costner, who became enamored of the area while filming Dances With Wolves.
From the Badlands to the Black Hills, South Dakota has a lot to offer. So the next time you are driving through the state to get somewhere else, don't be in such a hurry.