Crazy Horse Memorial is 17 miles from Mount Rushmore
in South Dakota.
NATIONAL PARK, South Dakota — As far as sunsets go, it
had to be one of the best I’d ever seen.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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 mountains, while lovely, lack the grandeur of
ranges in neighboring Montana and Wyoming.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
Pass Lodge, 20681 South Dakota Highway 240. These rustic
cabins are right at the entrance of Badlands National
Park. At the restaurant, be sure to try the taco made with
Indian fried bread. Cedarpasslodge.com.
Hotel, 633 Main Street, Deadwood. Stay in 19th century
history and elegance on Deadwood's main drag.
Hotel, 709 Main Street, Deadwood. Another of the town's
historic properties now offers onsite gaming.
more info: Travelsd.com