Badlands, South Dakota and Devil's Tower, Wyoming

Days three and four of our trip took us to a pair of "evil" locations: the Badlands of South Dakota and Devil's Tower in Wyoming. Both of these attractions are natural phenomenons shaped by wind and weather over the course of millennia. They don't draw nearly as much attention as Mount Rushmore due to their remote locations, and that's a shame as both are well worth stopping to see. Potential visitors to these natural monuments should be aware that they aren't located particularly closely together, however. While I've grouped them together for thematic purposes on this page, Devil's Tower is located about 165 miles / 265 kilometers to the west of the Badlands in a separate state. Like so many other parts of the American west, there's a lot of open space in between the attractions.

Unlike the first two days where we had spent our time in the Black Hills to the west of Rapid City, this day we drove off to the east instead. Our first stop en route to Badlands National Park took place in the tiny hamlet of Wall, a stopping point along Interstate 90 with a population of only 760 people. The only reason that anyone knows about this place is due to the presence of the Wall Drug Store, a tourist attraction that serves as a tacky combination of a drug store, gift shop, restaurant, and shopping mall. Initially founded in 1931, Wall Drug Store emphasizes a western cowboy theme designed to draw in the tourists coming to visit Mount Rushmore. This place is infamous for putting up highway billboards advertising its location across South Dakota and even in other states. The whole thing reminded me of South of the Border, a similar Mexican-themed tourist trap located just south of the North Carolina / South Carolina border along Interstate 95. Given the emptiness of the highway that we were driving through en route to the Badlands, Wall Drug Store was worth a stop, but no more than a stop if that makes sense.

Further to the east was the far more interesting Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. This is a preserved bunker where intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) were stored during the Cold War, the silos where nuclear weapons were housed for potential use against the Soviet Union. At the height of the Cold War there were six missile fields with more than a thousand nuclear silos scattered across the northern Great Plains states, perfect places to situate the ICBMs due to the lack of local population if the missile sites were to be targeted. And the northern Great Plains were also located the shortest distance away from Moscow geographically, since the Earth is a sphere and the flight path of the missiles would have taken them over the North Pole. This handy little map at the Minuteman site illustrated that nicely.

The tour at the Minuteman Missile location took us down into one of the control rooms used to oversee the missiles. We rode an elevator four stories underground to a concrete bunker, where the armed forces personnel had painted a Domino's Pizza mockup on the heavily fortified door that led into the actual control room itself. (The frightening power of the nuclear weapons stored here seems to have resulted in a grim humor on the part of the servicemen.) The door that took us inside had a lead coating to protect against radiation and was extremely thick, more than a foot wide. The cramped control room itself was full of the big knobs and switches that you would expect from Cold War-era technology designed in the 1960s. The park service guide explained that there were always two individuals on duty to oversee the missiles, 24 hours per day, and that a lengthy series of protocols had to be followed for an actual launch. Unlike what popular culture might suggest, it was a lot more complicated than pressing a single button.

We were also able to see one of the missile silos itself, where a disarmed missile still sits underground. Working on one of these missile sites was extremely top secret at the time, and the servicemen lived in isolated bunkers for several weeks at a time before they were granted periods of leave and could travel elsewhere. It would have been an incredibly boring job most of the time, albeit with the constant lurking fear that you might be required to launch missiles resulting in the death of millions. Fortunately, the men and women who worked at these jobs (and still continue to work at them) never made a serious mistake that led to a catastrophe. If you've ever looked at the list of nuclear close calls during the Cold War, we're extremely lucky that none of these incidents ever led to an actual attack from either side.

After visiting the missile site, we drove to the south and entered Badlands National Park itself. The Badlands are known for their colorfully-striped buttes and pinnacles, which were worn down by the elements over thousands and thousands of years. This is a sacred territory for the Lakota people that originally lived in the area, and they co-manage the land together with the National Park Service. The Badlands have been a preserved national monument since the 1930s, and a full national park since 1978. We stopped first at the visitor's center to get some maps of the area, enjoying the views of the rocky prominences that surrounded the small building on all sides. It was beginning to cloud up overhead and looked like it might rain soon, which incentivized us to explore the area before the weather could turn stormy.

The most visually stunning part of the park was located in this area, known as the Big Badlands Overlook. Here the land was eroded away into deep fissures, with knobs of rock sticking up in long ridges that looked a little bit like the knuckles on the back of a person's hand. And they went on and on into the distance for miles, forming a tangled warren of passageways with no roads or distinguishing features to mark a clear passage. Someone could go hiking in there and get lost very easily. We were able to walk right up to the edges of these overlooks with no guard railings to stop someone from slipping and falling. It made for spectacular, if somewhat dangerous views.

I went off with my brother Scott to do a short bit of hiking in the area. This was technically something named the Door Trail, but there wasn't much of a trail that we could see, only a series of rock pillars to explore. The land seemed to be crumbling away before our very eyes, slowly breaking up into gravel as we climbed over rocks and up to the top of individual pillars. It matched with what the informational guideposts had to say, that the Badlands are gradually being disintegrated by the elements. They will be gone in less than a million years, which is absurdly long in terms of human lifespans but relatively short in geological time. The land seemed even more broken here than it was at the Big Badlands Overlook, the tops of the rock pinnacles a craggy mess lacking any kind of pattern. We had a lot of fun climbing up to the tops of these rock formations, and they continued to provide some amazing views from the top.

We headed back into our rental car to drive through some more of the park. None of the areas that we drove through were quite as memorable as Big Badlands Overlook though, or perhaps we were just starting to become too accustomed to the sight of those rock formations. The skies also opened up and began to rain at this point, with water falling from the skies in big fat raindrops. Storms out on the Great Plains are supposed to be quite a sight, due to the lack of any kind of terrain features to block their passage, and we had indeed been able to see this storm coming from a long distance away as it moved across the flat landscape towards us. That ruled out much more in the way of hiking for this day. The rain did have one advantage though, as it seemed to bring out additional colors in some of the rock formations. That last picture above almost went through the colors of the full rainbow, passing from the green vegetation up through yellow, orange, red, and purple bands of color on the rocks above. It was a pretty sight to behold, and helped to make the long drive back to Rapid City worthwhile.

We checked out of our hotel the next morning and bid farewell to the Black Hills region of South Dakota. We would spend most of the day on Interstate 90, following as it traced a path westwards into the state of Wyoming. Our first stop along the way took place in the town of Sturgis, South Dakota, known for hosting one of the largest annual motorcycle events in the world. These T-shirts were already advertising the upcoming Sturgis Bike Week for 2011 which was about a month away. The motorcycle rally in Sturgis typically attracts around half a million bikers each year, overwhelming the little town of Sturgis with its year-round population of about 5000 people. It's supposed to be a pretty raucous bunch and I wasn't too upset that we were missing this annual festival.

Then we detoured slightly out of the way to drive through Deadwood, South Dakota, probably best known today for the HBO television series of the same name. The town of Deadwood was famed in the late 19th century for its lawlessness, with murder and prostitution commonplace in what was a remote frontier town at the time. The most famous event in the town's history was the murder of gunman Wild Bill Hickok in 1876 at the height of this period. The modern Deadwood was a charming small town that advertised its past history as a selling point for tourists, but otherwise looked no different from a hundred other small towns across the country. (Well, aside from the presence of several casinos in Deadwood as part of a local gambling initiative.) With lots of driving still ahead for this day, we stopped here only briefly before moving on.

From Deadwood, it was a drive of slightly less than an hour until we reached the Wyoming state line. There was a fancy new welcome center immediately on the other side, and we stopped to check it out and get some additional information about the route up ahead. Wyoming heavily emphasized its history as a frontier state, with cowboy iconography plastered all over the welcome center and "Forever West" as the state motto. We also heard about an attraction located only a couple of miles ahead on the interstate, something called the Vore Buffalo Jump:

This was a location where the Native American peoples of the Great Plains trapped the bison that roamed the land in massive herds. Due to the difficulty of killing the bison without horses or modern weaponry, the Native Americans would work together to drive the bison off of a cliff into a natural sinkhole below. At least some of the bison would be unable to avoid the cliff's edge and fall to their deaths, after which they could be butchered to make use of their hides. The Vore Buffalo Jump was discovered when the interstate highway was under construction, and it's been the site of a great deal of archaeological work in the decades since. The staff explained that every time that they thought they had reached the bottom layer of the bison remains, they kept finding more of the animals underneath from even further back in the past. This particular spot was used for by the local peoples for generations on end. When we walked the cliff's edge it didn't look too bad for a human to manage, but a bison running at full speed off the edge likely wouldn't have had much of a chance. It was a fascinating example of how people in the past were able to make ingenious use of the limited resources at their disposal to survive and even thrive in a difficult natural environment.

Our main destination for the day was Devil's Tower National Monument. This unique geographic feature is located a little bit out of the way, roughly half an hour's drive to the north of Interstate 90 and requiring a detour to reach. We were able to see the pillar of rock long in advance as we drove towards Devil's Tower, with that solitary spire standing out from the surrounding plains. Modern geologists agree that Devil's Tower is made up of igneous rocks and therefore it was produced by volcanism in some fashion, but there's no consensus on exactly how it was formed. The Kiowa and Lakota peoples tell the story that Devil's Tower was formed when a group of girls were chased by bears and climbed up on top of a rock, which rose up into the sky to protect them. The columns of stone along the edges of Devil's Towers were formed by scratch marks from the bear claws as they tried to climb the pillar. It's a nice story and I have to admit that the sides of the natural monument do look like they were scoured by claws.

There's a walking trail that runs completely around Devil's Tower that we decided to explore. Immediately at the entrance to the hiking path is a field of boulders that have fallen off the sides of the tower by the process of erosion. The field of boulders was largest at the trail's starting point on the western side of the tower since most of the weather systems in this part of the world move from west to east. There were a number of families here and the kids seemed to be enjoying themselves as they scrambled up and over the rocks. Heck, I had fun climbing up the boulder field to the base of the tower itself. From up here, there were fantastic views looking out over the surrounding plains with their coating of evergreen trees. This is one of those places where it felt like you could see forever. Devil's Tower is probably best known for serving as the location of the final scene in the movie Close Encounters Of The Third Kind where an alien spaceship touches down. While nothing quite that unusual has actually happened here, the place does have an unearthly quality to it.

Devil's Tower rises up about 850 feet / 265 meters from the base to its pinnacle. It's an obvious target for ambitious climbers to tackle, and the first known ascension took place in 1893 by local ranchers. Today, thousands of visitors do the climb every summer up to the top of Devil's Tower. There are supposedly routes that range from relatively easy to brutally difficult that can be tailored to the challenge level desired by the climber. We saw a number of different climbing groups as we walked around the edge of the tower, with one of the groups in the final stages up near the top. Climbers are not allowed to stay at the top overnight and must descend the same day that they arrive. Since Devil's Tower is a sacred location for the Native American peoples in the area, there's been some controversy over allowing climbers here at all; a compromise was worked out in which climbing is voluntarily banned during the month of June when the tribes are conducting ceremonies around the monument. Since we were visiting during July, there was no shortage of climbers attempting to tackle the monument.

As we walked down from the base of Devil's Tower to the surrounding plains, we stumbled across the home of a group of prarie dogs! These little animals popped their heads up from holes in the ground just like you might have seen on television or in pictures. I remember visiting a prarie dog habitat at the local zoo when I was a kid, and the animals here behaved in exactly the same fashion out in the wild. We were able to spot more of them outside of their little holes in the grass, and they were surprisingly large when their whole bodies were in view. Wikipedia states that they grow to about 15 inches / 40 centimeters in length on average, and weigh about 2 pounds / 1 kilogram apiece. I'm used to seeing the eastern gray squirrels that live in suburban neighborhoods, and these prarie dogs were noticeably larger in size. They gave us challenging stares but scampered away if anyone approached too closely. Very cute animals.

After leaving Devil's Tower, we had a lengthy drive of about three hours across the northeastern part of Wyoming. I distinctly recall seeing a bunch of mining activity in the distance, and the state of Wyoming (which has the lowest population of all 50 states despite its large size) continues to have a huge portion of its economy tied up in natural resource extraction. There's a great deal of mining, logging, and drilling for oil and natural gas throughout the sparsely populated state. We were staying for the night in the town of Sheridan, Wyoming, a farming and ranching hub in the north-central part of the state. Sheridan was the largest town that we had seen since leaving Rapid City, with a population of almost 20,000 people. That was a veritable metropolis in the empty areas that we had been passing through. Sheridan was advertising its annual Rodeo Week when we arrived and was another place that was proud of its cowboy heritage. That statue pictured above was located near the public library outside of a beautiful new building. We ate dinner at Sanford's Pub and Brewery, a cajun-themed local chain with one of those "lots of crazy junk on the walls" vibes for decor. It was quite delicious after a long day of driving and sightseeing.

Sheridan was a stopover point for only one night, mostly a way to break up the trip across the state of Wyoming across two days. We would be setting out early the next morning for the second half of that jouney, a trip over the mountains of the Bighorn range to an eventual destination of Yellowstone National Park. The great American wilderness still lay ahead.