South Dakota: Mount Rushmore and The Badlands

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Mount Rushmore was good to check off the bucket list but may not merit extensive travel on its own.  The Badlands National Park was spectacular, and a visit to these two combined with Devil’s Tower in northeast Wyoming would make a lovely long weekend.

September 11, 2013 (Wednesday, cont’d) – After visiting Devil’s Tower we drove a couple hours to Mount Rushmore via Rapid City, which was surprisingly urban.  On the way we passed Spearfish which has a water park and several commercial establishments, as well as Sturgis which is famous for its annual motorcycle rally.  Neither Reptile Gardens nor Bear Country USA drew us in, and we breezed through the very touristy and kitschy town (think fudge and general schlock stores) of Keystone just a couple miles from Mount Rushmore.  Western South Dakota is more developed than I expected.

Parking at Mount Rushmore costs $11 (and the annual pass is not accepted) unless you find a spot on the street and walk a bit up the hill.  There is no charge to enter the monument.  Information and food concessions are available.  There is a walkway with stone (?) columns representing each state and displaying its flag and the year it was admitted to the union.  By coincidence, we visited three national parks/monuments on September 11.  Some ribbons on the New York column here were the only visible difference we noticed.

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Each night there is a lighting ceremony at 8 pm and they recommend you arrive an hour early.  There are some orientation films and walks available but we missed these.

Here are a few stats and things we learned: each face is 60 feet tall; each eye is 11 feet wide; Washington’s nose is 21 feet long while the others are 20 feet long (what’s up with that?); the sculptor was Gutzon Borglum, and there is also a small bust of Gutzon carved by his son Lincoln; Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, blah blah blah, but critically he is credited with the first ice cream recipe in America.

The explanation offered in the park’s official newspaper for why these Presidents: Birth (Washington, first President); Expansion (Jefferson, Louisiana Purchase); Development (T. Roosevelt, Panama Canal + Trust Buster + National Parks); Preservation (Lincoln, saved the union during Civil War).

After leftover pasta in the parking garage (you see, there are advantages to keeping your job), we returned to I-90 where the landscape began to look more like the plains.  Innumerable billboards starting from afar battered us into visiting Wall Drug.  This is a famous attraction that is essentially an old shopping mall where all the stores operate under a single entity.  It has been there since 1931 and is worth a look if you are in the area.  Among countless other necessaries, one can purchase a five cent cup of coffee or a bottle of Red Ass Rhubarb Wine.  I was surprised by how many young foreigners work at Wall Drug.

Just down the road we entered Badlands National Park.  Almost immediately we saw some bighorn sheep by the road and proceeded to stop at several overlooks.  There is a paved driving loop which is the obvious activity for any visitor.  The overlooks have explanatory displays and various hikes are possible.  The scenery is otherworldly.

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We entered the park from the north where you are atop the plateau and look out and down at formations and canyons.  The loop descends so that on the south side you look out and up at formations and mountains.

The cracked earth and multitude of rattlesnake warning signs reveal the harshness of this terrain.  The park service addresses the name’s origin as follows:

The Lakota people were the first to call this place “mako sica” or “land bad.” Extreme temperatures, lack of water, and the exposed rugged terrain led to this name. In the early 1900’s, French-Canadian fur trappers called it “les mauvais terres pour traverse,” or “bad lands to travel through.”

Today, the term badlands has a more geologic definition. Badlands form when soft sedimentary rock is extensively eroded in a dry climate. The park’s typical scenery of sharp spires, gullies, and ridges is a premier example of badlands topography.

Many fossils have been discovered here and there are educational displays about the animals that previously ruled the area.  We fortunately avoided sabre-toothed big cats and encountered prairie dogs, pronghorn antelope, a coyote (all three prior animals visible in a single photo below!), and a rabbit with part of his ear missing that Jenni dubbed the Badlands Badass Bunny.

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Badlands Badass Bunny

At Burns Basin Overlook there was a big green patch partway across the canyon, and I just know that if Trump were president then future generations would find fairways and waterfalls here.

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The air was clear and we could easily see Eagle Nest Butte 30 miles away from Panorama Point Overlook.  Though it was nearly 90º in the afternoon, the weather was delightful by the time we hiked the Notch Trail.  This requires ascending a wooden ladder where Jenni subdued her fear of heights.

While the park allots 1.5-2 hours, the out and back hike took us only 50 minutes, including time to frolic at the end over views of White River Valley.

Another view of the ladder
Another view of the ladder if you look closely
Fear shmear
Fear shmear

At the south end of the park is the town of Interior, population 67.  There are a handful of camping and budget accommodations here, and we camped at a KOA nearby.  It was passable but we were disappointed to learn that post-Labor Day the pool is closed and so are the toilets near our site.  The coyotes howling at night were a nice touch.  I have been surprised in general at how much changes after Labor Day in terms of availability of facilities and tours etc., at least in terms of the northwest and north part of the country.  I guess that is the trade off for fewer crowds and often better weather.  Next time at Badlands I would probably try to stay at Cedar Pass Lodge which is just inside the park and I believe has camping, cabins, etc.

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Today was a great day filled with new experiences.  I certainly enjoyed our time in the mountains of Montana and Wyoming, but I have done so much of that in my life.  This was a welcome change!

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