Big Heads, Badlands & Bear Claws

After the seemingly endless trek across the windswept northern prairie, the landscape suddenly changes. On second thought, suddenly hardly describes it.

Abruptly, immediately, instantaneously the topography dramatically goes from flat grassland besieged with billboards to the spectacularly gnarled Badlands.

Out of nowhere the South Dakota plains give way to layers of soft shale, clay and limestone that wear away at a rate of about an inch a year… CONTINUE READING >>

Badlands National Monument in South Dakota

the seemingly endless trek across the windswept northern prairie,
the landscape suddenly changes.

On second thought, “suddenly
hardly” describes it.
Abruptly, immediately, instantaneously the topography dramatically
goes from flat grassland besieged with billboards to the spectacularly
gnarled Badlands.

The Badlands of South Dakota

Out of nowhere
the South Dakota plains give way to layers of soft shale, clay
and limestone that wear away at a rate of about an inch a year
leaving stunning silhouettes and fanciful formations.

See more photos of The Badlands

Lakota Sioux dubbed the region “Mako Sica” or “Bad
Land” and the early French Trappers concurred, calling
it “les mauvaises terres a traverser” meaning a
“bad land to cross.” No one said anything about
it being a bad land to LOOK at, so America
recognized it as a uniquely beautiful spot and proclaimed it Badlands
National Monument in 1929.

Wild formations in The Badlands of South Dakota

inhospitable or difficult to traverse this place may be, the
Badlands certainly provide a most unique spot where one feels
utterly removed from the rest of the planet.

The Badlands Loop Road in Badlands National Monument, South Dakota

most of the park is wilderness and inaccessible by vehicle, The
Badlands Loop Road passes through the most far-fetched of formations. Absolutely remarkable — we’d go so far as to describe it as
“out of this world.”

See more photos of The Badlands here

The Badlands behind us, we began the climb up into The Black
Hills. “Hills” is a bit of a misnomer, these massive
mountains rise over 7000 feet with sheer rock cliffs and beautiful

The area around Mount Rushmore

We thought we were on a quest to see Mount Rushmore
but found much more. The area is filled with an interesting,
if a bit unsavory, history. We rapidly discovered that the disputes
of the Old West rage on and that an extraordinary work of art can
have an unseemly creator.

This mountain
range that the Lakota Sioux call Paha Sapa, is a microcosmic study
of the overall deceitful treatment the North American native peoples
received from our government. Ownership of the area is still disputed
based on the terms of the 1868 treaty of Fort Laramie.

On the road to Mount Rushmore

Back then
no one had much use for the area, except the Lakota, who lived
and hunted in the region and considered the Black Hills sacred
ground. The U.S. government signed an agreement giving the tribes
permanent ownership of the region. Unfortunately for the Sioux,
gold was found in them thar hills in 1874 and the prospectors
flooded in.

1877 the great white chiefs in Washington decided “Treaty?
What treaty?” and the army drove the Sioux out of the
Hills and onto the nearby prairie. New treaties were signed,
then broken again and again throughout the following decades,
until the Sioux were finally left with nothing but a few scraps
of worthless flatland.

The battered
Sioux Nation never gave up the fight, finally winning a court
award of $17.5 million (the value of the land in 1877) plus $105
million in interest

(5% for 103 years) in 1980. The Lakota Sioux
refused the judgment and continue to demand the return of their

This story
is sadly familiar, repeated time and time again across the continent.
It was easy as 1, 2, 3.

1. Sign treaty
giving ownership of thought to be worthless land to a tribe or
tribes “in perpetuity.”

2. Discover
gold, silver, oil or any other use for the land.

3. Move tribes
to new piece of even more worthless piece of land.

Lather, rinse,

Mount Rushmore on a beautiful day

sad tale was followed by the creation of one of America’s
greatest works of art, Mount Rushmore, but not without controversy
of its own. In 1923, after removing all of the Native Americans and
most of the gold from the Black Hills, historian Doane Robinson
thought that an enormous something should be done to promote tourism.

See more photos of Mount Rushmore here

A different angle of Mount Rushmore

Robinson asked
noted sculptor and Klansman (as in KKK), Gutzon Borglum, to carve
a tribute to America’s first 150 years into the side of a mountain.

Gutzon happened to be available, due to a falling out with his
Klan buddies regarding the depiction the heroes of the Confederacy
during his Stone Mountain project in Georgia. Borglum came to
the Black Hills to scout out an acceptable site for his masterpiece
and selected the 5,725 foot high Mount Rushmore, named for New
York industrialist Charles E. Rushmore who had mining interests
in the hills.

A different angle of Mount Rushmore

bigotry and secret society memberships aside, ol’ Gutzon sure
could carve rock on a grand scale. In 1925 Congress authorized
funds for the project and in 1927 Borglum and four hundred
workers began chipping away with everything from dynamite
to tiny hand tools on the four sixty foot faces. In 1933
the National Park Service took control of the monument and by 1934
the first
face, Washington’s, was finished and dedicated. Jefferson followed
in 1936 and Lincoln in 1937.

Suspended by Mount Rushmore

was some talk in congress of adding Susan B. Anthony’s likeness
to the monument but with limited funds, Roosevelt’s face
was the final one, dedicated in 1939. Work came to a halt
with Gutzon Borglum’s death and the beginning of World War
II in 1941.

end of work did not bring an end to the disputes. In 1971
members of the Sioux nations occupied
the monument, hung a drape over the faces and renamed it Mount Crazy
Horse. Despite the controversies, this is a great work of art celebrating
great presidents.

The main entrance
to the monument leads up The Avenue of Flags to the museum and
Grand View Terrace. The path is lined with tributes to every state
and territory in the union, marking the date of their admission.
As we proceeded under the flags, gazing up at the mountain, the
grandeur of the sculpture really hit us. Photographs simply do
not do it justice. The view from the Terrace truly is Grand (well
named guys!) and the museum offers a fascinating look at the construction
methods and history of the monument.

Close up of Mount Rushmore

we needed a closer look, we headed up the Presidential Trail
that proceeds to the base of the faces. Well worth the climb,
standing among the piles of fallen rock, cast-off from the
carving, we were rewarded with views right up the nostrils
of America’s greatest leaders. At the end of the trail we found
The Sculptor’s Studio where Gutzon Borglum’s tools, drawings and
clay model of his original concept to depict the presidents from
the waist up are on display. The idea was probably overambitious
and honestly, we think it fits in with the surrounding landscape
better in the unfinished, smaller version.

See more photos of Mount Rushmore here

During the
work on Rushmore representatives from the Sioux Nation approached
Korczak Ziolkowski, who was working with Borglum, with the idea
that perhaps some of the greats from their past should be memorialized
as well. They chose Thunderhead Mountain, eight miles from Rushmore,
and began work on the Crazy Horse monument in 1948. Entirely funded
from private donations, the ambitious work has been slow and not
without some controversy of its own. Many natives feel that the
sacred land should be left alone. Ziolkowski died in 1982 but
his wife and children remain involved as the project forges ahead.

we were in the vicinity, a drive over to Devils Tower National
Monument was in order. Just across the border into Wyoming,
the tower is probably best known for its role as the meeting
place in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In
real life it’s not made of mashed potatoes, but from volcanic
rock left exposed after the softer materials around it eroded

The Tower’s
odd vertical markings come from the way the lava crystallized
as it cooled or perhaps from the scratching of giant bear claws.
The stories from

geologists and Native American legends seem to
differ on this point. Numerous tribes believed the 5,112 foot
high monolith bears the markings left by a giant bear trying to
reach the top of the Tower.

park has numerous trails ranging from easy hikes to straight
up the tower. We wisely picked The Tower Trail which, despite
the name, goes around the base of the tower and not up the
side. We did get to watch some other maniacs ascending the
sheer cliffs while we strolled along humming the five note
opus from Close Encounters.

Dooo – doo
– doo – doo – doooo.

It’s a terrible
chorus to have stuck in your head, believe us. Just the same

notes over and over and over. And over.

managed to extract the refrain from our brains by visiting
the prairie dog town on the south edge of the park. These
little guys can take your mind off of anything. Adorable and amusing,
we spent at least an hour just watching their antics. But alas,
the time had come to move along.

Turning back
for one last look at the tower as we drove away… DAMN!… there
it is again. Those same five notes. We didn’t ask around, but
I’ll bet it wasn’t just us. I’d bet everyone who has seen the
movie is cursed with those five notes as soon as they see the
Devils Tower.

Dooo – doo
– doo – doo – doooo.

David & Veronica,

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7 thoughts on “Big Heads, Badlands & Bear Claws”

  1. Dooo – doo – doo – doo – doooo.

    It’s a bit corny, but Wall Drug is a worthwhile stop just outside the Badlands. I also like Custer State Park on the north side of the Black Hills. It has a nice Buffalo herd. The train, gold panning (and ice cream stops just about anywhere) are good for the kids. There are lots of great campgrounds. We’ve had two if our best family vacations in the Hills.

  2. >just enjoyed a great summer vacation with my 11 yr old son and grandparents seeing all of these places, totally awesome and beautiful….we both hated for it to end

  3. >I recall when my cousin didn't let go of a life saver soon enough and a Devil's Tower prairie dog bithim. Used to go there lots in the summer. Always to the Old Settler's Picnic.

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