South Dakota has honed an advertising approach based on that well known Borg maxim, “Resistance is futile”. Ubiquitous corny billboards line the interstate, subtly brainwashing us, so that we drift down the off ramp at Mitchell, almost without conscious decision and find ourselves outside the Corn Palace, not quite sure how we got here. I am almost too embarrassed to admit that this is the third time we have sucumbed to the lure of this amazing display of plenty, but shucks, who cares! The Palace was originally conceived by early settlers in an attempt to attract more people to the area and whether it served its purpose back then is almost irrelevant when set against the bus loads of tourists it attracts today. They’re all ears as their tour guides fill them in on the history of the phenomenon, gobbling up the kernels of information to pop onto a postcard home.
Our determination not to fall prey to the magnetism of that other great South Dakotan attraction, Wall Drug, is also futile. In spite of previous visits we somehow mysteriously find ourselves in the middle of the world’s epicentre of tourist tack. We reassure each other that the real purpose for stopping is to take advantage of the “Free Ice Cold Water” advertised on the huge boards strategically placed across hundreds of miles of prairie. However, the water isn’t ice cold and we’re not altogether convinced by each other’s reassurances.
Our third failure to keep the truck wheels pointed in the direction we want occurs at Mount Rushmore where we find ourselves in the monument gazing up at the presidents. Nothing much has changed since our last visit in 2002: the sculpture is every bit as impressive, the souvenirs every bit as pervasive.
The journey between these three icons spans a changing landscape from the prairie to the Badlands and into the Black Hills. Badlands National Park, while not far from Wall Drug, is a world apart. Here pockets of pale green prairie sit between areas of heavily eroded exposed rock. Distinctly coloured strata bring additional interest to the fascinating shapes: steep sided gullies, sharp edged spires, rounded buttes and washes lined with material as fine as talc, the land so heavily eroded that the eye struggles to make sense of the angles and intricacies stretching off into the distance. In spite of a number of previous visits, we’re captivated by the landscape, whether walking the trails amongst the bare rock or gazing across the landscape to the open prairie.
Badlands is a wonderful place enhanced by the presence of the bison herds that wander the grasslands. At this time of year the bulls are in small groups leaving the larger gatherings of females and young males to their own devices. On the edge of the wilderness area, the Sage Creek campground is frequently visited by a small group of bulls, systematically munching through the grass in-between using the picnic shelters as scratching posts and practicing some posturing ahead of the breeding season. Bison watching proves a real distraction from the work we’re trying to do, but such opportunities don’t arise every day and the camera and binoculars are never far away.
The bison in Badlands are a managed herd, one of many throughout the west that are attempting to reintroduce the animal to what was part of their natural range. The massive herds are a thing of the past but these small groups at least give a glimpse into the world prior to their mass slaughter by the europeans in their quest to take possession of the west.
We find another group at Wind Cave National Park in the Black Hills. Here the cows have already given birth and the ginger coloured calves move along with the herd, never straying too far from the protection of their mothers. Like all young animals they enjoy cavorting, kicking out their back legs and bouncing off all four legs in exuberant delight.
We are here ahead of Memorial Day weekend to make sure that we get a place in the campground and much to our surprise, it’s virtually empty. The cave tours may be busy but a campground with no hook-ups apparently has little appeal to the average tourist. We have a delightful few days and between getting some work done make time for a drive through the quieter areas of the park on the unpaved back roads. We’re rewarded by some wonderful views, the most memorable out over Red Valley where we spy a handful of elk sheltering amongst a stand of ponderosa pines off in the distance.
No visit to a National Park is complete without at least one hike. We take the Centennial trail out and the Lookout Point Trail on the return as we pass through the three distinct ecosystems within the park: riparian along Beaver Creek through a delightful canyon, ponderosa pine forest as we climb from the valley bottom onto the open prairie heading back. In a short five miles we experience a snapshot of the park, along with a lone bison and an impressive storm brewing on the horizon.
Magnificent storms with dark brooding skies are part and parcel of the Black Hills experience. Weather forecasts for hail the size of golf balls fortunately didn’t fall on us but the gathering cumulonimbus, the rumbling thunder and flashes of lightning prove another distraction from work. Huge menacing fronts can be seen approaching from miles away, obscuring the blue skies as they advance, incorporating any stray white fluffy clouds into their mass. The downdraft heralds their arrival along with the very particular sound of huge raindrops starting to fall on the roof of the camper: single large drops begin the beat, the tempo and volume gradually increasing until we can hardly hear each other speak above the percussive crescendo. There’s something truly exciting about the force of the weather here.
No trip to the Black Hills would be complete without a cave tour and there are plenty to choose from. We opt for one at Jewel Cave National Monument. It’s the National Park Service, what could possibly go wrong? How about being being left in the cave, forgotten by the ranger who’d taken us on the tour?
Access to the subterranean world is via a couple of lifts. They’re not large enough to take everyone on the tour in one go, so at the end Ranger Bob accompanies half of the group in the ascent to the surface promising to return for the rest of us. Five minutes pass, ten minutes, fifteen minutes, by which time we’re speculating that the lift is broken and those on the surface are doing all within their power to get us out. (cave photo) But no, when someone in the group uses the emergency phone, those up top are initially confused as to who is calling. They quickly check with Ranger Bob, who realises the error of his ways and somewhat sheepishly comes to collect us. He has numerous explanations: he was sidetracked by someone asking questions. distracted by a would be junior ranger wanted to swear his oath of allegiance etc etc. It certainly added to our tour experience but I suspect Ranger Bob won’t live it down in a hurry