US-SD/ND/NE: The Great Plains

Mount Rushmore

Mt. Rushmore - Gaping (from left to right): George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln

December 2004

Big Badlands Overlook

Bisons at Badlands NP
The iron grip that the INS recently has had over our travel life continued through the end of 2004. Their strange rules matched brilliantly by stranger regulations by the airline companies left us with no choice but to hastily exchange our trip to Mexican Yucatan to the frigid Great Plains of central United States. The destination was picked purely by elimination - all the other alternatives conveniently eliminating themselves for being too cold or prohibitively expensive. The choice was not a calculated risk but a reckless gamble which surprisingly paid off. When the rest of the world was being drowned in all sorts of water based disasters, we got to enjoy bright, clear and most importantly mild days.
Big Badlands Overlook

Big Badlands Overlook, Badlands National Park

Our first stop was Badlands National Park, 1.5 hrs from Rapid City. Given the time of the year, we got to share all the view points in the park with animals instead of people. Apart from the wildlife, the only thing that stands in our memory is a walk up the Notch Trail (1 hr round trip).

The following day, after spending some time gaping at the famous four on Mount Rushmore, we made our way to the lesser known attractions of the Black Hills. The Black Hills are littered with a labyrinth of top two in the region - the Wind Cave National Park and the Jewel Cave National Monument. The caves were formed by standing and not flowing water and hence are home to some unique formations, the most notable of which are the Calcite Boxwork - found only here and Canada. Due to the relative size of the natural openings, the caves also "breathe" quite violently resulting in some interesting Frostwork and Popcorn formations. Since we were in the region, we also dropped in at the Mammoth Site, an old sinkhole graveyard of prehistoric mammoths and the Crazy Horse Monument, a 56 year old, excruciatingly slow work-in-process monument of the 19th century Sioux Indian chief.

Daemonelix, Agate Fossil Beds NM
Bisons at Badlands NP

North American Bison, Badlands National Park

We then took a four hour drive to Wyoming to see its and the nation's first monument, the Devils Tower. It was formed by an underground volcanic eruption cooled and eroded to today's form. We were lucky to reach there at the best possible time - sunset. After a slippery walk around the outcrop, we made our way to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We spent the good part of the following day driving around the north and the south units of Theodore Roosevelt (the park and not the dead president), which for most part looked strikingly similar to the Badlands of the Dakota to the south.

Daemonelix, Agate Fossil Beds NM

Daemonelix, Agate Fossil Beds National Monument

Devil's Tower

After returning to Rapid City, we spent a day visiting its museums and tourist traps and recovering from the long drives. The Journey Museum and the Museum of Geology were worth the efforts while the Reptile Gardens, especially during this time of the year, is singularly avoidable. Having exhausted all the attractions of the Dakotas in half the time we had allocated, we decided to bail out of the trip - the proposal of which was promptly turned down by the airline company.

Devil's Tower

Devil's Tower National Monument, Wyoming

We decided to spend the remaining "free" days driving around Nebraska, where we were pleasantly surprised to find a series of "worth its" and "not bads" to occupy us. The first of these was the Agate Fossil Bed National Monument, where apart from the usual array of old mangled bones, we also saw a Daemonelix - a cock-screw shaped fossil of a pre-historic beaver burrow, one of its kind on the planet. A couple of hours south of the place lies the Scottsbluff and Chimney Rock formations. Both of these would have been just another boring South West formations if not for their location - first ones to come to view on the important 19th century trails - the Oregon, California and the Mormon. The Stuhr Museum in Grand Island, the wildlife refuge near Valentine and the Wounded Knee National Historic Landmark Site constituted the rest of the stopovers.

Click here for more photos from Badlands National Park.

Click here for more photos from the Black Hills region.
Click here for more photos from Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Click here for more photos from Nebraska.
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