The Black Hills and Badlands contain many places considered very sacred by the Lakota and other plains tribes. For Lakota holy man Black Elk, Harney Peak, the highest point in the Black Hills, was the center of the world. Bear Butte is a traditional site for hanblechia (vision quest), The Wakinyan (Thunder Beings) live in the Black Hills, according to Lakota tradition. Many buttes in the Badlands were also traditional hanblechia sites. The Stronghold area of the Badlands is a sacred place of strength for the Lakota.
This space is for sharing stories from Buffalo Dreamers about their experiences in some of these amazing natural places.
Badlands Natural History
National Park Service history page.
Wind Cave National Park
Includes lots of good information on the Black Hills, including geology, plants, animals, and history.
Black Elk Wilderness
Badlands and Black Hills Pilgrimage
by Allen R. Pyle, July 2004
On this trip, I had no agenda or expectations. I knew I would get to experience the Badlands and Black Hills in a new way. This was the first time I've had a chance to spend time hiking in the back country of these areas. Areas I have visited multiple times before, but hadn't yet been fully immersed in.
On previous visits, I have enjoyed the hospitality of friends in Hisle and Wanblee on Pine Ridge Rez. I've had the chance to drive the unmarked back roads and participate in ceremony in beautiful places. One enjoyable experience is driving with elders. A reliable vehicle with a full tank of fuel is a valuable resource, and elder shuttle service is always an adventure. I love the stories I've heard while driving and riding with Lakota elders. The jokes and funny stories that bring out belly laughs. Learning the history about the land we are passing through, from someone who traveled it on horseback in childhood. Sacred stories, when the time is right. It is a pleasure to hear these stories from people who know the land so well. Spending time on Pine Ridge Reservation has provided me an excellent teachings on patience and letting go of expectations.
But this trip, it was the wilderness that was calling to me. I would be sitting in on a Mammals of the Badlands class by the Audubon Center of the North Woods in Sandstone, MN. My sister Kendra was one of the instructors, and we would have time to do some backwoods camping together after the class. This was to be my first backwoods camping experience, as my short-lived stint in the Boy Scouts in Texas involved only one hike, along a highway. I think that was a strictly character building exercise. It's certainly a unique approach to hike in camping.
The class was great, and I would highly recommend any of the Center's programs and courses. Mike Link is a wonderful guide to the Badlands, having hiked the area for longer than I have been alive, in every month of the year.
Both the Black Hills and the Badlands are fascinating on many levels. I find that they affect my perspective on space and time. They are also wonderful places for a permaculturist to hone the all-important observation skills. I definitely enjoyed the view when I did my morning yoga.
The Badlands are an incredible, living laboratory to learn about erosion. I doubt there is better place to study this phenomena in the world. The Badlands are a constantly changing environment, visibly etched with its long history -- seabottom, vegetated land, riverbeds. Campsites for stone age hunter gatherers that worked stone from the chalcedony beds. Red and yellow stripes of Paleosols, both colored so differently by the same element, iron, in its varied forms. Fossils ranging from the teeth of long extinct mammals, unluckier than the still-living Pronghorn -- which have existed for a million or so years and are not closely related to any other living animals. In 500,000 years, there will be no Badlands left, as erosion rates vary from 1-6" per year.
Even the fossils in the Badlands have a temporary nature. Because they are made with the same sediments as the rest of the landscape, Badlands fossils are generally very fragile, crumbling easily. A good reason to follow the official rules of the Park Service and leave fossils where you find them, taking only photos.
In microcosmic scale, you can find the same erosion patterns you see in the massive formations that tower above you. The scale here ranges from a few feet, down to just a few inches. You can appreciate the early stages of deposition of sediments that will one day form new mudstone and fossils untold millions of years in the future. All it takes is a willingness to open your mind and stretch your observation muscles to experience a much deeper appreciation for the landscape.
A landscape which can be at times quite awe inspiring and even bizarre. I took pictures not knowing how well the camera could possibly capture the view. Water is an amazing, transformative erosion force in the Badlands. Water in creeks and pools here is so thickly filled with very fine sediments that it cannot be filtered sufficiently to make it drinkable. There have been four solid years of drought, and the dry conditions are easy to read in the soil and the plant life.
Miscellaneous images from our Badlands geology hike
Round, armored mudballs formed when sticky clays adhere to rolling stones and pick up additional mud and stones as they roll, picking up size
Areas completely devoid of vegetation, containing only stone and bare soil.
Mud so dry and cracked that it shows no trace of your passage. Other areas where the soil is wet, and the mud pulls at you, attempting to draw you in.
Extinct anthill in the Badlands. The ants carry up stones excavated from the soil they dig in, and can amass quite a collection over time. Such anthills are a place where the Lakota historically sought out sacred, perfectly round stones used in making ceremonial rattles or for personal tokens. Elsewhere in the Badlands and Black Hills, we found smaller, active anthills where tiny shells and even tinier garnets were being brought up by the ants. The treasures returned to the surface by the tireless work of ants collect very slowly. How many billions of ant hours went into making the massive fossil anthill, I wonder?
Before the Mammals class, I stopped briefly to see Morning Star in Hisle. Not knowing what my travel schedule was, I opted to just drop by and see if she was home, without calling first. She was indeed home, working on a quilting project.
I delivered some gifts to Star and drank coffee while catching up on the family news. Sadly, Star shaded that Santa Claus did not come to the valley this past X-mas. Donations were way down compared to the year before, with not enough gifts to fill a single small box arriving. Hopefully this can be significantly improved this year.
Interior, population 72, has changed since my last visit. Badlands Shell no longer carries its once-excellent book selection. The Wooden Knife Indian taco place is also closed. I felt a bit of a loss, since these places had been regular stops on previous visits. There is a new taco place closer to town, and a new Lakota-run crafts store next to the small grocery store.
The grocery stocks an interesting selection of beer. Just Budweiser, with the choice of can size: 12, 16, or 24 ounces. They stock a whole cooler full, and it sells well. There is still money being made selling alcohol to the Lakota, at great cost to the community.
There is now a Park Entrance Fee Required sign on the back road into Badlands National from Interior, something I hadn't expected to see.
Kendra had not been to Wounded Knee, and it had been quite a few years since I was there last. We decided to head there after saying our goodbyes to the class.
In driving through the Badlands during class, we had passed Big Foot Pass, the place where the Big Foot's massacred band had entered the Badlands. We had heard that the Oglala Lakota College in Kyle had a good exhibit on the Lakota history, so we decided to stop there, as well. This exhibit was excellent, and covered Lakota history, focusing on the events leading up to the massacre of Big Foot's band at Wounded Knee in December of 1890. This was definitely a worthwhile stop, and the college is doing excellent work providing educational opportunities for the local community. Admission is free -- donations are welcome.
We then drove BIA roads to get to Wounded Knee, which seemed to pop up suddenly out of the rolling grassland. We parked and began the walk to the hilltop cemetary where Bigfoot's massacred band lies in a mass grave. An intense wave of emotion hit me about a third of the way to the top, washing over me like a cold chill. Here I made my first tobacco offering. As I proceeded further, the strength of the emotional waves increased, and I was crying by the time I stopped at the stone monument that marks the mass grave. Here I made another tobacco offering and some silent prayers while the full reality of the history of this place began to seep into me, as the tears flowed out of me. I gave thanks that the Lakota people and their spiritual traditions have perservered though the incredible hardships the people have endured. Incomprehensible hardships, particularly in a country where freedom and guaranteed rights are supposed to be the norm.
Eventually, we headed back down the hill and stopped to look at the tables where local Lakota were selling handmade jewelry and dreamcatchers. There were some very nice pieces, and I bought two dreamcatchers with a woven tipi pattern We were told that this style of dreamcatcher honors women, who traditionally constructed tipis. As we were admiring the crafts, a vanload of young people -- a church group -- stopped and visited the artists' tables, purchasing freely. I'm sure the local economy benefitted quite a bit from their stop. But most then headed back to the vehicle. We only saw two people venture up to see the marker at the mass grave as we drove off.
Black Hills Geology
The Black Hills are ancient mountains, composed of rock up to 2 billion years old, and very heavily weathered. Here, too, the geological history of the mountains is mapped out in the rock. Here the earth was forced up by magma that never exploded as a volcano. In some of the formations, you can see the slanted and folded layers as the stone was pushed up quite clearly in some formations.
Unlike the Badlands, drinkable water is plentiful in the Black Hills, if you have the proper treatment gear. Tree identification is quite easy for novices in the Black Hills. There are 17 species of trees, but ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) accounts for 95% of the trees. The other evergreen is the Black Hills Spruce (Picea glauca var. densata).
There is a dichotomy to the sacredness of the Black Hills and the Badlands, which sometimes leads to surreal experiences. Driving back roads from Buffalo Gap into Custer State Park, we rounded acorner to come face-to-face with iron dragon sculpture -- cowboy George and the Dragon? There was a whole yard full of such statues, and a big No Trespassing sign at the driveway.
Mt. Rushmore is another vivid example of the dichotomy. An amazing artistic work, but in such a sacreligious site. It serves as the ultimate sign that the US has successfully stolen the Black Hills from the Lakota. I will shed no tear should the wakinyan one day wipe it from the mountain.
The Black Elk Wilderness is named for the renowned Lakota wichasa wakan (holy man). Kendra and I hiked through part of it on the way to Harney Peak. The trails we walked allow horses, and we marveled at taking a horse up some of the rocky paths.
While camping in the Black Elk Wilderness on our overnight hike, we got an unexpected experience of the Independence Day celebration at Mt. Rushmore. Two pairs of fighter jets and a B1 bomber flew past our campsite, and we were serenaded with the rumbling echoes of the Mt. Rushmore fireworks show.
We didn't see any other people until we got to the shortest trail to the peak, where there was a steady trickle of hikers headed to the top. Most seemed to be plodding along, barely noticing the scenery around them, impressive enough itself. One can spend hours just looking at the lichens and mosses growing on the boulders and rocks.
We were greeted with increasing rumbles of thunder as we gained altitude on the hike. The wakinyan welcoming us to their mountain, I found it comforting to feel the thunder rumble in my body. Far preferable to the noise of the fireworks the night before. Thunderstorms, often severe, can pop up quickly in the Black Hills, and then disapate just as fast. We stayed mostly dry, getting only some light drizzle from time to time. We could smell the rain and feel the humidity change, all the while serenaded by echoes of thunder, knowing it was raining nearby.
Only a few of the Peak-bound tourists were friendly or seemed to be enjoying themselves on the hike to the peak. Most were just quiet and determined plodders. I picked up trash on the trail, quickly becoming irritated by the amount of candy wrappers, tissue, and cigarette butts I was compelled to pick up and pack out. What kind of ignorance would lead someone to litter in such an amazing, sacred place? We did meet a few nice people, who were obviously enjoying the hike.
But the typical tourist crowd seems shut out of the full experience of the Hills, in some quest to check off a list of things to see -- Mt. Rushmore, buffalo in Custer State Park, Harney Peak, Wall Drug. Eat buffalo burgers. Check. Next, off to Devil's Tower. Experiencing the Parks mostly from the scenic overlooks (which can be quite impressive admittedly), but moving too fast to let the true nature of the places truly sink in. Of course, the real irony is that the National and State parks need a stream of RV driving tourists to pay entrance fees, particularly in a slow economy.
We dropped our packs for the last of the trail, and enjoyed the weight reduction. When we reached the entrance to the stairs to the top of the Peak, we stopped. Sitting on the rock of the mountain, we made a tobacco offering, and grounded ourselves before heading to the top.
I did not bring my camera to the Peak. This sacred view is best appreciated in person. The energy of the place is palpable, and it's easy to see why the Lakota considered this the sacred center of the world The wind was strong, and the temperature probably 10 degrees cooler at the top. I admired the view while Kendra climbed the stone observation tower. I found a comfortabled spot and said a quiet prayer while looking out over the Hills.
Marveling at the spectacular view, I noticed the clouds ended at the edge of the hills, and there was sunshine beyond the Black Hills. I wondered how early in the morning one would have to reach the top of the Peak to do ceremony there without interruption.
I hadn't been to the Butte since my trip supporting a vision quest camp four years earlier. Since it had begun raining steadily after our return from Harney Peak, instead of camping at Bear Butte, we decided to find the cheesiest motel possible in Custer, and wolfed down a dinner of 1/2 lb. buffalo burgers in record time.
The rain continued in the morning, but we headed to Bear Butte to see if the weather would break. It didn't. We arrived at the Butte to see it enshrouded by mist. It was briefly visible when we drove in, but the Butte soon disappeared it until it was completely hidden. We ate lunch at the covered picnic shelter at the State Park campgrounds there, thankful someone had left some sage and a little firewood in one of the central stone grills. We were able to get a fire going, and we enjoyed the warmth, watching the swallows and meadowlarks in the rain while we prepared and ate sandwiches. When the wind and rain picked up as we finished eating, I knew we wouldn't be going to the top of the Butte.
The visitor center was still open, and there was even a fresh pot of coffee on. We chatted with the Park naturalist and browsed the educational displays and books for sale. They had fresh sweetgrass, and I bought several braids. On the way out, we stopped to make a tobacco offering at the Frank Fools Crow bust.
Leaving the parking lot, I managed to drive over a concrete parking paver in the parking lot, caught up in the majesty of the Butte, even with it completely hidden by clouds. Laughing about the bumpy exit, we headed for I-90 to start the eastward journey. We would drive through all through South Dakota, and it felt good to see a steady, soaking rain falling on the Badlands and National Grasslands.
Heading east early gave us time to stop at Pipestone National Monument in Minnesota. Turning into the road to the visitor's center, we stopped to make a tobacco offering at the grouping of large boulders where Three Sisters, spiritual guardians of the pipestone quarry, are said to reside.
The educational displays in the visitor center included a display of petroglyphs that had been pecked into the Sioux quartzite. Liberated from their original location, large chunks of the red, hard stone show an assortment of some of the common petroglyphs of the area.
The gift shop here always has strange energy for me. I think it has to do with the fact that the pipes they have for sale are displayed with the bowl and stem connected. The pipes are beautiful, but it saddens me to see them blatantly commercialized.
The trails here are beautiful, and feature many labeled plants and numbered stops detailing history, geology, and sacred nature of many spots along the way Some of the quartzite rocks along the trail are marked with names of explorers and early settlers to the area. An interesting contrast to the petroglyphs.
With the rain, Pipestone Creek was running high, and the waterfalls seemed to have an extra vigor as the river flowed over the boulders. We held a pipe ceremony near the Oracle rock before heading on.
Jeffers Petroglyph site
We had a walk along the petroglyphs in the drizzle. Tuesday was the one day of the week the visitor's center was closed, but with the plentiful signs the trails were still quite informative. It is amazing to see petroglyphs preserved so well in their original location, undisturbed except for the very slowly encroaching lichens.
On the way to the Badlands, I had stopped at Blue Mounds State Park. The campground was pretty full, and sites are closer than I prefer, but the hiking trails are very nice. There was a flicker nest in a tree next to me. Since I was tentless, I slept in the back of my VW Golf that night.
In the morning, I walked the trail above the quarry where red Sioux quartzite was collected. The exposed stone eventually becomes covered with a blue-grey lichen, which gives the park its name. I took quite a few photos of native plants here, and it was interesting to see some of the same species in the Badlands under a much drier environment later in the trip.
Animal observation notes
I was looking forward to having time to observe animals during the Mammals class. At worst, it meant getting to spend time outdoors in some very interesting areas. The class was quite successful in terms of mammal sightings, and we also saw many interesting birds, and a few reptiles.
Sage Creek Bison
We spent a day in the Sage Creek area, observing bison. We were lucky, and easily spotted the herd with binoculars, and it looked to be about 3 miles away. Mike guided us, following buffalo trails. This allowed us to see wallows and rubs along the way. There was quite a bit of shed hair as well. Since it was a hot day, Mike had told everyone to bring 3-4 liters of water, and be sure to remain hydrated. It is essential to pack sufficient water when hiking in the Badlands.
Sage Creek holds some very interesting chalcedony beds, many of which contain worked stone. We also found several anthills -- much smaller than the fossil bed. I took some time sifting through one, looking at the collection of small stones, miniscule fossil shells, and extremely tiny garnets.
The herd was about 130 animals, plus additional bulls not close to the herd, some of which we saw in the Roberts dog town. We had an excellent viewing spot, and several large bulls passed quite close to us. We also saw male bighorn sheep and pronghorn here.
As we were watching one large bull while having lunch, he began to snort and grunt, being answered by a younger bull closer to the herd. This was the first time most of the group had been anywhere near a bison, and the calls of the bull were obviously starting to worry some people. Bison can make some impressive sounds, some of which can be felt as much as heard. At one point, Tanya turned to me and said in a very calm voice, "I am completely terrified." Feeling our group's rising anxiety, I was already reaching for my tobacco pouch to get out some sage, and I quietly burned some as smudge. The small whisp of smoke from the sage confirmed that Mike had brought us to a perfect, downwind vantage point to watch the herd. After the bull had wandered off, someone asked what I would have done if charged by a bull bison. Without hesitation, I said "pray."
The larger bulls were already starting to smell urine of the females, to see if they are receptive. One very large bull we saw wallowing in the distance walked right past Mike, Kate, and I while the rest of the class was doing their herd observations. He had a huge beard, and you could hear his snorting and watch his beard shiver as he smelled the urine. A very impressive animal.
Custer Park Bison
Kendra and I encountered a large group of bison in Custer State Park on a morning hike before breaking camp. We sat on a small hill to watch them. The herd kept walking our way, steadily. Camera forgotten, I was glued to my binoculars as the herd approached.
The herd was about 15 yards away when Kendra said quietly "I'm starting to get a little nervous". "Ground it," I replied. The cow I was watching seemed huge in my binoculars. The herd then turned, catching our scent. They ran about 100 yards before settling down again to graze and slowly wander off.
Later that day, we saw a group of bison loafing by the road in Custer. The Custer bison are adapted to the presence of cars on the roads in the park, and do not feel threatened by them passing. This makes taking pictures easy, except for the vehicles that back into your picture, that is.
We spent time observing prairie dog towns in both the Buffalo Gap National Grassland and at Badlands National Park. Grazing livestock and taking home rocks are allowed in the Grassland, but prohibited in the Park. Shooting prairie dogs, a favorite target of varmint hunters, is now prohibited in the Grassland as well as the Park. This change was made due to the black-tailed prairie dog being proposed for listing as a Federally endangered species. Note the wording carefully: proposed for listing. They are on the waiting list, and will likely remain there for quite some time, given the politics which surround this animal.
The dog town in the Grassland is not acclimated to cars or people This is an area where black footed ferrets have been released, and where they are conditioned for release at other sties, in an attempt to reintroduce this endangered animal. Inside the conditioning pens was the only area where the vegetation was tall. With the drought, in the livestock grazed grassland, the vegetation was quite bare in the dog towns. In times of drought, a prairie dog town will expand, but when food is more plentiful, it will shrink in area as less land is needed to support a colony.
We found several shed snake skins in the conditioning pens, and the wildlife biologist said prairie rattlers were common in the area. These were likely garter or racer skins. Abandoned prairie dog burrows make excellent snake habitat. Identifying abandoned burrows here was quite easy. They were the ones with very obvious black widow spider egg cases, and the less obvious female black widow spiders.
At Roberts dog town in the National Park, the dogs are acclimated to the presence of people, and are much easier to observe. You can easily see typical prairie dog behavior (including the ever-popular jump-yip) at Roberts, but are more likely to hear dogs inside their burrow, yipping constantly, in the Grasslands towns we visited. This makes for some mind numbingly exciting observation. The highlight of my prairie dog viewing here was when two dogs suddenly dropped into a burrow, wagging their tails, as a pronghorn antelope trotted in, then stopped to look at me, before running off. It ran quickly, but obvivously without much effort. It's amazing to see something that large move that quickly, and know that it isn't even pushing itself hard.
Prairie dogs are a hugely political issue in South Dakota and elsewhere. There is a proposal by South Dakota U.S. Senate candidate John Thune to establish a one-mile buffer zone free of prairie dogs on federal Grassland borders. Current policy is to trap and remove the dogs for relocation when a landowner adjoining Park or Grassland complains about them. This doesn't happen often, according to the wildlife biologists we spoke to. Some captured dogs have been released on Ted Turner's ranches, which are being managed with an ecosystem-based approach.
We got to see GIS map (Geographical Information Systems, which allows overlaying of layers of information on a map) of the Park and Grassland's dog towns, and the effects of the one-mile barrier around borders. It would be devastating to the prairie dog populations. (Even if passed, it is unlikely that the expense of such a program would be funded, a convenient out for Congress to approve legislation and then exercise fiscal restraint by not funding it.) We learned that there are approximately 15 large landowners with adjoining the Park, a handful of whom are the primary squeaky wheels on the prairie dog issue in the state.
A local rancher wife stopped while we were parked along the road, birdwatching in the Grassland. She just wanted to let us know that the the nearby prairie dog town (which we were on the way to observe) was dangerous, full of plague, and that Badlands National Park had been closed recently for 10 days due to dog-spread illness. Yeah, yeah, yadda yadda. The rumor control we heard from a volunteer naturalist (budget cuts) parallel the Rapid City Journal story. A false-positive test for hantavirus in an ill park entrance kiosk worker, which led to closing the kiosks. But the rumor was effective, as more than one member of the class was not comfortable going into the town after hearing the rumor.
There is a phenomenally primal hatred that many ranchers have for prairie dogs, a seemingly instinctive, unquenchable hatred that will fester until the last prairie dog is eliminated. There is no sylvatic plague in South Dakota prairie dog towns, though biologists aren't sure why. And hantavirus is associated with deer mice, not prairie dogs.
The prairie dog is the keystone prairie species, linked with the grasses and forbs, the bison and pronghorn, the prairie rattler and golden eagle, the black widow spider and black-tailed ferret. The prairie dog seems to represent the Wild at some fundamental level that ranchers who still live and breathe a life of Taming the West cannot tolerate.
We saw quite a few pronghorn in the Badlands and National Grassland. Pronghorn are very fast. They can cruise at 30-40 mph and sprint to 60 mph. They are more likely to go under than jump over fences, without slowing down. The fences in the National Grassland have the lowest wire 16" off the ground, to assist the pronghorn.
We got to see several groups of female pronghorn with young quite close from the road in Custer State Park. The young pronghorn were romping, racing each other flat out, loping with a carefree bounce, then zooming quickly back to their mothers. It's quite amusing to watch these unusual animals.
Reptiles & Amphibians
Northern Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens)
The only frog I saw during the trip, he was in a creek in a wetland near our dog town observation area. Some of us saw two golden eagles soraing high above this wetland. There was also evidence of beaver activity along the creek.
Western painted turtle (Chrysemys picta belli)
A common species, often seen crossing roads. I did escort one of these turtles across a road this trip. Unlike snappers, you can generally herd these guys along just by walking behind them.
Prairie rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis)
The only prairie rattler I saw on the trip was a roadkill. These are common in the Eagle Nest Butte area.
Bull snake (Pituophis melanoleucus)
One of my favorite snakes, they can reach 4-6' in length. I found this specimen on a walk while the rest of the class was analyzing buffalo observation data.
Eastern yellow-bellied racer (Coluber coluber ssp. flaviventris)
This was my first time seeing this species, and Mike also said this was the first year he had seen it in the area. It was the most common snake we saw in the Badlands. Perhaps its varied diet helps it manage the drought conditions better than other species.
The snake was a beautiful grey-green color with a yellow belly. It tolerated handling (including being passed up a cliff so the whole class could see it) very well. We released him back into his mudhole, and he retreated back under the muddy shelf we found him.
My camera isn't good for photographing birds, but we saw many species I'd not seen before. The cliff swallow colonies were especially interesting.
There were several colonies in Badlands canyons, including one where egg shells and guano from successful baby rearing were dropped right below the colony. Usually they are discarded further away.
We watched burrowing owls in a Buffalo Gap prairie dog town. These small owls are active during the day, and can dig their own burrow if they can't find a suitable pre-dug one. Amazing birds.
We got to watch a black backed woodpecker completely unconcerned by our presence, as he hunted for insect larvae in a ponderosa pine. He made large chips of bark fly, and didn't stop as we walked past him, even though he was quite close to the trail. This is reportedly a rare species in the Black Hills.
I took a ton of plant pictures, and am working to get them online, along with ethnobotanical information about their edible and other uses.
This was a wonderful trip, and it was great to have the opportunity to experience the back country in places I thought I knew fairly well. It will take quite a bit of time to fully digest this experience, I'm sure, but I'm already looking forward to the next trip.