Wide Open Spaces: Beauty and Tranquility on a Grand Scale in the Badlands

Stephanie Woodard
7/29/12

There are good times to be had in the Badlands. To fully enjoy them, get off the beaten path (i.e. the paved roads and crowds of tourists in the national park’s famed North Unit) and explore the pristine South Unit, which lies within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Here you’ll find rare views of wildly varied rock formations and innovative adventures organized by the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe is poised to collaborate with the U.S. National Park Service to manage the South Unit, making this area the first tribal national park. One caveat: Congress has to sign off on the plan, which, of course, is never a speedy process. But you don’t have to wait, since plenty of activities are already available, says Gerard Baker, Mandan/Hidatsa, director of the Oglala parks authority  and a former superintendent of Mount Rushmore.

You’ll find the tribe’s White River Visitors Center (605-455-2878; open eight a.m. to six p.m. Memorial Day through Labor Day) on Highway 27, an easy drive on well-maintained roads about an hour southeast of the Rapid City airport. Call to find out what’s happening when you’ll be in the area. You can also ask about places to eat and stay, including homey cafés and well-run lodgings in and around nearby Kyle, on the reservation.

Visitors Center supervisor M.J. Bull Bear, Oglala Lakota, recently ran down a few of the activities already scheduled. Daily events include a 10 a.m. lecture on the meaning of the traditional Lakota medicine wheel; a one p.m. session for kids, who can learn to make necklaces, parfleche jewelry boxes and bows and arrows; and evening games, including shinny, a traditional sport similar to lacrosse. The center has permanent history and culture exhibits, as well as visiting Lakota artists who demonstrate, display and sell their work daily.

Other planned events include tours of the Stronghold Table, a high Badlands plateau where Oglalas and members of other Lakota bands held out against the United States well after the formation of the reservation; programs in Lakota knowledge of the stars and the night sky; archery, tipi construction and brain-tanning demonstrations; and talks on such subjects as animals of the Badlands and the horse in Lakota culture—down to such details as how the equines were painted for warfare.

“Our interpreters and tour guides are all very knowledgeable,” said Bull Bear.

Fishing and hiking also are available, he said, noting that a recent fishing derby attracted 100 visitors on each of two days. “It was a beautiful sight, with people lined up on both sides of a river.” For a day- or year-long fishing permit, call the Oglala parks authority at 605-455-2584.

Once the South Unit is established as a tribal park, the tribe has even more plans. One is reintroducing bison to the area, as their interaction with the land— including selective grazing and pressing prairie-grass seeds into the soil with their cloven hooves—helps restore it to optimum environmental health.

Another idea is a trolley service that would take visitors on guided tours of the Stronghold Table and other spots across the park’s southern boundary, said Emma Featherman-Sam, Oglala Lakota, director of the tribe’s transportation authority, Oglala Sioux Transit.

The Badlands are very beautiful, but they are also unforgiving terrain—hot, dry and remote. When you visit, bring enough water (one gallon per person per day, recommends the National Park Service). Also be certain to check in at the White River Visitors Center and let the staff know how many are in your party and where you are headed, said enforcement ranger Troy Bettelyoun, Oglala Lakota. “We don’t want to have to send out a search party,” he explained.

Visitors will find the South Unit an exceptional adventure. You’ll learn the history of the place from tribal elders and see otherworldly landscapes, rare fossils and lots of wildlife—bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, whitetail and mule deer, raptors, songbirds and much more.

“You’ll find it an experience unlike any other,” said Eric Brunnemann, Badlands superintendent. And it’s available right now.

Monument Valley Tours

Looking for a trip equally as stunning as the Badlands in the Southwest? You can’t do much better than touring Monument Valley in Utah, home to the sandstone monoliths that rise up to 1,000 feet. Monument Valley Tours (MonumentValley.com) offers vehicle, hiking and camping trips. The sunrise and sunset tours are especially good opportunities to see the mind-blowing spectacle of sandstone buttes, spires and towers bathed in the warm rays of our home star.

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