In the 1880s, Teddy Roosevelt ranched in the western hills of North Dakota, a rugged experience that he later credited with giving him the strength to achieve the presidency. He loved the hills and remembered them fondly as "a land of vast silent spaces, a place of grim beauty." Some of his ranch land is now a part of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a home to wild horses, bison and yipping communities of prairie dogs.
A decade earlier, "Wild Bill" Hickok, the legendary gunfighter and U.S. marshal, rode into South Dakota's western hills on the heels of a frantic gold rush and was fatally shot in the back while playing poker in the No. 10 Saloon in Deadwood. His grave site is on a high ridge overlooking the town, located next to that of another of the community's notorious residents, Calamity Jane. The years since have tamed Deadwood, but it is still very much a lively town out of the Frontier West.
Roosevelt's huge ranch and bustling Deadwood are but two of many excellent reasons to go sightseeing in the western Dakotas, a region rich in the exciting drama -- both glorious and inglorious -- of America's westward expansion. To tour it all -- and I recommend it -- will keep you moving, but the driving distances aren't excessive.
This is gold country, even today. It's Indian country, too -- the tragedy at Wounded Knee is a part of Dakota history. And it's very obviously cattle country. Many of the great 19th-century cattle drives headed north from Texas to the lush Dakota grasslands. Today juicy beef steaks and thick prime ribs lead almost every restaurant menu.
Probably the most famous of the Dakota attractions is Mount Rushmore National Memorial, the gigantic stone faces of four presidents -- Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Lincoln -- carved out of the side of a mountain in southwestern South Dakota.
And, as Roosevelt suggested, the western Dakotas are remarkably scenic. Yes, the landscape is "grim" in many ways, but it also appeals in its strangeness and, very often, it is wonderfully gorgeous.
Here are the pine-draped Black Hills of South Dakota, a cool sanctuary of soaring peaks, alpine lakes and rushing streams. Here, too, are the incredible "badlands," where the region's violent thunder-and-wind storms have eroded the landscape into a bleak, yet fantastic jumble of pinnacles, buttes and spires. The badlands are best seen at North Dakota's Roosevelt National Park alongside the Little Missouri River and the Badlands National Park in South Dakota.
*Equally awesome in its unnerving emptiness is the Great Plains, an enveloping sea of wild grassland that reaches north from Texas through both Dakotas to Canada and west from the prairies of the Midwest to the Rocky Mountains. Large sections of the Dakota plains now are set aside as national grasslands, much like America's national forests, and administered by the U.S. Forest Service for use by cattle-growers and campers alike.
*In the spring, the grassy sea is a thick and beautiful green, varying in tone from light to dark depending on the play of sun and clouds overhead. In the summer, the Northern Plains burns yellow and brown under a scorching sun -- still stunning, nevertheless, in its vastness. When breezes sweep the Dakota hills, the knee-high grass is tossed like waves in an ocean squall, a magnificent sight. On an early morning drive, with no other cars on the road, you feel like a sailor navigating solo across an endless ocean.
There are surprises, too, in the Dakota hills, as I discovered on a drive through South Dakota's wonderful Custer State Park in the heart of the Black Hills.
I had turned on to the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road, a narrow, partially paved roadway through back woods and rolling grasslands. The first few miles were pretty, the landscape fresh and green after an early-afternoon rain squall, but no wildlife.
Then, rounding a curve, I caught sight of a large herd of bison, crossing the road in front of me. On they came by the dozens these massive beasts, kicking up a dust cloud. My car was blocked; I couldn't have driven on if I wanted to. Each shaggy dark brown cow seemed to have a light tan calf by her side. They traveled almost at a run -- an ungraceful stride, not quite a stampede -- hastened perhaps by the thunder and crackling lightning of another approaching storm. I counted 100 of them, and then maybe another 100, and then I gave up counting. Custer State Park, I later learned, shelters about 1,400 bison in the summer, and I must have seen a good part of them.
For about 15 minutes they passed almost directly in front, paying me no notice at all. Occasionally, they scuffled among themselves at a momentary irritation. For those brief minutes, I felt as awed as the early explorers when they first spotted the huge bison herds of the Great Plains. It was awhile before I drove on, after a trailing calf had scurried to catch up with its mother. The Old West is diminished, but maybe less so in these Dakota hills.
As a vacation destination, the Dakotas are inconveniently out of the way, well off the main road to anywhere. But once you get there, seeing the Black Hills -- an island thrusting from the encircling sea of grass -- and the badlands on the plains is fairly easy.
If you fly or drive, the jumping-off place for a vacation is Rapid City, S.D., a small, sparkling-clean city in the foothills of the Black Hills. A good way to begin is to head for the hills first, and explore from there. Almost before you are out of town, driving west, you are wrapped in beautiful mountain scenery.
The Black Hills are misnamed. They really are mountains, climbing to above 7,000 feet, the highest mountain range east of the Rockies. From afar, under a blazing sun, they seem black in color, but it is really the dark green of thick pine forests. The Black Hills are roughly 100 miles in length, from Hot Springs in the south to Deadwood in the north. They are about 60 miles wide from Rapid City west across the Wyoming border, a compact area to tour.sw sk
The Black Hills are home to Mount Rushmore, about 25 miles southwest of Rapid City. It is probably the first place you will visit. If you are up early, you can breakfast next to the visitors center, sitting at a huge window almost under the chins of the presidential quartet. An observation platform at the foot of the mountain offers a fairly close-up view -- but you'll frequently see the four watching as you drive the mountain roads nearby. A short TV film at the visitors center, narrated by newscaster Tom Brokaw, calls the monument "a work of art for the ages."
To the immediate south is Custer State Park, partly an open range for the large bison herd but also offering one of the region's most spectacular mountainscapes. For outdoor pleasures, it is the best place to stay -- either in one of four park lodges or at a campground by a lake or stream. Custer may be one of the most scenic state parks in the country. Two narrow park roads, the Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road, treat you to the best of the views and throw in a couple of thrills along the way.
So twisting is the route as the roads climb up and down over high ridges that at least a couple of spiraling curves are called "pigtails." Tunnels cut through solid rock are only wide enough for one car, so you have to slow down and honk to make sure no one is coming from the other way.
On the Wildlife Loop Road, where I saw the bison, I no sooner had remarked to myself that this looked like the kind of wide and wonderful panorama you might see in a lavish movie western than I came upon a tall log tower on a hillside. It was, a sign revealed, a blockhouse built for the filming of "How the West Was Won."
At the southern end of the Black Hills is mysterious Wind Cave, yet another national park. It is one of the largest and geologically oldest of caves found in the United States. It has at least 37 miles of explored passageways (so far) and apparently many more passages yet to investigate. Experienced spelunkers can help search for the cave's undiscovered end. Other visitors can take a one- or two-hour ranger-guided tour of its more accessible chambers and winding tunnels.
To the west of Mount Rushmore, about a 30-minute drive, work is progressing on another carved mountain memorial, this one a tribute -- and rightly so -- to an Indian leader, the Sioux chief Crazy Horse, whose home was the Dakota plains. The design, the artist's concept of Crazy Horse seated on his horse, is only beginning to take shape, but watching the work in progress gives you an excellent idea of what a tremendous task faced Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum. Rushmore was begun in 1927 and completed in 1941. At the urging of Indian leaders, the Crazy Horse project was undertaken in 1949 by sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who had worked with Borglum, and it is being continued by his family.
At the northern end of the Black Hills, about 40 miles out of Rapid City, is the historic town of Deadwood, situated in a narrow mountain gulch, where Hickok was shot dead soon after he showed up in 1876. The Indians of the region considered the Black Hills sacred, and in 1868 the U.S. government had set the land aside for the Sioux. But in 1874, an expedition led by Col. George Armstrong Custer discovered gold, and the rush was on.
First the prospectors headed for what is now Custer City in the southern Black Hills and then moved north to bigger strikes at Deadwood. Ultimately, the Indians' anger at this intrusion led in 1876 to the famous Battle of the Little Bighorn, which was fought about 200 miles northwest on the Montana plains. Five companies of Custer's Seventh Calvary under his command were wiped out, a fleeting victory for the Indians in a war they were doomed to lose.
As the easy gold of Deadwood's streams played out, commercial firms set up operations to mine below the surface. Among the earliest and most successful was the Homestake mine, about three miles up the road from Deadwood at Lead (pronounced "Leed"). The mine is still running -- one of the largest in the country -- and tours are offered Monday through Friday. At the outset, workers flocked to the mines, and Deadwood and its neighboring towns grew. To feed the miners, cattle ranchers from the Southwest drove their herds north, fattening them on the splendid Dakota grass.
Deadwood is an interesting place to stay for a night or two, particularly if you want to explore the rowdy, bawdy history of the Black Hills gold rush. Consider a room at the Franklin Hotel on Main Street, a charming though worn old hotel (built in 1903 and undergoing restoration) that sits almost directly below Mount Moriah Cemetery, permanent resting place of Hickok and Calamity Jane. A block down Main Street from the Franklin is the No. 10 Saloon. It is dark, smells of much spilled beer, and the floor is covered in thick sawdust -- just the kind of frontier bar you are looking for.
The badlands lie outside the Black Hills in two national parks, one in each of the Dakotas.
South Dakota's Badlands National Park is about 70 miles east of Rapid City via I-90, away from the Black Hills. It is an easy day's excursion if you are staying either in Rapid City or the Black Hills. An 18-mile scenic drive leads through the colorful moonscape, sometimes skirting the cliff's edge for distant views or dipping into gullies for close-up looks at the geological disarray. This is an awesome place that seems almost threatening, especially when dark thunderclouds build up overhead.
To the south of Badlands, about 30 miles, is the site of the Wounded Knee Battle on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In 1890, the Sioux, beset by hunger and despair, turned to a new Ghost Dance religion they hoped might bring back the free life they had lost. The U.S. government, alarmed by what it perceived as a potential uprising, sent troops to keep watch. Fearing for their safety, a band of about 350 Sioux, led by Chief Big Foot, sought sanctuary in South Dakota's Badlands, but they were intercepted by the calvary.sw sk
The troops moved the Indians south from the Badlands to Wounded Knee, and on Dec. 29 attempted to disarm them. A sudden fight erupted, shots were exchanged, and the battle was on. More than 150 Indians were killed and many more wounded. This was the nation's last major armed conflict between Indians and the army.
Today, the open countryside at Wounded Knee is much as it was in 1890. The calvary had settled Big Foot's band in a wide, natural bowl, and the troops occupied the surrounding ridges -- a very big advantage for the calvary, a disaster for the Indians. A large billboard-sized sign explains what happened, and a dirt road winds up the hillside to a mass grave site where the Indians were buried.
North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park (and its badlands) is considerably more distant -- about a five-hour drive north of Rapid City at Medora -- but the park is so much a part of the western Dakota story that it would be a shame to travel to the Black Hills and miss it. Schedule at least an overnight's excursion from Rapid City. Medora, a one-time cattle town gone tourist, offers motels and a historic hotel, the old Rough Rider built before the turn of the century when Medora was a thriving cow town.
A 36-mile scenic drive loops through the heart of the national park, past several large prairie dog villages. You will want to spend some time quietly sitting on a roadside rock so you can watch these cute charmers playing together or darting in and out of their holes. A park stable gives you a chance to ride the range with a guide, so you can see the Northern Plains the way Roosevelt did.
Roosevelt first visited western North Dakota in 1883 to hunt, but he found the bison had almost been wiped out by hide hunters, and other wildlife similarly was threatened. So the future president, whose Dakota days helped stir his strong interest in conservation, decided to become a cattleman. He acquired a partnership in the Maltese Cross Ranch, and a year later returned and bought a second ranch, the Elkhorn -- about 218 acres of which are part of the Roosevelt park. Unfortunately, the winter of 1886-87 was unusually harsh, and much of his herd -- and those of other ranchers -- died in a terrible blizzard.
Roosevelt, pulled east by politics, eventually sold the ranches after great financial loss, but he never regretted the investment. "I never would have been president if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota," he once remarked. His comfortable log cabin, which for many years stood on the state capitol grounds in Bismarck, has been placed just outside the park visitors center. Inside the restored cabin, furnished with Roosevelt items, rangers tell the story of his early years out West.
The drive north to Medora from Rapid City via U.S. Rte. 85 is long but surprisingly interesting. For much of the way, you pass by national grasslands and occasional badlands, each new butte or ridge stranger than the last. The terrain is rolling, the grass is thick and the narrow ribbon of highway winds ahead into the far horizon. This is the Northern Plains at its wildest, emptiest and most impressive.
Epilogue: I went to the Dakotas mainly to see Mount Rushmore, and I was not at all disappointed. It is a grand sight that lives up to expectations, and I took pride -- as I expect most visitors do -- in the remarkable Americans honored there. But I was, to my astonishment, more taken by the surrounding landscape, and especially the grasslands of the western Dakota plains. These are America's wide open spaces -- almost unimaginable in their immensity until you have been there and even then still a bit difficult to comprehend. I appreciated Rushmore; I was dazzled by the plains. I hope the four presidents understand. Certainly Teddy Roosevelt will.