Day 8 -- Custer, SD - Badlands N.P. - Custer S.P.

This morning we again juggled our time in the bathroom. While I was getting dressed, Kathy brought in breakfast fixins from the car. She helped the kids get dressed while I helped set out the food. We ate breakfast quickly, repacked the car and climbed in. We headed for Custer State Park to claim a camp site and set up before we drove to the Badlands.

We found a spot in a small campground beside a creek and quickly unloaded the camping gear and set up the tent. Rebecca laid out the sleeping bags and pads again. In quick order we were ready. We just had to register and pay our fee, and we could we on our way. After paying, we returned to the site and posted the stub on the numbered post for the site. Then I began to figure out how we were going to circumnavigate Rapid City and get to the highway.

We started east across the park toward Hermosa, where we turned north, toward the eastern edge of Rapid City. We managed to find our way to I 90 without trouble. Now we can zoom east, barely noticing the small towns we are passing, Box Elder, New Underwood, Wasta, Owanka. When we reach Wall, we decide to make a short stop here to show the kids the famous Wall Drug. Well, it is not just a drug store anymore. The store now occupies blocks of interconnected stores. Much of the merchandise available is cheap tourist's souvenir material, but there are some high points to be found if you are willing to look. In particular, they have a good bookstore, focussing on the local region. Several years ago Steve and I picked up a study of the rock art in the Black Hills. It is from this volume that the characters who lead you through these pages were drawn. Today I found a copy of Dakota, which I had really enjoyed, and recommended it strongly to Kathy. We also picked up a few items from the camping supplies department that we had found we were missing. While the kids were intrigued by all of the things to look at, we used ice cream cones as a bribe to get Rebecca and Daniel back to the car. Now we headed on east toward the entrance to the Badlands, driving through the Buffalo Gap National Grassland.

Just before the park entrance, we stopped to fill the gas tank, freeing us from that worry for the rest of the day, but it gave the kids another chance to look at all of the tourist bait. With all tanks filled, the car's and the kid's, we then entered the park, passed the Prairie Homestead stop and drove on to the first overlook to let the kids get their first look at the Badlands landscape.


Meanwhile, I watched the tourists ignoring all of the warning signs and walking off the trails to find the "perfect place" to have their photograph taken, proving that they were there. After a short stop here, we drove on past the Door and Notch trailheads and on toward Cedar Pass.

We decided to stop at Cliff Shelf to have lunch. We spread out a blanket on the ground and had a leisurely lunch while enjoying the landscape, which was quite a change from that we had been immersed in for the past several days, and the weather was gorgeous . A few minutes after we were settled, a magpie landed on a juniper a short distance from us, observing us carefully. Magpies and their tactics have been noted since the earliest journals of travel in this territory, those of Lewis and Clark, who said that the magpies would invade their tents and take food from their plates! During lunch Kathy decided that we would hike in the Badlands backcountry this afternoon, taking the Castle and the Medicine Root trails. We carefully added up the mileage for each leg and decided that, while the 5 and a half miles was long, it was possible. We made a quick tour of the Visitor Center, picking up trail guides for the short trails, as well as the backcountry, and buying the kids a National Park passport. They had had no disposable cameras at Wall and I felt I needed a couple more for the next few days. They had none at the Visitor's Center, so we made a quick trip to the new Cedar Pass Lodge, run by the Pine Ridge Sioux, where I was able to find a couple. Then we quickly drove back to the parking area for the Door Trail and parked the Prev. We put on sun screen, put water bottles and snacks in our packs and then walked across the parking lot and road to the trail entrance.


We scrambled down the steep slope from the side of the roadbed and crossed a few small drainage crevices before we reached a well defined trail. Then we were walking along the back of the high, eroded pinnacles, with the loop road on the other side. Most of the time we are sheltered from the road sounds. Few other people take this trail. We can enjoy the scenery at our own pace and in silence. As soon as we are well away from the road, we can look at the landscape anew. It is silent here. We are alone with the landscape. The first part of the trail is across the pediments of the high pinnacles on our left. The hard white ground is smooth except where crossed by erosional crevices. The vista is spectacular. The recent rains have produced a healthy growth of grass away from the rapidly eroding pinnacles. This expanse of knee high grass spreads off to our right with occasional spires and buttes, or tables, rising above.


Now we must decide how best to cross a deep, wide crevice It is very steep walled and several Daniels high. We found the best place to negotiate this barrier and then followed the trail into the grass as we began to move away from the major rim of spires. The trail led off into a wide flat plain covered by thick thigh-high grass. Prairie rattlesnakes are found here as well as other, non-venemous snakes. We had mentioned this to the children earlier and chose not to emphasize it at this time. In general, I walked in front, either just ahead of or even with Rebecca; Kathy followed with Daniel. But sometimes his enthusiam was hard to contain. At the fork in the trail, at about a mile and a half, we chose to take the Medicine Root loop, which would circle around and meet the Castle trail near Saddle Pass. This trail leads well into the Badlands backcountry where the level landscape is interrupted by scattered tables of various heights, with perfectly level tops covered with grass. At some point along this trail we began to realize that the mileage that we had calculated was a grave underestimate. Our speed was limited by Daniel; his legs were only so long. However, my back began to lock up; the only solution for this was to walk much faster, moving some muscles that hadn't been moving. We came to a wetland that occurred at a low point in the land; we had to find a path across/around the mud. After we emerged from the muddy spot, Rebecca and I decided to put on a spurt of speed for a short distance. We moved along at a steady pace until we came to the junction of the Medicine Root trail and the Castle trail. There we found a small mound of earth on which to sit while we got out the snacks and broke out the water bottles. In a little while Daniel and Kathy joined us. Daniel began to scold me for walking too fast for him. When I explained to him my problem; he became a little more sympathetic.

We were a short distance from Saddle Pass. Kathy saw several people perched high up on a pinnacle. She and Rebecca decided that they would take a small excursion and climb to the top of the pass. Daniel and I remained on our small mound of earth and shared our snacks. We watched Kathy and Rebecca's progress up the steep sides of the spire. Using my field glasses, we watched them and watched the birds who had adjusted to our presence there and were resuming their normal activities. Kathy and Rebecca could not make it to the top of the pass until the group who was already there left; the space available was so small only a couple of people could be there at one time. Finally the group left and Kathy and Rebecca climbed to the top while we watched.

Near Saddle Pass

We were resting near a small table, with its top at about my eye level. It was amazingly level; the sides dropped almost straight down to the "ground level." The top was covered with a thick coat of bright green grass. The ability to sit peacefully in the mist of this fantastic and incredibly beautiful landscape and enjoy it in silence, hearing the birds, (especially the meadowlarks), (see also the Western meadowlark species account), the ground crackle as it dried, and the quiet voice of a small boy who wanted to know if we were pals. When Rebecca and Kathy rejoined us, we all had some more water and a last snack. Then we began the last leg of our hike, back to the car, still 3.5 miles away. The first couple of miles are fairly flat, with a few shallow crevices to cross. To keep my back loose, after the first mile, I increased my pace and walked ahead of Kathy and the kids. When I reached the point where the Medicine Root trail meets the Castle Trail, I found some shade behind a spire not much taller than I am, and leaned back against the steep sides to wait for the trailing crew. Before long, I heard voices coming along the trail. Daniel asked where I might be; he couldn't see me ahead on the trail. Then they came around the corner. Daniel was startled for a second and then a grin spread across his face.

We had some more water before going on and then began the last leg of our walk. We walked on together for a while and then my tiring back required that I pick up the pace a bit. I was looking forward to sitting down in the car again. But in this section of the trail there are several large crevices to cross. The trail leads to the edge of a steep drop and you are left on your own to find a way down and then up again. In one place, there was no obvious way to get down at the spot where the trail ended. After walking back and forth along the rim, I decided to take the plunge. Using my hiking stick to brace me, I sat down on the edge and dropped to the ground and scrambled quickly down the remaining slope. After walking on a short way, I recognized the places we had been earlier today. Walking back again, I was able to spot the place we had climbed out of the drainage. While I was figuring this out, Kathy and the kids arrived. I helped them find the easiest route down into the crevice and we continued on along the trail, beneath the huge pinnacles. Without further incident we finished the hike. Apparently, when we had calculated the length of the hike, we had added the length of the three legs, but had forgotten that we had to walk one of the legs twice. This meant that we all walked between 6.5 and 7 miles, with Kathy and Rebecca adding a half mile more.

At the end of the trail I hurried ahead and went to the shaded side of the car and leaned against it there. When Kathy arrived, she unlocked the Prev we got some cold soda. We also found out that it was 7:30! While Daniel and I sipped our sodas, Kathy and Rebecca wandered over to the Notch trail to look out over the landscape. Then we climbed into the car and headed west along the loop road. We went over Cedar Pass again, drove past the Cliff Shelf trail, the Visitor Center and Cedar Pass Lodge. Along this road, the high pinnacles are on the north and the landscape falls away to the south with grasslands interrupted by isolated pinnacles and buttes. At Saddle Pass a few people were still climbing up to the pass to get a look at the landscape from on high.

The next turnout was at the Fossil Exhibit trail. This was only a quarter mile trail, so we decided to take it even though it was quite late. Then a very surprising thing happened. Daniel didn't want to go on the trail; he was afraid! The trail was a boardwalk over the ground with the exhibits in concrete boxes covered by domes. The last time that we went on trails on boardwalks, we were occasionally engulfed in steam and there was a strong odor of sulphur. Daniel didn't like it at all; he thought that this would happen again and therefore was very hesitant about going. Kathy explained to Daniel that this was a very different kind of trail in a very different landscape. As soon as he saw the first exhibit however, he was enthralled. Real fossils were not shown, but plaster copies were used in their place. When real fossils were used when the trail was first established, vandals destroyed the boxes and stole the fossils. Even now, the exhibits are subject to vandalism. In recent years examples of vegetable fossils, like seeds which fossilize well, have been added to the exhibits. There are also explanations of trace fossils, like the holes in "wormhole sandstone", that are diagnostic traces of things, like roots of plants, where the plants themselves are completely gone. It is amazing, at first blush, to read that this area was once a vast inland sea. Then, upon looking more closely at the landscape, it is obvious that this must be true. The obvious layers seen in the pinnacles extend continuously for miles as if deposited on a sea floor. The fossils are preserved because the animals were buried beneath tons of silt and were isolated from both oxygen and predators. The Lakota knew of the bones preserved here; they knew that the bones of flying animals lay here. These fossils had a part in their stories of the universe (see Lame Deer).

Though the sun is still up, it is quite late. We want to see as much of the drive as we can, and we still have a long drive back to the campground. The drive continues along the rim of "the Wall," the break in level of the mixed grass prairie, between the upper grasslands to the north and the lower grasslands to the south. These badlands were called Mako Sicca (mako , land; sica, bad) by the Sioux, probably because they were difficult to travel through. Near here was the place where Big Foot and his band of Minneconjous crossed on their way to Pine Ridge, after learning that Sitting Bull had been killed, in the hope that Red Cloud could protect them from the soldiers. Big Foot fell ill with pneumonia along the way and had to travel lying in a wagon. When they encountered troops, he ordered a white flag raised over his wagon. The troops, commanded by Major Samuel Whitside, took the Minneconjous to the camp on Wounded Knee Creek. It was there that the massacre, now made famous by the book Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee took place when the cavalry troops mistook, in their fear and apprehension, the Ghost Dance for a war dance, and the Indians believed that their Ghost Dance shirts would protect them from the soldier's bullets.

When thinking about this trip I had hoped to be able to stop at Wounded Knee, just to commune with the souls of those who were killed here, to imagine the scene on that December day in 1890 when as many as 350 unarmed Sioux were slaughtered. It was now clear that we had no time to visit the massacre site. We had little daylight left.

Badlands Overview
© 1982 Stephen E. Strom

We drove past the paved exit road to the interstate and continued on the gravel road past some of the most spectacular prairie scenery that I have seen. We stopped at Robert's Prairie Dog Town. The prairie dogs were up to their usual antics but I was surprised to see sandpiper-like birds, long-billed curlews, that I had last seen at the Bosque del Apache in New Mexico. I pulled out my bird book and found that these birds actually had their breeding grounds in the northern plains! A young couple was also stopped here. They saw us watching the birds through my field glasses and came over to ask about the birds. We talked with them for a short while but it was getting pretty dark. We gave up on the idea of driving on to Scenic on this road and then into Rapid City on route 44. We took the next road that would get us back to the Interstate. In this low light, the landscape took on yet another aspect of beauty, amplified by the absolute solitude in which we found ourselves. A few birds were still settling in for the night. Then we passed the park boundary and the land changed character, showing the hand of man. We drove on to the entrance road and back to the highway.

I began to look at the map to find a likely place for dinner. All of those little named places that we passed without looking this morning were invisible tonight. We gave up on finding a place before Rapid City and Rebecca started reading aloud from the AAA guide to Rapid City. We found a few likely prospects but it was getting very late. I concentrated on finding the right exit to place us on the road back to the campground. As we drove into the ourskirts of the city we checked out the billboards and the signs we were passing. We saw that a Chinese restaurant called The Great Wall was just a block off the road to the campground. We made a quick decision to see whether it was still open. It appeared to be open even though the parking lot was almost empty. They were happy to stay open to serve us. They were especially happy to see the kids and to feed them. We had a good meal and excellent service.

Business Card

We left there after 10 PM and found our way back to the campground. It was about 11 o'clock when we arrived at the campsite only to find that someone else had moved in while we were gone. It was bad enough that we had to get two sleepy kids (Kathy carrying Daniel) down the hill to the tent in the dark, but we had to make our way through a very crowded pair of campsites. After we got the kids in their sleeping bags, I went back to the car to take out my contact lenses. Then Kathy and I had to find a place to park the car since our reserved spot had been taken by someone else. Finally we were ready to head to the tent ourselves and get some sleep.

It did not rain tonight.


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See our map and guide reference section for trail maps and other useful information available from has over 3,500 maps.

South Dakota Atlas and Gazetteer, Delorme Publishing.

On the Rez, Ian Frazier, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux

Roadside Geology of South Dakota, John Paul Gries, Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula, MT

Natural History of the Black Hills and Badlands, Sven G. Froiland, The Center for Western Studies, Augustana College, Sioux Falls, SD

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown, Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Pine Ridge Reservation, Yesterday and Today, Gregory Gagnon & Karen White Eyes, Badlands Natural History Association, Interior, SD

Dakota, A Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris, Houghton Mifflin Company.

Skins, Adrian C. Louis, Crown.

Cheyenne Memories of the Custer Fight, Richard G. Hardorff, Univ. Nebraska Press.

Lakota Recollections of the Custer Fight: New Sources of Indian-Military History, Richard G. Hardorff, Univ. of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.

Killing Custer, James Welch, Norton. (Video)

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© 1995 - Karen M. Strom