“The prairie is one of those plainly visible things that you can’t photograph. No camera lens can take in a big enough piece of it. The prairie landscape embraces the whole of the sky. Any undistorted image is too flat to represent the impression of immersion that is central to being on the prairie. The experience is a kind of baptism.”
― Paul Gruchow, Journal of a Prairie Year
It’s easy to see why South Dakota is often referred to as the “land of infinite variety.” Even in just exploring the state’s southwestern region, we saw how the land shifted from pine-laden mountains and glacial lakes to the colorful, geologic banding of the Badlands, to the seemingly infinite prairie where numerous wildflowers like thistles, prickly pear, and purple coneflowers intermix within the blue-greens of bluestem and switchgrass. Each environment gave us a different experience with nature from walking amongst the quiet stillness of a ponderosa forest to hearing the excited chirps of a prairie dog town under an exposed, open sky.
Named after the Lakota spiritual chief, Black Elk Wilderness is the only wilderness in the Black Hills National Forest — the area is sacred to the Lakota and other indigenous peoples. Our one-night backpacking trip began at the Grizzly Creek trailhead, which is also a horse trail. Admittedly, it took some time getting used to stepping over and around the horse poop. I read later that horses must be fed with certified hay that helps prevent the spread of weeds and invasive plants. What wasn’t so reassuring was the constant sound of helicopter tours buzzing overhead about every 15 to 20 minutes. After thinking we were finally getting away from the busy crowds of the popular wildlife loop roads, it turned out that man’s presence was always just above us. Thankfully, we had a reprieve in the evening when we set up camp in a little nook set amongst the craggy rocks. We hadn’t seen any wildlife along the trail, but sometime later that night, I swear I heard elk calling in the night.
The next morning we ditched our packs and took a short detour to Black Elk Peak, the state’s highest point at 7,242 feet. After a long, hot climb up to the fire tower, we were met with refreshing, cool breezes and stunning views. In fact, on a clear day, one might see the panoramic views of four states. It was at this peak that 9-year-old Nicholas Black Elk had a great vision of meeting with the six powers of the world (the four cardinal directions as well as earth and sky) and come to understand that his people would undergo hardship, but that he would have the power to provide them strength through their struggles.
Our next adventure took place in Wind Cave, which is known for its unique boxwork formations throughout almost 149 miles of explored passageways. However, it was the park’s mixed-grass prairie above, one of the largest remaining in the U.S., that had our focus. We spent two nights in the backcountry ambling through one prairie dog town after another, just two mere specks in the wide, open expanse hoping to catch the prairie’s wildlife in their natural habitat. And we were not disappointed.
At the start of the trailhead, we stood transfixed as we watched a coyote feeding on a bison calf. Turkey vultures and a magpie lurked nearby hoping for scraps. Every now and then a lone bison, perhaps the mother, would check on the carcass. We saw another coyote as we were breaking up camp the next morning. I happened to look over and saw one staring at us intently in the distance. When it realized it had been seen, it started to bark anxiously and howl as it loped away.
We also came upon a flock of turkeys that sprung up suddenly from the grass, then retreated quickly away into the trees. Also caught by surprise, we sidestepped a prairie rattlesnake camouflaged along the trail, thankful that it was just as eager to get away from our clunking footsteps.
At our second camp, we heard the sharp cries and amazing whirring sound of a nighthawk’s wings as the vocal bird swooped over and above us catching insects. And, of course, there were the bison. It seemed impossible in a land where the eyes can roam for miles that we hadn’t spotted any our first day. We wondered what it must’ve been like to once have seen them by the thousands. But then, we started seeing them. A lone bull would emerge from the trees and give himself a dust bath, or a whole herd grazing on a hillside with young calves would playfully chase each other. Because they were constantly on the move, it often felt like a trick of the eye—before us stood hundreds of shaggy beasts only to have them suddenly disappear into the horizon.
The Badlands formed around 75 million years ago. The colorful ribbons of layered, sedimentary rock reveal much about its fascinating history. Numerous fossilized animals like three-toed horses, camels, and saber tooth cats have been found here. Like Wind Cave, the Badlands also has mixed-grass prairie but set against a backdrop of rugged canyons. Exploring parts of Deer Haven and the Castle Trail felt like an otherworldly experience. And I could never get over the sky in the prairie, which was always shifting and changing, especially in the early morning light. It felt like walking in a painting of colors you never want to forget.
AT A GLANCE
Top from left to right: View from Black Elk Peak • Morning light on the prairie in Wind Cave National Park • View of the canyons while driving through Badlands National Park
Top from left to right: Morning light along the Castle / Medicine Root loop trail in the Badlands • Sunrise along the canyon rim in Badlands National Park • Interesting cloud formation in Badlands National Park • The sun sets in the midst of a nearby storm in Wind Cave National Park
Top from left to right: Bighorn sheep in Badlands National Park • A coyote hunts in a prairie dog town in Wind Cave National Park • A prairie dog stands alert in Wind Cave National Park • View of a bison along one of the wildlife loop roads in Custer State Park