To the Lakota Sioux, who controlled this part of the Dakotas before the white man arrived, they were the mako shika, "the bad lands." To the French-Canadian fur trappers who came later, they were les mauvaises terres à traverser, "bad lands to travel across."
But in 1935, the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright came here and described what he saw with an artist's eye: "an indescribable sense of mysterious elsewhere … [an] endless supernatural world more spiritual than earth but created out of it."
Once upon a time this area rested under an inland sea, and once upon another time it was a lush forest full of animal life; despite the fossilized richness that lies beneath the surface (these are considered some of the world's richest fossil beds), it's the "bones of the Badlands" themselves that draw us.
Sculpted by 75 million years of sedimentation and erosion, 243,000 acres are crammed full of cones, ridges, buttes, gorges, gulches, pinnacles and precipices in an eerily sparse yet breathtakingly beautiful landscape. Some formations rise more than 1,000 feet into the sky, while in other places the unrelenting forces of erosion have, over thousands of years, brushed away the surface to reveal band upon band of stratified mineral deposits, weaving through the ridges and ravines like nature's brushstrokes -- a veritable storehouse about the ancient past.
You can explore the park up close and in depth on a day or overnight hike, from a short quarter-mile loop to the little-used 10-mile Castle Trail to an unmarked cross-country trek. Or you can see and experience the majesty from your car on the 31-mile Badlands Loop, which provides an ample eyeful of nature's theatricality from your windshield, especially at dawn, dusk and just after a rainfall, when the interplay of light and shadow on the earth is most poetic. Unmissable is the 60-mile-long Badlands Wall, dominating the park's moonscape from northeast to southwest.
American Indians lived on this land for 11,000 years, but they were forced onto reservations when white homesteaders began arriving in the late 19th century. As their situation became desperate, many became followers of the Paiute prophet Wovoka, who preached that by adhering to virtuous principles and performing a "Ghost Dance" he'd seen in a dream, the Indians' traditional way of life would be restored. As the movement grew, fearing that the dancers' religious fervor could be an incitement to war, the government sent in the troops.
In December 1890, a band of Sioux dancers was taken into custody by the Seventh Cavalry. While they were camping at Wounded Knee Creek, a scuffle between a soldier and an Indian escalated into a wholesale slaughter in which at least 150 Indians were killed, many of them women and children. Today a simple memorial marks the site, approximately 45 miles south of the park, off Route 27.
If the South Dakota Badlands aren't enough for you, you'll notice that these eerily eroded formations unfold for miles, across the border west of here into Wyoming and Montana, but also north into North Dakota, specifically within the confines of North Dakota's Teddy Roosevelt National Park -- less than one-third the size of South Dakota's and far less visited.
Named after America's first environmentalist president who was first smitten by this area of the country when visiting at the age of 24, they are a showcase of a similarly rugged, surreal beauty, abundant wildlife and countless opportunities to enjoy the outdoor life. The 70,000-acre park is divided into three widely separated sections, all located within the bounds of the Little Missouri National Grassland. The South Unit of the part, near Medora, is the "baddest"of the bunch with the famous Painted Canyon: wide and shallow, it is filled with wind- and water-sculpted formations that glow in a kaleidoscope of colors.
Where: One of several entrances to the Badlands National Park, S.D., is 80 miles southeast of Rapid City.
For more information on Badlands National Park: Tel 605-433-5361
or visit www.nps.gov/badl
Best times to visit: Spring and fall for good weather. If you crave solitude, come in winter.