We woke in Murdo, South Dakota after driving late the previous night. There was still a few hundred miles to drive before we reached the Badlands. The roadside along US 90 was lined with signs for tourists traps like 1880 Town, Reptile Gardens, and Wall Drug. I suggested we take a break at Wall Drug which was established in 1931 and grew famous for it’s road side signs imploring passers by to stop in for “free ice water” and later expanded to any gimmick they could think of on the signs to draw tourists. It’s cheesy, but what the heck, it’s an institution, is free, and has a bathroom. It also happens to be the exit for the Badlands National Park.
Badlands is a drive-through park. Motorcyclists seem to love this area, and the winding roads through the park look like a lot of fun to ride. There is camping, a restaurant, and gift shop too, but I think most people do as we did, and drive the loop and then move on, most likely to the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore. The experience of the badlands is more about the shape of vistas and subtle fields of colors across wide areas than it is about close up inspection. It’s very hot, at least in July, and spending much time out in the open, on top of the formations, is fairly oppressive. While it looks like the badlands are melting before you’re eyes, and will quickly drip away like an ice cream cone, come the next rainstorm – the material of the badlands is actually more like a hot top highway, melted together hard. You can see the small individual stones that make up a formation, but you’d have a hard time chipping one out to take away.
A short distance from the badlands is Mount Rushmore, and the eastern edge of the Black Hills. As barren and brown as the badlands and South Dakota plains are, the Black Hills are lush, green, and covered with forest. The monument appears in view from the road leading up the mountainside. This is one of the many angles of view of the monument that make a sculpture of this size unique. We arrived in the early afternoon, and the light on the sculpture was fairly flat as it faces east, and the sun was past the crest of the mountain. I thought we might be missing the best view of the work, but when we drove past again the following morning, the hard light created shadows, that were a bit harsh, and made the noses look big… Not the most flattering view of the presidents. So the moral of the story is, Mount Rushmore – mid-July – 4PM.