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"I've been about the world a lot," said Frank Lloyd Wright in 1935, "but I was totally unprepared for that revelation called the Dakota Bad Lands...What I saw gave me an indescribable sense of mysterious elsewhere -- a distant architecture, ethereal...an endless supernatural world more spiritual than earth but created out of it." It's hard not to be enchanted by the delicate colors of the rock strata edging the plains here like gaily painted tropical buildings in the distance. You also can't but help notice the weather extremes, from blistering hot in summer to roaring cold winds in winter. But in decent weather you'll see prairie dogs, wildflowers, eagles, bison and butterflies, to mention only a few of the flora and fauna that decorate the land here.

A National Monument in 1939 and a National Park since 1978, Badlands covers 244,000 acres, of which more than 64,000 are wilderness. They have the largest expanse of protected prairie ecosystem in the national park system and one of the world's richest mammal fossil beds (the state fossil is the horned dinosaur, the triceratops, by the way). Half the park is co-managed with the Oglala Lakota Nation, the second largest American Indian reservation in the country. The park itself sits surrounded mostly by the Buffalo Gap National Grassland and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. There are three units to the park, the most popular being the North Unit, near Cedar Pass, the other being the Stronghold and Palmer Creek units, the latter two on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation.

Highlights

Among favorite spots here, I mention just a few: Robert's Prairie Dog Town (a 30-minute trip), the Highway 240 Loop Road (taking an hour) and the Big Pig Dig (30 minutes). The Prairie Dog Town is a hoot, be sure to bring your camera, and remember to stay at least 100 yards away or the critters will never come out of their holes in the ground to stare back at you. Along the Loop Road, where there are several outstanding vistas from overview areas, you can easily see the various strata of rock in varying colors, caused by erosion over the centuries. The prime feature of the park is the Badlands Wall, a geological marvel that stretches some 60 miles from Kadoka west towards the town of Scenic (the latter anything but). Don't confuse The Wall with the town of Wall, lying just north of The Wall, which features a humongous and tacky drug store and huge billboards advertising its free ice water stretching for miles in every direction.

Excavations have been going on for 11 years at the Pig Dig, where the bones are actually those of rhinoceroses. First, though, you should visit the Ben Reifel Visitor Center at the North Unit off I-90 at Exit 131 to watch the park video and tour the new exhibits, or the White River Visitor Center, staffed by members of the Oglala Sioux tribe, at the Stronghold Unit to the south on Bureau of Indian Affairs Highway 27.

You may want to visit the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, about nine miles outside the park near the north entrance on highway 240. It's a reminder of the Cold War, including an underground launch control center and missile silo. Tours are free, open weekdays 8am to 4:30pm. Phone tel. 605/433-5552 to reserve space.

Be prepared for the extreme poverty of the Native American population, visible in places like Scenic, where there are a couple of "antique" shops and bars and not much else. This is, after all, the area where one of America's worst massacres of its native population took place and where the concentration camps called reservations began and continue their deadly influence.

Activities

There are several good hiking trails in the park, varying from a quarter of a mile to ten miles, taking from 20 minutes to five hours. The Fossil Exhibit Trail, a quarter of a mile, 20 minutes, is wheelchair accessible. Check out the several Ranger activities, including lectures and guided walks, June through mid August. These include a Geology Walk, a Prairie Walk, a Fossil Talk, and a 40-minute evening program after dark. A Junior Ranger program is popular with kids, who can get a badge for helping protect the park.

New in 2007

This autumn (exact times yet unspecified), part of the Loop 240 Road will be closed for culvert replacement, so check ahead if you plan to drive this route. Meanwhile, efforts continue to reintroduce native wildlife to the park, included the rare black footed ferret, the Swift Fox, bighorn sheep and bison.

Entrance Fees

It costs $15 for a vehicle to enter, the pass good for seven consecutive days. As always, the annual pass ($30), Interagency Annual Pass ($80) and Senior Pass ($10) are valid, as is the Interagency Access Pass (free).

Number of Visitors

The official park newspaper says they get approximately one million visitors a year.

A Frequent Visitor's Favorite

Students of Native American history will like Bigfoot Pass, through which Chief Bigfoot led his band of Sioux to surrender to the US Cavalry, but were instead slaughtered at Wounded Knee in 1890. Each year in late December members of the Oglala Sioux make the journey from Standing Rock Reservation to Wounded Knee on horseback, passing through Badlands Park at this pass.

Lodging

The only hotel in the park is at Cedar Pass Lodge, which also has a gift store and restaurant. It's open from May 1 through October 15. Cedar Pass Lodge, 20681 Highway 240, Interior SD 57750, tel. 605/433-5460, website www.cedarpasslodge.com.

Getting There

From the east, use I-90 to approach the area, and turn off at Exit 131 to SD highway 240, which leads to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. You can then follow 240 (the Loop Road) to the Pinnacles Entrance, then to the town of Wall, where 240 rejoins the Interstate at Exit 110. From the West, you can do the reverse, beginning at the town of Wall and ending at I-90 at exit 131. The route I prefer from the west, however, has you leaving Rapid City on State 44 and traveling through Scenic and then eastward paralleling The Wall on its south side until you reach the park again at Cedar Pass. In this manner, you get to see The Wall from its south side in all its beauty and also experience the desolation of the prairie without the intrusion of modern traffic, as on I-90.

Websites

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