Western Kitsch: The Black Hills, South Dakota

We daydreamed about visiting Badlands area for years. We were drawn by the mystique of its wide open spaces, curious about its strange, striated western landscape. We were eager to discover its legendary herds of bison. In April, we finally set forth on our great Northern road trip with the dog in tow.

Windy Grasslands at Badlands National Park, Black Hills, South Dakota

Western Kitsch

This part of South Dakota is the quintessential United States, perfectly suited to the quintessential American road trip. Dotted along Interstate 90 are giant, painted model dinosaurs, detours to presidential monuments, and signs to visit an old movie set turned into a tourist attraction. 

Starting nearly 400 miles out from their destination are hundreds of gaudy and gimmicky hand-painted billboards for Wall Drug, a simple travel stop that in its 90-year history has exploded into a massive roadside destination that draws an estimated 2.2 million tourists per year. Call it Western Kitsch.

We arrived in Rapid City, South Dakota just as the sun was going down, after an 11-hour drive through Midwestern farm and ranch country. It’s the first of three destinations on a two-week long April road trip. We were greeted by our charming host and her dog Hayley, an aging golden retriever with a friendly grin. 

The winds were rising and temperatures dropping. Thankfully, our quaint little rental was cozy and warm. It was furnished to the rafters with rustic details – hardwood and leather furniture, a wood-burning stove, antlers and throw pillows adorned with elk and bears. 

A family of whitetail deer and a flock of turkeys call this mountainside loop home. They occasionally darted past the floor-to-ceiling windows and surprised the dog into a frenzy.

Black Hills Points of Interest

When we entered the region, we saw for ourselves how the Black Hills National Forest earned its name, dark emerald pines dotting the curves looming over the prairie. Progressing deeper and deeper into the Black Hills and arrive at the Badlands, the landscape becomes progressively more barren and unusual-looking.

Badlands National Park in South Dakota, Depth of Field Landscape Photography

Badlands National Park

Going to South Dakota in April is rolling the dice with unpredictable weather at the change of the seasons. We visited Badlands National Park on the day with the least miserable forecast, but it was still incredibly windy!

Windy, Cloudy Day at Badlands National Park in April 2022

Scrubby brush and shrubs lean and stretch across the expanse, sweeping permanently to one side from the persistent winds common to the area. The bitter gusts never let up during our visit to South Dakota, at times reaching a blistering 50mph. It felt sharp on my face as I darted behind hills and hoodoos to block the wind and shoot photographs.

Wide Angle Sedimentary Striped Slopes at Badlands National Park in South Dakota

These weird and colorful geologic formations developed as the earth was deposited, eroded and shaped over the last 500,000 years. 

Softly sloping mounds of sedimentary rock repeat into the distance. Their stripes of contrasting greens and reds, whites and golds are curiously colorful. I imagined for a moment whether this could be what it’s like to explore the surface of Mars.

Badlands National Park Landscape Photo Like Surface of Mars in South Dakota

In some places, the clay-rich soil is delicately layered with delicate, paper-thin curls where small streams of water once flowed. They reminded me of the dried up Missouri creek beds we played in as kids in the summer.

Macro Landscape Photo of Curling Clay Mud Chips at Badlands National Park

Custer State Park

Custer State Park houses one of the largest publicly-owned bison herds, with some 1,400 animals. It is truly an awesome feeling to be just feet from a herd of bison with spring calves crossing the road in front of you on the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road through the park, which contains more than 70,000 acres.

Grassy Hills at Custer State Park, SD

The bison’s story is one of resilience. The threatened animal struggled its way back from the brink of extinction, to become what is now America’s national mammal. These American icons played an essential role in the tribal cultures of numerous Indigenous peoples, and became the wild symbol of Theodore Roosevelt’s conversion to conservation upon exploring Yellowstone National Park for weeks.

Closeup of Bison Face at Custer State Park in Black Hills, SD

We saw numerous bison, as well as mule deer, prairie dogs and the occasional pronghorn. Rare is the luxury of such time and proximity to photograph incredible wildlife. It takes patience and persistence to get wildlife photographs worth looking at. And meanwhile, Poppy the Australian cattle dog mix was inside the car, positively losing her mind, shrilly whining in vain at the herds she could not herd.

The high winds kept us mostly in the car, but should I have the good fortune of returning to Custer State Park, I would love to explore the park more on foot via its hiking trails and take a dip in one of its five swimming-friendly lakes. You can also visit in the fall to witness their annual Buffalo Round-Up, during which the herd is gathered and tallied in preparation for the culling that balances the size of the herd with available food to forage in the park.

Mount Rushmore

Despite my disillusionment with our presidential history, Mount Rushmore is still an impressive site to see, and it was easy and fun to photograph from the car on a cold, blustery day. I enjoyed cruising the winding mountain roads on the sunniest day yet on our trip.

It’s an incredible feat to carve four Presidents’ heads 60 feet tall in the granite of a mountain. It features Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, to represent the birth, growth, development and preservation of the United States, according to the National Parks Service.

Mount Rushmore, Black Hills, South Dakota - 4 Presidents

I learned that South Dakota historian Diane Robinson originally wanted the monument to feature other icons of the American West, like explorers Lewis and Clark and their Shoshone guide Sacagawea, hunter and showman Buffalo Bill Cody, or Oglala Lakota chiefs Red Cloud and Crazy Horse.

Crazy Horse Memorial & Controversy

We also saw the Crazy Horse Monument – perpetually in progress since 1948 – from a great distance. We had Poppy in the car, so had to skip the visitors center where one can learn more about its history, and the history of Crazy Horse himself.

The memorial, depicting Oglala Lakota warrior Crazy Horse riding on horseback. is being carved into Thunderhead Mountain on privately owned land. It was designed by Polish-American sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, was commissioned by Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear, and is now operated by the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation.

Crazy Horse War Memorial In Progress April 2022 Black Hills South Dakota

As with many monuments, it’s mired in controversy. It is reported that Crazy Horse resisted being photographed, and he was intentionally buried in a hidden location, suggesting he may not have wished to be represented in such a prominent, public way, his likeness blasted out of the side of a mountain. Some of Crazy Horse’s descendants say that should never have been been initiated, because family members were not consulted, as is customary in Lakota culture. It has also been in progress for three-quarters of a century despite millions of dollars in funding from private donations and entrance fees.

Leaving the Black Hills

When we departed Rapid City on our final day to head west across Montana, we felt lucky that we had just dodged the blizzard passing through the northern U.S. Just a few hours later, we were dodging icy patches of highway with snow swirling around us, eventually reducing our visibility to just one car in front of us in the middle of the day. 

After being stuck behind a mile or more of semi trucks and giant pickups in my tiny Prius for nearly an hour, we learned the rural highway was closed from heavy snowfall from the night before. We would have to backtrack several hours through Wyoming and reroute.

One silver lining of the stressful setback – the detour took us past the incredible Devil’s Tower National Monument, a surreal and mysterious monolith that took my breath away when it appeared on the horizon. I had never seen anything like this towering igneous butte, but it was immediately clear how this unusual geological phenomenon became the eery backdrop of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Devil's Tower Igneous Butte Monolith in Wyoming

From that point forward, the drive became far more manageable with clearer road conditions. It seemed we would make it to our destination at the foot of Emigrant Peak in Montana safe and sound, albeit a little late. 

But that’s not what happened. 

[To be continued…]

All images copyright Heather Physioc, 2022. Prints of select images are available for sale at my Zenfolio store, where half of my proceeds are donated to environmental and conservation charities.

4 thoughts on “Western Kitsch: The Black Hills, South Dakota

  1. J M Stoddard II says:

    You didn’t do SD or the eastern side of SD much justice…. your unjustified slant towards Mt. Rushmore shows your lack of true education let alone your bias against anything truly AMERICAN.
    You hit so few places & didn’t give the true value of he diversity of people AND places to see, made fun of Wall Drug,which ,if you’d done ANY research you’d have noted that it is literally the ONLY place advertised not just around the entire world but even an astronaut once took a plaque left on moon advertising “how far to Wall Drug”…. in the days of popular REAL travel like the heydays of Route 66, places like Wall Drug were necessary for those traveling during & after the Depression.
    Your route to Badlands would have been better served taking Hiway 44 TO what locals call the “Scenic Route” to see more of the beauty of a place that is basically a painted desert.
    Wind Cave was right there near Custer State Park, you stated briefly a history of Teddy Roosevelt but didn’t state that the STATE GAME LODGE IN CUSTER STATE PARK WAS LITERALLY COMMISSIONED & BUILT BY Teddy Roosevelt AND Seth Bullock as a “Presidential Retreat” & that ALSO President Coolidge AND his wife came here so often that they too commissioned places for BOTH of them to reside while out here.
    Next time you post such slanted liberal drivel please atleast do better research AND take MORE time to truly ENJOY what is offered in this area. I tell people who travel here that the people who live here are the kindest you’ll find because they come from sturdy stock, ALL who live here & I’m a 30yr SD native who grew up in Iowa & lives in Colorado & several other states but call this MY HOME, the hearts of those who LIVE here & go year to year know the gems & treasures that travelers don’t know about UNLESS YOU not just ASK a local or BETTER YET I’d guarantee they would GLADLY “play your guide” to show you places that will leave your heart wanting not just MORE but like others like myself, to LIVE here & experience REAL LIFE from the Beauty GOD has GIFTED us with.
    Some morons STILL call this part of US “flyover country”,& that’s what your article made people STILL think because it was so EMPTY of any character or charismatic yes like a child seeing something for the first time, people of your era have no clue how to TRULY LIVE & LOVE & ENJOY LIFE…. let go of modern BS & just LET GOD SHOW YOU THE WONDERS HE CREATED…. I feel sorry for generations that don’t live in areas like this, who think a “blog” or whatever is a “short glimpse into life outside their own doors” ,when all it is & what you’ve written is just a sliver that doesn’t offer anything of substance,….. as I said…. next time you come here…. don’t rely on just the “well & easy travelled been here done that” kind of travel…. leave your Prius behind & drive like you live here…. enjoy our weather for what it is…. another character that helped GOD CREATE A DIVERSE MASTERPIECE “in the middle of nowhere” ….. it changes…. helps shape not just the scenery your eyes are but the beating of your own heart & if you can’t see it with eyes like a child as I stated before, then your already missing what makes this area on of the most beautiful & ever changing & diverse wonders of nature…. the weather IS a part of SD AND a pet of the history as well in this area….& those who LIVE it show that they too can withstand a lil diversity & onslaught, but when you slight in even the smallest way something WE ALL FIND SACRED, then you have insulted not just GOD but ALL OF US IN SD….

    So, I ask that next time you come….. find MORE of the jewels & TAKE YOUR TIME…. don’t be so RUSHED as your article clearly shows…. TALK with the locals… experience not just the people but our plethora & NOTEWORTHY foods you can find in EVERY city & metro areas…. rural splendors …. don’t be just like every other weak millennial who thinks a “quick note” or “blog post”
    Makes what they say matter to the whole world without actually PROOF READING your article & finding as I stated it lacks any REAL SUBSTANCE… do the research but NOT on GOOGLE or WIKIPEDIA…. search the cities… search the local papers…. ASK A LOCAL WHO KNOWS…. finally next time just come with an open heart & mind & open eyes to sorhjng that may be different but that should be cherished AND UNDERSTOOD….. yes your post offended ME, my mixed family, my mixed heritage…. for you showed you lacked he respect to even try offering this “tidbit” on a trip you almost feel like you regretted even going on to begin with…. PUT YOUR HEART INTO IT so your heart SHOWS, don’t be just another “millennial blogger” who thinks they matter more than what they are speaking about,& if you’re truly seeking to become more in life than a “amateur photographer & writer”, take my advice to heart & don’t bring your “big city”
    Ideas out this way without taking into account that you are polluting the environment you seem to try making people you care about with such caustic immature rants that show how little you do care about what you are doing or saying…..

  2. JM's dad says:

    Hi, this is JM’s dad and I just wanted to apologize for his comment. He’s only lashing out because we took away his Switch after he failed English (which won’t surprise you, I’m sure!). He’s usually a good kid but also a bit of a scamp! Anyway, my wife and me liked your photos and we hope you visit SD again!


  3. Whitney says:

    Beautiful photography as always, Heather. I especially enjoyed the photos of the Bison in Custer Park (they’re my favorite animal).

    Should you find yourself passing through Hays (KS) you might enjoy Frontier Park – there’s a small herd of Buffalo. It was one of my favorite things about living in fly over county. 😉

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