Badlands National Park and Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

Profoundly influenced and rejuvenated by the Badlands, Roosevelt went on to create the modern conservation movement.

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by Joe Berk
A view of the layered rock formations in the Badlands.

Located in southwestern South Dakota about a hundred miles east of Sturgis, I’d like to suggest Badlands National Park as a bucket list destination. Many motorcyclists come to this region for the Sturgis rally. There are far more interesting things to see in this part of the world and Badlands National Park is one of them. To call the Badlands terrain dramatic is an understatement; you need to stand before the erosion-formed pinnacles and colors to get the full effect. Dances with Wolves and Thunderheart were filmed here.

The Badlands are magic, a view shared by Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt first visited the region in 1883 to hunt buffalo and then again to remake himself when dealt a double whammy a year later (his wife and mother died on the same day). Roosevelt came as a skinny, Harvard-educated, New York politician; he left as a rancher and a true Westerner, a future Rough Rider and President of the United States. Profoundly influenced and rejuvenated by the Badlands, Roosevelt went on to create the modern conservation movement. Like much of South Dakota, the Badlands are rich with bison, badger, bighorn sheep, hundreds of bird species, prairie dogs, bobcat, coyote, fox, elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, pronghorn, rattlesnake, and porcupine. We saw many of these species, including a princely and portly porcupine proudly padding along as if he owned the place (which I suppose he did). In 1963, 50 bison were moved to Badlands National Park; today the Badlands bison herd numbers over 1,000 animals.

The Badlands’ story is one of persistence, paleontology, politics, and duplicity. Paleo-Indians hunted the area 11,000 years ago, followed by the Arikara people and then the Great Sioux Nation. The Oglala Lakota (one of seven Sioux tribes) named the area “mako sica” (literally, “bad lands”). Farmsteading by white settlers began in the 1850s, continued during the Civil War, and then picked up dramatically before and after the turn of the century. In 1868 the U.S. government promised the land to the Sioux forever; we broke the treaty 21 years later. Calvin Coolidge designated the area Badlands National Monument in 1929, it was formally established as such in 1939 by Franklin Roosevelt, and then designated a National Park in 1978. The Lakota were the first to find fossils; today, the Badlands are one of the richest fossil fields in the world (with some specimens estimated to be 33 million years old). The South Dakota School of Mines in nearby Rapid City has an outstanding museum displaying some of these prehistoric finds.

Here’s another delight in this area: The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. It’s a former nuclear missile post that became a national historic site just northeast of Badlands National Park. You need reservations and they only take a few people at a time, but wow, is it ever cool. You go down to the launch control center, a tiny, thick-walled, electronics-crammed underground metal structure. The command capsule is mounted on giant springs to protect the occupants from nuclear attack. After you’ve seen that, the park rangers (all former USAF senior NCOs who served on Minuteman sites) take you outside to peer down into an actual Minuteman silo. It’s shades of the Cold War, Dr. Strangelove, and Mutually Assured Destruction all rolled into a tourist attraction. Unless you stood guard during the Cold War, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. — Joe Berk

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