Bigfoot Pass Overlook is another location where a more gentle descent into the Basin area below is possible. It is also where a retreating and starving band of Lakota Sioux led by Chief Big Foot were attempting to link up with another of their tribes down in the Basin.
Following the Sioux-US Cavalry wars of the 1870's as a result of white settlers encroaching on the sacred Black Hills lands that had been deeded to the Sioux by the US Government, the Sioux finally gave up the battle and surrendered to life on reservations in 1877. Chief Big Foot was one of their leaders who encouraged his followers to accept their new way of life, but it was difficult as the promised food and supplies from the Government were often not provided. By 1889-90 the situation had deteriorated to the point where the Sioux were driven to begin embracing a new violent movement known as the 'Ghost Dance', spooking the US Army into trying to take preventative steps. While trying to arrest Chief Sitting Bull for his support of the Ghost Dancers, Sitting Bull was shot and killed. This led his followers to flee to Chief Big Foot, who was his half-brother. Having no intention of fighting but fearing the worst, Chief Big Foot decided in late-December, 1890 to lead his band of 300-odd weak and starving Sioux men, women and children down through the pass so he could link up with Chief Red Cloud for futher talks with the whites. They almost made it but, 65 miles south of the pass, the US Cavalry caught up with them and, after Chief Big Foot surrendered, escorted the band to a location near Wounded Knee where they were forced to camp for the night. The next morning, on December 29th, the cavalry rode into the camp and demanded that the Sioux give up all their weapons. A gunshot went off and fighting began in the ensuing confusion, resulting in the death of Chief Big Foot and over 150 Sioux men, women and children, along with approximately 25 soldiers (with many due to 'friendly fire' from the four machine guns that had been set up around the camp).
Our next stop was at Homestead Overlook, where Sue was busy taking this photo of the plant and ravine below while I was taking one (2nd) of her taking a photo! The flat area off in the distance is actually the Conata Basin for which the previous stop was named. This area looked very attractive to early settlers, as explained by the plaque (3rd photo) while other visitors pore over it.
It was only in 1891, after the Lakota Sioux of this area finally lost the war to defend their traditional lands from the US Cavalry, that this land was even considered for homesteading. Although the US Government had offered very attractive enducements to Americans from both the East and South (as well as European settlers) since the end of the Civil War, the high winds, little rainfall, poor soil, and extreme terrain of South Dakota meant that few took up the offer. It was only in 1907 that the coming of railways along with even better government offers of help attracted the first real wave of settlers to the grasslands of Badlands.
In the end, although hundreds of settlers made the attempt to grow crops on the flat lands of the basin, the poor soil soon made them realize that cattle ranching was a more sensible way to use this land, especially since there was fine grazing high above on the tabletops of the Badlands. This resulted in many settlers being bought out because of the acreage required for ranching. The final blow was the dustbowl of the 1930s when the US Government had to help move 85% of the homesteaders out of the area.
Fifteen minutes after leaving Pinnacles Overlook, we had descended into a valley where we simply had to stop to take a closer look at the colourful formations at Yellow Mounds Overlook. These things were really amazing, with the combination of green, red, yellow, grey and blue colours and the rugged background mountains framing the scene. As it turns out, according to the experts, their greyish tops are the 34 million year old remnants of an eroded river flood plain that had gradually built up quite a layer of sediments during the building of what is now known as the Chadron Formation. The uplifting of this part of North America during the later formation of mountains exposed the seafloor mud to oxygen, causing it turn yellowish due to weathering effects which also resulted in the formation of these numerous small mounds as the seafloor was eroded.
The park had one final surprise in store for us as we approached Big Badlands Overlook and the Northeast Entrance (or Exit!). Once up on the level ground again we were amazed to come across these eroded rock formations that looked like waves rolling across the plains! It was strange to see such relatively short yet jagged peaks arranged in rows with perfectly flat ground between them. We just had to stop for a closer look, including the closeup of some of the intricate patterns (4th photo) created as these formations continue to erode. In Badlands, there seems to be a surprise around just about every corner!
Only a few miles after passing through Pinnacles Entrance, you will have to make a decision as to whether to head off to your right on the unpaved Sage Creek Rim road or continue eastward on the paved Badlands Loop Road. The Sage Creek road will eventually take you to state Highway 44 or you can veer off it to the north, eventually returning to just outside Wall.
The main attraction of the Sage Creek Rim road are the thousands of acres of vast open grassy lowlands, teeming with wild Bison as well as the underground 'Roberts Prairie Dog Town'. You are free to hike wherever you wish out in these plains but the trails are unmarked and it is best to keep your distance from the sometimes cantankerous Bison.
We chose to continue the short distance on the Loop Road where we pulled off into Pinnacles Overlook. This view of cars parked on Sage Creek Rim road was taken from there and shows the road looping out to the edge of the cliff before it heads off to the west. With our binoculars, we could see the Bison spread out in the distance on the grasslands. We've seen quite a few of them in Saskatchewan, so decided to stick to the Loop Road.
Really, the western and eastern sections of the Badlands 'North Unit' are almost like two different parks. While we cruised along the western portion, most of our views were down onto the plains below as well as gently eroded peaks and valleys. However, once we descended beyond White River Valley Overlook the landscape changed entirely to one of multiple jagged peaks now towering above us as the road weaved its way between them. I found these peaks to be more visually spectacular because they are 'in your face' whereas the earlier more distant vistas gave a grander perspective of the vastness of the area. In a way, it was nice to end the trip with a 'bang' instead of a 'whimper'!
Pinnacles Overlook certainly made for a great first stop in Badlands! We really enjoyed the spectacular views out over the flatlands below as well as into the many sharply eroded gullies leading down to a stand of Juniper trees. The beautifully warm temperatue combined with strong breezes blowing along the cliff-face made this a very memorable stop as we got out to explore as closely as we dared along the edges! According to Parks literature, it has taken about 500,000 years for wind and water to erode these deep cuts in the soft soils of the area.
A few minutes after leaving Yellow Mound Overlook, we had partially climbed back to the flat prairies above when we came across Conata Basin Overlook. It had such a great 'bird's-eye view' of our previous stop that we had to pull over to sample this more distant view of the mounds. It also clearly shows how the Badlands Loop Road twists through this part of the park and there is even a footpath along some of the ridgelines where visitors can be seen hiking for a closer look at the area.
Panorama Point gave us one last look around from the top of the Badlands before we began to descend into another small valley. It was nice to see the contrast between the relatively flat grasslands above and the jagged valleys that transistioned into the flat basins below, especially with a few wild flowers blowing in the wind.
The colourful and jagged rocks of the third photo provide a good example of how the ground here was built up over the millions of years by differrent coloured layers of sand, silt and clay that solidified into sedimentary rocks. The distant peak, known as 'The Castle' always seemed to be within view as we drove onward, and we were getting closer.
Just under two hours after arriving at the Park entrance, we arrived at White River Valley Overlook - the last of the view points before we finally began the descent to the Basin below where the Visitors Center is located. It did not matter how many overlooks we stopped at, each one seemed unique in its own way due to either its particular geological features or the different views that opened up. We took our time at this one, walking out on some of the ridges and admiring the views above the White River Valley - the main area of attraction below for the early homesteaders.
Construction of what is now the Badlands Loop Road (or Scenic Byway) began in the 1930s as one of the conditions before the Badlands area could be designated a National Monument. Today the 31 mile (50 km) road with its fourteen designated scenic overlooks is part of the Federal Highway Administration, a government organization charged with ensuring that American highways are maintained at the highest standards.
I'd say it was money well-spent based on our enjoyment of the many great views this road provides in Badlands NP! We found it to be in excellent condition and it allowed us access to an amazing variety of views as it twisted and turned its way through the National Park. Even if you don't get out of your car at all, these scenes should give you some idea of what you will see as you cruise along at the relaxing maximum speed limit of 45 mph (70 kph) or less!
Our visit to Badlands National Park was more of a 'flying visit' than anything, but we hoped to be able to at least sample one small hike while we were there. Although you can get out and amble around anywhere at your own risk, all of the organized and official hiking trails are located at the eastern end of Badlands NP in the general area of the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.
However, we did spot a few hikers during our cruise through the park, including these two guys climbing up onto some formations at the very outer end of the Castle Trail where it crosses over the Loop Road. Before that, up on the plateau above at White River Valley Overlook there were people out exploring along the tops of the formations located there (2nd photo).
By the time we arrived at the eastern end of the park and then finished our lunch at Cedar Pass Lodge, it was almost 2 PM and the afternoon sun was really starting to heat up! The 3rd photo shows the road climbing up from the Lodge area to a small hiking spot behind the peak, called the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail. It is described as a "Moderate hike involving an elevation climb of 200 feet. It is a loop trail that follows boardwalks and climbs stairs through a juniper forest perched along the Badlands Wall. A small pond occasionally exists in the area and draws wildlife, such as deer or bighorn sheep." We had intended to take a stab at this one but, in the end, decided this was not the time of day to do it.
There are two entrances to Badlands National Park. You follow the highway south out of Wall across the interstate(Exit 109), 7 miles. This will take you to the Pinnacles Entrance. Or Take Exit 131of Interstate 29 south 11 miles to the Northeast Entrance. The fee is $10 per vehicle(Car),or $5 per motorcycle + $5 per extra passenger. It is good for seven days so you can do a quick pass through on your way to Rapid City and go back again at no charge within a week.
After stopping at Burns Basin Overlook, we and a few other people, finally had the chance to take a little stroll out onto a few of the ridges above the jagged landscape of the National Park! It was quite something to be up-close to such a sea of ravines and crumbly ridges stretching out before us. The sun was still shining and the wind blowing, so we were really enjoying ourselves on this little trip.
For most visitors to the park, the Badlands Loop Road will make up the meat of their exploration. This 27 mile stretch of scenic highway may not make a loop as its name implies, but it does take in 13 scenic outlooks the highlights of which include Yellow Mounds Overlook and Panorama Point. Various nature trails take their origin from the Loop Road and great photo opportunities can be had often with minimal effort.
The other scenic drive in the park is the Sage Creek Rim Road which is unpaved though generally passable by normal vehicles unless in extreme weather conditions.