Carolina: Cruising Past 70: Loving Nature's Work at the Nation's Center OLA

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Loving Nature's Work at the Nation's Center OLA

Devil's Tower, a unique igneous intrusion
prairie grasslands near the badlands
I thought those striking man-made wonders would dwarf whatever work of nature there is in the area! After all, they call it Badlands, conjuring images of vast wastelands! I was dead wrong! Instead, the area engenders praise because of the abundance of painted cliffs, canyons, and mounds, unending prairie grasslands, sink holes from which great archaeological finds were unearthed, the world’s most complex and longest cave systems, and unique igneous intrusion formations!

a section of the Badlands' Wall in South Dakota
Over 65 million years ago, western America was buckling to create the Rockies, spilling large amounts of sediment eastward. Its volcanoes were also erupting, spitting out huge amounts of ash. Over time, they turned into layers of sand, silt, and mud stone. Then about 2 million years ago, huge continental ice sheets advanced southward, blocking the flow of north-flowing rivers, creating new courses eastward and southward. Flowing faster, the rivers sliced through the soft rocks. The Black Hills (black because 90% of the hills are covered with ponderosas) were created from a secondary upsurge after the Rockies, after which the water that covered most of the area drained and the Dakota Badlands were revealed.
Yellow Mounds in the Badlands
South Dakota’s Badlands National Park covers over 240,000 acres and preserves the sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles, and spires blended with the largest protected mixed grass (over 20 varieties) prairie in the United States. Continuing erosion happens at about an inch a year by wind, rain, and snow. The Park is surrounded by a 50-mile long Wall of cliff shelves, dotted by interesting very old mounds, and embedded by a large number of fossils that are still continuing to be found even today.

Painted Canyon at Theodore Roosevelt National Park 
red hot scoria
North Dakota has its own version of Badlands. They call it the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The renowned conservationist president credits his success experiences here at the Maltese Cross Cabin which still stands at the Visitors’ Center. It is the least visited, though, and the formations are less spectacular. However, the reddish colors give the place vibrancy. Lightning strikes and prairie fires ignite coal beds beneath which bake the overlying sediments into a hard ‘scoria’ that is resistant to erosion.

almost complete bones of a mammoth 'in situ'
petrified bald cypress
Fossils offer the best clues to scientists and the Badlands are a rich source! The Petrified Gardens and Petrified Forest display many examples of tree petrifaction. The Museum of Geology in Rapid City houses the most complete bone framework of a tetracerops, a rhino-like beast the size of an elephant! At Hot Springs, south of Rapid City is Mammoth Site, a sink hole from which bones of 59 mammoths have been unearthed! Near the NE Wyoming Visitors’ Center (a model of net-zero energy use) is the Vore Buffalo Jump, another sinkhole where the bones of approximately 20,000 buffalos are preserved.

Wind Cave's boxwork formation
looking like Teddy at Jewel Cave
Aside from these badlands, grasslands, and treasure troves of fossils, complex cave systems are another world underneath. Jewel Cave is the second longest cave system in the world at 154 miles and still counting. It is named for calcite crystals that produce glowing cave walls. Wind Cave, on the other hand, is the fourth longest at 132 miles (also still counting). It is famous for the delicate boxwork formations inside and the howling wind that either blows in or out depending on barometric pressure differences.

Needles' Eye at Custer State Park
Then there are those igneous intrusions such as the monolithic, ridged Devil’s Tower, rising 5,112 ft. above sea level in the northeastern tip of Wyoming (remember Close Encounters). 5,000 rock climbers are challenged by it every year! Some believe that it is a volcanic neck but legend has it that the tower surged higher and higher to protect 8 kids from a giant bear’s claws. Bear Butte, another intrusion about 60 miles away, is where the giant bear died hungry. On the highest points of the Black Hills, Custer State Park has Cathedral Spires, Needles’ Eye, and other unique granite formations which were the first to be considered for the Presidents’ Sculpture but eventually lost to Mt. Rushmore, the artist’s choice.

Cathedral Spires at Custer State Park
The Center of the Nation
Before the addition of Alaska and Hawaii, the centermost point in America was in Lebanon, Kansas. Now, The Center of the Nation is actually 20 miles north of Belle Fourche, South Dakota. The compass rose marker surrounded by fifty state flags proudly marks it! It is about 150 miles south of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, 100 miles west of the Badlands and 60 miles north of the Black Hills, and 60 miles east of Devil’s Tower. What a fascinating place this Center makes one is bound to fall in love with these outstanding works of nature! Actually, I believe they helped inspire those striking works of man! 

the legend at the Devil's Tower Visitor Center
Next Stop: Rounding Out Our Great Plains Adventure!


  1. You fitted so many places into a small amount of space here. Your descriptions were wonderfully complete.

  2. Thanks so much. It took 3 rewrites before it became concise. It could have been better but the day of posting came!

  3. We are headed to the Badlands soon and are hoping to see a lot of what you talked about. It is always great to get first hand info.

  4. That's cool! Don't forget the info from last week's post about the man-made wonders around the area, too! We are leaving today and last night we just saw the night-time ceremonies at Mt. Rushmore which we were not able to write about. Awesome! Have loads of fun!

  5. The headline pic is great, also really liked the one with yellow mounds because the background reds really show the range of colors in the hills.
    thanks for all the detail, as usual very well written

  6. Thanks for your nice words. There's been so many pics of Devil's Tower. thought we could make it unique by having us in there!

  7. The Devil's Tower looks amazing as if it was a sculpture.

  8. Isn't it??? Chief Mountain in the Glacier National Park is bigger but this is ridged beautifuly...on this side...the other side not as much.


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