Thursday, June 24, 2010

10 Naturally Beautiful Places

BEAUTY IS SUBJECTIVE, but that didn’t stop the editors of South Dakota Magazine from coming up with a list of our state’s 10 ‘most beautiful places.’
   Our writers and photographers have motored about a half-million miles in this magazine’s first 25 years of exploring South Dakota, so there aren’t many roads we haven’t traveled — nor many sights we haven’t seen.
   As an anniversary project, we put our editorial heads together — arguing, cajoling and compromising in true Western tradition over coffee and doughnuts — and came up with our list of the 10 most beautiful places in South Dakota.
   We limited our selections to scenery that has been mostly untouched by man, so your manicured backyard won’t be on our list no matter how many flowers you’ve planted. Neither will landscapes dominated by the Missouri River reservoirs, big red barns surrounded by golden wheat or church steeples framed by city maple trees. Those all rank as beautiful, but here we want to pay homage to South Dakota’s natural beauty.
   And we’ve tried to select places that are not off limits to travelers. We’ve seen some amazing canyons in West River valleys, but they are on private property and difficult to reach by land so we thought it would be unfair to tease readers.
   With those caveats, here are our 10 most beautiful places. Take time to visit them. We don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

If we missed your choice for most beautiful places, tell us by writing or send a note to South Dakota Magazine, Box 175, Yankton, S.D. 57078. Include a photo if possible.

THE NARROWS - Lyman County
Many great rivers have scenic bends, but only the Missouri has The Narrows, the narrowest part of a 22-mile loop that is rich in history and — even though the river was dammed 15 miles to the south — remains the same as when Lewis and Clark explored the area in September of 1805.
   Capt. Clark ordered two men off the boat before paddling around the loop, now called the Big Bend. The two were to hunt for wild game and rejoin the Corps of Discovery at the other side of The Narrows, a distance of about 1.5 miles today — and a little farther before Big Bend Dam swelled the river.
   “In the bend as also the two opposite Sides both abov and below the bend is a butifull inclined Plain in which there is great numbers of Buffalow, Elk and Goats in view, feeding and Scripping on those Plains,” wrote Clark.
   The Lower Brule Sioux Tribe keeps herds of buffalo and elk not far away. But the real attraction today is a high view of the Big Bend (or the Little Bend, as it’s called by some Native Americans on the inside of the loop because it’s not such a detour for them).
   Tribal leaders are developing a walking path up a hill, which you’ll easily find because it starts in a parking lot and there aren’t many parking lots on Lyman County’s rural roads. A steep trek uphill showcases an interesting assortment of West River flora — sage, prickly pear cactus, yucca and wild roses.

Elevation: 1,500 feet
Find it: Four miles west of the town of Lower Brule.
For help: Lower Brule Sioux Tribe Tourism, (605) 473-0561.

Cottonwood trees flourished along the ever-changing banks of the Missouri River before man modified the valley, but habitat has been lost to channels, reservoirs and intensive agriculture. The Missouri River Institute in Vermillion estimates that there has been a 69 percent decline in the forest since 1896. Old cottonwoods (they live to be 100-plus) have radically declined in numbers.
   Still, there are amazing patches of trees — especially along the river between Yankton and Ponca, Neb., a 57-mile stretch that is neither channeled nor dammed. Tim Cowman, director of the institute, says the most accessible spot to find both old and young cottonwood forests is at the Adams Homestead and Nature Preserve in the extreme southeast corner of South Dakota. “You’ll find 10 miles of public biking and walking paths built through the cottonwood forests and down to the river.”
   Cowman says there are also several excellent viewing opportunities near the Newcastle-Vermillion Bridge on Highway 19 southwest of Vermillion. He suggests a stop at Mulberry Point, a visitor’s center on the Nebraska side of the bridge. “Walk up to the top of Mulberry Point and look back on the South Dakota floodplain for a nice perspective,” he says. Canoeists and kayakers can row to Goat Island, upstream from the bridge, for a unique trip. Also, the U.S. Corps of Engineers recently purchased land about a mile north of the bridge that is open to the public, although there are no trails.
   The stately cottonwoods are usually encircled in the wild by sumac, cedar, dogwood and other undergrowth so it can be hard to appreciate their full beauty. That’s not the case in nearby Clay County Park, a 34-acre patch of manicured grass and cottonwoods. A handful of grandfather trees can also be appreciated along the Missouri in Yankton’s Riverside Park and at Pierre’s Griffin Park and LaFramboise Island. But for true cottonwood fans, a visit to the 1,500-acre Adams Homestead is worth the effort. There is no better place to imagine what the beautiful valley might have looked like before man changed the river.

Elevation: 1,120 feet
Find it: Two miles SW of McCook Lake, Exit 4 off Interstate 29 near North Sioux City.
For more: Adams Homestead & Nature Preserve, (605) 232-0873. 

SHEEP MOUNTAIN TABLE - Shannon & Pennington County line 
Mary Hynes was a single mom with five children when she arrived in the 1920s, looking for a place to homestead. All the flat land had been taken, but she was told at the Scenic hotel that a quarter section was still available on Sheep Mountain Table. Unfortunately, there was no road to her claim.
   The determined pioneer woman and her brood clawed and carved a trail to the top and found, much to their delight, that they had fertile land, thick wild grasses and fantastic scenery.
   You’ll likely care less about the soil and the grasses than the view, which is maybe even more lonely and unspoiled today than when Mary and her children lived there with a herd of 20 cows. Sheep Mountain Table gets its name from nearby Sheep Mountain, but it is truly a table — a high, flat stretch that provides panoramic views of rough ridges, peaks and valleys rippling as far as the eye can see.
   Eons of erosion have carved a place where time seems measured by centuries rather than seconds. This is where the Oglala Sioux celebrated the last Ghost Dance — a practice the U.S. cavalry saw as defiant and dangerous — before the December 1890 massacre of 300 Indians at nearby Wounded Knee.
   There is always at least a gentle breeze on Sheep Mountain Table, and the wild grasses move as one body in the wind. The Pine Ridge valleys have eroded since that last Ghost Dance, but they are virtually unchanged from a century ago. The terrain is 500,000 years old — youthful by geographic standards — and geologists think they might fully erode in another 500,000 years.
   On a dry day — and only on a dry day because the lone road is still the dirt path started by Mary Hynes — you can stand in the breeze atop the table. Imagine you are a mother with five children. Imagine you are a Native American escaping from the cavalry.
   But keep your wits about you. The drop-off is steep. A herd of cattle perished many years ago when a May blizzard pushed them to a precipice. Just 10 years ago, a local man fell to his death when he wandered too close to the edge. For that matter, Mary Hynes, who knew the tabletop better than most, died from injuries in an accident that happened while coming down the trail that you’ll use.
   Shortly before the fall, she had become acquainted with Senator Peter Norbeck, who wanted her to help him create a Badlands National Park. She died before the park became a reality, but she was strongly in favor of sharing Sheep Mountain Table with the world.

Elevation: 3,176 feet atop the Table
Find it: Take the oil road four miles south of Scenic and watch for a sign pointing west on a dirt road. Don’t try it when the road is wet.
For help: Badlands National Park, (605) 433-5361.

THE PALISADES - Minnehaha County
Balance Rock has been tottering atop the Palisades for a few years — maybe 1.2 billion years, we can’t be sure. In any event, the quartzite spire probably won’t crash down into Split Rock Creek anytime soon.
   Such permanency is not often equated with beauty, but the ancient Palisades is one exception. These very old purple and pink formations, mingled with the rushing creek waters and framed on both sides by oak and ash, combine to make one of South Dakota’s most endearing places. Within the quartzite are spots of the rare pipestone, a softer rock used by native tribes to create sacred pipes, war clubs and other tools.
   The Palisades are similar to Falls Park in Sioux Falls — just 20 miles to the southwest — except for three important points: steep canyon walls surround these more modest rapids, the formations are little changed by man’s hand, and they are in the middle of a state park rather than a major prairie city.
   A century ago there was a community called Palisades, and the ambitious citizenry used the creek to power a flour mill. They even mined silver for a short time. Historic photos of the town are displayed near the park’s restrooms.
   Visitors can cross the creek on a vintage bridge that was built by the Palisades pioneers in 1908 after an ice gorge destroyed its wooden predecessor. The bridge looks its age, but seems safe enough unless you’re driving an 18-wheeler.
   A favorite place in the Palisades depends on the time of day. Four trails wind along the valley, and several stop-off points provide great views of Balance Rock, a formation known as the King and Queen and other towering stone formations. The east road leads to a close view of Balance Rock and a bird’s eye view of the canyon floor. The west road, across the old steel bridge, leads to the creek’s valley, where you can trek carefully on lichen-covered rock to the water’s brink.
   Some geologists have speculated that an earthquake divided the rock into a canyon eons ago, thus the name Split Rock Creek. The quartzite and sandstone cliffs are wrinkled with age, but no less beautiful than when they were created. (Photo by Greg Latza)

Elevation: 1,442 feet
Find it: Two miles south of Garretson, or drive east of Sioux Falls on I-90 to the Brandon exit and go seven miles north.
For more: Palisades State Park, (605) 594-3824.

Everybody who visits Slim Buttes agrees that it should rank among South Dakota’s most scenic spots, but we might disagree on exactly what part of Slim Buttes is most beautiful.
   Most travelers only see the buttes as they climb the high hill east of Buffalo on Highway 20. Looming south of the highway are the Castles, twin white buttes that truly look like royal ruins. They seem especially medieval in the morning or evening sun, when the white sandstone shines like polished granite.
   Slim Buttes is a mix of badlands, ponderosa pine forest and mesas surrounded by West River grasslands. It runs 40 miles north-to-south and is just 20 miles wide.
   Most of the peaks and promontories have names, official or otherwise. Ranchers dubbed one formation The Seals, and another Three Sisters. Official names include Doc Hodge Draw, Adam and Eve Butte and Battleship Rock.
   North of the Castles is Government Rock, the highest point. A memorial and three graves are fenced east of the Castles along Highway 20. It marks the scene of the Battle of Slim Buttes, a shootout between 2,000 cavalry soldiers and a few hundred Sioux warriors that occurred in September of 1876, just a few months after Custer’s Seventh Cavalry was ambushed at the Little Big Horn. The cavalry came upon an Indian camp. They burned the village, killing men, women and children. Ancient trees along Deer Draw Pass still bear scars from the bullets, say local historians. Headstones mark the burial site of three cavalry soldiers who died in the conflict.

Elevation: 3,624 feet at Government Hill, north of the Castles
Find it: Eight miles east of Buffalo on Highway 20.
For help: Custer National Forest, (406) 657-6200.

Superlatives are easily overdone when one writes of waterfalls. We could say that the water spills romantically over the white cliffs of Little Spearfish Creek and cascades not once or twice but thrice in waves as transparent as a dainty lady’s veil, dancing and glistening as it descends — gracefully glittering and twirling into a misty and foaming conclusion.
   Overdone? Not so much as you may think. Roughlock Falls is the high point of Spearfish Canyon, which ranks among the most beautiful 20-mile stretches in the USA. Only 60 feet in height, Roughlock is the smallest of the canyon’s three falls but a tiered effect at the bottom — and the surrounding natural environment — makes it the most popular.
   The locale takes its name from pioneer days when freighters braked (roughlocked) their wagon wheels with log chains to keep from rolling out of control on the steep mountain paths. The valley is so charming that it was chosen as the last scene for the movie Dances With Wolves when it was filmed in 1989. Next to Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse, it may be the most photographed place in the Black Hills. Families gather there for reunion photos, and brides and grooms exchange their vows with the gushing falls as backdrop.
   The S.D. Game, Fish & Parks Department owns the land, and charges nothing for a wedding. However, park officials do ask newlyweds and all other visitors to stay on the paths. Millions of years ago, the Black Hills were twice as tall as they are today. You may not think that your footprints will cause much erosion, but remember that more than a million people a year visit Spearfish Canyon and a growing number are discovering the dirt road to Roughlock Falls.
   While near the falls, keep an eye out for the rare American Dipper, a small bird that can both walk and swim underwater.
Elevation: 5,118 feet
Find it: Take Highway 14-A from Sturgis or Spearfish to Savoy, then go one mile southwest on FDR 222.
For more: GF&P office in Lead, (605) 584-3896.

BIG STONE LAKE - Roberts County 
Hartford Beach State Park’s hiking trails meander among the forested shorelines of Big Stone Lake, but to find the lake’s most beautiful spot, take the high road to the lookout and stand by the boulder that marks the graves of two pioneer children. There you’ll gaze on Glacial River Warren, aka Big Stone Lake, the headwaters of the Minnesota River and the lowest place in South Dakota.
   The ancient lake — ringed by oaks and glacial rocks — is rich with history. Those trails lead hikers past a prehistoric village site and a spot where French-Canadian traders operated (the earliest came in 1678).
   An explorer named William Keating visited the lake in 1823 and found an Arikara village with 30 skin lodges on a rocky island. “They cultivate their cornfields secure against aggression of their enemies,” Keating wrote in his journal. Today the island is a state-owned nature area.
   Resorts were built in the late 1800s, and excursion and freight boats became popular on the 26-mile lake. Local ladies reportedly burned and sank a boat operated by a brothel on the island. South Dakota’s worst nautical disaster happened in 1917 when a tornado sank The Muskegon, killing seven of nine people aboard. A survivor said the tornado sucked the water away from the boat and tipped it on its side. The captain’s body was recovered, his pockets still full of coins he’d collected as tolls. The Muskegon was also recovered, and sailed the lake again for years before becoming a local museum exhibit.
   Boating is more popular than ever at Big Stone, as is fishing, camping and hiking. On the trails, you’ll discover streambeds rich with moss, ferns and lichen, trees with leaves the size of saucer plates and sumac that turns blood-red in autumn.
   The old lake’s low shoreline is quiet and quaint, but don’t miss the highest point, where the graves are indented in the grass. Go at sunrise or sunset and you’ll see Big Stone Lake at its most beautiful.
   South Dakota has many attractive natural lakes, but it’s hard to top our lowest (in elevation), and that would be Big Stone Lake in our northeast corner.

Elevation: 966 feet
Find it: Follow Highway 15 north from Milbank.
For More: Hartford Beach State Park, (605) 223-7722.

Rising above the Black Elk Wilderness of the Black Hills is Harney Peak, one of the most popular hiking areas in South Dakota. Over 40,000 hikers make the journey annually to the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains.
   The trek to the top is strenuous but well worth the effort and achievable by most everyone — especially through a popular trail starting at Sylvan Lake. As you hike through picturesque forest and granite formations, adults and children alike will be delighted by the glittering golden particles that cover the paths -— you’ll be shaking mica out of your shoes for days.
   The most scenic point of Harney Peak is the crest. Once you reach the large platform of granite at the summit with the roaring wind beating against your body, you become aware of the magnificence of the location. You may wonder if Black Elk felt similar as he experienced his great vision here in 1872. You will certainly understand Valentine McGillycuddy’s fondness for the site. The first white man to climb and measure the peak so loved the area that his widow received approval to bury his ashes near Harney Peak’s fire tower in 1939.
   Hikers who climb Harney’s fire lookout are rewarded with spectacular views stretching for miles over the wilderness of the Black Hills, all the way to the distant prairie. You will also be treated to sights of other favorite Black Hills attractions such as Cathedral Spires, The Needles, and Little Devils Tower.

Elevation: 7,242 feet
Find it: Custer State Park (about 11 miles south of Hill City) with trailheads starting at Sylvan Lake, Camp Remington, Highway 244, Palmer Creek Road, Mount Rushmore or Horse Thief Lake.
For More: Custer State Park Headquarters, (605) 255-4515, or Black Hills National Forest Harney District, (605) 574-2534.

Sica Hollow is a 900-acre forest on the Coteau des Prairies, a rise of rolling hills in East River farm country that was created when glaciers slid across the region thousands of years ago. Visitors love its fall foliage, but for a truly spectacular sight any time of year, visit the huge natural spring along the Trail of Spirits.
   Surrounded by colorful wildflowers, butterflies and wildlife, and shrouded by a canopy of trees, the spring lies at the trail’s head, just off Roberts County Road 12 in the northeast part of the park. Sica (pronounced see-chee) Hollow’s springs, which flow continuously throughout the park, are the source of its life and legends. Iron deposits turn the water a rusty red. Indians see it as the flesh and blood of their ancestors, who lived peacefully in the hollow until a mysterious stranger named Hand brought evil.
   Hand turned young braves into heartless killers. Tribal elders sought wisdom from medicine man Wicasa Wakan, who prayed to Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit. Their prayers were answered when Wakan Tanka sent his messenger Thunderer, who delivered a dark cloud that drenched the hollow with rain. Hand tried to escape the flood, but vines entangled his limbs, water filled his mouth and lungs, and Thunderer’s huge talons gouged his eyes out.
   A maiden named Fawn was the only survivor. She fled to a high hilltop and sang for remorse to the Great Spirit. She slept for days, and when she awoke the hollow was peaceful. Still, Indians remembered its horrors and named it Sica (evil, or bad) Hollow.
   Sica Hollow remains much as it did in the 1840s, when Europeans first explored the Coteau. Fifteen miles of trail wind through the forest, including the Trail of Spirits, designated as a National Recreation Trail. Reminders of the hollow’s legend are still seen and heard. Besides the red water, swamp gas around rotting tree stumps causes them to glow in the dark. Air escaping from waterfalls causes a faint moaning, and nighttime visitors think they’ve heard drumming.

Elevation: 1,424 feet
Find It: 15 miles northwest of Sisseton off Highway 10.
For More: Sica Hollow State Park, (605) 448-5701.  

CROW PEAK - Lawrence County
This modest mountain isn’t as well known as other Black Hills summits because it doesn’t host a ski lift or national monument. Still, it is a favorite of local hiking enthusiasts — and you’ll see why when you arrive at the top.
   Though Crow Peak missed being in Wyoming by a mile, you can enjoy a view of that state’s Bearlodge Mountains from the summit. You’ll also see the Montana and West River plains to the north and the city of Spearfish to the east.
   The expansive view also provides an excellent look at two topographical features unique to the Black Hills. The Hogback is a sandstone ridge that rises from the plains and circles the Black Hills, rising to about 4,000 feet. Just below the Hogback is another slope called the Red Valley (known as “the race track” to amateur geologists), easily identified by the red color of its sandstone and shale.
   The Black Hills are considered Lakota territory, but they were also inhabited by several other Native American tribes. The mountain won its Lakota name (Paha Karitukateyapi — where the Crows were killed) from a battle that happened there between the Lakota and Crow tribes.
   Today Crow Peak is a pine and granite tower of serenity. Although hikers seldom complain of congestion anywhere in the Hills, this is a mountain you’ll often have to yourself. (Photo by Les Voorhis)

Elevation: 5,760 feet
Find it: Seven miles southwest of Spearfish on Higgins Gulch Road.
For more: Spearfish Chamber of Commerce, (800) 626-8013.

From the July/August 2010 issue of South Dakota Magazine. Call 800-456-5117 to order this issue or subscribe online.


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