A stop at the towering stone faces on Mount Rushmore in South Dakota marked the halfway point of Mikah Meyer's quest to visit all 417 National Park sites.
He was impressed with the carving by Gutzon Borglum and his son -- but he was awed by what nature had carved just a short drive to the east, in Badlands National Park.
The Lakota called this area mako sica, which means "bad lands," because the terrain was hard to travel through or live in. The layers of sedimentary rock were deposited over the last 75 million years. The landscape evolved from a shallow inland sea to a lush subtropical forest and then to an open woodland with meandering rivers, all of which brought in sediment that gradually built up the land. About 500,000 years ago, the Cheyenne River began the process of cutting through the rock layers, and Mikah could see the result during a helicopter ride with Black Hills Aerial Adventures.
"We flew over just this incredible landscape that goes for miles and miles and it's all of these kind of jagged looking peaks that are created by the erosion of really soft rock."
The Badlands landscape also includes mixed-grass prairie and rugged spires, and the 98,000-hectare park offers some incredible hiking opportunities. But, the erosion that created this landscape is continuing, at the rapid rate of about two-and-a-half centimeters per year.
Erosion also reveals some of the creatures that once roamed the badlands. The sedimentary rocks contain one of the world’s largest and most complete assemblage of mammal fossils, from extinct camels, three-toed horses, rhinos, and antelope-like animals. But there are dozens of very much alive mammal species wandering the park today, from tiny shrews to massive bison.
One more sunset
The most incredible part of Badlands National Park, for Mikah, came at sunset.
"I don't know if the GoPro can capture this beauty just before the sun sets for good," he said as he panned his video camera across the shadowed landscape, "but it is incredible. This is my second sunset in Badlands National Park and I am hooked. I feel like it's impossible to take a bad picture of this time of day. The light coming from the west and hitting these rocks with their red stripes. During the daytime, the sun beats down, then the sun starts to set and it cools down and the magic just comes out."
If he lived in the area, he admitted, he would find it nearly impossible to not spend every sunset in the park. He says he even changed his carefully worked-out schedule "so I could come back to Badlands for one more sunset."