There are six national parks within the Black Hills area of South Dakota and Wyoming. And, along with six parks comes a lot of different things to do!
Devils Tower is our country’s first national monument. It is an ancient volcano in the eastern part of Wyoming – it is officially part of the Black Hills along the South Dakota border. Rain and ice has created vertical columns in the mountain, giving Devils Tower its unique look. These columns are still subject to erosion and some of them will break off from time to time.
How did it get the name “Devils Tower”? Well, back in 1875 when it was first discovered, the members of the expedition misinterpreted the name given by American Indians. They thought American Indians called it “Bad God Tower” – when in reality the Lakota called it “Bears Lodge.” Devils Tower was pretty intriguing, however, and so the name stuck! Devil’s Tower was the vey first US National Monument – President Theodore Roosevelt declared it a monument in 1906. Today, thousands of rock climbers come to Devils Tower each year - some actually make it to the top!
Crazy Horse Memorial is in the Black Hills – it is a memorial to the Native Americans who used to call this land home. The Crazy Horse statue is part of the memorial. Crazy Horse was a real person – he was a Lakota warrior. Eventually, the statue will show him on his horse, pointing off into the distance.
An American sculptor named Korczak Ziolkowski designed the sculpture and started work on it in 1948. Before that, he worked on Mount Rushmore. Mr. Ziolkowski passed away in 1988, but left over 30 detailed plans and models – his wife and children are continuing the project.
Work has been going on for about 60 years and it is not finished yet! In fact, only Crazy Horse’s face is completed. And, work is beginning on the horses head. When it is completed (IF it is ever completed), it may be the largest sculpture in the world – longer than a cruise ship and higher than a 60-story skyscraper!
The Crazy Horse Memorial is operated by a nonprofit organization – the sculpture is paid by donations from the general public and visitor fees. In addition to the statue, the Memorial is home to the Indian Museum of North America and the Native American Cultural Center.
Many people go to the Black Hills to go spelunking – that is a fancy word for cave exploring. Jewel Cave is one of the longest caves in the world – there are over 150 miles of underground passageways! Some of its walls are lined with jewel like crystals (called calcite crystals). What formed all those crystals? Well, a long time ago the water around the cave was acidic and dissolved the limestone rock it came into contact with. Eventually that limestone was deposited on the walls of the cave. Jewel cave also has many other calcite formations that are common to caves – stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone and frostwork.
Wind Cave is another cave system in the Black Hills – in fact, it was the very first cave in the world to be designated as a national park. It is known for its boxwork – it contains 95% of all boxwork known in the world. But, what is boxwork? Well, boxwork is unique within the cave world because it is formed from erosion rather than deposits – it is made of calcite that does not erode as fast as the wall or ceiling of the cave. Over time, as the wall or ceiling erodes away, what is left is a design of calcite strands zig zagging every which way.
Wind Cave can be very windy! It has only a few small openings – so the air circulation process common to all caves can be magnified at times. In general, air is constantly moving in and out of caves, in order to equalize the air inside the cave with that outside (atmospheric pressure, for you young scientists). When a cave has a lot of openings, this happens almost without us knowing it. But, when there are few openings, the process is obvious and the cave seems almost to “breathe” – with air rushing in and out.
Badlands National Park
Visiting the Badlands National Park is like stepping into another world – like maybe the moon! The landscape is peculiar and there is no sign of civilization anywhere. The unique rock formations in the Badlands have been sculpted from many years of erosion by both wind and water. There are deep gorges, sharp spires, steep gullies, fat buttes, pinacles and pyramids.
What makes the Badlands different? Well, erosion happens more rapidly in the Badlands than most other places on earth. That is because the conditions are just right – kind of like the Bermuda triangle for erosion. First, the ground has more sediment, clay and sand than hard rock (like granite). Second, there is little rain – which makes the soil dry. Third, there is little vegetation to hold down the soil. Fourth, erosion over the years has created steep slopes in the land. Add an infrequent, but intense rain to these factors and you have the opportunity for massive erosion!
Dinosaurs used to roam through the Black Hills! And, we are talking about the big guys – tyrannosaurus rex, triceratops, brontosaurus and stegosaurus to name a few. During those dinosaur days, the whole area was a savannah, with lush grass and trees that provided foods for some of those big huge animals.
After the dinosaur period, the whole great plains was covered in a shallow sea. The floor of that sea hardened into a rock called shale, which is found all over the Badlands. This shale fossilized all kinds of interesting bones – dinosaurs and more. The fossils in the Badlands are evidence of some pretty unusual animals that lived long ago – sabre tooth cats, ancient camels, and three toed horses are just a few.
And, don’t forget the wooly Mammoth – mammoth bones are still being found today in the Black Hills. In fact, the fossils of more than 56 mammoth have been found in a huge sinkhole – the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs. These fossils are young compared to those of the dinosaur – only 26,000 years old!
Prehistoric bones are still discovered today. In fact, you can even go on a dinosaur dig if you visit the Black Hills. There is Dinosaur Park in Rapid City. There is also: Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Paleo Park, and the Mammoth Site.
The Black Hills used to be part of the Wild West – with gunfights, buffalo hunts, cattle drives and its own gold rush. Overnight, mining towns appeared all through the Black Hills in the late 1800’s. Most people panned for gold in the streams and rivers of the Black Hills hoping to “strike it rich”!
Gold is a metal that exists naturally in the earth. Scientists think that most of the earth’s gold is contained in its core – particles of gold and other metals were floating in space when the earth was formed. But, that gold can’t be mined. Most of the gold that we mine in the earth’s crust was deposited by asteroids thousands of years ago. Very small particles of gold are usually embedded in rock – sometimes a layer of gold is found, which looks like a “vein” running through the rock.
How does the gold get into the streams? Well, its all about erosion (again!). As wind and water erode the rocks and mountains of the area, tiny particles of gold can break free. Since gold is dense and heavy, it tends to collect on the bottom of stream beds. Sometimes these tiny particles of gold will find each other and bond together, eventually creating a nugget of gold. This is what people look for when they sift through the streams with their “pan.”
Most gold mines in the Black Hills are long gone, but there are still some places where you can take a look at an old underground gold mine and try your hand at panning for gold – like the Broken Boot Gold Mine, for example.