This feature first appeared in Lonely Planet magazine in 2016

2016 is the centenary of America’s National Park Service: celebrate with a road trip across South Dakota and Wyoming, for larger-than-life landscapes, wildlife and history in the parks and preserves that define the nation.

Badlands

FROM UP ON BIG BADLANDS Overlook, the land concertinas out in plump, prehistoric folds, all the way to the horizon. On this barren stage a celestial drama is playing out overhead: the setting sun has just dipped below a leaden band of dark cloud, to blaze pink across a narrow strip of sky. It’s as if someone has switched the light on this primordial scene. The mounds below, dull brown only moments earlier, now glow electric red.

Such dawn-of-time vistas are common throughout Badlands National Park, a 240,000-acre preserve of big skies and bizarre rock formations, rising above the vast prairies in the centre of America. Difficult to cross and unable to support much life, these crumbling ridges were known to local tribes as ‘Makhóšica’, or ‘No Good Lands’. Today, miles of hiking trails make them a little easier to traverse.

‘They look ancient,’ says park volunteer Chuck Schroll. ‘But actually the Badlands are babies in terms of geology.’ On a scale that is more often measured in the hundreds of millions, the Badlands only started taking shape 500,000 years ago, when streams, wind and rain began to sculpt what had once been a flood plain. The Badlands have been making up for lost time. Erosion here happens at an astonishing rate. It takes just a year for the soft stone to wear down as much as the granite at nearby Mount Rushmore does over 3,000 years.

Older layers of rock exposed by this breakneck erosion are windows into the Badlands’ many past lives; 75 million years ago, this area lay under an inland sea that stretched all the way from Canada to Mexico. Later, as the waters receded, it became jungle, then savannah, before finally drying out to the harsh environment it is today. Each colourful band on the warped mounds hides within it the skeletons of the weird and wonderful creatures that once lived here, from mosasaurs – giant marine reptiles – to sabre-toothed cats and titanotheres, rhino-like creatures with two horns.

‘It’s one of the best places in the world for mammal fossils – people discover them daily,’ says Chuck, as he opens the door to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, where scientists can be watched uncovering new finds in the palaeontology lab. For him, though, the Badlands’ biggest appeal lies elsewhere – in the sky above. With no light pollution from nearby big towns, this otherworldly landscape is a fitting spot from which to gaze out at the universe.

As night falls and the rocky outcrops cut dark figures against the star-filled sky, Chuck is in the park’s amphitheatre, guiding visitors through the cosmos. He invites them to peer into a telescope through which it’s possible to see the moons of Jupiter and Saturn’s rings. Even to the naked eye, there’s still much to spot: the nebulous Milky Way, the Big Dipper, the constellation of Hercules and – momentarily – the International Space Station streaking across the horizon, as it circles the Earth every 92 minutes.

The next morning, the Todd family from Minneapolis follow their astronomy session with a breakfast in the park. ‘There’s a real sense of getting out of the ordinary here,’ says mother Kristen, as she opens a checked red tablecloth over a picnic bench. Her children play in the tall prairie grass, thick with the white fluffy seed heads of western salsify. In the distance, the early hikers exploring the now apricot-hued mounds look like ants swarming over an anthill.

‘When they created the National Park Service 100 years ago, most of America hadn’t been overdeveloped yet,’ she says. ‘It’s amazing that they had the foresight to put aside places like this – for the benefit of everyone, forever.’

Black Hills

FRANCE HAS THE EIFFEL TOWER and Italy the Colosseum, but arguably the most iconic landmark in the USA lies not in the nation’s capital nor any of its cities. Instead, Mount Rushmore – that colossal carving of four presidents, built between the two world wars – is holed up in the Black Hills National Forest, hundreds of miles from the nearest major metropolis.

Approaching from Highway 244, the heads appear suddenly from behind a thicket of ponderosa pines – the colour and density of these trees giving the Black Hills their dark appearance and name. To the left, George Washington stares boldly into the future. At his side, Thomas Jefferson looks to the heavens. On the far right, Abraham Lincoln’s brow furrows with the resolve to keep the nation together in the Civil War. Then, half hidden between them, there’s Theodore Roosevelt – the ballsy, moustached frontiersman, who was as at home on the ranch as he was in the White House.

At the foot of the monument, the enormity of the 18-metre faces becomes fully apparent. Picture-takers assume the Mount Rushmore position: a low squat in an attempt to squeeze both the presidential and their family’s heads into the frame. For many, Mount Rushmore is more than just a photo op, it’s a shrine to American democracy. There’s a solemnity to the stone columns leading to the viewing point, the flags of all 50 states standing to attention in the breeze. One visitor, one of many with the Stars and Stripes on their T-shirt, has come from nearby Rapid City to pay his respects. Called, ironically, Roy England, he declaims: ‘Mount Rushmore is the cornerstone of the American dream. It’s all about believing big and working hard to make it happen.’

That Rushmore became more than just a tourist site is thanks to its chief sculptor, Idaho-born Gutzon Borglum. Originally the memorial was to feature heroes of the West such as Buffalo Bill, but Borglum persuaded those who commissioned him to aim higher, declaring: ‘American history shall march along that skyline.’

Rushmore is storytelling in stone. But if this was to be the nation’s narrative, some felt excluded – especially the Lakota tribe for whom the Black Hills are sacred. To redress the balance, in 1939 Chief Henry Standing Bear wrote to Korczak Ziolkowski, a sculptor who had worked with Borglum, asking him to build a monument of the warrior Crazy Horse, so that ‘the white man [would] know the red man has great heroes, too’.

Ziolkowski began work on Crazy Horse in 1948 and today the still-in-progress mountain carving looms just 16 miles from Rushmore. Natural veins of quartz in Crazy Horse’s face glimmer as they catch the sun. A row of clouds edging up the mountain forms a headdress and a passing helicopter is barely as big as one of the titan’s eyes. When finished, it will be the world’s largest stone monument at 172 metres high. It’s all the more impressive given that, while Borglum had 400 people working under him and over $800,000 of federal government financing for Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse has been entirely self-funded. ‘When Korczak came first here, there was no running water or electricity,’ says guide Tom Wilson. He only had his wife, five sons and five daughters to help out. When one son drove a bulldozer off the mountain, Korczak’s first words were: “You got that digger there, now you get it out.” That’s the kind of determination needed to achieve something like this.’

Devils Tower

TIGHTENING THE SILK bandana round her neck, then buckling up her fringed leather chaps, Kendra Meidinger looks the picture of a cowgirl. Her accessories protect against the mad weather that tyrannises this part of the Wyoming-South Dakota border. Records have been set nearby, with temperatures changing by 27°C in a matter of minutes.

After a morning wrangling cattle, Kendra is taking guests on a ride through Diamond 7 Bar Guest Ranch’s 10,000 acres. The warm Chinook winds have died down and the air hangs heavy with a strange stillness that augurs oncoming storms. The only sound is the splash of hooves through water, then rhythmic thuds as Kendra leads the horses through a creek and onto a dirt track named Lame Jones County Road. She regales the riders with tales of encountering mountain lions, their eyes reflecting in the darkness, and the story of a double murder that took place on this very spot 100 years ago. But the most spine-tingling moment is yet to come.

Climbing to the top of a hill in one of the ranch’s many pastures, a view opens out of the valley below. And there, emerging like a giant tombstone out of the flat grassland, is Devils Tower – a gargantuan hunk of rock that rises as high as a super-skyscraper. The tallest pines look like matchsticks next to it.

‘I used to work as a park ranger at Devils Tower and people would ask me how much concrete it took to build it,’ says Kendra. ‘They couldn’t believe it was nature’s work.’ Closely studied ever since it was declared the country’s first ever National Monument in 1906, the tower still has geologists disagreeing over exactly how it was formed. They all concur, however, that – more than 50 million years ago – a big burst of magma spurted up between layers of sedimentary rock. Over time, the surrounding soft stone wore away, exposing the mighty igneous monolith within, its thick columns running down it like the pipes of a supersized organ.

For local tribes, who call the formation ‘Bear Lodge’, it has a different origin story. One day a group of young girls were chased by giant bears with claws as big as tipi poles. The girls prayed to the Great Spirit, who made the ground beneath them rise up. With the girls out of reach, the frustrated beasts left deep claw marks on the side of the rock.

Then there are those who believe in a third explanation. Since Spielberg’s 1977 sci-fi movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind ‘revealed’ the tower to be a landing zone for aliens, UFO watchers and supernatural theorists have converged on it. ‘People would ask me where they could recharge their crystals,’ recalls Kendra. ‘There’s definitely a strange feeling about the place.’

‘There are things in nature that engender an awful quiet in the heart of man. Devils Tower is one of them,’ wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning Native American author N Scott Momaday. Whatever people’s beliefs, there’s something that makes all who come across it stop to contemplate, to search for greater meaning in its mystery.

A hike along one of the trails encircling Devils Tower reveals its magnetism. Prairie dogs stand high on their hind legs, facing the protuberance like a group of worshippers. A pair of turkey vultures, dark slashes across the sky except for their bald red heads, helix upwards in the thermal currents created by the tower heating more quickly than the surrounding terrain. Only the deer seem oblivious to this rocky eminence’s pull, skipping through the tall grass and by the charred, lightening-struck trees at its base. By late afternoon the wind has risen again. Pine needles that were delicately quivering now blast off their branches. A line of red prayer bundles, strung to a branch by a local tribe, sways violently. Clouds part and, as light hits the tower, its lichen-covered surface emanates an ungodly green.

Yellowstone

A GAME IS AFOOT. Two fluffballs have stirred from their bed of branches. As the black bear cubs slide down the hill, a whir of cameras is set off. Among the wildlife watchers who’ve been waiting for this moment is Elisabeth Police. Each year for the past fifteen, she’s made the long pilgrimage here from Florida. ‘This is one of nature’s best cathedrals,’ she says. ‘When you see all the animals, you feel part of it and that gives an incredible sense of peace.’

One would think that terrain atop a still-active supervolcano would be pretty inhospitable to life. In fact, Yellowstone is one of the best places to see wildlife in North America and – in a roundabout way – it is the area’s volcanic features that have allowed the fauna here to thrive.

After early pioneers stumbled across Yellowstone, reports flowed back east of belching mud pits, pools boiling iridescent blue and fiery orange, and steam billowing dozens of feet high like hell’s own factory stacks. Anxious that these geothermal wonders should not be exploited, the US government established Yellowstone as the world’s first national park in 1872.

It was the bison who gained most from this newly founded haven. Nearly hunted to extinction by the 1880s, today 5,000 of these bovine superlatives hulk their way through the park, their horns as thick as baseball bats, their dung pats as big as flattened basketballs and their bodies weighing up to 900kg. ‘Most of the time they seem slow, but bison can run 35mph and jump over cars,’ says Blu Picard, a guide for Xanterra Parks, whose love of wildlife goes so deep he has an eagle tattooed across his back. ‘During mating season,’ he whispers, pointing to a pair of bulls squaring off, ‘rivals will flip each other over.’

The Lamar Valley is one of the best places to spot wildlife. Here in the park’s northeast, aromatic sagebrush masks the usual smell of sulphur. Mouthwash-coloured bluebirds streak by as great horned owls swivel their heads round 270 degrees and antelope-like pronghorn prance past at a speed that makes them the world’s second-fastest mammal.

For many nature-spotters, the prize draw in Lamar is the grey wolf, reintroduced into the park in 1995. They are most likely to be seen around dawn and dusk; sightings are often little more than a tantalising pair of ears poking above the grass, as seen at the end of a long telescope. ‘Look for circling birds,’ advises Blu. ‘That often means carrion nearby and feeding predators.’

Wolves may be a challenge to find but most of Yellowstone’s fauna hides in plain sight. A few hundred metres from where the black bear cubs were playing, a cinnamon bear is up on a picnic table. He takes an explorative sniff, before scampering back into the forest. Soon after, a couple sit down in the same spot, blissfully unaware of who might have been their dinner guest had they arrived just a little earlier.

Grand Teton

IN GRAND TETON, THE SKY is cut with a thousand diagonals. Granite pyramids rocket up to 4,000m, unencumbered by foothills and naked except for their snow blankets. Below these unflinching mountains, row upon row of acute-angled treetops shear the valley floor. Only the curve of the Snake River adds some softness to the scene.

Taking this all in at Snake River Overlook are siblings Elizabeth and Caleb Brumley. They’re on their way from Minnesota to Utah, on one last road trip before Elizabeth moves away. To mark the milestone, Caleb asked his sister to ink him a tattoo: three textbook triangles of the Tetons. The outline still fresh on his arm, Caleb photographs his own version of the famous image Ansel Adams captured here, while Elizabeth draws the range in her sketchbook.

The trees have grown since Ansel lined his lens up here in 1942 but the same uncompromising beauty remains. ‘You see this view everywhere: in documentaries, on calendars,’ says Elizabeth. ‘But it still doesn’t prepare you for the real thing. I feel privileged to be here.’

Mountains steal the show but the Grand Teton National Park is also a natural aqua wonderland. Moose and elk wade knee-high into a patchwork of ponds, creeks and watery meadows to graze on grasses and willow shrubs. At the foot of the Teton Range, a ring of glacial lakes shines like a row of forest-green pearls. On the smaller bodies of water, such as String and Leigh Lakes, swimmers, canoeists and stand-up paddle boarders glide through reflections of the peaks above. On Jackson Lake, the largest by far and also the deepest and coldest, motorboats are taken out to islands or anchored for trout fishing.

Down below Elizabeth and Caleb’s lookout, the Snake River oxbows through the valley, not quite yet in the shadow of Grand Teton. On its blinding white surface, a succession of small dots passes by. In one of these dots, which on closer inspection are revealed to be inflatable rafts, Jimmy Vollin is guiding the West family from Georgia. A self-professed ‘steward of the river’, Jimmy enthusiastically points out the area’s geography and ecology as he keeps the vessel on course. ‘Look at those beaver dams. They act as natural purifiers, filtering out sediment. The water is always much clearer after them.’

Further downstream, where the Snake River narrows to a canyon, whitewater rafters paddle furiously over such curiously named rapids as the Lunch Counter and the Big Kahuna. But in the wide channel where Jimmy’s boat is floating, the water flows at a much gentler pace. A man drifts past on an inflatable kayak, using a cooler as a headrest. ‘What’s in the box?’ he says, repeating Jimmy’s friendly enquiry. ‘There’s a party right here in this box, my friend.’

On the riverbanks, purple lupins shoot up like spears. A pod of American white pelicans stretch out their broad wings and a sandhill crane gingerly treads the water with its long legs. Jimmy hands a pair of binoculars to the family on board his raft so they can get a closer look at bald eagles and ospreys guarding waterside nests.

‘This is such a cool spot,’ says Jimmy, ‘And this land is all our land. As a national park, it’s owned by the people of this country.’ But for the generosity of one man, this might not have been the case. When Ansel Adams photographed the park, only the Teton Mountain Range and the six lakes at its base belonged to it. The Snake River Valley remained in private hands. Aware of local opposition to the park’s expansion, billionaire John D Rockefeller Jr secretly bought up holdings. Once he’d amassed enough land, he turned this section over to the National Park Service and by 1950 it was added to Grand Teton National Park.

Now a river runs through it. Headwaters from Yellowstone mix with snowmelt from the Tetons in Jackson Lake, flowing another 1,000 miles and out into the vast expanse of the Pacific. In no particular rush to get there though, the waters first wend through the national park, piggybacking Jimmy on his small raft. As he says, ‘It’s one hell of a ride.’

First appeared in Lonely Planet magazine in 2016.