By Paula Damon
When traveling in the U.S. and abroad, natural wonders peak my interest more than any other tourist attractions. Ancient land formations, prehistoric animal remains, wildlife and climate all play an important role in my recreational enjoyment.
So, whether you are passing through or are a native of South Dakota, here’s not all but some trivia about the rare attractions unique to the Rushmore State …
Located in Perkins County in northwest South Dakota, Lemmon is home of fossilized remains of life 50 million years ago consist of the world’s largest petrified wood park.
The geographical center of the U.S. is Belle Fourche, in Butte County, also in the northwest part of the state.
South of Belle Fourche are the Black Hills or Paha Sapa, or “hills that are black,” named by the Lakota Sioux Indians. The mainly ponderosa pine-covered hills rise several thousand feet above surrounding prairies and appear black from a distance.
Near Sturgis, Bear Butte, Mato Paha, or “Sacred Mountain,” is the origin of many Native American legends. Easy to spot, rising 1,400 feet above surrounding prairie, Bear Butte was used as a landmark by the plains Indians. Today, it is considered a sacred place by plains peoples.
In the Black Hills is Custer State Park, home to 1,500 free-roaming bison, weighing up to 2,000 pounds. Bison were essential to the Lakota Sioux Indians, who relied on bison, “tatanka,” for survival.
West of Custer, Jewel Cave has more than 120 miles of surveyed underground tunnels. The third-longest cave in the world, Jewel Cave is named for sparkly calcite crystals.
North of Hot Springs is Wind Cave with the world’s largest display box work, a rare underground formation along more than 82 miles of mapped passageway.
The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs has the largest concentration of Columbian and woolly mammoth bones discovered in their primary context in the world. This National Natural Landmark is the only in-situ, bones left as found, display of fossil mammoths in America.
In the Black Hills, Harney, 7,242 above sea level, is the highest point in the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains. Starting at Sylvan Lake, I have twice climbed Harney Peak’s easily walkable and breath-takingly scenic trails.
In the center of Black Hills National Forest, the 9,824-acre Black Elk Wilderness, in the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve, was named for Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota holy man.
Seventy-five miles east of the Black Hills is Badlands National Park, nearly 244,000 acres of eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires among the largest protected mixed grass prairie in the U.S. The Badlands also have the world’s richest Oligocene epoch fossil beds, dating back 23 to 35 million years.
Sage Creek Wilderness, a 22-mile backcountry route through the Badlands, is where the most endangered land mammal in North America, the black-footed ferret, was reintroduced.
Famous to paleontologists, Faith, in Northwestern South Dakota, is where several Hadrosaur, Edmontosaurus annectens, duckbilled dinosaurs, were excavated on a ranch north of Faith. One of the largest, most complete and best-preserved Tyrannosaurus Rex was excavated near Faith.
Near Garretson in Eastern South Dakota, Split Rock cut deep gorges through Palisades State Park. According to geologists, the Sioux quartzite spires are 1.2 billion years old. Glaciers deposited a thin layer of debris on top of the quartzite with beds of dark red pipestone between the layers. This is one of the few areas in the nation where pipestone is found.
Also east of the Missouri River from Aberdeen to Watertown, Brookings to Huron and Milbank to DeSmet, South Dakota’s Glacial Lake, in the northeast, were formed by receding glaciers over 20,000 years ago. One of them, Medicine Lake, has one-and-a half times as much salt as seawater.
Near Mitchell, S.D., the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village is the remains of a six-acre prehistoric Indian settlement, a National Register and National Historic Landmark site.
One more S.D. fact to boast about, South Dakota is a very sunny state. Ranked the 15th sunniest place in the nation with over 200 days of sunshine annually, Rapid City has the most days of sunshine in the state with approximately 230 sunny days each year. Huron is second sunniest spot in South Dakota, with roughly 211 days of sun; Sioux Falls has 208 and Aberdeen with 202 days of sunshine annually.