Undiscovered America #6: Black Hills

July 14, 2017

The Black Hills are a mountain range unlike any other. The range towers over the surrounding great plains as a 125 miles long and 65 miles wide complex of enormous boulders and rock outcroppings. The name Black Hills comes from the ominous color that the mountains exhibit when seen in shade. While beautiful in the light, when backlit the grey stone and dense pine trees give the appearance of a dark wall across the horizon.

Approaching from the east coast, the Black Hills are the first prominent natural site on the horizon since the Appalachian Mountains. Harney Peak, the highest point in the range, is even more than 500 feet higher in elevation than any of the mountains found in the eastern United States.

The most recognizable and famous site in the hills is Mount Rushmore, but dozens of other important natural and historic sites are found within the mountains. Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Black Hills National Forest, Custer State Park, Needles Highway, Crazy Horse Memorial, and the old west town of Deadwood showcase the greater landscape of the mountains. While each highlights a unique aspect of the range, together they also do an injustice. The combined size of these areas is larger than that of many National Parks so it’s strange that this range of connected and impressive individual sites hasn’t been assembled into one cohesive park.

The Black Hills are made up of four interconnected landscapes: large grassy plains that give herds of wildlife opportunities to graze, thick ponderosa pine forests that rise on the surrounding hills, massive granite rock faces, and uniquely detailed underground cave systems. This traditional prairie environment, found in and around the hills, has creats an island of diversity for animals such as bison, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, prairie dogs, flying squirrels, and marmots who used to live on the open range but use the hills as a stronghold in their survival.

In addition to the geology and species which make the area special, the hills also have a complicated and fascinating human history. For thousands of years Plains Indians such as the Sioux have lived in and around the mountains. The arrival of immigrants devastated the native way of life as settlers began homesteading and mining in the region. This invasion of tribal lands culminated in in the Great Sioux War of 1876 (also known as the Black Hills War. Several battlefields from this period dot the region including nearby Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee.

How an area this unique, impressive, historic, and diverse has been denied and overall National Park status is shocking. Some of it probably has to do with the mistaken but commonly held belief that it is a National Park already.

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