See the Remarkable Geological World of the Black Hills and Badlands | Black Hills Travel Blog

See the Remarkable Geological World of the Black Hills and Badlands

  • See the Remarkable Geological World of the Black Hills and Badlands
    See the Remarkable Geological World of the Black Hills and Badlands
Updated: Thursday, December 20, 2018
By : 
Tom Griffith

On any drive or hike through the Black Hills and Badlands of western South Dakota, visitors encounter some of the most unusual landscapes on the planet.

Ranging from the sawtooth spires and ragged ridgelines of Badlands National Park to the towering, finger-like spires of Custer State Park and the lofty granite peaks that host Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse memorials, this special region of the world presents an ideal place to understand geology, the science that explores earth’s physical structure and substance.

In geologic terms, my friend, the late author Rex Allen Smith, once wrote that eons ago the Black Hills were taller than the Rockies at the same time the Himalayas were a reedy swamp.

It’s difficult to fathom one area that encompasses geologic history so expansive that it includes deposits as young as 10,000 years and as ancient as 1.8 billion years old. But two venues in Rapid City allow visitors and residents alike to gain a better understanding of the geologic formations of the Black Hills that traverse eras from the Precambrian to the Cenozoic.

Located on the campus of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, the Museum of Geology relishes being an institution smack dab in a regional treasure trove of fossils.

To the east and south are the Eocene and Oligocene mammals of the White River Formation. Marine reptiles, fish, Fairburn agates, sharks and invertebrates litter the shales around the city, and the banks of the Missouri River. To the west are the Jurassic dinosaurs and mammals of Wyoming, and to the north lie fossil plants, dinosaurs and more from the famous Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation, all of which form the foundation of the museum’s displays.

Succinctly, the museum explores the history of life on Earth, all reflected in rocks.

“We’re currently updating displays to show less of just here’s a name and a mineral, and instead allow visitors to learn the different categories of minerals and rocks, so it can be eye-opening,” said Taylor Davis, assistant director of the Museum of Geology. “At least one person a day says, `It’s so humbling.’ The earth is mysterious and miraculous at the same time. Our visitors see how vast and complex the earth truly is.”

The museum’s collections are so extensive that less than 1 percent of them are on public display. And, visitors to the Mine’s campus don’t just learn about local geologic history, Taylor explained.

“Don’t just expect Black Hills geologic history, because you’ll discover specimens from around the world,” she said. “We have worldwide exhibits and specimens from Antarctica, Chile, Greenland and Mexico, among others.”

Davis said she and most visitors are also intrigued by the museum’s meteorite display which represents, “something not of this earth.” Regardless, those who take their time and study the museum’s offerings will walk away with a profound appreciation for the geologic history of the Black Hills, she said.

About a mile away at the Journey Museum and Learning Center, 222 New York St., boasts a 58,000-square-foot museum surrounded by seven acres of gardens. Inside, its glorious collection of rocks, gems and minerals provide a geologic understanding of some of the earth’s deepest secrets.

“The whole concept of the Journey Museum is to connect visitors with the scientific, heritage and cultural history of the Black Hills,” Journey Executive Director Troy Kilpatrick told me. “Geology is interwoven with all the history of the Black Hills, giving us a timeline of our region.”

Even the shape of the building is designed to resemble the uplift of this mountain range, while stones surrounding the building represent the geologic “red race track” that circles the Black Hills, Kilpatrick explained.


Photo courtesy of the Journey Museum & Learning Center

Inside, several hundred geology-related items are displayed that help explain the story of a region once regarded as the most valuable 100 square miles in the continental U.S.

“The layman is going to learn the orientation of all the land, what the Black Hills was like 3 billion years ago, how it evolved and developed, and a basic understanding of what happened in the timeline, where the dinosaurs came from and the mammoths, what impact the discovery of gold had, all pieced together through our geological rock records,” Kilpatrick said. “It’s the Black Hills story and it’s why geology is the first thing you experience at the Journey Museum. It sets the tone for a visitor’s experience.”

So, if you’re ready to learn more about the ground beneath your feet, take an intriguing trip this winter to the South Dakota School of Mines’s Museum of Geology and the Rapid City’s Journey Museum, where the mystery and history of our geologic past is unraveled. We guarantee you’ll never look at the beauty of western South Dakota in the same way again.

About the Author

Tom Griffith is a fourth-generation South Dakotan who studied literature and drama at the University of London before graduating from the University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire. An award-winning reporter, photographer and managing editor at newspapers in Arizona, Montana and South Dakota, Tom also has written or co-authored more than 70 books and his travel features have been published in more than 300 newspapers and magazines from New York to New Zealand.