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BADLANDS SHEEP MTN.jpg

Here is a view of the Badlands from Sheep  Mountain Table.

If you want to see the Badlands without driving all the way to Wall or coughing up $15 for the vehicle entrance fee at Badlands National Park, there are closer options. And they're free, too.

The Stronghold Unit of the Badlands is an isolated, less-accessible tract of 130,000 acres of rugged tables, buttes and spires located within the borders of the Pine Ridge Reservation. It is not as well-visited as the larger, better-known Badlands between Wall and Interior, which is frequented by hordes of tourists each year. Connected to Interstate 90, that area draws nearly a million visitors annually and accounts for 95 percent of all Badlands tourism. By comparison, the Stronghold Unit typically gets about 10,000 visitors annually.

But to park interpreter M.J. Bull Bear at the White River Visitors Center, the reservation Badlands offers some of the best views in the Badlands - unparalleled vistas of the area's otherworldly geography that has enthralled and entranced people since the first inhabitants ventured into the Badlands an estimated 11,000 years ago.

You can view the Stronghold Unit from its east side at lookouts on Sheep Mountain Table near Scenic. Take Highway 44 west of Rapid City, and turn south at Scenic onto BIA 27. Go a couple of miles and keep a sharp eye out for a small road sign for Sheep Mountain Table. You'll turn west and head five miles down a gravel road to gorgeous views looking west.

In addition to the stunning table mesas, striated walls in hues of red and gold and foreboding walls that wash away to deep ravines, you'll see large concentrations of mixed-grass prairie and probably some wildlife, too.

But if you wish to avoid gravel roads altogether, you can view the Stronghold Unit from its western edge by driving to Hermosa and heading east on Highway 40, which becomes BIA 41 and passes through the village of Red Shirt Table, the northwestern corner of the Pine Ridge Reservation and its closest point to Rapid City. About six miles farther south, you'll encounter a stunning scenic overlook that offers, on a clear day, a panoramic vista that stretches all the way to Stronghold Table about 10 or 15 miles away, as the crow flies.

You'll need a good pair of binoculars to see that far, of course, but even with the naked eye, you can see four or five miles to the east and the views are spectacular. So is the area's history.

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Isolated parts of the Stronghold District of the south unit have great spiritual and historic value to the Oglala Sioux Tribe. The unit includes sites where ghost dancers once performed their spiritual rituals and those sites, which include the remains of some dancers and, some even say, perhaps Crazy Horse, are sacred to Native Americans. At Red Shirt overlook, a small shade arbor sometimes houses a vendor or two during the summer, selling Native American jewelry, beadwork or artwork. Bull Bear said there are some efforts under way to establish trails of some sort.

Getting there

Here are directions from Rapid City.

Sheep Mountain Table: Drive 35 miles east on Highway 44 to Scenic. Turn south on to BIA 27. Go 2 miles to the Sheep Mountain turnoff sign. Drive five miles west on a gravel road to various overlook sites.

Red Shirt Overlook: Drive 15 miles south on Highway 79 to Hermosa. Go east on Highway 40 and BIA 41 to Red Shirt Table. The overlook is located six miles south of Red Shirt Table.

Mary Garrigan is a Journal staff writer. Contact her at 394-8424 or mary.garrigan@rapidcityjournal.com

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