Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Great Plains has thirty units of the U.S. National Park System, three Canadian national parks, and fifteen national historic sites. The thirty U.S. units total slightly over 500,000 acres, which is only 0.6 percent of the 376-unit, 83,431,000-acre U.S. National Park System. In Canada the Great Plains is much better represented in the 38-unit, 55 million–acre Canadian National Park System.

To most people it is the unit classified as "national park" that comes to mind when thinking of the U.S. National Park System. There are fifty-four national parks across the country that cover 47 million acres. Badlands National Park (242,756 acres) in South Dakota occupies almost 50 percent of the total National Park System acreage in the Great Plains. The three other national parks in the U.S. Great Plains are relatively small: Theodore Roosevelt National Park (70,477 acres), North Dakota; Carlsbad Caverns National Park (46,766 acres), New Mexico; and Wind Cave (28,295 acres), South Dakota.

Badlands National Park, located in southwestern South Dakota, consists of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles, and spires that blend with the largest protected mixed-grass prairie in the United States. The prairie grasslands support bison, bighorn sheep, deer, and pronghorn antelope. Much of the 100-mile-long Badlands Wall, a prominent physiographic feature, is located within the park. Carved by the erosive force of water, this scenic landscape contains the world's richest Oligocene epoch fossil beds, 23 to 35 million years old. Established as Badlands National Monument in 1939, the area was redesignated a national park in 1978. The park is surrounded by the Buffalo Gap National Grassland on the north and the Pine Ridge Reservation on the south. One-quarter (64,000 acres) of the park has been designated as a unit (Sage Creek Wilderness) of the National Wilderness Preservation System and is the site of the reintroduction of the black-footed ferret, the most endangered land mammal in North America. Most visitors experience the North Unit of the park, which is conveniently located near Interstate 90, and drive the Badlands Loop; the Ben Reifel Visitor Center is located along this route. The South Unit is more remote and is almost entirely undeveloped. Despite temperatures that can reach above 100ºF, summer is the most popular season to visit Badlands National Park. Lodging is available within the park at the Cedar Pass Lodge and at the one developed campground, the Cedar Pass Campground. The park receives approximately a million visitors per year, but most visitors stay only about four hours.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is located in the extreme west-central portion of North Dakota in the colorful North Dakota Badlands along the Little Missouri River and is unique among the national parks in that it not only preserves an extraordinary landscape but also serves as a living memorial to a president of the United States and his enduring contribution to the conservation movement. The park was originally established in 1947 as Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park but was redesignated a national park in 1978. Roosevelt first came to the area in 1883. The following year he established the Elkhorn Ranch, where many of his attitudes about nature and conservation were shaped and refined. Almost half (29,920 acres) of this park has been designated by Congress as the Theodore Roosevelt Wilderness Area. The park consists of two main units (the North and South Units) and the Elkhorn Ranch Site and is almost completely surrounded by the largest national grassland in the United States, the Little Missouri National Grassland. Nearly fifty miles separate the North and South Units. Interstate 94 borders and passes through the South Unit; the Painted Canyon Visitor Center and the Medora Visitor Center are located there. A major feature of the South Unit is a paved, thirty-six-mile scenic loop with interpretive signs that explain some of the park's historical and natural phenomena. The North Unit is more scenic but due to its isolation is more lightly visited. It also has a scenic drive (twenty-eight miles). The Elkhorn Ranch Site is located thirty-five miles north of the Medora Visitor Center. The ranch buildings no longer exist. Although the park is open all year, some of the park roads may close in the winter. There are developed campgrounds in each unit of the park. The park attracts about 500,000 visitors every year.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located at the southern end of the Guadalupe Mountains in the Chihuahuan desert in southeastern New Mexico. The park contains seventy-six separate caves, including the nationfs deepest (1,567 feet) and third longest. Originally proclaimed as Carlsbad Caverns National Monument in 1923, it was established as Carlsbad Caverns National Park in 1930. Seventy percent of this park has been designated as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. Visitors have a choice of two diãerent tours in these spectacular caverns. The Blue Tour begins at the surface and goes belowground at the cavefs natural entrance. It is three miles and about three hours long and ends at the Big Room. The Red Tour is one and a quarter miles long and takes about an hour and a half. During this tour an elevator ride descends 755 feet to the edge of the Big Room. The Big Room, 1,800 feet at its longest, 1,100 feet at its widest, and 255 feet at its highest, is one of the largest underground chambers in the world. The chamber is resplendent with cave formations, including the sixty-two-foot-high Giant Dome, Carlsbad's biggest stalagmite. One of the park's most spectacular sights is the mass exodus at dusk of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats, which fly from the Big Room for a night of feasting on insects. On the surface the 9.25-mile Walnut Canyon Desert Drive is a gravel, one-way loop through dramatic desert mountain scenery. There is no lodging or developed campground within the park. The park receives about 500,000 visitors a year.

Only four national parks are smaller than the Wind Cave National Park, established in 1903. It is located at the edge of the Black Hills of southwestern South Dakota and is bordered on the west by the Black Hills National Forest and on the north by Custer State Park. Wind Cave contains fifty-five miles of passages, making it one of the longest caves in the world. It received its name from the strong air currents that flow in and out of its mouth. The cave contains many unusual mineral formations called boxwork, which are thin calcite fins resembling honeycomb. Above-ground, the park serves as a wildlife sanctuary for the restoration of bison, elk, and pronghorn antelope to the Black Hills. Starting with fourteen bison donated by the Bronx Zoo in 1913, the herd now numbers about 350. Seventy-five percent of the surface of the park is open grassland, and the rest is forested with ponderosa pine. The Elk Mountain Campground is the only option for those who want to stay overnight. Although the park receives 700,000 visitors a year, most of these visits are very short. Among the fifty-four national parks, only urbanized Hot Springs National Park (Arkansas) has shorter average visits.

The establishment of Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in 1996 in the Flint Hills region of east-central Kansas filled a major void in the National Park System by including the first unit whose major ecosystem is tallgrass prairie. Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is a new kind of park with a unique public/private managing concept. It is approximately 11,000 acres in size, but most of that land will remain under the ownership of the National Park Trust, which purchased the Z Bar/Spring Hill Ranch in 1994. The National Park Service will own 180 acres, yet the legislation calls for the entire acreage to be managed cooperatively by the National Park Service and the National Park Trust.

Of the ten units of the National Park System in the Great Plains classified as national monuments, four are geological and six are historical in nature. Devils Tower National Monument (1,350 acres) in the northeastern corner of Wyoming is an 865-foot tower of columnar rock, the remains of a volcanic intrusion. It was proclaimed by President Theodore Roosevelt as the first national monument in 1906. Capulin Volcano National Monument (800 acres) is a nearly perfectly shaped cinder cone that stands 1,200 feet above the surrounding High Plains of northeastern New Mexico. A two-mile paved road spiraling to the volcano rim makes this one of the most accessible volcanoes in the world. Jewell Cave National Monument (1,300 acres) is located in the Black Hills of southwestern South Dakota and is the third longest cave in the world. It is known for spectacular formations of various types. Agate Fossil Beds National Monument (2,700 acres) in northwestern Nebraska contains numerous wellpreserved Miocene mammal fossils. Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument (1,100 acres) is located in the Texas Panhandle adjacent to Lake Meredith National Recreation Area. For more than 10,000 years, Native Americans dug agatized dolomite from quarries here to make projectile points, knives, scrapers, and other tools.

Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument (1,071 acres) is located at the western edge of the Great Plains in central New Mexico. This park preserves and interprets the best remaining examples of seventeenth-century Spanish Franciscan mission churches and conventos. At Fort Union National Monument (720 acres) in northeastern New Mexico, three U.S. Army forts were built during the second half of the nineteenth century; they were key supply points along the Santa Fe Trail. The largest visible network of wagon ruts on this trail can be seen here. Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (765 acres) in southeastern Montana is the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn between the Seventh Cavalry and the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne Indians in 1876. Homestead National Monument of America (195 acres) in southeastern Nebraska was established to commemorate the Homestead Act of 1862. The massive promontory of Scotts Bluff that rises 800 feet above the valley floor in Scotts Bluff National Monument (3,000 acres) in the western Nebraska Panhandle was a prominent natural landmark for emigrants on the Oregon Trail. This site preserves the memory of the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails. The Summit Road allows visitors to drive to the top of Scotts Bluff for a spectacular view of the North Platte River valley.

Three national recreation areas in the National Park System are located within the Great Plains. Chickasaw National Recreation Area (9,900 acres), named to honor the Chickasaw Indian Nation, is located in south-central Oklahoma at the eastern edge of the Great Plains. This area was originally designated as Sulphur Springs Reservation in 1902, then redesignated as Platt National Park in 1906. In 1976 Platt National Park and Arbuckle National Recreation Area were combined, and the area was renamed Chickasaw National Recreation Area. The partially forested rolling hills and the springs, streams, and lakes are the setting for a diverse number of outdoor recreation activities that attract 1.5 million visitors per year. Two reservoirs in Texas serve as important centers for water-based recreation, with each recording 1.5 million visits annually: Amistad National Recreation Area (58,500 acres), in the U.S. section of the Amistad Reservoir along the Rio Grande near Del Rio, and Lake Meredith National Recreation Area (46,000 acres), which surrounds Lake Meredith on the Canadian River in the Texas Panhandle.

There is one unit in each of the classifications of national historical park and national memorial in the Great Plains. Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park (1,570 acres) is located in the Texas Hill Country of southern Texas north of San Antonio and consists of the birthplace, boyhood home, and ranch of the thirty-sixth president, his grandparents' log cabin, and the Johnson family cemetery. The humble nature of Lyndon Johnson is reflected in this simple cemetery under the live oaks on the banks of the Pedernales River, with his pet beagles buried nearby. At Mount Rushmore National Memorial (1,250 acres) in the Black Hills of southwestern South Dakota colossal heads of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt were sculpted by Gutzon Borglum on the face of a granite mountain. The memorial has a new visitor center and the Presidential Trail, which runs along the base of the mountain.

The ten units of the National Park System in the Great Plains that are classified as national historic sites vary in size from the 1.85-acre Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site (Kansas) to the 1,750-acre Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site (North Dakota). Six of these national historic sites are forts that relate to key events in westward expansion: Bent's Old Fort (Colorado), Fort Larned (Kansas), Fort Scott (Kansas), Fort Union Trading Post (North Dakota, Montana), Fort Davis (Texas), and Fort Laramie (Wyoming). Two of these parks are dedicated to Native American themes: Knife River Indian Villages (North Dakota) and Washita Battlefield (Oklahoma). Two parks are dedicated to African American themes: Brown v. Board of Education (Kansas) and Nicodemus (Kansas).

Linear units of the National Park System in the Great Plains that are located in the region for at least part of their extent include seven trails in the National Trail System and one national river. The trails are North Country National Scenic Trail (North Dakota), Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail (Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana), Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail (Nebraska, Colorado), Santa Fe National Historic Trail (Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico), Oregon National Historic Trail (Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming), Pony Express National Historic Trail (Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming), and California National Historic Trail (Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming). The Missouri National Recreation River (Nebraska, South Dakota) is one of the last free-flowing stretches of the river, extending from Gavin's Point Dam near Yankton, South Dakota, to Ponca, Nebraska.

In Canada, Parks Canada manages the three national parks in the Great Plains. Riding Mountain National Park (741,312 acres) is located on the eastern edge of the interior Plains, west of the Canadian Shield in southwestern Manitoba. The park occupies part of the rugged landscape of the 500-mile-long Manitoba Escarpment west of Lake Manitoba, standing 1,500 feet above the surrounding plains. In 1895 the federal government designated the Riding Mountain area as a timber reserve. It was redesignated as a national park in 1930, taking its name from the park's dominant landform feature–Riding Mountain. The park has three distinctive vegetation zones, creating some of the greatest natural diversity in Canada. The park is essentially an area of boreal forests surrounded by aspen parkland. A third major forest type, eastern deciduous forest, occupies the lowest and warmest areas in the park on the rich soils that have built up along the base of the escarpment. The park is known for the number of its wildlife species. Large mammals include black bears, moose, elk, wolves, and coyotes. Waterfowl and beavers are plentiful along the waterways, and a herd of bison is kept in a large enclosure near Lake Audy. The seventy-eight-mile road system allows access throughout the park for sightseeing, wildlife viewing, and canoeing. There are 250 miles of hiking, biking, and horse trails in the park. The main area of recreational development is at Wasagaming on Clear Lake, a Victorian-style resort that features one of the finest collections of log buildings in Canada. Five campgrounds with a total of 600 sites are located in the park. There are also two group campsites that can accommodate a maximum of 100 people. Although the park is open all year, complete facilities are available only from mid-May to mid-October. On the escarpment in the east is located Agassiz Ski Hill for downhill skiing in the winter.

Grasslands National Park is located in southwestern Saskatchewan near the Saskatchewan-Montana border. This is one of the largest pieces of virtually undisturbed mixed-grass prairie in North America. It may be several years before the park is fully established, so interim management guidelines have been established to direct the management of park lands, visitor activities, and sensitive resources. The park, when fully established, will encompass 350 square miles in two distinct blocks. The West Block includes the Frenchman River valley. This glacial meltwater channel features deeply dissected plateaus, coulees, and the conspicuous Seventy Mile Butte. The park's East Block features the Killdeer Badlands of the Rock Creek area and is representative of the Wood Mountain Upland. The Killdeer Badlands, untouched by glaciation, reveal the multicolored hues of 60,000 years of eroded strata and are the location of the first recorded discovery of dinosaur remains in Canada (1874). Among the wildlife species found in the park are prairie dogs, golden eagles, prairie rattlesnakes, badgers, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope. Ranching operations are still ongoing in much of the area that is in private ownership. There are no designated campgrounds within the park boundaries. Only primitive, random tent camping is available. Limited essential services and a fully developed campground are located in Val Marie, just outside the boundary of the West Block. Near the East Block of the park, the town of Wood Mountain provides very limited services.

The 48,000-acre Elk Island National Park, located in the Beaver Hills region twenty-eight miles east of Edmonton, Alberta, is an oasis for rare and endangered species attracted by its lakes, ponds, forests, and meadows. Originally established in 1906 to protect a herd of twenty elk, the park is home to moose, bear, beaver, and coyote. The park is also a special venue in which to enjoy spectacular prairie sunsets. It is open all year, and most recreation facilities center on Astotin Lake. Sixty miles of trails are popular with hikers and crosscountry skiers.

Parks Canada administers the following national historic sites in the Great Plains: in Manitoba, Linear Mounds, Riding Mountain Park East Gate Registration Complex, Riel House, The Forks, St. Andrews Rectory, and Lower Fort Garry; and in Saskatchewan, Frenchman Butte, Fort Battleford, Batoche, Battle of Fish Creek, Fort Livingstone, Fort Pelly, Motherwell Homestead, and Fort Esperance.

See also IMAGES AND ICONS: Homestead National Monument of America; Mount Rushmore National Memorial / PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT: Badlands; Carlsbad Caverns; Prairie Preservation.

National Park Service website.

Charles I. Zinser Pittsburgh State University

Zinser, Charles I. Outdoor Recreation: United States National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1995.

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