Article by Stefanie Payne. First published on The Greatest Road Trip.
Doorway to Forever: Badlands National Park in South Dakota
A lot of people have asked us to name our favorite national park after visiting all of them—a very difficult thing to do as they are all so unique and wonderful in their own way. It is much easier to select parks that we really want to return to and explore and learn more about… Badlands National Park in central South Dakota is definitely one of those places.
There are many reasons that this park is among the shiniest gems of the year. The vastness of prairie grassland that symbolizes the American heartland is striking on its own, then seemingly out of nowhere the Earth opens wide to reveal colorful curved formations—spires, canyons, buttes, fins—that extend as far as the eye can see. The weathered badlands are every bit as spectacular as the Grand Canyon it; it too looks a bit like the inside of a cave that has been turned inside out and warmed by the sun.
This park is a bit like a foreign country in the sense that it has relics from an ancient past—tens of millions of years old fossils that are continuously exposed when intense Great Plains winds decide it’s time to unearth them. It’s an adventure park with endless unbeaten paths to explore. Between dark night skies, intricate landscapes, prairie wildlife, and grand formations, photographers could shoot forever and never fail to find something otherworldly to fix their lenses on. American Indians from the Lakota Nation teach park visitors about their cultural heritage in the south Stronghold District of the park which they co-manage with the National Park Service, passing along stories from their ancestors who have lived in the area as far back as 11,000 years. The park is not even 40 years old, but the place is as old as time—entering the badlands opens a doorway to forever.
For this article we’ve focused in on the aspects of this park that made it go down this year as one of those we are dying to return to, and one of the biggest surprises of the year.
The American Prairie
Badlands National Park is the largest mixed-prairie grassland in the United States. There are 60 different kinds of grasses that intertwine 410 other individual plant species to create a complex ecosystem that provides habitat, food sources, and water supply to prairie animals, insects, and birdlife. Wildlife returns the favor to the grasslands. For example, bison are natural planters. With every breath of wind, their fur catches seeds from grasses and spreads them across the landscape. Meanwhile, prairie dogs stir up the soil enabling the grasses to grow. While the system is perfect in its composition, the prairie, which once covered half of the continent, has dwindled to only 2% due to urban growth, farming, and subsequent habitat loss. The moral of this story is to not cast aside grasslands as “wastelands”—they are increasingly rare and vital for the wilderness ecosystems in America. And they are beautiful to look at and wander through!
Badlands National Park was named after its badland formations comprised of scrolling hills, canyons, buttes, fins, and pinnacles made of large deposits of sedimentary rock that have eroded over time. They continue to erode each year at a rate of 1 inch which, according to geologists, is faster than usual. Each time the swift winds blow, different eras of time are revealed by rich bands of color that stripe across rock faces, proving that Earth is an always evolving and dynamic system. The largest badland feature in the park is known as “the Wall,” a 60-mile stretch of tens-of-millions-years-old rock that acts as a barrier between the upper and lower prairies. Getting up close to the Wall is possible in the North Unit from the Notch and Window trails—both of which offer panoramic views of the badlands and the prairie grasslands that lay atop of them like a golden tablecloth. If you are driving the course of Badlands Loop Road, you can’t miss it!
Badlands has one of the most concentrated mammal fossil beds in the world, where preserved signs of ancient life are consistently unearthed by the forces of nature. It is especially rich in fossils from the Oligocene Epoch era, 30-33 million years ago. During that time, prehistoric land mammals such as a three-toed horse, a saber-toothed cat, and a dog-sized camel (all extinct) roamed the land; as various species of aquatic animals including snails and sea turtles floated with the seas. Cedar Pass is one of the areas said to be the most revealing for fossil finders in the park, and true enough, we found the fossilized remains of Oriodont jaws while exploring there. We became fossil finders! And you can become one too. Start with a 30-minute ranger fossil talk or 60-minute guided walk to familiarize yourself with finds in the area; and after that, head out on your own to explore. The Fossil Exhibit Trail off the Loop Road is a good place to start. After that, try out Cedar Pass. If you see something cool, don’t touch it, and certainly don’t take it. Instead, snap a photo and show a park ranger who can help you identify your find.
Watchable Wildlife & Endangered Species
It might seem as though you are alone on the Badlands landscape but there is wildlife everywhere. When you step into the vast open space and listen to insects chattering from inside the grasslands, you will start to see a wilderness of wildlife open up to you. The largest mammal in the park is the American bison—the iconic symbol of American wildlife as is denoted on the National Park Service insignia. Sharing the prairie landscape are several species of ungulates (hoofed animals) including pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats; and trotting across the grasslands looking for prey are golden-colored coyotes which would be better camouflaged if they weren’t always on the go. In prairie dog “towns,” black-tailed prairie dogs in large numbers are constantly popping out of their holes, alerting pals when outsiders are coming. Overhead, birdlife watches over the landscape—magpie, hawks, bald and golden eagles, peregrine falcons, and as many as 211 other bird species have been identified as locals and/or travelers through the national park.
One species that is not so watchable is one of the world’s rarest animals, the black-footed ferret, the most endangered of all land mammals in North America. They became all but extinct in the late 1970s when prairie dog colonies (their main food source) were wiped out due to farming. Through reintroduction, their populations are starting to increase. They are nocturnal though so a sighting is very uncommon, but if you are out at night looking, keep your eyes peeled for unusual green eye shine.
Scenic Driving Roads
Windows down, music up, warm wind blowing across the grasslands… the driving roads in and around Badlands National Park are what road trip adventures are made of! Badlands Loop Road is the main thoroughfare in the park offering plenty of opportunities to take epic photographs that capture the feel of any great American road trip, while providing access to visitor centers, hiking areas, and nearly 30 overlooks that peer onto the badlands. Along Sage Creek Rim Road, you are in for a little more of a rugged ride en route to areas that have denser wildlife habitats; areas heavily populated with bighorn sheep and bison, as well as to Robert’s Prairie Dog Town, the most populous “town” in the park.
Cool Landmarks Nearby
South Dakota is filled to the brim with must-see places in the United States. The most popular are dubbed The Great 8: Deadwood, Crazy Horse Memorial, Jewel Cave National Monument, Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, the Missouri River National Recreational River, Wind Cave National Park, and of course, Badlands National Park. Also nearby is the country’s most famous drug store—Wall Drug—where one can stock up on pranks, games, toys, treats, history, and American kitsch. If you are doing the road trip thing and have some time to burn, you might also consider hopping over the state line to the west to visit Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming.
Badland formations are each incredibly unique and are brilliant to photograph from near or far. To step back you can get a real sense of the geology that renders each formation completely distinct from others that they rub shoulders with across the landscape. From the macro vantage point, the larger picture of mixed-grasses, uniquely carved rock formations, big sky, soft colors, earthly textures and interesting weather systems work together to create a scene that is totally unique to the American heartland. Up close, formations made of compressed sand, clay and shale beds formed from ancient rivers and inland seas appear more rugged. Either which way, anyone could get lost with a camera in the Badlands for eternity and never run out of cool things to shoot.
Cultural & Native American History
The Oglala Lakota Sioux Nation is the second-largest American Indian Reservation in the country with approximately 60,000 people from nine different tribes living on the Pine Ridge Reservation bordering the south side of the park. Their people have called the area home for more than 11,000 years; today, that same area is part of a treaty with the U.S. government for shared use of the land. Badlands National Monument (established in 1939) acquired 133,300 acres of Lakota land in 1976, two years before the monument was established as a national park. That land would become what is now known of the Stronghold District—a rugged and wild area of the park with few paved roads and thousands of years of history. For a better understanding of the Lakota heritage, we defer to the official site of the NPS at the White River Visitor Center. One thing we are equipped to share is where on the south side we found some cool scenes to photograph. Sheep Mountain Table is a well known sunset viewing location in the northern part of the south unit. If you have a little extra push in your tank, head down the highway to the southwestern edge of the park to the Red Shirt Table district for less-captured sunset photographs. Because the Stronghold District of the park contains an abundance of sacred and privately-owned lands, you will first want to discuss any plans you have to explore beyond your car with the White River Visitor Center.
244,300 acres | One of the world’s richest mammal fossil beds
Official name: Badlands National Park
Date established: November 10, 1978 (established as a National Monument: January 29, 1939)
Location: Southwest South Dakota, 63 miles from Rapid City
How the park got its name: According to the National Park Service, Badlands National Park was named by the Lakota people who called it “mako sica,” meaning “land bad,”for its extreme weather, lack of water, and rugged exposed landscape. French-Canadian fur trappers seconded that notion dubbing it les mauvais terres pour traverse, or “bad lands to travel through.” The term “Badlands” also has a geologic definition, referring to sedimentary rock that is extensively eroded over time by wind and lack of water.
Accessible adventure: Hiking the Window Trail is an easy way for everyone to experience the badlands. This short and easy elevated boardwalk trail is only a quarter of a mile in length, roundtrip. The main point of interest along the trail is the natural window, a “door” of sorts, opening up to immense views of colorful badlands washed in texture and color. Pinnacles, knives, spires, fins, gullies and canyons are revealed as hikers reach the window and suddenly it doesn’t feel so much like a wall as it does an opening to the beyond.
Big adventure: The best way to really get to know the badlands, to really experience it, is to get out of your car and off of established trails to wander onto the formations on foot. The 12-mile Castle Trail is one of the most popular backpacking adventures in the park, an easy-enough 12-mile out-and-back hike that brings you among large sand structures that look like overgrown sand castles. Sage Creek is another popular area for a multi-day hike. Wherever you choose to venture off from, the quiet solitude will completely relax you; and to sleep overnight in such an environment will transcend anyone into their version of a spiritual place.
Did you know…
“Badlands” refers to a place, Badlands National Park, and also to a geologic formation of sedimentary rock eroded by the forces of nature. Badland formations also exist in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, as well as Death Valley National Park in California/Nevada and Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.
You ARE allowed to walk onto the badland formations throughout the park. Naturally occurring erosion makes it so that footprints don’t have a great effect on the landscape. Watch where you step and place your hands though—there are prairie rattlesnakes throughout the park.
The Badlands in South Dakota continue to erode at a fast rate, about 1-inch per year.
There is an average of one million visitors to the park each year.
Badlands National Park holds the largest expanse of protected prairie ecosystem in the National Park System.
More than half the North American continent was once grassland like that which exists in the Badlands. Today, only two percent of that grassland remains—it has since been replaced by farm fields, cities, and ranches. Plant restoration projects are currently underway in the park in an effort to restore prairie wildlife populations. Read more about the importance of conservation of the American grasslands in this article by the World Wildlife Fund.
Badlands is home to the critically endangered black-footed ferret. Reintroduction processes are well underway and have been considered successful in recent years.
Nearly 600,000 acres of prairie grassland border the national park in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, as well as the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Badlands National Park is co-managed with the Oglala Lakota Nation in a 50/50 split. The Lakota, one of several tribes making up the confederacy of the Sioux, is the second largest Native American community in the U.S.
Badlands National Park is broken up into three units. The South (or Stronghold) Unit and the Palmer Creek Unit are located inside the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and are managed by the Lakota Indians. That area has fewer access points than there are in the North Unit, however there are are some incredible places to capture sunset views in the Red Shirt Table district. The North Unit is more commonly visited and is home to many trails, overlooks, wildlife populations and scenic driving roads.
We would both wear flip flops every day of our lives if we could, but this is definitely a park where sturdy walking shoes are required. The formations are unsteady and break beneath your feet making twisted ankles the number one cause of harm in the park.
South Dakota has many traveling destinations! The Great 8 include: Deadwood, Crazy Horse, Jewel Cave, Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore, the Missouri River, Wind Cave National Park, and of course, Badlands National Park.
Prairie dogs, while often blamed for crop damage, have a vital responsibility to the ecosystem, protecting burrowing animals from predators and extreme weather, and serving as valuable food source to predators. According to the National Park Service, black-tailed prairie dogs occupy a habitat of 4,500 acres at Badlands National Park.
Prairie dogs live in settlements called “towns.”
Wildlife must be highly adaptable to extremely harsh weather year after year to survive in the Badlands. Such animals include bison, black-tailed prairie dog, bighorn sheep, bison, bobcat, elk, coyote, pronghorn antelope, mountain goats, prairie rattlesnake, porcupine, fox, white-tailed deer, mule deer, jack rabbits and badgers.
More than 215 species of birds have been identified in the national park, including magpie, hawks, bald and golden eagles, and peregrine falcons.
There are more than 200 types of wildflowers in Badlands National Park.
National Geographic Magazine published an epic cover story in 2012 about the Lokota people who for thousands of years have called the Badlands home. “After 150 years of broken promises, the Oglala Lakota people of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota are nurturing their tribal customs, language, and beliefs. A rare, intimate portrait shows their resilience in the face of hardship.”
<< From ‘In the Spirit of Crazy Horse: Rebirth of a Sioux Nation’ – cover story of National Geographic Magazine, August 2012
The geologic “Wall” that rises in the northeast part of the park is a watershed drainage for the Cheyenne, Bad, and White Rivers, the last of which passes through the southeast corner of the Stronghold District on its way to the Missouri River.
Just like Mount Rainier and Yellowstone, Badlands National Park was tapped under the Mission 66 plan to create an expanded park center of enjoyment in the form of the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. It was completed in 1958.
The first fossils discovered in the park were found by scientific researchers from the Smithsonian Institution. Collected in the 1840s, they were among the first fossils to be added to the Museum of Natural History’s collections. The first curator at the institution was Spencer F. Baird, who organized a special expedition to the area in 1850 to research further the 35–30 million-year-old deposits.
Scientists from the South Dakota School of Mines have conducted fossil research excavation projects in the Badlands each year since 1899.
Badlands is an extreme weather environment. Summers are sweltering hot reaching temperatures well above 100 degrees; and winters are freezing and snowy, typically producing between 12-24 inches of snowfall. Tornados, gusty winds, lightning, and thunderstorms occur unexpectedly. Always factor weather conditions into your travel plans. Check in with the Ben Reifel Visitor Center for a conditions report prior to hitting the park.
West of Badlands National Park are the granite peaks of the Black Hills, where the highest peaks in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains exist, surpassing 7,000-feet.
Astrophotographers love the Badlands because of the clear, clear skies, the wide horizon, and the formations which add a point of reference to the sky. If heading to the Badlands, check out the Badlands National Park Dark Sky Program to see what celestial and ranger-led events are coming up.
Shoulder season, spring and fall, are excellent times of year to visit. Without such crowds, you are gifted peacefulness that doesn’t tend to accompany summer crowds.
In 1862, the Homestead Act was established opening up the Great Plains to settlers. The settlers—made up of young families, unemployed civil war veterans, immigrants, freed slaves, free black Americans, refugees of European descent—were called “Sodbusters,” receiving 160 acre plots of land in exchange of an agreement to live in the newly minted “Last Frontier” for at least five years.
After being stripped of their land and forced onto reservations in 1890, the Lakota people performed what was called a “ghost dance” in the South Unit of the park. The ceremonial event was meant to drive off easterners and restore their lands to a natural state. It is the last known Ghost Dance to have taken place in the area.
Badlands National Park administers the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site located 8 miles outside of the park. T monument tells the story of the Cold War, the arms race, and intercontinental ballistic missile development. The reason it is located in South Dakota is because there are fewer people in the area and the route over the North Pole to Russia is much shorter. Yikes!
Large parts of the South Unit served as an aerial gunnery range during World War II for the United States Air Force.
The great gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok was murdered in the Black Hills mining town of Deadwood in 1876. Legend goes that he had in his hands two pair—black aces and black 8’s—when he died (which has become known as “the dead man’s hand.”) Hickok is buried at the Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, a continuous draw to fans of America’s wild west history.
Bruce Springsteen wrote a song called ‘Badlands,’ which as reported by Rolling Stone, tells the tale of a man down on his luck who is searching for a better life. From his 1975 album BORN TO RUN. Many call this his best song ever. (See video, right >)
Bob Barker of the “Price is Right” and veteran news anchor Tom Brokaw are both from South Dakota.
Many films have been filmed in South Dakota. Three of our favorites: Dances with Wolves, Armageddon, and Starship Troopers!
People from all over the country cross Interstate 90 through the Badlands to get to the motorcycle event of the year—the Sturgis Rally which takes place in Sturgis, South Dakota—87 miles from Badlands National Park and 83 miles from Wind Cave.
Badlands National Park Map
A special thanks to National Geographic, Fujifilm, Airstream, South Dakota Tourism for making this project possible.