Doorway to Forever: Badlands National Park

Striped in yellow, amber, and purple, the colorful eroded formations of Badlands National Park dip and rise amid the prairie grasslands

Badlands National Park doesn’t sound like the best place to go. After all, it’s called Badlands! For centuries humans have viewed South Dakota’s celebrated Badlands with a mix of dread and fascination. But these 244,000 acres of the otherworldly landscape are gorgeous with deep canyons, towering pinnacles and spires, buttes, and banded red-and-gray rock formations.

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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. 

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Rock layers that stacked up over about 75 million years began eroding a half-million years ago, sculpted into channels and canyons by the Cheyenne and White rivers. Sod-covered buttes represent the Ice Age-era prairie where ancient hunters left behind bison bones and arrowheads up to 12,000 years old.

Paleontologists continue to sift through the striated rocks for ancient seashells, ancestors to the modern horse, and 50-foot-long marine mammals known as mosasaurs.

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Human history in the Badlands goes back roughly 12,000 years beginning with ancient hunter-gatherers. Later, the Native American Lakota people followed migrating buffalo to the area for seasonal hunting.

Just shy of a million visitors come to Badlands National Park annually, most of those in June, July, and August when the weather is quite hot (highs average above 90 degrees) and prone to thunderstorms. But visitor numbers dip by half in September when the weather moderates and even more in cooler May.

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Migrating birds are another reason to visit in spring or fall. In spring, you’re also more likely to see prairie animals such as bison with their young and in fall the golden color of turning leaves fill the canyons and ravines. During the cold and biting winter months, wind whips across the largely treeless landscape.

While breathtaking at a distance, the Badlands are geologically fascinating up close, best explored by hiking. They introduce the rock formations, canyons, ledges, cliffs, and passes interspersed with prairie grasslands. Its eight official hiking trails all in the North Unit are not extensive— the longest, the moderate Castle Trail in the park’s northeast is 10 miles round trip. A few trails are strenuous but most are moderate and some are short including the quarter-mile Fossil Exhibit Trail. The park’s Open Hike Policy means visitors may go off-trail.

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Come prepared with ample supplies of water. This is especially important if you go hiking; the Park Service recommends two quarts per person for every two hours of hiking. Also bring your own snacks, sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat (we recommend a Tilley), and sunglasses.

Even if you go hiking, you’ll also want to take a drive or two in the park to take in its full scope. The 40-mile Badlands Loop Road connects the Northeast Entrance with the Pinnacles Entrance near Wall. This scenic route winds up and down the contours of the Badlands with about a dozen opportunities to stop at overlooks and trailheads as well as less formal pullouts for photo ops.

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There is nothing more iconic in this park than the badland formations that inspired its protection, and there is no better place to take in its supernatural views than on Badlands Loop Road. Also known as South Dakota Highway 240, this 31-mile loop scenic byway travels through the eastern side of the park between the towns of Cactus Flat and Wall, through prairie grasslands and ancient geologic formations with stops along the way at nearly 30 lookout points. One not-to-miss feature—you probably couldn’t miss it if you tried—is what is called “The Wall,” 60-mile long, many miles-wide escarpments of pinnacles, buttes, fins, and mounds that separate the upper and lower prairies.

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For the closest experience to nature, try camping. In addition to backcountry camping, Badlands offers two campgrounds. The primitive, first-come-first-served Sage Creek Campground in the park’s northwest has 22 sites (free), vault toilets, picnic benches, and bison trails. For running water and electricity opt for the Cedar Pass Campground adjacent to Cedar Pass Lodge where you’ll find RV and tent camping sites with shaded picnic tables. The lodge also rents 26 pine-paneled cabins with deck chairs perfect for gazing at the night sky.

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Cedar Pass Lodge operates the park’s only restaurant specializing in Sioux Indian Tacos featuring fry bread topped with refried beans, buffalo meat, and cheese. For other dining options, you’ll need to either bring picnic food or leave the park and head to Wall Drug where ice water is still free.

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Fact Box

Size: 244,300 acres

Date Established: November 10, 1978 (established as a National Monument: January 29, 1939)

Location: Southwest South Dakota, 63 miles from Rapid City

Park Elevation: 2,460 feet-3,282 feet

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How the park got its name: 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. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iconic site in the park: There is nothing more iconic in this park than the badland formations that inspired its protection, and there is no better place to take in its supernatural views than on Badlands Loop Road. Also known as South Dakota Highway 240, this 31-mile loop scenic byway travels through the eastern side of the park between the towns of Cactus Flat and Wall, through prairie grasslands and ancient geologic formations with stops along the way at nearly 30 lookout points.

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2020 Recreation Visits: 916,932

Worth Pondering…

The Bad Lands grade all the way from those that are almost rolling in character to those that are so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth.

—Teddy Roosevelt

Badlands National Park: Place of Otherworldly Beauty

Badlands National Park is one of America’s top destinations for outdoor recreation with camping sites, miles of hiking trails, and striking scenery

Roughly an hour east of Rapid City, Badlands National Park is accessible by Interstate 90 or South Dakota Highway 44, for travelers who prefer two-lane travel.

State Route 44 cuts through Buffalo Gap National Grassland, which covers a huge chunk of South Dakota’s southwestern corner. You’ll see prairie grass whether you’re officially within the National Grassland area or not.

Buffalo Gap National Grassland © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At first blush, Badlands National Park doesn’t sound like the best place to go. After all, it’s called Badlands! For centuries humans have viewed South Dakota’s celebrated Badlands with a mix of dread and fascination.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But these 244,000 acres of otherworldly landscape are gorgeous, with deep canyons, towering pinnacles and spires, buttes, and banded red-and-gray rock formations that transform into a veritable rainbow at the magic hour shortly after sunrise or before sunset. Some describe it as otherworldly, lunar-like, some say desert, the Lakota (Sioux) were the first to call it “bad lands,” or “mako sica.”

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The park also protects an expanse of mixed-grass prairie—the largest in the U.S.—where bison, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, mule deer, coyotes, and whole towns of adorable prairie dogs roam. Black-footed ferrets, the most endangered land mammal in North America and a predator of prairie dogs, were reintroduced to the Badlands late in the 20th Century.

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Badlands is really a story of ongoing erosion. Every time it rains, more sediment is washed from the buttes. On average, Badlands buttes erode one-third inch each year. Erosion rates suggest they will erode completely in another 500,000 years, giving them a lifetime of one million years.

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An array of extinct animals, from enormous to very small, once roamed this area. Some lived in the subtropical forests; others lived in the grasslands that came in the years afterwards. Skeletons of three-toed horses and saber-toothed cats are among the many fossilized species found here.

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There is much to see and do at Badlands National Park, but if you have only a short time to spend, begin your visit at the very cool Ben Reifel Visitor Center at the southeastern tip of the Badlands scenic loop, next to Cedar Pass Lodge. While there, pick up a park map, watch the award-winning park video, and tour the exhibits. Visitors can interact with paleontologists that are preparing mammal fossils they’ve found in the park. Ranger-guided programs and hikes are offered.

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Next, drive the Badlands Loop Scenic Byway. It would take about one hour to drive the 39-mile loop of South Dakota Highway 240 between the towns of Cactus Flat and Wall without stopping, but almost no one does that.

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Breathtaking rock formations and native grasslands filled with numerous species of plants and animals guarantee you’ll want to pause along the route to enjoy the view. There are 16 designated scenic overlooks that make for outstanding photo opportunities.

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Stretch your legs along one of the many hiking trails and remember to keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. Buffalo can most often be found along the Sage Creek Rim Road, a gravel spur off the western end of the Badlands Loop Road. Twisting curves climb through passes in the Badlands wall of rugged rock pinnacles, buttes, and mounds.

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Experience Badlands National Park overnight and enjoy its breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, colorful flowers, bountiful wildlife, and rugged scenery from one of two campgrounds available in the park: Cedar Pass Campground and Sage Creek Campground. Both campgrounds are open year-round, and camping is limited to 14 days.

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Located near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, the Cedar Pass Campground has 96 level sites with scenic views of the badlands formations. Cedar Pass Campground offers tent camping and spacious RV sites with electric only service. 

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Bison often wander through Sage Creek, a primitive campground, located on the west side of the park’s North Unit, near the Badlands Wilderness Area. Access is located off of the Sage Creek Rim Road, an unpaved road that may temporarily close after winter storms and spring rains. The road provides limited turnarounds for large recreational vehicles. 

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The Badlands became a national monument in 1939. Congress declared it a national park in 1978. Nearly 1 million people visit Badlands National Park each year (996,223 in 2016.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.

—Rachel Carson