The Complete Guide to Badlands National Park

Amber walls and prairie grass make for impressive landscapes in South Datoka

Striped in yellow, amber, and purple the painted walls and serrated peaks of Badlands National Park dip and rise amid the prairie grasslands making for a stunning surprise in remote western South Dakota. They are both badlands—a geologic term for soft sedimentary rocks that erode easily—and Badlands, a title derived from the Native American Lakota name mako sica or bad lands referring to the scarcity of water, the difficulty of navigating peaks and valleys, and weather extremes that bake the ground in summer and freeze it in winter.

As badlands, the 244,000-acre national park preserves a naturally excavated landscape revealing Earth’s history. 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—often seen working in an active lab at the park’s main visitors center—continue to sift through the striated rocks for ancient seashells, ancestors to the modern horse and 50-foot-long marine mammals known as mosasaurs.

To Native Americans, the area was a seasonal hunting ground for buffalo, animals that again inhabit the park a deceivingly still preserve that teems with life provided you slow down to see it. Bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and pronghorn are just a few of the endemic prairie species that star in the uniquely American safari that visitors can self-guide on foot or by car.

At sunset and sunrise the vivid hues of mineral deposits in the rocks radiate warmth. Overnight, countless stars pierce the dark night sky. Whether because of time of day or eons past change is a motif central to the Badlands still eroding under nature’s forces by about an inch a year.

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Plan your trip to Badlands

The beauty—and the challenge—of Badlands National Park is its remote location. The park lies only about 60 miles southeast of Rapid City, South Dakota but about 375 miles north of Denver and 500 west of Minneapolis. The drive from either is fairly rural with farm fields or prairie which only emphasizes the drama of Badland’s colorful eroded hills.

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 when you won’t have to time your hikes to avoid the heat or the crowds.

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.

The park is divided into two sections: the main North Unit and the largely roadless and inaccessible Stronghold Unit located within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the park’s southern section. Driving is one of the most popular ways to see the park and routes such as the Badlands Loop Road (Highway 240) are well-marked. Park entry costs $30 per car ($15 if you enter by foot or by bike).

Think of Badlands National Park as remote and prepare accordingly. You can access free public Wi-Fi in the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, the main visitors center about eight miles into the park from the Northeast Entrance—one of three main entrances all in the North Unit—but expect spotty cellular service elsewhere.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Neighboring Cedar Pass Lodge serves as Badlands National Park’s only commercial hub with a restaurant, gift shop, and snacks for sale. Restrooms are available here as well as in the park’s two visitor’s centers, campgrounds, and picnic area. The lodge, visitor’s centers, and restrooms are fully wheelchair accessible.

Come prepared with ample supplies of water; you’ll find few places to refill water bottles. 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 food, sunscreen, hat and sunglasses. Sturdy hiking boots will help with footing on some of the looser trails and also protect you from cactus spines and, possibly, snake bites.

That said, you don’t have to be an outdoors expert or hiking ninja to enjoy the park. In addition to scenic drives and turnouts, there are easy short hikes of less than one mile and one fully accessible boardwalk trail as well as wooden boardwalks at most scenic overlooks which makes them accessible to all visitors.

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Where to stay and eat

The Badlands has no iconic hotel or even many services but with little commercial fanfare to get in the way it is easy to appreciate its ancient geological, Native American, and homesteading past.

For the closest experience to nature, try camping. In addition to backcountry camping for the super experienced Badlands National Park 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. Two sites are fully wheelchair accessible but most of the terrain around the campsites is accommodating. The lodge also rents 26 pine-paneled cabins with minirefrigerators, microwaves, and deck chairs perfect for gazing at the night sky.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just south of the park at Circle View Ranch check into cozy B&B accommodations on a 2,800-acre working cattle ranch. For more adventure book the property’s Hamm Homestead Cabin built in 1880. It’s still without running water and electricity and you’ll have to bring your own bedding, water, and camp supplies but the experience on the edge of the White River is 19th-century authentic.

You’ll also find motels and chain hotels including Econo Lodge and Best Western properties in the gateway town of Wall on the park’s far north side.

Cedar Pass Lodge operates the park’s only restaurant specializing in must-try 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 or the gateway town of Interior in the southeast for casual roadhouses and taverns including the Badlands Saloon & Grille, best for hamburgers, in Wall.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do

Hike

While breathtaking at a distance the Badlands are geologically fascinating up close, best explored by hiking. 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 but they introduce the rock formations, canyons, ledges, cliffs, and passes interspersed with prairie grasslands. A few trails are strenuous but most are moderate and some including the quarter-mile Fossil Exhibit Trail also in the northeast follow a fully accessible boardwalk.

The park’s Open Hike Policy means visitors may go off trail and many do especially to climb the buttes. But this is often harder than it looks and rangers warn inexperienced hikers against it as coming down can be more challenging than going up.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive

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 connecting the Northeast Entrance with the Pinnacles Entrance near Wall winds up and down the contours of the Badlands threading steep passes with about a dozen opportunities to stop at overlooks and trailheads as well as less formal pullouts for photo ops (most overlooks on the road have wheelchair-accessible boardwalks).

Instead of following the loop road out of the park continue west via the Sage Creek Rim Road. It’s a dirt road but hard-packed and offers a chance to see across the park’s largely roadless wilderness area and to look for wildlife.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Watch wildlife

The Badlands appear still but the more time you spend contemplating the scenery the more life you’ll see in it. Buffalo and pronghorn graze the grasslands, prairie dogs scamper around their towns, and bighorn sheep deftly pick their way across rock ledges.

The Pinnacles Overlook off the Badlands Loop Road is a good place to look for bighorn sheep. Off Sage Creek Rim Road, Roberts Prairie Dog Town teems with the burrowing mammals and bison often graze nearby. Cliff swallows come and go from mud nests built on Badlands formations.

Caution: If you encounter a wild animal on a trail, stay at least 100 feet away.

Hunt for fossils

The thousands of years of geologic history revealed in the eroding Badlands have upturned fossils such as the mosasaur, a marine lizard living about 75 million to 69 million years ago when sea covered the area during the Cretaceous Age of the dinosaurs. Prehistoric crocodiles and horses attest to the subtropical climate between 37 million and 34 million years ago and the drier conditions that followed, between 34 million and 29 million years ago supported early ancestors to camels, pigs, rabbits, and rhinos.

The Fossil Exhibit Trail displays fossil replicas and reconstructions of the extinct animals who once roamed here. At the Ben Reifel Visitor Center you can view park paleontologists working on nearby specimens at the Fossil Preparation Lab. Hunting for fossils on your own—to photograph, not take, of course—is best pursued after a rainstorm when these remains tend to stand out on the wet ground.

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Learn history

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.

In 1887, the Dawes Act stripped more than 90 million acres of tribal land nationally from indigenous people to be given out in free 160-acre plots as authorized by the Homestead Act of 1862. Because of the poor soil for farming, however, the government didn’t distribute plots until the early 20th century.

At the Homestead Overlook on Badlands Loop Road view a former homesteading region where prairie grass meets rock walls. Homesteaders would try to bale hay growing atop buttes such as Hay Butte visible from Sage Creek Rim Road.

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Plus, for an in-depth experience

Visit the remote southern Stronghold Unit located within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation established in 1889 and owned by the Oglala Lakota Tribe. During World War II, the U.S. government took more than 340,000 acres from the reservation to establish the Aerial Gunnery Range which the military used for bombing training.

Most of the unit lies within the former bombing range. Here, about a 20-mile drive from the North Unit visit the seasonal White River Visitors Center open only in summer for exhibits on the history and culture of the Lakota people.

You’ll find few paved roads in Stronghold and the park largely restricts access to Sheep Mountain Table on the border with the North Unit. The park’s highest area at 3,300 feet, it’s reached via a backcountry road that requires a high-clearance vehicle or a 14.6-mile round-trip hike.

Gateway towns to Badlands

You just might have heard of tiny Wall (population less than 1,000), Badlands National Park’s chief northern gateway and named for the rock-wall formation that runs across the park before you get there: Billboards on Interstate 90 touting free ice water have been pulling in traffic to Wall Drug since 1936.

Originally a drugstore, it’s now a tourist attraction—thronged in summer by up to 20,000 visitors a day—with a splash park, Western art gallery-cum-restaurant and a mall selling everything from cowboy boots to mounted Jackalope (a fictional animal). It’s a kitschy but must-visit experience complete with homemade donuts and five-cent cups of coffee.

For more to do, consider staying in Rapid City, the state’s second-largest city with 75,000 residents, an hour’s drive northwest of the park. It’s also a gateway to the Black Hills region—home to scenic Custer State Park and three more national park areas—providing a convenient perch between Badlands National Park and Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Downtown Rapid City pays homage to Rushmore with a series of life-size sculptures of 43 American presidents. The town nurtures a lively urban core best on display at Art Alley covered in murals by local artists. Visit the Journey Museum to see many of the fossils uncovered in the Badlands.

From excellent Indian/Nepalese food at Everest Cuisine to Italian at Botticelli, Rapid City offers a global dining scene. Don’t miss Tally’s Silver Spoon, a diner with a gourmet heart specializing in dishes featuring local ingredients from breakfast (think buffalo hanger steak and eggs) to lunch (shaved ham and foie gras sandwiches) and through dinner (grilled quail).

While chain hotels abound the city’s Hotel Alex Johnson vintage 1928 will appeal to history and style buffs. Built by namesake Alex Carlton Johnson, former vice president of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad the 143-room hotel showcases his love of Native American culture in sculpture and iconography in a grand Germanic Tudor building updated with modern amenities such as a rooftop bar and accessible rooms.

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En route to Badlands National Park

Just north of the park, Prairie Homestead preserves the 1909 sod home of the homesteading Brown family complete with barking prairie dogs in the yard.

If you’re driving north from Denver (or even driving around) on Highway 18 stop in Hot Springs, South Dakota, for a soak in its naturally warmed waters. Bathing options range from pools as hot as 102 degrees at Moccasin Springs Natural Mineral Spa to the water-park-like Evans Plunge Mineral Springs. Or wade into the warm waters of Fall River at Brookside and Chautauqua parks.

Dry off to check out the Mammoth Site, an active dig site with more than 1,200 fossils of mammoths as well as prehistoric prairie dogs and giant short-faced bear.

About 10 miles north of Hot Springs lies Wind Cave National Park. Below its more than 33,800 acres of prairie and forest lies a vast cave system with rare boxwork formations that resemble honeycombs made of calcite.

From there, it’s a scenic half-hour drive north to biodiverse Custer State Park, a 71,000-acre home to pine forests, granite spires and prairie grassland. Its 18-mile Wildlife Loop drive offers a DIY American safari where you’re likely to see buffalo (about 1,500 roam in the park), elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and prairie dogs.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the town of Custer just west of the park refuel at Black Hills Burger & Bun where the kitchen staff prepares everything in house from grinding the meat to baking the buns.

You can’t visit the Black Hills region without taking in the 60-foot-high faces of presidents Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lincoln carved into granite at Mount Rushmore National Memorial a little more than 20 miles southwest of Rapid City.

Don’t miss its Native American counterpart less than 20 miles west of the memorial at Crazy Horse Memorial the still-under-construction mountainside sculpture of the eponymous Oglala Lakota leader.

Badlands National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

Here are a few more articles to help you do just that:

Cedar Pass Campground, Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact box

  • Where the park is: Western South Dakota
  • Size: 244,000 acres
  • Highest peak: Sheep Mountain Table, 3,300 feet
  • Miles and numbers of trails: 17.5 miles among eight trails
  • Main attraction: Striated rock formations
  • Cost: Entry $30 per vehicle for 7-day permit; $20 per year or $80 for a lifetime America the Beautiful Pass for people age 62-plus
  • Best way to see it: Driving the Badlands Loop Road
  • When to go to avoid the crowds: Spring and fall

Worth Pondering…

This is one of the few places I have ever seen where the night was friendlier than the day. And I can easily see how people are driven back to the Badlands. In the night the Badlands had become the Good Lands. I can’t explain it. That’s how it was.

—John Steinbeck

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. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

The Ultimate Guide to Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Bison, prairie dogs, wild horses, pronghorns, coyotes—a Dakota wildlife landscape

North Dakota is not a place you might expect to wow you with wild terrain. As you drive through the remote western part of the state along two-lane highways, there appears to be nothing in sight but flatland for as far as the eye can see. Then as you near the areas surrounding Theodore Roosevelt National Park a visible trace of wilderness filled with badlands, dense vegetation, grasslands, and diverse wildlife appears seemingly out of nowhere. 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1883, a young Theodore Roosevelt visited the Dakota Territory for the first time to “bag a buffalo.” His first visit to the frontier enchanted him so profoundly that it spurred a lifelong love affair with the region and in him a devout conservation ethic was born, an ethos that would shape the future of conservation efforts and of the National Park Service.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During Theodore Roosevelt’s time in office, he established the United States Forest Service, 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, 18 national monuments, and five national parks—protecting approximately 230 million acres of public land.

This park doesn’t get a lot of play on the national stage, mostly because of its out-of-the-way location. My hope is that this article will inspire others to journey there—not only is it among the most historic of all national parks but it is absolutely beautiful as well. With that, I’ll delve into some of the reasons why we loved being there.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Like its neighboring state of South Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt is home to many colorful badland formations—sedimentary deposits created over the course of 65 million years by the effects of erosion caused by wind, sun, hail, snow, and rain. One unique distinction of the badlands at Theodore Roosevelt is that vegetation grows from and all around them. Tucked into the folds of the badlands are large deposits of petrified wood—massive trees turned to solid quartz over the course of millions of years. At Theodore Roosevelt, you will find the third-largest deposit of petrified wood in the United States following Yellowstone and Petrified Forest national parks. The most concentrated area can be found along the Petrified Forest Loop trail, a 10-mile hike located in the south unit.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is composed of three units that are bound together by the Little Missouri River. The north unit is quiet and rugged; the south unit is home to abundant populations of watchable wildlife; and the Elkhorn Ranch, or west unit, is where Teddy Roosevelt lived for nearly 13 years. Drives between the three areas can take several hours each so plan to devote at least a couple days in both the north and south units and one afternoon in the Elkhorn unit.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The South Unit’s 36-mile loop begins and ends at the visitor center in Medora, and it’s easy to complete in two hours (that includes time to snap photos of bison or prairie dogs). On the drive, don’t miss the Skyline Vista, an ideal vantage point for viewing the sunset; Badlands Overlook, which in the morning light reveals all of the contours of sheer bluffs and ravines; and Cottonwood Campground, for a picnic under the tall trees. For another easily accessible point in the South Unit, including for those using wheelchairs, the Painted Canyon Visitor Center—accessed from outside the park on Exit 32 off I-94—offers an iconic view of the Badlands. From the overlook, the park stretches off toward the north with juniper draws, colored buttes, and grazing buffalo dotting the landscape.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Exploring the park on foot is the best way to get up close with the terrain and wildlife, and you’ll find more than 100 miles of trails. The hikes are mostly short (under a mile or two) and flat, as the highest buttes only rise a few hundred vertical feet. But be mindful of the summer heat: Average highs climb to the high-80s and it often feels hotter and drier, so bring plenty of water.

In the South Unit, two can’t-miss short hikes are the Wind Canyon Trail, a 20-minute (0.4 miles) stroll through a wind-sculpted canyon with stunning river views and the Coal Vein Trail, a 40-minute hike (0.8 miles) that is the perfect way to learn about badlands geology. In the North Unit, a good hour-long option is the 1.5-mile portion of the Achenbach Trail to Sperati Point which courses through prairie grassland to a lookout over the valley below.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The only town associated with the park is Medora and it more or less revolves around its status as Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s gateway. It plays up its history as an old railroad junction and does its best Old West impression: wooden boardwalks, hitching posts in front of hotels, chuckwagon diners, and plenty of cowboy boots and hats.

Whatever scene you are watching, you will be blessed one way or another with a view that differs only slightly from that which captured the heart and imagination of Theodore Roosevelt.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 70,466.89 acres

Date established: November 10, 1978 (established as Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park on April 25, 1947)

Location: Western North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name: This park was named after President Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, who spent a considerable amount of time living in the Dakota Territory. The site where Theodore Roosevelt National Park is now located was selected after his death in 1919 to honor his dedication to preserving America’s wilderness. The land was set aside by an act of congress. He was known as the “conservationist president” for dedicating his life to obtaining federal protection for lands and wildlife species under threat. During his time in elected office he established 5 national parks, 18 national monuments, 150 national forests, and 51 bird sanctuaries.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

The Amazing Badlands of El Morro and El Malpais National Monuments

Finding beauty, solitude, and a connection with those who came before

Located in western New Mexico, El Morro and El Malpais national monuments are a mere 46 miles apart. They preserve rugged, demanding landscapes that have attracted travelers from ancestral Puebloans to early 20th century homesteaders.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A way-station of sorts, El Morro is a towering cliff was a reliable spring at its base that quenched the thirst of travelers. Many carved petroglyphs, names, and dates into the soft sandstone to show who came before. Despite the broken lava fields that cover the landscape, El Malpais saw settlement as early as 1300. Today visitors study the signatures at El Morro, or peer into the lava tubes that worm beneath El Malpais’ surface. But there’s also the backcountry of both that attract visitors who look for beauty, solitude, and perhaps a connection with those who came long before. I was one such traveler.

Along I-40 midway between Gallup and Albuquerque, I turned south off the interstate. I am visiting two impressive national monuments: El Malpais and El Morro. While they are a short distance apart, each monument is unique and meaningful especially when experienced on one trip.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais is Spanish for “The Badlands.” There’s something for everyone here. Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails. Lava that once poured from five separate magma flows produced the black, ropy pahoehoe, and clinkers of a thousand years ago. Islands of earth that were surrounded, rather than covered, by lava are spots of undisturbed vegetation called kipukas. While some may see a desolate environment, people have been adapting to and living in this extraordinary terrain for generations.

Sandstone Bluffs Overlook, El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is much to see. I found expansive lava flows, cinder cones, complex lava-tube cave system more than 17 miles long, fragile ice caves some filled with ice even in summer as well as soft-looking sandstone bluffs and mesas, easily viewed from Sandstone Bluffs Overlook. Inhabited for 10,000 years, the area also contains historical and archaeological sites.

Many points of interest are accessible from New Mexico Route 117. The Sandstone Bluffs Overlook is reached by a short walk from a parking area along the highway. Excellent overviews of the lava flows as well as the surrounding terrain are seen from this vantage point. I look south to the Zuni-Acoma Trail, a 15-mile round-trip hike over the rugged Anasazi trade route which crosses four of the five major lava flows.

Instead of a well-defined path clearly visible on the landscape, a series of rock piles called cairns are used to trace a route across the land. These routes are common on lava landscapes where creating a traditional trail or footpath is not possible due to the extreme nature of the terrain. Hiking cairned routes requires more attention to navigation. Making sure I have the next cairn in sight before leaving the one I’m at.

The uneven nature of the terrain demands that I keep my eyes on the land while walking and pay more attention since the surface is not even. Hiking poles are not useful here needing both arms for balance as I climb up and down over the sharp lava tubes as I locate the rock cairns that mark the way. To enjoy the views, I stop, get a secure footing, and then look around to stay familiar with the landscape as it changes. This trail is sobering, the warm November sun, deep sinkholes, and steep drop-offs forcing me to constantly reckon with what matters, namely, my preparation to meet the challenges I encounter. The hike into the lava fields and back takes time. Arriving back on sandy terrain at last, I appreciate the softness underfoot.

La Ventana Natural Arch, El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I stop to explore La Ventana Natural Arch, “The Window.” Trails lead up to the bottom of the free-standing arch for a closer look at this natural wonder. Standing at the base of this awe-inspiring 120-foot natural stone arch, I look up through it into the heart of the mountain.

Continuing down the highway, I drive through The Narrows where lava flowed past the base of 500-foot sandstone cliffs. A picnic area is located here and hikers will be intrigued by the unusual lava formations they’ll find. At the Lava Falls Area, I explored the unique features of the McCarty’s flow and marveled at the plant life that is adapted to life in the lava. It is quiet here.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The ancestral Puebloans who lived here, at a place now known as the Dittert Site must have relied heavily on the seasonal pools, before the local climate changed and water became increasingly scarce. Areas of El Malpais have been accessed by the Acoma, Laguna, Zuni, and Ramah Navajo people for thousands of years once building pueblos here as well as continuing to practice cultural traditions today.

My travels through El Malpais now lead me to El Morro as for so many travelers over hundreds and thousands of years. El Morro means “The Headland,” a massive sandstone bluff rising 200 feet above the desert floor guiding me to water. Hills rise to form a cuesta, a geologic feature with banded sandstone bluffs and cliffs forming a natural water reservoir at the center. The top of the formation acts as a self-contained watershed, bringing snowmelt and the runoff of desert rainstorms down walls funneling this life giving resource to the small, clear pool (See photo above), a reliable year-long source of drinking water.

Inspiration Walk, El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Before venturing out I view the short informative film in the visitor center and pick up a copy of the trail guide to assist in spotting and understanding the various inscriptions. I walk the Mesa Top Trail, a loop that starts from the pool, travels alongside Inscription Rock, and climbs up through gamble oak and juniper across the top of the rocks themselves to the ruins of Atsinna, meaning “place of writings on the rock.”

The Puebloan ancestors of the Zuni settled this place, undoubtedly for this water source in the badlands. They left petroglyphs of lizards and birds, bighorn sheep and bear on Inscription Rock. Later in time, more names were carved into this stone: Spanish conquistadors and Catholic Church bishops, U.S. Cavalry captains and Army expedition leaders, ordinary soldiers and scouts, and homesteaders heading west.

The oldest Spanish carving found on El Morro reads, Paso por aqui, el adelantado Don Juan de Oñate, del descubrimiento de la mar del sur a 16 de Abril de 1605. Translated, the inscription proclaims: “Passed by here, the expedition leader Don Juan de Oñate, from the discovery of the Sea of the South the 16th of April of 1605.”

We follow the backroads of history and trails across the badlands remembering those who came through the wilderness before. The words and ideas and landmarks they left for us, show us the way to find what we seek. And what we need. These trails are well-marked at El Malpais and El Morro, to help us make our way safely.

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.

The Ultimate Guide to Badlands National Park

Amber walls and prairie grass make for impressive landscapes in western SoDak

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

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, ranches, and cities. 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.

Buffalo Gap National Grassland meets Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands is a geologic term for a type of dry terrain where soft sedimentary rocks are extensively eroded by wind and water. The title is also derived from the Native American Lakota name “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.”

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To Native Americans, the area was a seasonal hunting ground for bison, animals that again inhabit the park. Sharing the prairie landscape are pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and coyotes. In prairie dog “towns,” black-tailed prairie dogs in large numbers pop 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.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is divided into two sections: the main North Unit and the largely roadless and inaccessible Stronghold Unit located within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the park’s southern section. Driving is one of the most popular ways to see the park and routes such as the Badlands Loop Road (Highway 240) are well marked. Park entry costs $30 per car ($15 if you enter by foot or by bike).

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Think of the Badlands National Park as remote and prepare accordingly. Cedar Pass Lodge serves as the park’s only commercial hub with a restaurant, gift shop, and snacks for sale. Restrooms are available here as well as in the parks two visitor centers, campgrounds, and picnic area.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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, wide-brimmed hat (we recommend a Tilley), and sunglasses. Sturdy hiking boots will help with footing on some of the looser trails and also protect you from cactus spines.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That said, you don’t have to be an outdoors expert or hiking ninja to enjoy the park. In addition to scenic drives and turnouts, there are easy short hikes of less than one mile and one fully accessible boardwalk trail as well as wooden boardwalks at most scenic overlooks.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You just might have heard of tiny Wall (population less than 1,000), the park’s chief northern gateway and named for the rock-wall formation that runs across the park. Billboards on Interstate 90 touting “free ice water” have been pulling in traffic to Wall Drug since 1936. Originally a drugstore, it’s now a tourist attraction—thronged in summer by up to 20,000 visitors a day—with a splash park, Western art gallery-cum-restaurant, and a mall selling everything from cowboy boots to mounted Jackalope (a fictional animal). It’s a kitschy but must-visit experience complete with homemade donuts and five-cent cups of coffee.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At a glimpse

Total acres: 244,000

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

Highest peak: Sheep Mountain Table, 3,300 feet

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Miles and numbers of trails: 17.5 miles among eight trails

Main attraction: Striated rock formations

Cost: Entry $30 per vehicle

Best way to see it: Driving the Badlands Loop Road

When to go to avoid the crowds: Spring or fall

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

You don’t escape sky and sun, but wear them in your eyeballs and on your back. You become acutely aware of yourself. The world is very large, the sky even larger and you are very small…

—Wallace Stegner, Wolf Willow

A Park to Honor a President: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Bison, prairie dogs, wild horses, pronghorns, coyotes—a Dakota wildlife landscape

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

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, in western North Dakota, is a fitting tribute to the president who helped birth America’s conservation movement: It protects an imposing landscape that is both desolate and teeming with life. Bison roam the grassy plains and elk wander along juniper-filled draws. Prairie dogs squeak from mounds leading to their underground dens and mule deer bed down on the sides of clay buttes. There are pronghorn antelope and coyotes, wild horses, and bighorn sheep.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1884, Roosevelt retreated to this wide-open country after his wife, Alice Lee, and his mother, Mittie, died only hours apart. “The Bad Lands” he wrote of the area, “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.” In later years, he credited this landscape as having soothed him after his personal tragedies and set him back on course. “I have always said I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota,” he once noted.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The North Dakota Badlands, not to be confused with South Dakota’s Badlands National Park, have been cut over eons by the muddy Little Missouri River as it flows north, and the national park comprises three separate units totaling more than 70,447 acres.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The South Unit lies along Interstate 94, adjacent to the tiny gateway town of Medora and serves as the main recreational focus for most visitors with its scenic driving loop and two dozen trails. The North Unit lies 70 miles away (an 80-minute drive), and while it has services such as a visitor center and a road through the badlands, it receives far fewer visitors. The Elkhorn Ranch Unit—the home site of Teddy’s Roosevelt 1880s cattle ranch—lies in between. It has no services, and most visitors make it a quick stop. Visiting them all is manageable over two or three days.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Summer is peak season for the park’s 700,000 annual visitors, but even then you’ll be all alone on hiking trails in the park’s far corners pondering with the same awe what Lewis and Clark must have experienced when they stumbled on these badlands during their 1805 journey across the continent.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many visitors drive up from South Dakota’s Black Hills, home to Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park, 260 miles to the south (our route was in the reverse direction). The route along U.S. Route 85 offers some of the best stretches of the unbounded openness of the Great Plains. You’ll see views that extend so far off into the rolling distance that it often feels as if you can see the Earth’s curvature.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shoulder seasons when visitor numbers drop are the best times to visit. Summers are hot with average temperatures in the high 80s and the occasional thunderstorm. Spring rain showers often transform the hillsides to a bright green interspersed with red rock outcroppings. In fall, leaves of the giant cottonwood trees along the Little Missouri River turn golden and there may be no better time to camp in the park.

Cottonwood Campground, Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park offers two campgrounds for tents and RVs, although no hookups. Both are found in cottonwood groves near the Little Missouri River with views to the bluffs beyond. Cottonwood Campground in the South Unit has 72 sites; Juniper Campground in the North Unit, 48. Sites are spread out enough that you have some privacy and each has a fire grill and a picnic table. The camps have potable water and flush toilets in summer but no showers.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At a glimpse

Total acres: 70,447

Miles of trails: 100-plus miles spread over 36 trails

Main attraction: The Badlands overlook at Painted Canyon.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cost: $30 per vehicle for a seven-day permit

Best way to see it: On foot, walking one of its many trails through the Badlands or relaxing on an overlook as the sun sets

When to go: Fall (September and October) when the leaves of the giant cottonwoods turn golden

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

It was here that the romance of my life began.

—Theodore Roosevelt

North Dakota: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

There’s also a place where the buffalo roam, and that place is Theodore Roosevelt National Park

North Dakota, when not being depicted as bland and uninspired, is generally cast in a bad light. Whether it’s fiction or real life, the spotlight’s seldom kind to NoDak.

But there’s also a place where the buffalo roam, and that place is Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Named for the 26th President, it’s perhaps the most underrated National Park Service area, a prairie companion to the Badlands known for its diverse wildlife.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt is unique among the scenic parks in that it preserves not only an extraordinary landscape but also the memory of an extraordinary man. It honors the president who probably did more for the National Park Service than anyone before or since.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is located in the Badlands of western North Dakota. There are three units to the park. The South Unit entrance is in the town of Medora off of Interstate 94 exits 24 and 27. The North Unit entrance is on Highway 85 approximately 14 miles south of Watford City. The remote Elkhorn Ranch Unit sits roughly in the middle of the North and South Units and is accessed via gravel roads.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This austere landscape is home to a surprisingly dense population of wildlife. Bison, pronghorn antelope, elk, white-tailed and mule deer, wild horses, and bighorn sheep inhabit the park, as do numerous smaller mammals, amphibians, and reptiles.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And perhaps best of all is the shortage of human beings. This relatively isolated park is hardly ever crowded (753,880 visitors in 2016), so you can experience the gorgeous loneliness of the badlands much the way Roosevelt did more than a hundred years ago.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt first came to the Dakota Territory in 1883 to hunt bison. A year later, devastated by personal tragedy, he returned to grieve and lose himself in the vastness. Inspired by the rugged and colorful landscape of the plains, he became a cattle rancher and, in this broken land, found adventure, purpose, and wholeness. Although his ranch ultimately failed, his love for the rugged beauty of the land brought him back time and again for the rest of his life.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roosevelt credited his Dakota experiences as the basis for his groundbreaking preservation efforts and the shaping of his own character. As president 1901-09, he translated his love of nature into law. He established the US Forest Service and signed the 1906 Antiquities Act, under which he proclaimed 18 national monuments. He worked with Congress to establish five national parks, 150 national forests, and dozens of national preserves—over 230 million acres of protected land.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On April 25, 1947, the Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park was established as a tribute to the president. It was designated as a national park in 1978 to conserve the 29,920 acres of wilderness.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A visit to the South Unit would bring you to the visitor center located at the entrance of Medora which has an information desk and a short movie about the park history. The visitor center also has a small museum. The Maltese cabin owned by Roosevelt stands adjacent to the center.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For those wanting to enjoy the sights and sounds of this amazing natural landmark, a drive along the Scenic Loop road is a must. The loop offers scenic overlooks and a range of trails to explore. One can stop at the Wind Canyon or the Scoria Point to glimpse into the beautiful world of the park.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For people desiring to enjoy hiking, there are 100 miles of fascinating trails along the park like the Ridgeline Trail and the Coal Vein Trail.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park offers two campgrounds along the Little Missouri River: Juniper with 50 camping sites in the North Unit and Cottonwood with 78 sites in the South unit. While no hookups or showers are available, there are facilities like water, picnic tables, fire pits, and paved pads. The campgrounds are usually available on a first-come, first-served basis. Campsites of various configurations (walk-in, pull-through, and back-in) can accommodate tents, trailers, and motorhomes. 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Far from the bustling urban centers, the park offers a perfect getaway to people who would love to enjoy the solitude and beauty of the place which has remained unchanged from the days Roosevelt described it as a “chaos of peaks, plateaus, and ridges”.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

I have always said I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota.

—Theodore Roosevelt, 1918