Thirty million years ago rivers flowed through these arid lands. From the sediment they deposited the Badlands gradually formed. The Oglala Sioux called this otherworldly landscape of eroded buttes and spires mako sica, meaning “land bad.”
Today Badlands National Park protects 244,000 acres of this harsh but beautiful environment: 64,000 acres are designated wilderness. The largest protected mixed-grass prairie in the United States is here, and within park boundaries roam swift foxes, pronghorn antelopes and white-tailed and mule deer. Reintroduced and highly endangered black-footed ferrets are also at Badlands, as are bison and bighorn sheep.
Badlands is also a park of prehistoric and historic significance. The world’s most abundant Oligocene fossil beds are preserved here, and you can see the remains of prehistoric horses, sheep, pigs and rhinoceros. The Stronghold Unit of the park, co-managed by the Oglala Sioux, is the site of historic Native American Ghost Dances. Another historic site, Wounded Knee, is only forty-five miles south of the park boundary.
WHAT TO DO
Auto Tours: Badlands Loop Road winds through some of the park’s most rugged and visually arresting terrain.
Biking: Biking is allowed on the park’s paved loop road. Get a lift to Pinnacles Overlook and coast downhill to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. You can also bike the gravel Sage Creek Rim Road.
Hiking: Badlands National Park has eight trails ranging from easy to strenuous. For an all day hike, take the Castle and Medicine Root Trail. Short hikes include the half mile Cliff Shelf Nature Trail and the even shorter Fossil Exhibit Trail.
Wildlife Observation: Bison can be seen from Sage Creek Rim Road. Bighorns are more elusive but keep an eye out when on the Door Trail, the Pinnacles Overlook or the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail.
WHERE TO STAY
Cedar Pass Lodge
Located within the park, the lodge rents rustic cabins.
Circle View Guest Ranch
A bed and breakfast located on a working cattle ranch near the park recommended for family vacations.
Camping is allowed anywhere in the park as long as you follow a basic rule: your improvised campsite must be at least a 1/2 mile from park roads or trails. The park also has a developed campground at Cedar Pass and a primitive campground at Sage Creek.
Cover image credit Sara Feldt/NPS.