The vast expanse of weathered rock canyons may seem desolate and forbidding, but the park’s striking sawtooth ridges and surrounding prairie lands are a haven for bighorn sheep, bison, and prairie dogs.
Its very name stirs excitement and even a bit of trepidation as you approach this rugged and starkly beautiful park. Barren, battered buttes, hills, cliffs, and canyons stretch before you in a sweeping expanse all the way to the horizon.
The Badlands are more than an evocative name. They also define a specific type of geologic formation, consisting of sedimentary rock that has been eroded by wind and water. It looks as if someone painted neat orange bands across the gray mounds of rough-faced rock. Each stripe is a stratum of rock revealing layers of geological time stretching back eons. The eternal winds have also unearthed rich fossil beds with the remains of prehistoric animals that roamed these lands more than 30 million years ago. The South Dakota Badlands are still eroding, wearing away at a rate of about one inch (2.5 cm) each year. There’s another side to the Badlands, too. In contrast to its alien landscape, the park also contains the largest tract of mixed-prairie grassland in the United States. It’s the last vestige of the vast prairie that once stretched across the heartland of America. This complex ecosystem of plants and grasses supports an array of wildlife—from burrowing prairie dogs to shaggy bison—including rare and endangered species. It remains the homeland of the Oglala Lakota.
Venture into this otherworldly landscape on the Badlands Loop Road, the only paved road through the park. It winds for 30 miles (48 km) among the spires and buttes of the Badlands Wall, the rugged escarpment that divides the upper and lower prairie lands. Pause at one of the many overlooks to drink in the view, clamber onto the rocks, and take the perfect photograph of the scenic surroundings. You’ll also find stunning vistas over the Buffalo Gap National Grassland.
In early morning and late afternoon, the low angle of the sun brings out colorful bands of soft pink, orange, and deep red in the canyons.
Wilderness and wildlife
West of the Pinnacles entrance, drive the dirt and gravel Sage Creek Rim Road, which borders the Badlands Wilderness Area. This is a great place to see wildlife. The park’s bison herd is often spotted in this area, and you can get a rare glimpse of how this land once looked when vast herds of these majestic animals filled the plains barely more than a century ago.
The pristine prairie is also home to elk, pronghorn, mule deer, bobcats, coyotes, and foxes. Keep your eyes peeled for bighorn sheep, which seem to defy gravity on the sheer rock ledges, and rattlesnakes, which are prevalent here. You may also see eagles, hawks, or peregrine falcons circling overhead. One Badlands resident you won’t want to miss is the black-tailed prairie dog. These chubby, highly social rodents greet each other with nuzzles and kisses, and the frisky pups romp together in play. A large colony lives at Roberts Prairie Dog Town, where you can watch their antics up close.
FLORA AND FAUNA
Badlands National Park is home to around 120 black-footed ferrets, one of the world’s only self-sustaining populations. Saved from extinction through a careful breeding program, it remains one of the continent’s most endangered animals. You’re unlikely to see this cute nocturnal creature, which lives underground. Its main diet? The prairie dog—one ferret can eat 100 a year.
Herds of hulking American bison run across the open Midwestern plains
Exploring on foot
One of the best ways to enjoy the Badlands is to lace up your hiking boots and set off on some of the park’s many trails. Meander through rolling prairie and a natural garden of wildflowers on the Medicine Root Loop. Or climb a log ladder and navigate a narrow ledge on the Notch Trail for an awesome view over the White River Valley.
Two of the trails, the Window Trail and the Door Trail, are wheelchair accessible along a raised boardwalk. Both lead to gaps in the Badlands Wall, with views of the sweeping grasslands and colorful rock formations.
A favorite hike takes you along the Fossil Exhibit Trail, an easy boardwalk lined with replica fossils and exhibits. The Badlands fossil beds are among the richest in the world, and the list of prehistoric animals that once lived here is jaw-dropping: aquatic and running rhinos, alligators, miniature camels, saber-toothed cats, three-toed horses, and extinct mammals called oreodonts among them. You might even find fossils yourself when exploring the park.
The Stronghold Unit, the southern area of the park, lies within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Fewer roads are open to visitors here, but it’s still worth experiencing—you can catch some incredible sunsets from the Sheep Mountain Table and Red Shirt Table viewpoints.
Surveying the scene—a prairie dog pops up from a hole in the intricate network of its tunnel home
Best Bike Rides
The Badlands have been American Indian hunting grounds for thousands of years. In 1890, many tribes joined the Ghost Dance movement, hoping to drive white settlers from their lands. One of the last Ghost Dances was at Stronghold Table, in the South Unit. The Oglala Lakota now co-manage this district, teaching visitors about their cultural heritage.
The layered rock formations in the Badlands stretch on for miles