The Irresistible Beauty of Badlands National Park
If you don't find the word "Badlands" to be especially inviting, you're probably not alone. But we all know what they say about books and their covers, and the same can be said of national parks and their names. Despite its name, the striking beauty of Badlands National Park cannot be overstated. The landscape ranges from lush prairie to otherworldly rock formations that Theodore Roosevelt described as, "so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth."
Shaping the Badlands
Badlands National Park encompasses more than 240,000 acres in South Dakota, over 64,000 of which are designated wilderness area. Eons of deposition and erosion shaped this one-of-a-kind landscape. Sedimentary rocks of varying hardness were deposited over millions of years, with layers of soft mudstone and siltstone nestled between more resistant sandstone layers. The rock strata eroded — and continue to erode — at different rates, creating an unusual assortment of sharp buttes, pointy spires, towering pinnacles, and countless other strange rock formations that defy description.
Along with the striking geological features for which the Badlands are famous, this area also includes the largest undisturbed mixed mixed-grass prairie in the United States. Harboring a range of wildlife from bison and bobcat to the endangered black-footed ferret, this prairie was the home and hunting grounds of Native American peoples for more than 10,000 years, from early paleo-Indians to the more recent Lakota Sioux. White homesteaders began settling in the Badlands in the early 20th century until the area was established as Badlands National Monument in 1939. Its designation was changed to Badlands National Park in 1978.
Visiting the Badlands
Today, Badlands National Park is one of America's top destinations for outdoor recreation, with overnight camping accommodations, many miles of hiking trails, and some of the most striking scenery in the world. Start your visit at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center – open every day of the year except Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day – where you can learn more about all the things to see and do in the park:
- Drive the Badlands: The Highway 240 Badlands Loop Road, easily accessible from I-90, is a paved route through the North Unit of the park, which provides access to many of its most impressive features. It's a great way to explore the park if you're pressed for time.
- Take a hike: Choose among several hiking trails, from the easy quarter-mile Window Trail to the more challenging 10-mile Castle Trail. Most trails are accessible from the Loop Road.
- See the night sky: There is almost no light pollution in Badlands National Park, giving it some of the clearest, darkest night skies in America.
- Go camping: Several camping options are available in Badlands National Park, including the primitive Sage Creek Campground and the more developed Cedar Pass Campground, as well as a group camping area.
- Visit the Fossil Preparation Lab: The Badlands are home to some of the nation's richest fossil deposits, including remarkably well-preserved saber tooth cat fossils.
- Explore the backcountry: Backcountry hiking and camping is permitted in Badlands National Park. It's the best way to experience the solitude of this truly magnificent place, but also presents some very real dangers and requires careful planning and advanced backcountry skills.
There is simply no place in the world quite like Badlands National Park. Take part in the many ranger programs, guided hikes, and activities available at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center during the summer season, or strike out on your own to explore one of America's most stunning landscapes during any season.