Badlands National Park

Good Times in the Badlands

Badlands CloudsWhen the summer sun sets over the vast landscape of Badlands National Park, every ridge and every layer of rock is engulfed by shadows, until only the red tips of the highest peaks are touched by sunlight.

It’s a welcoming cooling off after a hot day in the park. Campers light their evening fires and the scents and sounds of simmering food waft through the air. After one last shot of the sun going down over the rocks, day trippers pack their cameras and head for their cars. Park rangers prepare for their nighttime nature talks. The Badlands of South Dakota weren’t always considered so enjoyable, however.

History of the Badlands

They got their name from the Lakota Indians, who faced great difficulty when crossing through the rough terrain. The temperatures were extreme, water was scarce, and the rock formations were formidable, so they called the area “mako sica” or “land bad”. But the rich history of the rock formations goes back even further than the Lakota Indians.

The Beginning of the Badlands

Snowy BadlandsWhen looking at the rock formations of the Badlands, you may notice there are different layers. The layers are formed at varying periods throughout history from the type of landscape, whether it be the sea, a tropical scene, or a forest. The geologic deposits are thought to have started about 67 to 75 million years ago. The Badlands were also shaped by erosion from the rivers and streams that once ran through this area and cut into the rocks.

A giant sea once covered the lands of South Dakota, which means the oldest fossils discovered belong to marine animals. Giant lizards called mosasaurs swam here, along with other marine creatures such as turtles and fish.

After the sea dried up and the deposits began forming, mammals took over the land. Fossils of brontotheres, rhinoceroses, horses, and even camels have been found preserved in the rocks and soil. The Badlands may seem unchanging, but its history is rich with diverse species and terrains.

Tribal History

Badlands Visitors CenterThe landscape of the Badlands can make a person feel awe-inspired by the power and beauty of the planet. There are times when you can look out over the rocks and there’s not a single soul in sight, and you begin to wonder how the first explorers felt when they encountered the expanse. Or you wonder who the earliest humans were to ever witness these sites in front of you.

The nomadic tribes that migrated to the Dakota area more than 10,000 years ago may have been the first humans to set eyes on the Badlands. They were paleo Indians who hunted mammoths and other beasts at the end of the ice age. In the 1700s, following the route of the buffalo, certain nomadic Native American tribes migrated to the area. The tribes were the Arikara, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Pawnee, Crow, and the Lakota Sioux. Eventually, the Lakota Sioux would come to rule the land. Generally known as a peaceful people, the Lakota Indians were skilled hunters, horsemen, and established warriors.

Some recognizable tribesmen from the Sioux include Sitting Bull, whose leadership led the tribe to victory in the Battle of Little Bighorn, or “Custer’s Last Stand”. Crazy Horse was a member of the Oglala Lakota and kept his anti-civilization beliefs strong until he died.

Pioneer Life

Car in the BadlandsLewis and Clark were said to have passed through the Lakota region in 1803 and were met with little resistance from the Sioux Indians. French-Canadian explorers came even before then in the 1700s, and they, too, did not experience a clash with the Native Americans. But perhaps the presence of Lewis and Clark, who were commissioned by the government to explore the wild and untamed land west of the Mississippi River, should have foretold the onslaught to come. Soon pioneer “homesteaders” were making homes and building towns on the territory that belonged to the Lakotas.

It was difficult for the Lakotas to remain peaceful when the white men were driving their main food supply, the buffalo, away, or simply hunting them for sport. Tensions grew. When the Army established outposts nearby, the tribesmen raided their grounds and retreated into the hills.

Because of the mounting tensions between the Sioux Indians and the settlers, the government intervened in 1868 and established the Fort Laramie Treaty. The treaty sought to give the land back to the Sioux in an effort to halt settlement attacks. It ceded all lands from the Missouri River to the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming, and it also called for the distribution of food, clothing, and currency to the tribes. Now, settlers could not enter the area without authorization.

But the wheels of fortune would turn again. When gold was discovered in the nearby Black Hills, people flocked from all over the country to pan for the mineral. They often came onto the land without permission, set up camp, and carelessly destroyed the land in their efforts to find gold. When the hills and creek beds were proven to produce the precious mineral, the government backed down on their part of the treaty.

Present Day

Rocket BadlandsToday, the land is protected by the National Parks, and it’s primarily used for traveling, conservation education, and research. With erosion rates at roughly 1 inch per year, the Badlands are considered precious ground, and considerable measures must be taken to care for and protect the park.

Perhaps even the earliest humans who stood on a cliff overlooking the Badlands knew that beauty is ephemeral, and they were able to see themselves as a small part of a large and vast planet. If you come and visit Badlands National Park, you too can experience the history of the land and feel humbled by the beauty of the rocky cliffs.

  • Hiking
    The Badlands National Park utilizes an open back country policy, which means you can roam the land freely and go in whatever direction you choose. Park rangers advocate for safety, so make sure to stop at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center for planning and safety tips. There are also designated hiking trails established by the park. You can trek the flat stretches or climb uphill through the formations. Check out the area maps to plan your hike.
  • Fossil Prep Lab
    For the archaeology and paleontology enthusiasts, the Fossil Prep Lab is the perfect place to marvel at some of the area’s best known fossils. Here, you can watch paleontologists at work and learn about advances in the field. You can also get insight into any current research being conducted in the Badlands National Park. The Fossil Prep Lab is located in the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.
  • Camping
    With close campgrounds with no viewing obstructions, you can enjoy the splendor of the Badlands right from your own campsite. With a starry dome above, a campfire burning bright in front of you, and the majestic rock formations creating a fascinating backdrop, you’ll want to relax in the landscape forever.
  • Sightseeing
    Situated on 244,000 acres of mixed grass prairie fields, the Badlands are a unique and special sight. Whether you’re headed out for a hike or you’re in the mood to view the grounds from the comfort of your vehicle, don’t forget to bring your camera. The rocky expanse is a photographer’s dream. Catch the sun as it rises or sets over the red and brown formations, or snap a picture of a buffalo as it makes its way across the plains.


If the massive geologic formations set among the far-reaching skies of South Dakota aren’t enough to make you feel small in size, then make sure to catch a glimpse of the great bison that roam the area. They like to graze on the grass of the prairie, or travel in herds that are sometimes visible from the highway.

There are about 39 species of mammals in Badlands National Park. These species include, but are not limited to: prairie dogs, antelope, deer, bighorn sheep, coyotes, bobcats, and badgers. The antelope stride gracefully across the plains, while the bighorn sheep rule the rocky cliffs. Watch out for the lonely porcupine wandering across the hiking path.

There are also reptiles, amphibians, and birds in the park. Anytime you’re near the water, keep an eye out for painted or snapping turtles lazing about in the sun.

The Beauty of the Bad

At the end of a long and eventful day, the sun begins to make its way downward across the endless sky. But the splendor isn’t over yet. After dark, overnight visitors can build their fires and recline back in their seats to marvel at the starry dome above. Park rangers start their educational nature talks and sometimes even offer a night hike. Whether it’s day or night in Badlands National Park, you’ll surely feel at one with the land. Come see what the Badlands have to offer.


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