Of Time and the Badlands
For centuries humans have viewed South Dakota's celebrated Badlands with a mix of dread and fascination. The Lakota knew the place as mako sica. Early French trappers called the area les mauvaises terres à traverser. Both mean "bad lands." Conservation writer Freeman Tilden described the region as "peaks and valleys of delicately banded colorscolors that shift in the sunshine, . . . . and a thousand tints that color charts do not show. In the early morning and evening, when shadows are cast upon the infinite peaks or on a bright moonlit night when the whole region seems a part of another world, the Badlands will be an experience not easily forgotten." Paleontologist Thaddeus Culbertson had another reaction: "Fancy yourself on the hottest day in summer in the hottest spot of such a place without waterwithout an animal and scarce an insect astirwithout a single flower to speak pleasant things to you and you will have some idea of the utter loneliness of the Bad Lands."
The peaks, gullies, buttes, and wide prairies of the Badlands can be challenging to cross, yet they have long attracted the interest and praise of travelers. "I've been about the world a lot, and pretty much over our own country," wrote architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1935, "but I was totally unprepared for that revelation called the Dakota Bad Lands. . . . What I saw gave me an indescribable sense of mysterious elsewherea distant architecture, ethereal . . . . an endless supernatural world more spiritual than earth but created out of it."
The Badlands are a place of extremes. Your travels here may produce conflicting responses. You may visit in summer and curse the heat and the violent lightning storms, yet be excited by the wildlife and wildflowers. You may come in winter, chilled by the cold and the winds that roar unhindered out of the north, and still marvel at the exquisite beauty of the moonlight glistening on the snow-dusted buttes. Whatever your feelings about the Badlands, you will not come away unaffected.
Stay awhile if you can, and let the Badlands reveal themselves to you. The so-called emptiness of the plains is full of traces of ancient life. You may see eagles hunt, wings outstretched over grasslands that seems to go on forever. Above all you will experience quiet, the near absence of human noise. As you explore, keep in mind that this is a national park. All fossils, rocks, plants, and animals are protected and must remain where you find them.
The more you observe, the more accustomed you will become to the Badlands landscape. With this familiarity will come an appreciation of the park's biological diversity. There is a rich and varied plant community here, including the largest mixed-grass prairie in the National Park System. Wildlife abounds. Coyotes, butterflies, turtles, vultures, snakes, bluebirds, bison, and prairie dogs are just a few of the residents of the park's prairie. Approached with curiosity and care, the Badlands will provide you with endless pleasure and fascination.
Shaping of the Land and Life
In the Distant Past About 75 million years ago the Earth's climate was warmer than it is now, and a shallow sea covered the region we call the Great Plains. Stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada and from western Iowa to western Wyoming, the sea teemed with life. In today's Badlands the bottom of that sea appears as a grayish-black sedimentary rock called Pierre (peer) shale. This layer is a rich source of fossils, for creatures sank to the bottom of the sea when they died and over time became fossils. A variety of fossilized animals has been found in the park. Baculites, an extinct cephalopod, had a squid-like body with a long cylindrical shell tightly coiled at one end. Chambers in the shell contained either gas or liquid for buoyancy control. Clams, crabs, and snails in great numbers have also been found. Outside the park, the Pierre shale has yielded abundant remains of ancient fish; mosasaurs, giant marine lizards; pterosaurs, flying reptiles; Archelon, enormous sea turtles; and Hesperonis, a diving bird something like a modern loon. Why have rocks inside the park, which are so rich in invertebrate fossils, yielded so few marine creatures with backbones? Questions such as these puzzle paleontologists and earth scientists who continue to search, hoping to answer questions about the Earth's past.
Land Emerges Eons passed. Continental plates pushed and shoved, leading to an active period of mountain-building in the ancestral Rocky Mountains. This caused the land under the sea to rise, forcing the water to retreat and drain away. In time, the area that we now call the Badlands was exposed to air and sunshine, yet it looked nothing like the landscape that we see today.
The climate was humid and warm; rainfall abundant. A dark and dense subtropical forest developed on the land. It flourished for millions of years. Eventually, the climate cooled and dried. The forest gave way, first to savannah, then to the grassland much like the present landscape. Today, after a heavy rainstorm in the Badlands, vivid red bands stand out against the buff tones of the buttes. These are fossilized soils that make up much of the Badlands rocks. Fossil soils tell us a great deal about the climatic history of the Badlands, and they also impart much of the colorful banding to Badlands rocks. The loose, crumbling rocks formed from these ancient soils hold one of the greatest collections of fossil mammals on Earth.
Badlands Fossils An array of extinct animals, from enormous to very small, once ranged the area now in Badlands National Park. Some lived in the subtropical forests that flourished after the retreat of the inland sea; others inhabited the savannahs and grasslands that came in the years afterward. Some of these creatures whose fossils have been found here. They are based on scientific knowledge of the Oligocene, a geologic epoch that lasted from 23 to 35 million years ago. Our views of vegetation and animal structure will change as the fossil record reveals more about those bygone times.
Leptomeryx, small and deer-like, had even-toed hooves and browsed on stems and leaves of early Oligocene vegetation. Sheep-like Oreodonts were abundanttheir name means mountain tooth. Archaeotherium, a distant relative of modern pigs, had sharp canines and fed on plants and carrion. Mesohippus, an ancestor of modern horses, had three toes instead of one hoof. Hoplophoneus, one of the earliest of the mammals to be called a sabertooth cat, was the size of a leopard. Subhyracodon, an agile rhinoceros, ate plants. Ischromys, a small squirrel-like rodent probably lived in trees and ate fruits and nuts. Metamynodon was a massive rhinoceros that, like the hippopotamus, spent much of its time in water. Paleolagus, perhaps an ancestral rabbit, nibbled on plants.
Badlands prairie contains nearly 60 species of grass, the foundation for a complex community of plants and animals. The prairie once sprawled across one-third of North America. Today patchwork remnants of native grasslands represent adaptations to millions of years of changing conditions and sustain a diverse citizenry. Grasslands (prairies) occur in areas that are too dry to support trees but too wet to be deserts. Badlands National Park contains mixed-grass prairie: tall-grass species such as big bluestem and prairie cordgrass, and shortgrasses such as blue grama and buffalograss. Hundreds of species of wildflowers and forbs grow here too. The landscape, once a forest, now contains plants and animals uniquely adapted to what appears to be harsh and unforgiving conditions. Grasses, able to withstand high winds, long spells of dry weather, and frequent fires, thrived. Grazing animals became abundant and grasses, better suited to withstand constant trampling and grazing, spread and overtook the ancient forests. Today, many animalsblack-tailed prairie dogs, muledeer, pronghorn (called antelope), bison (called buffalo), coyotes, and bighorn sheepadapt to, and even thrive under the protected conditions in Badlands National Park.
Return of a Native
In 1981 the scientific community received astonishing news. Black-footed ferrets, thought to be extinct since the last captive specimen died in 1979, were discovered alive and well in the wilds of Wyoming. The news was encouraging, but the long-term prognosis for the ferrets was not promising. Dependent on prairies as their prime habitat and prairie dogs as their food source, these relatives of weasels are among the rarest mammals on Earth.
Shrinking prairie habitat, destruction of prairie dog colonies by humans. and spread of diseases left the ferrets one step away from extinction.
Soon after the Wyoming ferrets were discovered, disease ran through the colony. By 1985 only 18 ferrets survived. Braving controversy and accepting the risks accompanying intervention, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists and State of Wyoming authorities captured the ferrets and launched a campaign to save them. Success came quickly. At seven breeding facilities, the ferrets flourished and multiplied. With high hopes and little fanfare, 36 black-footed ferrets were released in the park in the fall of 1994. A search in late summer of 1995 yielded two litters of ferret kits born in the wild, an important milestone on the road to recovery for this species. More captive-raised black-footed ferrets were released through 1999 with the goal of establishing a self-sustaining population. Today biologists are optimistic about the continued success of ferrets in the region. Like reintroduced bison and bighorn sheep, blackfooted ferrets have once again taken their place and added influence to the northern prairies.
Life and Death in a Hard Country
Though seemingly inhospitable at first glance, the Badlands have supported humans for more than 11,000 years. The earliest people to come here were ancient mammoth hunters. Much later they were followed by nomadic tribes whose lives centered on hunting bison. The Arikara was the first tribe known to have inhabited the White River area. By the mid-18th century, they were replaced by Sioux, or Lakota, who adopted the use of horses from the Spaniards and came to dominate the region. Though the bison-hunting Lakota flourished during the next 100 years, their dominion on the prairie was short-lived. French fur trappers were the first of many European arrivals who, in time, would supplant the Lakota. Trappers were followed by soldiers, miners, cattle farmers, and homesteaders who forever changed the face of the prairie. After 40 years of struggle, culminating in the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, the Lakota were confined to reservations. Cattle replaced bison; wheat fields replaced prairies; and, in time, gasoline-powered vehicles replaced horses.
Both Lakota and homesteaders shaped this land. Lakota hunted and harvested what they needed to support their way of life. The bison that played such a vital role for the Lakota were eradicated by the arrival of non-Indian buffalo hunters. Only the Lakota paintings, drawings, and artistic crafts remained—tangible memories of their lost homelands and natural environment. Late 19th-century photographers captured the images of these pioneers as they built new lives, showing the hard work that typified the process.
Visiting Badlands National Park
Travelers come to Badlands National Park for many reasons. Some are lured by the unusual rock formations, which reminded early explorer Dr. John Evans of "some magnificent city of the dead, where the labor and the genius of forgotten nations had left behind them a multitude of monuments of art and skill." Others come to camp, photograph wildlife, or search for birds or flowers. Many are professional or amateur paleontologists who come to study fossil remains of Badlands' ancient life. For all visitors there is much ground to cover, for the park consists of three units totaling more than 240,000 acres.
Three Park Units North UnitThis is the best known and most easily explored area. It includes the 64,000-acre Badlands Wilderness Area, Badlands Loop Road with scenic overlooks and trailheads, and Cedar Pass, where you will find the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, open year-round, and Cedar Pass Lodge, open seasonally. Stronghold and Palmer Creek unitsThese areas are located within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The Stronghold and Palmer Creek units are managed under a cooperative agreement between the Oglala Lakota and the National Park Service. In the Stronghold Unit, White River Visitor Center is open seasonally. Contact the park for details.
Expect the Unexpected There is much to do in Badlands. When you drive the Badlands Loop Road, you will find overlooks and signs explaining the landscape. You may walk a self-guiding trail, set off cross-country with a backpack, or attend a summer evening amphitheater program. Bring your binoculars! If you are lucky, you may spot bison or pronghorn grazing, spot a coyote stalking rodents, or catch a glimpse of bighorn sheep delicately picking their way across a steep slope. A visit to Roberts Prairie Dog Town, five miles west of the Pinnacles Entrance on the unpaved Sage Creek Rim Road, gives you a chance to visit a different "home town."
Help us Protect the Park More than one million visitors come to Badlands National Park each year. It is important to follow these few rules to preserve the wonders that you find here. Your care and thoughtfulness will help preserve the park for you and future generations. Be advised that all plants, animals, rocks, minerals, and fossils within Badlands National Park are protected by federal law. Observe, photograph, and admire everything you see, but do not collect, pick, or disturb anything you find here. Do not feed wildlife. They can become dependent on human food and lose their ability to provide for themselves.
Safety and Regulations For a safe and successful visit, observe these precautions and regulations. • Weather can change rapidly in any season and can turn out quite differently from the forecast you saw posted in the visitor center. Dress appropriately, drive with extra caution during stormy or icy conditions, and seek shelter from the thundershowers, hailstorms, and occasional tornadoes that sometimes descend on the Badlands with sudden fury. • Theft is uncommon, but it is a good practice to carry valuables in your pockets or backpack, or lock them in the trunk of your car. • Observing a bison up close in the wild may be a new and exciting experience for visitorsbut it is extremely dangerous. This is not a zoo. The animals are wildand they can attack. Never approach a bison closely. They can run faster than 30 miles per hour. • Prairie rattlesnakes, spiders, and stinging insects are found within the park. Take proper care to avoid unpleasant encounters. • Hikers should carry maps, a compass, extra clothing, and lots of water. There is no source of potable water in the backcountry. • Protect yourself from the sun. Wear a hat and use sunscreen. The Sun's rays are strong here, even in winter. • Badlands rock is soft, and rockfalls are common. Admire the formations at a distance, and do not climb on them. Seemingly indestructible, these buttes are quite fragile. Enjoy the parksafely.
Badlands Weather Averages
Travel in and about the Badlands
Westbound travelers on I-90 should use exit 131. S.D. 240 leads to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and is the Badlands Loop Road. After passing through the park, S.D. 240 connects with I-90 at exit 110 in Wall. Eastbound travelers should do the reverse: begin in Wall and end at I-90 at exit 131.
Park roads are winding and steep in places, but most are paved. Use caution on unpaved roads in winter or during thunderstorms, when roads may be slippery and maintaining control may be difficult.
Established hiking trails are short; they are easy to moderately difficult. Cross-country hikers should take water, a map, a compass, and wear or carry appropriate clothing. Ask a ranger about your route before starting out.
Nearby areas you may wish to visit: Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Black Hills National Forest, and Custer State Park are in the Black Hills. Wounded Knee is 25 miles south of the White River Visitor Center. Buffalo Gap National Grassland borders the park.
Cedar Pass Area
Most visitors stop in the Cedar Pass area. The Ben Reifel Visitor Center has an information desk, exhibits, a bookstore, and restrooms. It is open year-round. Park staff can answer questions and help you plan your visit.
Cedar Pass Lodge, near the visitor center, is open in the spring, summer, and fall months. The amphitheater and the Cedar Pass campground are also within walking distance. Ask at the visitor center for details.
Within five miles of Ben Reifel Visitor Center are scenic overlooks, several trailheads, and three self-guiding trails. Fossil Exhibit Trail is wheelchair accessible. Cliff Shelf Nature Trail and Door Trail are moderately strenuous explorations of Badlands rock formations. A pamphlet for Cliff Shelf Nature Trail gives an introduction to the plants and animals living in the Badlands rock formations.
Source: NPS Brochure (2006)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
Archeological Inventory at Multiple Localities, Badlands National Park, South Dakota Midwest Archeological Center Archeology Report Series No. 7 (Erin C. Dempsey, 2015)
Art. 11: Geographic Designation of the Members of the Chadron Formation in South Dakota Annals of the Carnegie Museum, Vol. 33 (John Clark, June 11, 1954; scanned by Biodiversity Heritage Library)
Art. XXI: The Stratigraphy and Paleontology of the Chadron Formation in the Big Badlands of South Dakota Annals of the Carnegie Museum, Vol. XXV (John Clark, December 31, 1937; scanned by Biodiversity Heritage Library)
Bison (Bison bison) Restoration and Management Options on the South Unit and Adjacent Range Units of Badlands National Park in South Dakota: A Technical Evaluation NPS Natural Resource Report NRR/BADL/NRR-2014/881 (Daniel S. Licht, November 2014)
Cedar Pass Developed Area, Cultural Landscape Report, Badlands National Park (John Milner Associates, Inc. and Bahr Vermeer Haecker Architects, Ltd., June 2005)
Cedar Pass Development Concept Plan and Environmental Assessment (September 2018)
Discovery and Re-Discovery in the White River Badlands: Historic Resource Study (John Milner Associates, Inc., Renewable Technologies, Inc. and Bahr Vermeer & Haecker Architects, Ltd., 1983)
Economic Impacts of Badlands National Park Visitor Spending on the Local Economy, 2000 (Dennis Propst, Daniel J. Stynes and Ya-Yen Sun, January 2002)
Fossils and fire: A study on the effects of fire on paleontological resources at Badlands National Park (Rachel Benton and James Reardon, New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science Bulletin 34, 2006, ©New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, all rights reserved)
Foundation Document, Badlands National Park, South Dakota (September 2017)
Geologic Resource Evaluation Report, Badlands National Park NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/GRD/NRR-2008/036 (J. Graham, June 2008)
Geology of Badlands National Park: A Preliminary Report USGS Open-File Report 2003-035 (2003)
History of Badlands National Monument and The White River (Big) Badlands of South Dakota Bulletin No. 1 (Ray H. Mattison and Robert A. Grom, 1968)
Natural History Handbook Series No. 2, Badlands National Park (Carl R. Swartzlow and Robert F. Upton, 1954, revised 1962)
Natural Resource Condition Assessment, Badlands National Park NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/BADL/NRR-2018/1672 (Reilly R. Dibner, Nicole Korfanta and Gary Beauvais, July 2018)
Oligocene Sedimentation, Stratigraphy, Paleoecology and Paleoclimatology in the Badlands of South Dakota Fieldiana: Geology Memoirs, Vol. 5 (John Clark, James R. Beerbower and Kenneth K. Kietzke, Field Museum of Natural History, December 29, 1967)
Plant Community Composition and Structure Monitoring Protocol for the Northern Great Plains I&M Network Version 1.01 NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/NGPN/NRR-2012/489 (Amy J. Symstad, Robert A. Gitzen, Cody L. Wienk, Michael R. Bynum, Daniel J. Swanson, Andy D. Thorstenson and Kara J. Paintner-Green, February 2012)
Plant Fossils Discovered in Badlands National Park (Jay Shuler and Vincent Santucci, extract from Park Science, Vol. 6 No. 3, Spring 1986)
Population Dynamics of Leptomeryx Fieldiana: Geology, Vol. 16 No. 16 (John Clark and Thomas E. Guensburg, Field Museum of Natural History, March 27, 1970)
Preliminary Geoarcheological Reconnaissance in Badlands National Park, South Dakota Midwest Archeological Center Technical Report Series No. 88 (David D. Kuehn, 2003)
The Cretaceous-Tertiary Boundary Interval in Badlands National Park, South Dakota USGS Open-File Report 2001-056 (2001)
The feeding mechanics of Leptauchenia decora based on specimens from the Whitneyan (Oligocene) of Badlands National Park, South Dakota (William P. Wall and Kena Veal, New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science Bulletin 34, 2006, ©New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, all rights reserved)
The Pliocene-Pleistocene Medicine Root Gravel of Southwestern South Dakkota (J.C. Harksen, 1966)
White-Nose Syndrome Surveillance Across Northern Great Plains National Park Units: 2018 Interim Report (Ian Abernethy, August 2018)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Last Updated: 02-Jul-2022