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  • Writer's pictureHelen Avaient

What are the Badlands of South Dakota

Updated: Oct 22, 2023

Badlands National Park was inhabited for hundreds of years by the Lakota people. They called the land mako sica, which translates to “bad lands.” The area was designated as a national monument in 1929 and a national park in 1978. The winters are cold and the summers are hot, and the landscape is hard to navigate with the clay becoming sticky when it rains. Yet, the landscape is a wonderland of natural beauty, unlike any other national park in the USA.

an aerial view of the badlands shows the different contours of the landscape from the eroding buttes to the prairie grasslands

The Badlands are the number one rated tourist attraction in the Rapid City area of the state, and it is the largest undisturbed mixed grass prairie in the USA.

The first thing to do is drive along Highway 240, the Badlands Loop Road. This 48km (30mi) paved road has overlooks where you can stop and admire the scenery as well as boardwalk trails. The Pinnacles Overlook is the most popular, and is nearest to Sage Creek Drive. It can take around one and a half hours to drive the loop. That is without stopping. I highly recommend setting aside a good day to really enjoy the multiple scenic stops along the way, especially if you enjoy getting right in amongst nature.

The scenic drive allows you to see wonderful vistas and spectacular views. Canyons, craggy crevices, striped hills, castle like structures, buttes, pinnacles and spires showcasing layer upon layer of color. The buttes are slowly eroding at around one inch per year. It is estimated that it would take another 500,000 years for them to completely disappear. In comparison, the granite of the nearby Black Hills is estimated to be eroding at only one inch per 10,000 years.

a road winds through the prairie grasslands amongst towering eroding buttes and deep canyons in various colours of stone

There are various hiking trails of different lengths and difficulties throughout the park.

I also drove along Sage Creek Rim Road, from the town of Scenic, back into the park. This road is 40km (25mi) long and starts off with small pine forests which fade away as you start to approach the rugged Badlands spires. There is more opportunity to see wildlife on this less travelled road.

The park is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. An admission fee is payable upon entry.

The rock types came from different sources, and this contributes to the various colors you see in the ridges and canyons. Stone formations of sand, silt, mud, clay and lime are found. Volcanic ash and shale also contribute. Depending on what time of day you visit, and the lighting, the colors of the hills change. It is amazing to witness the evolving and transforming beauty.

looking down from a birds eye view, the craggy eroded sand and limestone cliffs are light brown and white compared to the green grasses on the floor of this ancient seabed. looking into the distance the flat lands are dotted with canyons that have been carved by rivers long since past flowing here.

982.4 km2 (242,756 acres, or 379 sq mi) of land make up the park, and there are two loop roads for driving access. Red Shirt Table is the highest point in the park, and is a table mountain 16kms (10mi) long. The southern end of the table is 1020m high (3340 ft). This mountain was named after Chief Red Shirt.

You may recognize some of the scenery, the 1990 movie Dances with Wolves was partially filmed in the park.

Most people drive in one direction, it is advisable to go both ways to see the scenery from differing viewpoints. The eastern loop road is more scenic.

Ben Reifel Visitor Centre was built in 1958 and has picnic tables, restrooms, an air-conditioned theater, bookshop and exhibits. Check out the fossil lab in the centre. Park rangers at the information desk are very knowledgeable and can answer questions, and provide maps of the park. The Visitor centre is only open during the summer season.

Benjamin Reifel (1906-1990) was a Lakota native, also known as Lone Feather. He was a public administrator and politician. During WWII he achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel.

If you visit the South Unit of the Badlands, the White River Visitor Centre has museum exhibits and can give more information about the Lakota heritage.

To really experience the park, visitors can camp at one of the two campgrounds, Cedar Pass and Sage Creek. At Cedar Pass there are cabins and dining available. The Cedar Pass campground has two campsites that are fully accessible for wheelchairs. Imagine being able to stay in the park and experience majestic sunsets, sunrises to take your breath away, and the spectacular night skies.

The Badlands were a hunting ground for Native Americans for thousands of years. There is no written record of their history, but oral stories and songs tell of hunting year-round. Archaeological research has shown this to be true. For the Oglala Sioux Indians, this territory is a place to hold sacred ceremonies, rather than a place to reside. The Ghost Dance ceremony revives the souls of both buffalo and the dead. It has been held here off and on over the centuries, although banned by the Government between 1890 and the 1960s. The Sioux have refused to accept money that the US Supreme Court awarded them in 1980, as compensation for the taking of their lands. The 1868 Second Treaty of Fort Laramie had promised the Sioux that the Badlands would forever be theirs. This was broken in 1889.

Homesteaders started to arrive after 1889 in South Dakota and begin farming on the Native American lands. Homesteaders were granted 160 acres of land, which was further increased to 640 acres, enough to support a family.

This entire National Park area was once underwater, and fossilized seashells and turtle shells have been found in the area. In the 1800s it was a popular place to hunt or fossils and hunting grounds. Several fossils show species that are extinct, such as the Oligocene camel, alligators, and rhinoceros. Scientists still actively research the area.

The park is a haven for animals, and traffic jams occur where bighorn sheep, elk, deer, and bison block the roads. Eager eyes can also see other inhabitants such as the badger, magpie, prairie dog, bobcat, coyote, rattlesnake, porcupine, whooping crane, and foxes.

There are over 1,200 bison in the park and over 200 bighorn sheep. Breeding programs to increase the herds are ongoing.

This is a marvelous destination to visit and learn more about the geology, history and animals of the Lakota people and the South Dakota natural beauty.

When in the Badlands of South Dakota area, I also recommend visiting:

Wall Drug in the nearby town of Wall

map of where the Badlands are in South Dakota

Happy Travels!

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