Badlands in South Dakota

Badlands in South Dakota

Rising out of the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Badlands are a striking combination of deep gorges, sharp peaks, and rolling valleys. Breathtaking to behold, the Badlands pose a formidable challenge to enterprising hikers and explorers. Anyone who has spent any length of time exploring the Badlands knows well the remoteness and mysterious nature of the area. Many have described the unique geological formations as otherworldly—indeed, almost supernatural. Visitors can expect dramatic temperature extremes, roaring winter winds, and raging summer thunderstorms.


Referred to by the Lakota Indians as “mako sica” (“bad place”), the Badlands have always loomed as an equally awe-inspiring and forbidding place. Other than primeval mammoth hunters who traversed the Badlands 11,000 years ago, the first inhabitants were nomadic tribes of bison hunters. By the mid 1700s, the Lakota Indians had gained control of the area, but were usurped in quick succession by French fur trappers, miners, and cattle farmers. The next few decades saw raging conflicts between the displaced Lakotas and the European settlers. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, more modern methods dominated over the Lakotas’ nomadic ways of life.


75 million years ago, the area of the present-day Badlands was originally a shallow sea filled with a diverse range of species. When the sea dried out, its inhabitants sank to the bottom and became fossils embedded in the rock. Indeed, much of the craggy surface of today’s Badlands is comprised of fossilized soils, which bring about the vibrant colorations of the rock surfaces. Many of the area’s fossils, including clams, crabs, snails, and varieties of ancient fish, date back 35 million years.


In spite of its unforgiving façade and solitary feel, the Badlands are home to a diverse variety of wildlife that have become acclimated to the area’s hot, dry climate. Visitors may come across mule deer, coyotes, buffalo, bighorn sheep, antelope, black-footed ferrets, and wild prairie dogs, among others.

Badland Tours

For a larger-scale view of the Badlands, you may opt for the 30-mile Loop Drive, which accommodates vehicles with a two-lane, paved roadway. Foot passengers can choose from five trails, ranging from an easy ¼-mile path to a challenging 8-mile route. Organized tours offer scheduled group walks, hikes with park rangers, movies summarizing the park’s history and geology, and nighttime campfire events. Enterprising explorers can strike out on their own with a map and compass, or can tackle the 10-mile round-trip to Roberts Prairie Dog Town. The Ben Reifel Visitor Center provides tourists with local artifact exhibits, park information, an educational video, and a gift shop.

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