Badlands National Park
One of the most popular attractions in western South Dakota, the Badlands National Park provides its visitors dazzling views of beautiful, striking rock-like formations. The buttes, pinnacles, and spires formed by winds and glacial erosion more than 35 million years ago enchant the over one million annual visitors to The Badlands National Park. Rainfall, wind, and perpetual freezing and thawing erode approximately one inch of topsoil per year and continue to reveal more ancient mysteries including fossils and ancient artifacts. The Badlands National Park is an ever-changing, wondrous work of natural art.
The History of The Badlands
Located in southwest South Dakota, The Badlands National Park was named for the Native American Sioux’s description of the harsh terrain. The Sioux referred to the area as “mako sica,” meaning “land bad.” In 1743, the first white men to cross the terrain were French-Canadian trappers. These trappers referred to the site as “les mauvaises terres a traverser,” which translates in English to “bad lands to travel across.”
The harsh landscape, rough terrain, and scarcity of water all contributed to make the Badlands one of the world’s richest mammal fossil beds, containing fossil remains from the Eocene-Oligocene epoch, referred to as “The Golden Age of Mammals.” Scientists believe that 33 million years ago, a watering hole was located in the Badlands and that a drought forced mammals to travel long distances to locate water. The soft, sedimentary ground caused many of these creatures to become bogged down, and they often perished in the heat before water could be located. Scavengers were drawn to the area to feed on the remains, and often met the same demise. Scientists studying the South Dakota Badlands have discovered the remains of ancient three-toed horses, tiny deer-like creatures, turtles, a saber-toothed cat, and ancient hornless rhinoceroses.
Modern-day mammals, such as bison, antelope, big horn sheep, deer, and swift foxes, roam the 244,000 acres of The Badlands National Park, comprising the largest expanse of protected prairie land in the National Park system. The Badlands National Park is also a reintroduction site of the endangered black-footed ferret, one of the world’s rarest mammals.
Visiting the Park
Visitors to South Dakota’s Badlands National Park can enjoy hiking on eight trails ranging in length from ¼-mile to 10 miles long, round trip. The Fossil Exhibit Trail is fully accessible, boasting fossil replicas of now extinct animals that once roamed the area.
“The Big Pig Dig”, an archaeological site discovered by hikers in 1993, is an active excavation site at the Badlands. Since its discovery, more than 13,000 bones have been removed from the site. Visitors to The Badlands National Park can visit The Big Pig Dig to watch paleontologists in action. The Ben Reifel Visitor Center, named for the first American Indian to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, is open daily and features exhibits, interactive displays, ranger-led programs, and video presentations.
Badlands visitors have the option to camp at Cedar Pass Campground, a 96-site facility boasting scenic views of the breathtaking geologic formations. Visitors to The Badlands National Park are also in close proximity to other popular parks and monuments. Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Custer State Park, and Jewel Cave National Monument are all within brief driving distance of The Badlands National Park and Rapid City is about 80 miles west.