Last Updated on December 13, 2023
The southwestern region of South Dakota does not have a traditional desert, but it offers an equally stunning arid landscape known as the Badlands. As you drive through the state, the formations of Badlands National Park suddenly appear, almost out of nowhere, in the middle of the prairie.
Millions of years of erosion have created an incredible landscape that attracts about 1 million visitors each year, despite the remoteness of traditional U.S. tourist destinations.
What are the Badlands?
The Badlands are a type of arid landform similar to a desert, characterized by the presence of gullies, a geomorphological phenomenon of soil erosion that is produced by the effect of rainwater runoff on degraded clay rocks, with little vegetation cover and therefore little protection from runoff: producing deep furrows in the ground along the side of a mountain or hill.
Why are they called the Badlands
The Native American Lakota people referred to this arid region as “mako sica” (lit. “bad land”) because of its desert-like landscape comprising rocky terrains, scarcity of water and extreme weather conditions.
Badlands National Park is nearly 1,000 square miles of deeply eroded knolls, berms, spires, cathedrals, and pinnacles set in the landscape of the largest protected prairie in the United States.
The Park is divided into three areas: the North Unit, surrounded by the Buffalo Gap Grassland and the two southern areas, the Stronghold Unit and the Palmer Creek Unit, both within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where the Sioux Oglala Indians live.
The great northern ridge, called The Wall, about 100 miles (160 km) long, is the real scenic structure of the Park, its backbone. The Wall is virtually impossible to see from the prairie to the north, but it rises from the lower level of the eroded lands like a prehistoric city skyline.
The prairies north of The Wall, eroded by tributaries of the Cheyenne River are about 60 feet higher than the lower lands and prairie to the south, which in turn is eroded by tributaries of the White River. But there are also intermediate flats and hills, ravines, valleys, and small canyons.
The combined action of water and wind on sedimentary clay deposits over millions of years has created the distinctive and scenic landscape of the Badlands, and the various formations are delicately layered in bands colored according to the nature of the inclusions in the deposits: white (volcanic ash), orange and rust (iron oxides), bluish, gray-green and brownish (mixtures of scilt, clays and ash), purple (manganese oxide).
The Badlands proper are devoid of vegetation, except for a few sporadic grasses or small shrubs, but certainly not devoid of animal life. The surrounding prairies are very rich in fauna.
The prairie around the Park is the most extensive in the entire United States. It contains 60 different types of grasses, which mix with 410 other plant species to form a very complex ecosystem, which provides food and water to the mammals, birds, reptiles and insects that live there.
Badlands National Park
The Park is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year-round, while Visitor Centers are seasonal and some unpaved roads may be closed due to poor weather conditions.
Park rangers suggest spending at least two days there to fully enjoy it, and they also recommend being inside during the dawn and dusk hours, when the scenic aspect is most spectacular.
The Sage Creek Wilderness Area is the favorite site for animal sightings: among the possible photographic preys we can mention the American bison, the Rocky Mountain sheep, the American antelocapra, the prairie dogs, the very rare black-footed ferret, which has found here an escape from extinction – the eagles and other birds of prey.
Among the most common reptiles are the painted marsh tortoise (in the waterways), the rattlesnake – the only poisonous one inside the Park – the bullsnake (similar in color to the rattlesnake, but not poisonous), the black coluber and the plains garter snake.
The most common amphibians near the waterways are the tiger salamander, plains toad, Woodhouse’s toad, and leopard frog.
In the Park, which is located along one of the North American migratory routes, as many as 215 species of birds have been sighted, including common, seasonal and rare. We mention the most common among the resident and seasonal: herons, ice goose, vultures, eagles, various species of hawks, cranes, sandpipers, pigeons and turtledoves, cuckoos, owls of various species, American nightjar, hummingbirds, kingfishers, red-cockaded woodpeckers, swallows, crows and crows, magpies, wrens, nightingales, starlings, orioles, various finches, and blackbirds.
Along the Badlands Loop Road there are very beautiful and well marked trails, suitable for everyone, but the ‘off trail’ walking is also fascinating; but those who venture deep into the Park should always carry a supply of water and rely on a modern GPS, perhaps installed on their cell phone. Depending on the season, the Badlands can be either very cold or quite warm.
Also interesting is the Geology Walk, which explores the geological history of the region and also leads to the Paleontological Laboratory, whose staff cleans and prepares the fossils found in the Park.
Not surprisingly, a little girl found a saber-toothed feline during her visit a few years ago; in any case, as you know, predators were much rarer than prey even millions of years ago.
At night, the absolute lack of pollution and the dry days favor the observation of the vault of heaven and the stars are of unusual brilliance.
Badlands National Park is located in southwestern South Dakota, about 75 miles (120 km) east of Rapid City, a town with a Regional Airport, where it is possible to rent a car. The Denver Intentional Airport is a little more than 700 km (440 miles) away, while the Yellowstone National Park is about 860 km (530 miles) to the west.
Not far from Badlands National Park is also Mount Rushmore National Monument, where the faces of four famous U.S. Presidents are carved. Also enchanting is the entire Black Hills region – once in the news for a frenzied gold rush – rich in wildlife and with mountains, rivers, lakes, peaks and granite spires. A week’s vacation devoted to the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore and the Badlands is highly recommended.
To reach the Park from Rapid City, take Interstate 90 (I-90) east to exit 110 at Wall. Wall, in addition to providing food and lodging, is the gateway to the Pinnacles Entrance going south. The Park has two other entrances: one is accessible from Exit 131 (direction Interior), east of Wall, called Northeast Entrance; the other gateway, the White River Visitor Center (the Visitor Center is open seasonally), is for those coming from the south, from the well-known location of Wounded Knee.
The most convenient way to visit the park is State Route 240, known as the Badlands Loop Road, which runs through the entire northern section and is full of incredible photographic viewpoints and also offers very interesting and spectacular trails among the colorful spires and picnic areas. The Ben Reifel Visitor Center, home of Park Headquarters, is located not far from the small community of Interior.
Breathtaking views of the Buffalo Gap Prairie and the Badlands can also be enjoyed from the not-to-be-missed Sage Creek Road (State Highway 590), which crosses the creek of the same name. Along 590 it’s not hard to spot bison and you can visit a town inhabited solely by prairie dogs, Prairie Dog Town. The road is unpaved but consistently well-traveled; however, it is not recommended to travel it during days of heavy rain.
The Badlands Wilderness Area, located just below the Sage Creek Road, has an area of about 260 square kilometers and the Black-footed Ferret, America’s most endangered land mammal, has just been introduced there.
A little south of Scenic, on highway 589/27, you can take the Sheep Mountain Table Road on the right, from which you can enjoy fabulous sunsets, but which is passable only by tall vehicles or 4 wheel drive vehicles and becomes impassable in rainy weather. South of Scenic is the southern section of the Park, with the Stronghold Unit and the Palmer Creek Unit, which are part of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, co-managed by the U.S. Government and the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
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