Badlands National Park: Hidden Gems & Must-Sees from Park Ranger Ed Welsh

by Jon D. B.

Discover the hidden gems and must-sees of South Dakota’s unmissable Badlands National Park straight from park ranger Ed Welsh.

A paleontologist by trade and park ranger for Badlands, Ed Welsh is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to one of the most geologically rich places on Earth. It’s the perfect national park for a man of his background to call home, and Ed holds the personable, contagious passion to match this sentiment.

Last week, I sat down to chat with Ed from across the continent via a fantastic phone interview. Everything from Badland’s utterly insane fossil record to the highlights of park geology and wildlife came up. But if there’s one thing Outsiders will benefit from most from our chat, it’s Ranger Ed’s excellent hidden gems and “can’t miss” sights of The Badlands.

Badlands Hidden Gem: Pull-off Viewpoints Between Yellow Mounds and Ancient Hunters Overlooks

“There’s lots of things not to miss here,” Ranger Ed begins of his incredible park. “As far as views go, I have a favorite view that’s between Yellow Mounds Overlook and Ancient Hunters Overlook as you’re driving west on the loop road. But if you’re driving from Ancient Hunters going down hill, there’s some big shoulder pull-offs once you get into the northern part of Yellow Mounds,” he pinpoints.

There, you’ll see geology and colors intertwining like nowhere else on the planet.

Badlands is an open-hike park, so feel free to explore the features of this overlook and others. (Photo credit: NPS Photo / Serena Rosales)

“What’s neat about this area is that it’s the only place in Badlands National Park where all of the layers are exposed,” Welsh reveals. “So you can see everything from the Badlands formations up above to the Yellow Mounds below.”

Fascinatingly, Welsh’s favorite view allows visitors to see the entirety of Badlands’ geological history. “The entire record is exposed and in view at those pull-offs,” he says.

This includes an incredible look at the Cretaceous formations from the old Western Interior Seaway, Ed adds, before noting that these side-of-the-road viewpoints are not marked on any of the Badlands maps or website. A perfect hidden gem if there ever was one.

“But as long as you drive through the loop, you are going to see these views. And the pull-offs are there for you to use at all times. We want people to use them!” Ed laughs.

Badlands National Park’s Must-See: Sheep Mountain Table

And then there’s the breathtaking Sheep Mountain Table Outlook.

“Sheep Mountain Table is a known outlook point in our south unit. When people are out there, they get a unique view of where the first European explorers came across the Badlands. When they saw this incredible geographical landscape for the first time, they kind of gave us our name. The Big Badlands, they called it,” Welsh offers of his main “must-see.”

Sheep Mountain Table is named for the park’s bighorn sheep. (Photo credit: NPS Photo / Serena Rosales)

When visitors look out from the table, Welsh says they’re seeing “the first area these explorers really paid attention to. The first sketches made of the Badlands were of this very location. So when they talked about the Badlands, this is the exact area they were referring to,” he adds.

‘One of these things blew up and sent ash all the way here to South Dakota’

“The other thing that’s neat about Sheep Mountain Table is, on the south side, near the top and just below the tree line, there is a white layer of volcanic ash called the Rockyford. And it probably came from a giant caldera* in the Great Basin area between Nevada and Utah,” Welsh explains. As a reminder, Badlands National Park is in South Dakota; 1,000 miles away from the Nevada-Utah border.

*A caldera is the large depression that forms after a volcano erupts then collapses.

These rocks were deposited millions of years ago when rivers and wind spread sediments. (Photo credit: NPS Photo / Serena Rosales)

“Some of the calderas there would’ve been five or six times the size of Yellowstone,” Welsh continues of the utterly massive volcanic formations. “So one of these things blew up and sent ash all the way here to South Dakota. It settled, and where it did is the end of the Badlands.”

This Rockyford ash marks the beginning of a “new sequence of rock,” Welsh explains, which gives many of the park’s formations one of their most prominent, signature stripes.

Don’t Miss the Fossil Preparation Lab, Either

And no one should leave Badlands National Park without visiting the Fossil Preparation Lab, Ranger Ed adds. He may be biased as a paleontologist, but as a fellow fossil nut, his description of the prep lab – which is completely open to the public – sounds like paradise.

After lab staff has finished a fossil, they make a “cradle” where it can sit safely in park collections. (Photo credit: NPS Photo)

“Our Fossil Preparation Lab is in the visitor’s center. In the summer, we have fossils that come in from the field. They need work done before we can study them, or before they can go on display,” Welsh explains.

Normally, this sort of behind-the-scenes work is exactly that, behind the scenes. “In a lot of museums, you have prep labs that are more of a fishbowl environment; there’s a window between you and the room. And you might have someone there to talk to you about what’s actually going on in the lab. But here, the public is allowed to go into our prep labs and go to every workstation,” Ed offers.

“You can see, personally, every fossil that is being worked on and learn what you can about it right then and there. Often, when it’s a new specimen, we’re learning at the same time you are, too. I think that’s one of the most exciting things here. In my unbiased opinion, of course,” Ed laughs.

Plan Your Badlands National Park Excursion

We’ll be back with a lot more from Badlands National Park Ranger Ed Welsh soon for our National Parks Journal. For more on the South Dakota national park, see Outsider’s extensive guides next: