South Dakota’s Badlands National Park has one of the most complicated and fascinating legacies of any American landmark.
In this 244,000 acre stretch of geological insanity, humans and wildlife alike have struggled to etch out an existence for eons. The rich fossil record is not only a strong indicator of this, but a big draw for visitors, too.
Now, hundreds of thousands flock to the Badlands yearly to witness its splendor, despite that unwelcoming name (which we’ll get into below). And if one thing remains certain through the centuries, it’s that the vast landscape Badlands National Park protects is like no other place in America.
10. Badlands National Park is a Great Place to See Bison
Have a hankering to see America’s national mammal – and one of the most impressive beasts alive today – in the wild? We all think of Yellowstone National Park when it comes to bison, but Badlands National Park is also home to a native population.
Today, around 1,200 bison roam the Badlands, feasting on the tall grasses of the prairies. But like all their kind, those we see today are the product of careful conservation after the species was nearly wiped out entirely.
By the 1900s, European settlers had wiped North American bison down from the millions to a singe thousand. The century became about bison conservation as a result, and 50 bison were introduced to Badlands National Park in the 1960s to restore them to this native land.
20 more were added in the 1980s, and the National Park Service‘s conservation efforts continue alongside Indigenous Tribes and other agencies to this day.
9. This is a Far Away Land
Heading to the Badlands soon? Good! It’s a fantastic destination. If you envision this excursion as a road trip, however, you’ll be far better for it. Some U.S. national parks are doable without a vehicle, but Badlands is absolutely one you’ll want to be able to drive.
For starters, Badlands National Park is a long way from any major airport. A long way. The park is also hailed as one of the best scenic drives in the country as a result, so it’s worth the effort (as we’ll get into next on our list).
Before you make the effort to get out here, it’s best to have lodging locked down. That can be as simple as reserving a spot in the park’s front country campgrounds, or staying at Cedar Pass Lodge in all seasons outside winter. And while you’re at it, add these destinations to your road trip:
- Mount Rushmore
- Wind Cave National Park
- Lacreek National Wildlife Refuge
- Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
- Jewel Cave National Monument
Each are less than two hours from the Badlands. Welcome to a road-tripper’s paradise.
8. Badlands National Park is Perfect for Scenic Drives
Ready to tackle the Badlands by vehicle? Badlands Loop Road will be the crown jewel of your road trip. The park is perfect for scenic driving, and this 39 mile scenic byway in the north unit of the park is truly spectacular.
Here, you’ll be surrounded by ancient, colorful and picturesque cliffs alongside wild geological formations. The park also has sixteen scenic overlooks designated along the route, so you’ll have plenty of places to stop for photo-ops, walks, and take-it-all-in moments.
Badlands Loop Road also gives access to the park’s developed trails and headquarters, Ben Reifel Visitor Center, a great hub for your road trip.
7. From Sea to Subtropical Forest to Savannah to Badlands
It’s impossible not to appreciate the geology of Badlands National Park once you’re surrounded by it. And it becomes even more impressive when you know this place took tens of millions of years to form after it was no longer part of the ocean.
That’s right, all of the Badlands were once under salt water. And as our continents formed, the oceans eventually left this region. Over the eons, the landscape would then change drastically from a sea to subtropical forest to an open savanna and the Badlands we know today.
As it changed, the waters flowing down from the nearby Black Hills eroded the geology. All of the incredible canyons, valleys, spiers, and formations we see today are a result of this erosion. And one day (possibly half-a-million-years from now), the Badlands will have eroded away completely.
6. Prairie Dogs Rule the Badlands
As impressive as the park’s bison are, they’re not the mammals ruling this landscape. Ask any Badlands park ranger and they’ll tell you: it’s a Black-tailed prairie dogs’ world – we’re just visiting it.
These charismatic burrowing rodents once populated the entirety of America, but the Badlands remain one of their last strongholds. And these highly social fuzzballs make the best of it by continuing an ancient tradition: the building of large colonies, or towns, across the Badland.
Prairie dog towns are made up of anywhere from 10 to 30 families that all interact by digging together, grooming one another, and “kissing.” And if you’ve got to see this for yourself (which you absolutely should), the park recommends Roberts Prairie Dog Town off of Sage Creek Road.
But please remember to Leave No Trace, and never approach a wild animal or their habitat. The last thing you’d want to do is damage a prairie dog town!
5. Dark Skies Led to the Badlands Astronomy Festival
Whenever there’s an opportunity to experience Dark Skies in a national park, we’re absolutely going to let you know about it. One of the best perks of Badlands’ remote nature is its designation as a Dark Sky park. Here, you can see the Milky Way, galaxies, nebulae, our fellow planets, and over 7,500 stars.
On the regular, you can join park rangers at the Cedar Pass Campground Amphitheater each evening (between Memorial Day and Labor Day) to take in the spectacular views of the night sky. The park even provides telescopes for visitors to use!
And all this Dark Sky love led to the creation of the park’s Badlands Astronomy Festival held annually each July. This fantastic festival brings together scientists, educators and astronomy-enthusiasts of all ages to share their love of all things space.
4. Why Call This Wonderland a ‘Bad’ Name?
If you’ve explored the park, then you definitely understand. But if you’re looking forward to a first excursion into the Badlands, you’re no doubt curious why this amazing place is known by such a foreboding name. Naming a place “The Badlands” certainly isn’t the best way to entice visitors.
But history, as always, helps shed light on this moniker. For hundreds of years before any European settler came to North America, the Indigenous Lakota People called this area mako sica. And the closest translation we have in English for this is, you guessed it: bad lands.
The Lakota weren’t alone in this assessment, either. As Europeans began traveling what is now the national park, they gave similar names. Early French fur trappers called the area les mauvaises terres a traveser, which translates to “bad lands to travel across.”
And they’re all right. As gorgeous as this place is to visit, it can be hell to live in. Rain transforms the Badlands into a sticky, slick, clay-filled nightmare to traverse. The geology is sharp and unforgiving to the touch. Winters are not only frigid here, but also harshly windy. Summers beat down with intense, dry heat and sun. And if that wasn’t all enough, water is scarce – and when it is found, it is muddy and not at all safe for most animals (including us humans) to drink.
3. The Badlands’ Indigenous American Legacy
As magnificent as this park is to visit today, it is only possible to do so because the U.S. Government displaced the Indigenous Peoples that called it home for time immemorial. It’s a harsh reality, but one that helps visitors respect the Indigenous American legacy that is still very much alive today – and not just a figment of the past.
Specifically, the Lakota people – members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe – have called the Badlands region home for as long as peoples have had names. Some of the most famous Native American leaders of American history – Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, and more – came from the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
When you visit today, Badlands National Park’s southern unit (including the White River Visitor Center)is on Pine Ridge Reservation. The National Park Service manages this portion of the park in cooperation with the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
If you’d like to learn more about the Indigenous People of this area, the best way is always to go to the source. The Lakota People hold celebrations the public can attend on certain days of the year. Or, for park education, the White River Visitor Center has exhibits on the past and present of the Lakota and their culture.
2. ‘The Greatest Land Deal in American History’
As far as the legacy of America is concerned, there’s no land deal more prominent than the Louisiana Purchase. Called “The greatest land deal in American history,” or more aptly, “the greatest real estate deal in history,” the LP was secured in 1803 when the United States paid France $15 million for the Louisiana Territory.
This gained the United States an astounding 828,000 square miles of land, allowing for vast expansion west of the Mississippi River. In total, 13 states were carved from the Louisiana Territory, including nearly all of what is now South Dakota, the Badlands’ home state. This would double the size of the then-United States, and we have this land deal to thank for many of the national parks we cherish today.
1. Founding of Badlands National Park was Wildly Complicated
You could write an incredibly complex book on the founding of Badlands National Park. It’s an impossible task to condense this landmark’s history into a few paragraphs. It’s easy enough to point out, however, that Public Law No. 1021 authorized the creation of Badlands National Monument on March 4, 1929.
The signing of the act by then-President Calvin Coolidge came on the very last day of his term as U.S. President. But it would be a long time before the national monument became a national park; something the U.S. Government opposed for nearly a century. The time finally came in 1978, and the monument was re-designated as Badlands National Park to preserve the natural scenery and educational resources within its boundaries.
Want to learn more ahead of your Badlands excursion? See our Badlands National Park in South Dakota: Everything You Need to Know to Plan Your Trip next.