Badlands National Park is a United States National Park that is located in southwestern South Dakota. This park is marked by rugged terrain and formations that resemble a science fiction landscape of another world. These rock formations take on the shapes of domes, twisted canyons and slanted walls, often striped in different colors. The formations contrast sharply with the rolling hills and prairies in which they stand.
In addition to the rock formations, the park contains the largest, protected mixed grass prairie in the United States. The most endangered land mammal in North America, the black footed ferret, was re-introduced to the 64,000-acres Badlands Wilderness Area. The park also contains the world's richest fossil beds from the Oligocene epoch, dating back around 20-35 million years.
During the youth of the Rocky Mountains, about 60 million years ago, large number of streams carried eroded soil, rock and other materials eastward from the range. These materials were deposited on the vast lowlands which are today called the Great Plains. Dense vegetation grew in these lowlands, then fell into swamps, and was later buried by new layers of sediments. Millions of years later, this plant material turned into lignite coal. Some of the plant life became petrified, and we can find large amounts of exposed petrified wood in the badlands. While sediments continued to be deposited, more streams cut down through the soft rock layers, carving the variety of mesas, buttes, rock formations, pinnacles, spires and valleys are the features of the badlands seen today.
For eleven thousand years humans used the area for hunting. They hunted bison, rabbits, and other animals.
Fossils hunters arrived after the 1840s. Trappers traveling from Fort Pierre to Fort Laramie collected fossils. One fossil ended up being described in the American Journal of Science. Within decades new species were being discovered.
Homesteaders arrived at the end of the 19th century and the US government removed the natives from their land. This culminated in the massacre at Wounded Knee, which is approximately 45 miles south of the park in the Pine Ridge Reservation.
The Dust Bowl of the 1930s prompted many homesteaders to move elsewhere. Some who stayed are still there today.
The United States Air Force took possession of more than 340,000 acres of the Pine Ridge Reservation and about 340 acres of what was then Badlands National Monument and used it extensively between 1942 and 1945 as a gunnery range. This is now the Stronghold unit of the park and is co-managed with the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Unexploded ordnance remains in the area.
Flora and fauna
While the badlands terrain may appear to be barren, there is a great variety of wildlife and plant life here. The minimal annual precipitation feeds the grasses and wildflowers of the badlands. The brilliant colors of the blooms add to the palette of grays, browns, reds, ochres and greens of the land. The wildlife includes nearly two hundred species of birds, (mule and white tail) deer, prairie dogs, pronghorn, big horn sheep, and bison. Other mammals in the park include bats, rabbits, and coyotes. The park has reintroduced the black footed ferret, the most endangered land mammal in North America, to the Sage Creek Wilderness area. Reptiles and amphibians include frogs, toads, and snakes.
Non-native species of plants
Dozens of non-native species of plants have been brought by settlers through deliberate or accidental means. The park is actively working to remove the non-native plants and restore the prairie to its original condition.
The park is windy. Summers are hot and winters are cold.
Winter begins in November, although blizzards in late October may occur. High temperatures around 40°F (4.4°C) with lows below 0°F (-18°C) and high winds creating much lower windchill. Snow is likely and blizzards are possible.
March is difficult. Temperatures may fluctuate dramatically within a few hours. Blizzards are still possible, and so is 60°F (15.5°C) weather.
Spring begins in April. With snow melting and April rains, the park is very wet. The unpaved roads can be difficult or impossible to pass and trails may be slippery and unpleasant. Temperatures at night is typically below freezing. The park receives most of its rain between April and June. Showers may be brief or last for days.
July is hot and dry. Daytime temperatures can surpass 90°F (32°C).
August is the hottest when temperatures can break 100°F (38°C). Evenings are about 75°F (24°C).
In September the temperatures begin to cool off in the second half of the month.
October is much cooler although a few days may break 80°F (27°C).
The badlands are formed by water and wind erosion, losing about an inch (2.54 centimeters) a year. About five millions years ago the land uplifted and triggered the erosion processes that created the badlands.
The fossils found in the park date from The Age of Mammals, including ancestors of the modern day rhinoceros, horse, dog, and others. Fossilized sea shells and turtle shells have also been found in the park. There are no dinosaur fossils in the park.
Approximately 30 million years ago the area was warmer and lush. Many mammals roamed the area and died in floods and quickly buried in sediment, providing an abundance of vertebrate fossils.
Digging and/or moving fossils or artifacts from their locations in the ground is prohibited by Federal law. Offenders are subject to heavy fines and possibly jail.
The park's goal of maintaining the prairie ecosystem requires using fire. Park visitors, however, should not start any fires anywhere in the park.
The park is about 50 miles southeast of Rapid City on South Dakota State Route 44.
Greyhound serves Rapid City.
Fees and permits
Entrance Fees as of 2020 are:
- $15 Individual (Hiking, Bicycling, etc.)
- $25 Motorcycle
- $30 Private Vehicle
- $50 Commercial Van, 7 to 15 passenger capacity
- $60 Commercial Minibus, 16 to 25 passenger capacity
- $150 Commercial Motorcoach, 26 or more passenger capacity
Members of the Oglala Sioux tribe can buy the 7-day pass at half price.
There are several passes for groups traveling together in a private vehicle or individuals on foot/bike that provide free entry to Badlands National Park and all national parks, as well as some national monuments, national wildlife refuges, and national forests:
- The $80 Annual Pass (valid for twelve months from date of issue) can be purchased by anyone. Military personnel can obtain a free pass by showing a Common Access Card (CAC) or Military ID.
- The $80 Senior Pass (valid for the life of the holder) is available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents age 62 or over. Applicants must provide documentation of citizenship and age. This pass also provides a fifty percent discount on some park amenities. Seniors can also obtain a $20 annual pass.
- The free Access Pass (valid for the life of the holder) is available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities. Applicants must provide documentation of citizenship and permanent disability. This pass also provides a fifty percent discount on some park amenities.
- The free Volunteer Pass is available to individuals who have volunteered 250 or more hours with federal agencies that participate in the Interagency Pass Program.
- The free Annual 4th Grade Pass (valid for September-August of the 4th grade school year) allows entry to the bearer and any accompanying passengers in a private non-commercial vehicle. Registration at the Every Kid Outdoors website is required.
The National Park Service offers free admission to all national parks on five days every year:
- Martin Luther King Jr. Day (third Monday in January); next observance is January 18, 2021
- The first day of National Park Week (third Saturday in April); next observance is April 17, 2021
- The National Park Service Birthday (August 25)
- National Public Lands Day (fourth Saturday in September); next observance is September 25, 2021
- Veterans Day (November 11)
Commercial Vehicles should contact (605) 433-5361 for rates.
Dogs and other pets are allowed in the park but only in developed areas such as campgrounds, parking lots, and along the roads. Leashes are required and must not be longer than 6 feet (1.8 meters). Pets are not allowed on the hiking trails. Dogs and other pets are not allowed in the Badlands Wilderness Area.
The Badlands Loop Road is the main road and the only paved road in the park. The speed limit is 45 miles per hour (72 km per hour) unless otherwise posted. Seat belts are required at all times. Do not pull off the road onto the grass but do pull off to allow traffic to pass; however, only pull off where there is sufficient space for your vehicle. Pedestrians have right of way.
Bicycles are allowed only on designated roads (paved, gravel, and dirt) within the park. Off road bicycling, bicycling in the backcountry, or bicycling on hiking trails is prohibited. Bicycle racks are located at the Cedar Pass Lodge and some trailheads. Remember to carry enough water and wear appropriate clothing and sun protection. Be sure to check road conditions, especially gravel and dirt roads. Be alert when riding on all roads.
A part of the Sage Creek Campground is designated for horses. However, no water is suitable for human consumption and horses unaccustomed to badlands water likely will not drink. Bring one gallon per person per day of water and five gallons per horse per day. Feed must be pellets or weed free hay; contact park staff for details. Hitching posts available and horses are not allowed to run free. Picket pins should be moved frequently to prevent overgrazing. Maximum stay is fourteen nights. There are no horse trails.
- Ben Reifel Visitor Center, Badlands Loop Road (HWY 240) (9 miles South of I-90 from exit 131), ☏ . Open June 5- August 20, 7AM-7PM; August 21-September 17, 8AM-6PM; September 18- October 14, 8AM-5PM; October 15- April 2007, 9AM-4PM. The center reopened in 2006 after extensive renovations and improvements. The Badlands Natural History Association operates a small shop with educational materials for sale. The center is open year round and bus and RV parking is available.
- White River Visitor Center, SD HWY 27 (roughly 20 miles south of Scenic in the Pine Ridge Reservation), ☏ . Open 8AM-7PM in the summer season only. Available at the center are an information desk, movie, exhibits, restrooms, picnic areas, and water. The Center also has information about the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, on which the White River Visitor Center is located.
The Badlands Loop Road offers many overlooks with parking lots. Restroom facilities are located at a few overlooks.
A small overlook of the Red Shirt Table is located south of the village Red Shirt on the Pine Ridge Reservation on Highway BIA 41. This is approximately 30 miles outside of Hermosa, and provides a great view and hike for those who wish to see the Stronghold Unit of the Badlands, which may be ideal for those staying in the Black Hills or Custer State Park who may not be able to travel through the official loop.
Always carry water. Keep your distance from wildlife, especially bison. If your presence causes a change in behavior, then you are too close.
Refer to the Stay Safe section for more details about exploring the park.
Digging and/or moving fossils or artifacts from their locations in the ground is prohibited by Federal law. Offenders are subject to heavy fines and possibly jail. If you find some fossils or artifacts, note all details, and then stop by the Cedar Pass Contact Station and make a report.
- Medicine Loop Trail.. Moderate 4 miles (2.5 km). Here the mixed grass prairie combines with long distance views of the Badlands. Be on the look out for prickly pear cacti.
- Castle Trail.. Moderate 10 miles (16 km) round trip. This is the longest trail in the park. The trail is mostly level and winds through some formations. The Medicine Root Trail makes a loop within the Castle Trail from any connecting trailhead.
- Cliff Shelf Nature Trail.. Moderate 0.5 mile (0.8 km) loop. This trail provides spectacular views of the White River Valley. It includes some boardwalk and stairs and climbs approximately 200 feet (61 meters). The parking lot cannot accommodate long vehicles or vehicles towing trailers.
- Door Trail.. Easy 0.75 mile (1.2 km) round trip. This trail is accessible. This trail focuses on geology. The trail goes through a break in the Badlands Wall called "The Door". The first 150 yards (137 meters) is boardwalk.
- Fossil Exhibit Trail.. Easy 0.25 mile (0.4 km) loop. This trail is fully accessible. The trail includes exhibits of now extinct creatures that once roamed the area. During the summer, presentations by park naturalists are offered.
- Notch Trail.. Moderate to strenuous 1.5 miles (2.4 km) round trip. This trail is not recommended for those with a fear of heights. This trail provides a wonderful view of the White River Valley and Pine Ridge Reservation. The trail, however, can be very dangerous just after rains, especially heavy rains. Sturdy hiking boots and plenty of sun protection (hat, sunscreen, sunglasses) are recommended.
- Saddle Pass Trail.. Strenuous 0.2 miles (0.4 km) and very steep, it connects Castle Trail and Medicine Root Loop to the Badlands Loop Road. The trail is impassable after rain.
- Window Trail.. Easy 0.25 miles (0.4 km) round trip. This trail is accessible to athletic wheelchair users or with assistance. This trail goes to a natural "window" in the Badlands Wall.
Picnic tables are located near the Cedar Pass Campground. There are also picnic areas at the Journey Overlook and on Conata Road. As usual, no water is available and fires are strictly prohibited.
Located in the Cedar Pass Campground near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. In the summer moths, park rangers give a 40-minute presentation on an aspect of the park.
- Cedar Pass Lodge Gift Store. Offers a variety of handmade gifts and crafts, apparel, and sourvenirs. Convenience food and snack items are also available.
- Cedar Pass Lodge Restaurant. Open daily from mid April to mid October—Summer Season Hours: 7AM-8:30PM; Fall Season Hours: 8AM- 4:30PM. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Enjoy a view from your table of the badlands. The restaurant is AAA approved and buses are welcome.
Water is available at the visitor centers and in the campground April 15 - October 15, weather dependent.
- Cedar Pass Lodge, ☏ . Mid-April through mid-October. The only overnight lodging within Badlands NP. Reservations can be made in advance and are recommended. New cabins replaced all old cabins in 2013. The 26 cabin units are Eco friendly and are equipped with custom, regionally made pine furniture, Energy Star refrigerator, microwave, coffee maker, on demand hot water, flat screen TV, ceiling fan, and AC/heat. The bedding is upgraded and comfortable and the towels are made from bamboo, a renewable resource. The Lodge encourages environmental practices including local/ regional purchasing, recycling, and organic and sustainable programs for their operations.
There are two campgrounds within the Badlands NP.
- Cedar Pass Campground (near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center). The Cedar Pass Campground has 96 level sites with scenic views of the badlands formations. This campground offers flush toilets and coin operated showers in the summertime. $23 Tent, $38 RV Sites, $40 Group Campsites (2020 rates).
- Sage Creek Campground (located off of South Dakota State Highway 377). Sage Creek Campground is a free primitive campground, and all sites are first-come, first-served. Pit toilets. The campground rarely fills to capacity. Free.
Backpackers can camp anywhere in the park that is at least one half mile from the road. Open fires are not permitted within the park. All backpackers are urged to stop at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, to better plan your trip and to alert the Park Service rangers to your presence.
- Weather. Badlands NP visitors must come prepared for the weather. Temperatures can exceed 100°F (38°C) in the summer, while winter temperatures can dip below 0°F (-18°C). Temperatures fluctuate through the day, sometimes widely. Thunderstorms and blizzards can come up suddenly.
- Exposure. Carry plenty of water (1 gallon per person per day), a hat, appropriate sunscreen, and sunglasses. Also consider that the park can be very windy.
- Wildlife. The animals in the park are less of a threat to visitors who pay them the proper respect. However, ending up on the wrong end of a bison can mean a hospital stay or death for the park visitor. Visitors should also be wary of the poisonous (but seldom deadly) prairie rattlesnakes, a subspecies of the rattlesnake.
- Prickly pear cactus. These small cacti hide in the prairie grass. Wear shoes with thick soles and watch you step. If their flowers are blooming, they are easier to spot.
- Water. There is no potable water in the park except at the visitor centers. Boiling, filtering, or treating with chemicals does not make the water drinkable.
- Getting lost. The vast areas of the park off the established trails or out of the designated areas can become very confusing. Good map reading and land navigation skills required.
- Unexploded ordnance. The Stronghold unit has any number of unexploded bombs and shells left over from the 1940s when the United States Air Force used the land as a gunnery range. When exploring the area keep an eye out. Do not touch any unexploded ordnance. Note the location and notify park rangers as soon as possible.
Nearby towns include:
- Interior is located 2 miles west of the park on Highway 44. Services and facilities include a post office, grocery store, gas stations, and auto service year round.
- Wall is 30 miles northwest of park headquarters using the Badlands Loop Road or exit 110 on I-90. Motels, banking, pharmacy, medical clinic, gas, restaurants, and most services are available. The famous Wall Drug store is located here as well.
- Rapid City is located 75 miles west of the park headquarters.
Nearby monuments and parks in South Dakota include:
- The Crazy Horse Memorial. A massive sculpture that is still being built on the side of a mountain to honor a famous Native chief.
- Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The faces of four famous American presidents carved into the side of a mountain.
- Custer State Park. Home to a large herd of bison as well as other wildlife. Scenic drives.
- Jewel Cave National Monument. Jewel Cave is the second longest known cave in the world.
- Wind Cave National Park.
- Black Hills National Forest.
- Mammoth Site, 1800 West Hwy 18 Bypass, Hot Springs, ☏ . Open year round, times vary with season. Closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year's Day and Easter Sunday.. The world's largest mammoth research facility in Hot Springs (South Dakota). Ages 4 and Under: Free; Ages 5 to 12: $5.50; Ages 13 to 59: $7.50; Ages 60 and over: $7.00.
- Bear Country USA, 13820 South Hwy 16, Rapid City, SD, ☏ , fax: . May–November, daily. June–August 8AM-7PM, otherwise 9AM-4PM.. The world's largest collection of reptiles, as well as some othe animals with educational and entertaining demonstrations of snakes, crocodiles, and others. Ages under 4: Free; Ages 5 to 12: $10; Ages 13 to 61 : $16; Ages 62+: $13; Maximum/Vehicle: $60; Season Pass: $150.
- Reptile Gardens, 8955 South Hwy 16, Rapid City, SD, toll-free: , ✉ email@example.com. The world's largest collection of reptiles, as well as some othe animals with educational and entertaining demonstrations of snakes, crocodiles, and others.
Driving west into Wyoming, sites include:
- Devils Tower National Monument. America's first national monument, this massive volcanic core was featured in the movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind".
- Yellowstone National Park. America's first national park.
- Grand Teton National Park. Home to massive and craggy mountains.