Created first by layers of sediment and volcanic material deposited over millions of years, then followed by thousands of years of erosion, Badlands National Park is filled with sharply formed buttes, pinnacles and spires rising from South Dakota’s mixed-grass prairie. The Lakota Indians were the first to call this mako sica (bad lands), but they surely couldn’t have been referring to the striking scenery— the topography is amazing!
This 244,000-acre national park on the edge of the Great Plains consists of two units: the North Unit (park land north of Highway 44) and the South Unit (park land south of Highway 44). Most people visit the North Unit, stopping first at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center for maps and to watch the award-winning film Land of Stone and Light. The South Unit is a protected natural area, largely undeveloped. The Oglala-Lakota Tribe manages the Badlands South Unit, and staffs the White River Visitor Center. In fact, half of Badlands National Park is co-managed with the Oglala Lakota Nation, the eighth largest American Indian Reservation in the United States.
To experience the park’s great diversity of light, color, and texture (not to mention the panoramic views from designated overlooks), travel the twisty but paved 30-mile Loop Drive and also hike a trail or two. A camera and binoculars are handy for spotting over two hundred bird species, prairie dogs, and mule deer. Bighorn sheep and the black-footed ferret have also been successfully reintroduced in the park. A side trip down Sage Creek Rim Road will bring you to Robert’s Prairie Dog Town and even more spectacular views of the park.
If you had visited this area 30 million years ago, you would have seen mammals such as three-toed horses, giant pigs, oreodonts (sheep-like herd animals), camels, and saber-tooth cats. Because the land then was a mix of swamp and savannah, which are good conditions for preserving animal tracks, plants, and bones, one of the world’s richest fossil deposits is located inside the park. You can see recreations of these ancient mammals in the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.
A Night Sky Program is offered in the park Friday through Monday nights during the summer. Rangers will help you locate constellations, stars, and planets following a 40-minute multi-media presentation about the wonders of the beautiful night sky. You’ll also have the opportunity to peer through state-of-the-art telescopes!
Not too far away from Badlands National Park is the famous and kitschy Wall Drug. You can’t miss it or forget it— big signs advertising FREE ICE WATER appear periodically along Interstate 90 for hundreds of miles, reminding motorists to stop at the friendly drug store. Yes, this is a tourist trap, but an iconic one. Beginning in the 1930s, motorists have visited family-owned Wall Drug not only for free ice water, but also to have a bite to eat (these days, donuts are about a dollar but coffee is just a nickel). While you’re there, enjoy the memorabilia and western art, shop for souvenirs, and you can even pose for a picture with a jack-o-lope and an animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex!
Ben Reifel Visitor Center / Badlands National Park Headquarters
Phone (605) 433-5361
Badlands National Park is open 24 hours a day, seven days per week. $15 entrance fee per vehicle is valid for 7 days.
Cedar Pass Campground ($15 per night or $28 with electrical hook-ups) and the primitive Sage Creek Campground (not recommended for large RVs due to remote and unpaved roads) are both open year-round, and are available on a first-come, first-served basis. No reservations are required or accepted, but these campgrounds rarely fill to capacity. No open campfires permitted in the park.
In addition to writing about her travels, Denise Seith is also a treasure hunter and loves a good latté. She and her husband own an online gold prospecting and metal detecting equipment store found at GoldRushTradingPost.com