Badlands, South Dakota

Millions of years of geological evolution are on dramatic display in the Badlands of South Dakota. The rocks tell the stories. There are spires, craters, pinnacles, buttes, canyons and mounds. The formations are painted with bands of reds, oranges, grays, whites, yellows and purples. Badlands National Park will delight your senses at every turn.

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1 Mystical Badlands, South Dakota

Badlands National Park is a picturesque fingerprint of over 30 million years of geological evolution. The 380 square miles of protected grasslands – the largest in the United States – and the sensational natural amphitheaters are a must see when in western South Dakota. The best way to enjoy this unique experience is by driving on the Badlands Loop Road through the highlights of the North Unit. The 38 mile National Scenic Byway (SD 240) is reached by turning south off of Interstate 90 at either Exit 131 (for the NE Entrance) or Exit 110 at Wall (for the Pinnacles Entrance). You could make this spectacular drive in about one hour. No one does. You and your camera will stop at several of the 15 overlooks to photograph the incredible landscapes. So, reserve at least two to four hours. Badlands National Park is open 24 hours a day all year. Peak tourism season is during the summer.

Pinnacles Overlook, SD-240, Wall, SD 57790

2 Pinnacles Overlook in Badlands, South Dakota

Pinnacles Overlook is the first stop when starting at the west end of the Badlands Loop Road eight miles south of Wall, SD. There are two reasons for the overlook’s name. First, this is the highest point of your drive at 3,625 feet. The elevation provides a panorama of sweeping landscape below your feet. Second, rock formations like these resemble pinnacles of Gothic architecture. You will also admire a collage of striped ridges and ragged ravines spreading across the vast south and west areas of the Badlands Wilderness.

Pinnacles Overlook, SD-240, Wall, SD 57790

3 Ancient Hunters Overlook in Badlands, South Dakota

Your second stop is the Ancient Hunters Overlook. The name is a tribute to the long history of settlers who have made this beautiful yet barren area their home. Archeological evidence suggests people lived here over 10,000 years ago. Starting in about 1000 A.D., nomadic tribes of Native Americans hunted buffalo and other wild game. They were joined by European fur trappers and traders in the late 18th century. About a century later, homesteaders were granted 160 acre parcels. The land plots were later expanded to 640 acres.

Ancient Hunters Overlook, SD-240, Wall, SD 57790

4 Activities along Badlands Loop Road in Badlands, South Dakota

Most of the million-plus annual visitors experience the Badlands Loop Road from behind their windshield. When you need a break, consider having a bite to eat at either the Bigfoot Pass or Conata Picnic Areas. Both offer rudimentary toilet facilities. Adventurous souls have other options. Cycling is popular. The route west to east is mostly downhill. But there are no shuttle services along the way. So, determine in advance how to get back to your car. There are also eight hiking trails to consider. They range from easy to strenuous. Castle Trail is the longest at ten miles round trip. Finally, extend your adventure by camping at either Cedar Pass (96 sites) or Sage Creek (22 sites) Campsites. Need more information? Ask the experts at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center (east end of the North Unit) or the White River Visitor Center (in the South Unit).

Badlands Loop Road, SD-240, Wall, SD 57790

5 The Wall of Badlands, South Dakota

The spectacular spine of Badlands National Park is The Wall. This geological backbone is over 200 feet high, is as wide as three miles and stretches for 60 miles. The Wall is the demarcation between the Lower Prairie to the south and the Upper Prairie to the north. The prominent feature of this eroded escarpment is the colorful layers of sedimentary rocks. Like rings in a tree, they reflect millions of years of history. Wall, South Dakota, was named after this beautiful natural phenomenon when the town was incorporated in 1908.

Badlands Loop Road, SD-240, Wall, SD 57790

6 Geological History of Badlands, South Dakota

The South Dakota Badlands has a long history. About 75 million years ago, the land was underwater as part of the Western Interior Seaway. During the next 50 million years, the continent buckled several times. Each event led to an uplift until the sea was drained about 28 million years ago resulting in the Sharps Formation. Rivers then relentlessly carved the landscape. Volcanic activity produced layers of ash. During the last major uplift 4.5 million years ago, sediment from the nearby Black Hills flowed into the area. Each timeframe left behind layers of soil, rocks and fossils. This process is called deposition. About 500,000 years ago, the wind, rain, snow and sun began eroding this geological soup. Soft material disintegrated the fastest. Hard rock was more resistant. The results are what you admire today at the Badlands National Park. This spectacular scenery is work in progress. It erodes at the rate of one inch per year. Within another half million years, most of the rock formations will be gone.

Badlands Loop Road, SD-240, Wall, SD 57790

7 Sparse Vegetation in Badlands, South Dakota

The vegetation in Badlands National Park is sparse. The arid environment is only conducive to pockets of trees and grasses in shadowed areas plus along water flows as pictured here. The average rainfall is about 16 inches a year. Most of this occurs during quick spring thunderstorms. Now imagine this area covered by a sea nearly 80 million years ago. After it drained away, the climate became humid and tropical about 35 million years ago. The floodplain probably resembled the Florida Everglades. Since then, the climatic conditions have continued to get dryer resulting in today’s barren landscape.

Badlands Loop Road, SD-240, Wall, SD 57790

8 Origin of Name Badlands, South Dakota

You may be wondering why this park is named Badlands. There are several origins. The Native American tribe Lakota called this harsh terrain “mako sica” (land bad) because it was unsuitable for settlement and farming. French-Canadian fur trappers had a similar assessment. Their term was “les mauvaises terres pour traverser.” This means “bad lands to traverse.” Over time, the lowercase word badlands has become a geological term. It is reserved for vast areas displaying colorful cliffs, hills, rock formations, canyons and ravines resulting from deposition and erosion over millions of years. Other badlands in the United States are located in North Dakota, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming, Nebraska and California.

Badlands Loop Road, SD-240, Wall, SD 57790

9 Native Americans in Badlands, South Dakota

Native Americans hunted in the Badlands for over 11,000 years. The earliest Indigenous people were the Paleo-Indians. These hunter-gatherers were skilled at harvesting bison and mammoths. Next came the Arikara, a semi-nomadic tribe. In the late 18th century, the Teton Sioux or Lakota arrived. They were the dominant tribe by 1840. Their large presence sparked several conflicts with the U.S. Amy including the Great Sioux War in 1876. By 1877, the U.S. government forced the Sioux into reservations. Since 1976, the South Unit of Badlands National Park is Tribal Trust land to be used by the Oglala Sioux. The tribe’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwest South Dakota consists of almost 3.5 million acres.

Badlands Loop Road, SD-240, Wall, SD 57790

10 Yellow Mounds Overlook in Badlands, South Dakota

The most vibrant colors in Badlands National Park can be admired at the Yellow Mounds Overlook. Many of the rock formations resemble giant scoops of rainbow sherbet. These are the remnants of the Pierre Shale. The deposition formation dates back 75 million years. As the Western Interior Seaway drained away, the warm water left behind fossilized soil called a paleosol. The mustard color of the Yellow Mounds is attributed to a mineral named goethite. The iron oxyhydroxide is basically rust.

Yellow Mounds Overlook, SD-240, Wall, SD 57790

11 Wildlife in Badlands, South Dakota

Over 50 species of mammals live in the beautiful yet predominately desolate land of Badlands National Park. Among the smallest residents are jackrabbits, cottontails, foxes, badgers and black-tailed prairie dogs. The most cherished are the black-footed ferrets because they were considered extinct in 1980. Today, about 100 of these nocturnal critters live in the Badlands. Another success story is the bison. Once numbering in the millions, they disappeared early in the 20th century. During the 1960s, about 50 were reintroduced from North Dakota. The population now numbers over 300. You may also spot pronghorn antelopes grazing in the plains. If you spook them, you will be amazed how fast they run. Their top speed is 40-50 miles per hour. This herd of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep were basking in the sunshine.

Dillion Pass, SD-240, Wall, SD 57790

12 Juvenile Bighorn Sheep in Badlands, South Dakota

This juvenile bighorn sheep was resting comfortably next to mom near Dillion Pass. An adult female (ewe) Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep can exceed 200 pounds. An ewe’s lifespan is 10 to 14 years. A ram can top out at 500 pounds. The huge animal’s curved horns can weigh 30 pounds. Bighorn sheep were once plentiful in the Badlands before being overhunted. The animals were reintroduced to the park in 1964 and again in 2004. The population is now about 250. Bighorn sheep thrive here because they have no natural predators.

Dillion Pass, SD-240, Wall, SD 57790

13 Panorama Point in Badlands, South Dakota

You may not have time to stop at all 15 overlooks (plus several pull overs) along the Badlands Loop Road. If you need to prioritize, then make sure you add Panorama Point to your short list. As the name implies, the view is sweeping, vibrant and picturesque!

Panorama Point, SD-240, Wall, SD 57790

14 Former Lush Valley of Badlands, South Dakota

This is an extension of the incredible scenery displayed at Panorama Point. In the background is the White River Valley. The rugged, parched vista belies how it appeared during the Oligocene Epoch. 35 to 25 million years ago, this was a fairly flat and lush floodplain with rivers, lakes and swamps. The vegetation ranged from green grasses to shrubs and forests. The climate was subtropical. And this welcoming environment was populated with now extinct animals, big and small.

Panorama Point, SD-240, Wall, SD 57790

15 Best Time for Photography in Badlands, South Dakota

The Badlands are an amazing place for photos regardless if you are taking selfies on a cell phone or have sophisticated camera equipment. But amateur and professional photographers always want optimal lighting. So, when is the best time to capture the Badland landscapes? The answer is early morning or late afternoon, especially during the golden hour when the sun is lowest in the sky. The light’s red and orange hues will enhance the colors of these remarkable rock formations as exemplified by these at the White River Valley Overlook.

White River Valley Overlook, SD-240, Wall, SD 57790

16 Balancing Rock in Badlands, South Dakota

A balancing rock seems to be an oddity of nature. It often appears as a large boulder perched on a stone pedestal. Geologists call them precariously balanced rocks or PBRs for short. Typically, the two sections are all one piece but the lower half has eroded faster. This balancing rock (lower right) is visible from the Badlands Loop Road. The toadstool-shaped hoodoo was formed about 30 million years ago.

Balancing Rock, SD-240, Wall, SD 57790

17 Artifacts and Fossils in Badlands, South Dakota

The South Dakota Badlands has been a treasure-trove for archeologists. Numerous artifacts dating from 380 BC to 1650 AD have been unearthed at almost 300 sites. The largest collection was found around the Pinnacle Point area. Paleontologists have been equally excited by the plethora of fossils uncovered in the park. Their discoveries have chronicled animal and plant life going back millions of years. Among the 50 extinct animal species found are three-toed horses (Mesohippus), hornless rhinoceroses (Subhyracodon), massive thunder beasts (Brontothere) and saber-toothed cats (Hoplophoneus). A very common creature was the sheep-sized Oreodont that lived here 40 million to five million years ago.

Badlands Loop Road, SD-240, Interior, SD 57790

18 Attractions near East Entrances of Badlands, South Dakota

Your drive on the Badlands Loop Road is almost finished. But your excursion is not. There are plenty of attractions near the two east entrances of the park. First, walk along the quarter mile (round trip) boardwalk at the Fossil Exhibit Trail to learn about the prehistoric animals who lived at the Badlands. Grab a meal and visit the gift shop at Cedar Pass Lodge. The Ben Reifel Visitor Center offers an information desk, a museum, a film, a bookstore and a fascinating Fossil Preparation Lab. And, when you return to I-90, you will find the Minuteman Missile Visitors Center. From 1963 until 1991, this National Historic Site was an intercontinental ballistic missile silo during the Cold War.

Badlands Loop Road, SD-240, Interior, SD 57790

19 Sunset at Big Badlands Overlook in Badlands, South Dakota

Your last chance to survey and savor the geological artistry is at Big Badlands Overlook near the NE Entrance Station. Do not rush the moment. Sit and enjoy. If you can, linger long enough to watch the sun drift below the jagged horizon. The sunsets are spectacular!

Big Badlands Overlook, SD-240, Interior, SD 57790