It’s a strange and seemingly complicated place. From the ragged ridges and saw-toothed spires to the wind-ravaged desolation of Badlands Wilderness Area, Badlands National Park is an awe-inspiring sight and an unsettling experience. Few leave here unaffected by the vastness of this geologic anomaly, which spreads across 381 square miles of moonscape.
Steep canyons, towering spires, and flat-topped tables all appear among Badlands buttes. Despite their apparent complexity, the unusual formations of the Badlands are essentially the result of two basic geologic processes: deposition and erosion.
The layered look of the Badlands comes from sedimentary rocks composed of fine grains that have been cemented into a solid form. Layers with similar characteristics are grouped into units called formations. The bottom formation is the Pierre Shale, deposited 68 to 77 million years ago during the Cretaceous period, when a shallow, inland sea stretched across the present-day Great Plains. The black mud of the sea floor hardened into shale, leaving fossil clamshells and ammonites that today confirm a sea environment. The sea eventually drained away, and the upper layers of shale were weathered into soil, now seen as Yellow Mounds.
The Chadron Formation, deposited 32 to 37 million years ago during the Eocene epoch, sits above the Pierre Shale. By this time, a flood plain had replaced the sea, and each time the rivers flooded, they deposited a new layer of sediment on the plain. Alligator fossils indicate that a lush, subtropical forest covered the region. However, mammal fossils dominate. The Chadron is best known for large, elephant-sized mammals called titanotheres.
Some of the sediment carried by rivers and wind was volcanic ash, the product of eruptions associated with the creation of the Rocky Mountains. This ash mixed with river and stream sediments to form clay stone, the main material from which Badlands buttes are constructed. After the Eocene epoch, the climate began to dry and cool, and tropical forests gave way to open savanna. Rivers deposited the Brule and Sharps formations during the Oligocene epoch from 26 to 32 million years ago, and today these formations contain the most rugged peaks and canyons of the Badlands.
Actually, the impressive serrated ridges and deep canyons of the Badlands did not exist until about 500,000 years ago, when water began to cut through the layers of rock, carving fantastic shapes into what had been a flat floodplain. Once again, the ancient fossil soils, buried for millions of years, became exposed. That erosion continues: Every time rain falls, or snow melts in spring, more sediment is washed from the buttes in this ongoing work of sculpting the earth. On average, the buttes erode an inch a year; scientists believe that the buttes will be gone in another 500,000 years.
In addition to its scenic wonders, the Badlands are one of the richest Oligocene fossil beds known to exist. Remains of three-toed horses, dog-sized camels, saber-toothed cats, giant pigs, and other species have been found here; all date from 25 to 35 million years ago.
If You Have Only 1 Day
It’s relatively easy to explore the highlights of the North Unit of Badlands National Park in a day or less. (Most visitors spend an average of 3–5 hr.) A few miles south of the park’s northeast entrance, the closest entrance to I-90, is the park headquarters. It’s open year-round and includes the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, Cedar Pass Lodge, and a campground, amphitheater, and dump station. After you stop at the visitor center exhibits, bookstore, and information desk, then watch an orientation video (which we recommend), it’s time to hit the trail.
The visitor center is within 5 miles of several trailheads, scenic overlooks, and three self-guided nature trails. Each of the seven trails in the area offers an opportunity to view some of the formations for which the Badlands is famous. The Fossil Exhibit Trail is wheelchair accessible. The Cliff Shelf Nature Trail and the Door Trail are moderately strenuous and provide impressive glimpses of Badlands formations. But none is longer than 1 mile, and you can hike any one of them comfortably in less than an hour.
Leading directly from the visitor center is the 30-mile Badlands Loop Road, the park’s most popular scenic drive. Angling northwest toward the town of Wall, it passes numerous overlooks and trailheads, each of which commands inspiring views of the Badlands and the prairies of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland. Binoculars will increase your chances of spotting bison, pronghorns, bighorn sheep, and coyote.
The paved portion of the Loop Road ends at the turnoff for the Pinnacles Entrance. Beyond this point the road becomes the Sage Creek Rim Road, a 30-mile gravel road, at the end of which is the Sage Creek Campground. Five miles west of the end of the pavement, a visit to the Roberts Prairie Dog Town gives you a chance to watch black-tailed prairie dogs “barking” their warnings and protecting their “town.”
If You Have More Time
Those staying overnight have more opportunities to explore the park at a leisurely pace, taking advantage of some of the other trails, such as the Castle Trail, which connects the Fossil Exhibit Trail and Window Fossil Exhibit Trail, and Notch Trail. You could also take in some of the park’s summer evening ranger programs.
Picnicking in the Park
Badlands National Park has two designated picnic areas, though you’re likely to see people munching at nearly every overlook and trailhead in the park.
Conata Picnic Area is on Conata Road, just south of Dillon Pass and the Badlands Loop Road in the North Unit. It has tables, trash cans, and pit toilets. Camping and fires are not allowed, and there is no drinking water available.
Big Foot Picnic Area is near Big Foot Pass on the Badlands Loop Road in the North Unit, about 7 miles northwest of
the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. It also has tables and pit toilets, but no drinking water. Camping and fires are not allowed.
Beyond the boundaries of Badlands National Park are several other areas and sites that you may wish to visit, including Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Custer State Park, and Crazy Horse Memorial.