Badlands National Park: A User's Guide

Sunrise at Badlands National Park in South Dakota is almost Mars-like. . Matthew Paulson/flickr

Badlands National Park in southwestern South Dakota is known for its stark beauty. The rock formations that dominate this park (and its visitors' imaginations) are almost lunar-like. But these rocks, as picture-worthy as they are, are only part of the story of the Badlands. The park also features a classic prairie that is teeming with bison and other animals. And then there is the natural history, which dates back tens of thousands of years. Prehistoric fossils are still scattered all around the Badlands.

A full menu of hiking trails, well-maintained roads for scenic drives and an abundance of wildlife make Badlands National Park more than a place to drive through quickly after visiting nearby Mount Rushmore.


Medicine Root Trail in Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park received national park status in 1978. Kris Wiktor/Shutterstock

Badlands National Park traces its roots back to the late 1920s, when part of the land that now makes up the park was set aside as a national monument. In the 1970s, there were efforts to expand the park. An agreement between a local Sioux tribe and the National Park Service added more than 100,000 acres of Sioux land to the Badlands National Monument. This land is now jointly managed by both groups.

It wasn't until 1978 that Badlands was given national park status. The name “Badlands” comes from 19th century French trappers, who passed through the area and referred to it as “mauvaises terres a traverser,” or “bad lands to cross.” The name stuck.

Things to do

Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park has both short and long hiking trails suitable for novices and experienced hikers alike. CK_Images/Shutterstock

Casual hikers can take advantage of the park's trails of less than a mile. Both the grasslands and the Badlands themselves feature a host of shorter routes. The quarter-mile-long Fossil Exhibit Trail highlights the park from a paleontologist's perspective.

A few longer trails (from two to 10 miles long) are part of the park's repertoire and may be perfect for horseback riders. The Castle Trail, a 10-mile long route that passes beneath some of the Badlands’ trademark rock formations, can easily be completed in one day. Backcountry hiking and camping is possible with a permit.

Badlands' paved and gravel roads give exploration options to those who prefer to experience the park through a car window. Bicyclists are also allowed to use these roads (but not the park's hiking trails).

Why you'll come back

For most Badlands visitors, seeing the park's awe-inspiring landscapes through the car windshield and taking a brief stroll along trails adjacent to the visitor's center is sufficient. But this land's history and beauty can easily inspire more lengthy visits characterized by longer hikes, drives on the gravel backroads, or even a trip into the back country.

Flora and fauna

Bison in the Badlands
Bison live in the Badlands Wilderness Area, and you can usually see them from Sage Creek Rim Road. Christopher Salvito/Shutterstock

The park's bison, bighorn sheep, and pronghorn herds enjoy a high profile amongs visitors. Pronghorn are especially easy to spot from the park's main road. Other mammalian residents include foxes, prairie dogs, and the endangered black-footed ferret.

Prairie rattlesnakes are the only venomous snake located in the Badlands. They are common, but there has never been a fatal biting inside the park.

The prairie regions of Badlands National Park are carpeted with different species of grasses. Grass grows waste high in the summertime in the wetter parts of the park and shorter (ankle-high) plants thrive in the arid areas closer to the Badlands themselves.

By the numbers

  • Park size: 244,000 acres (381 square miles)
  • Visitors: About a million each year
  • Distance from Mount Rushmore: 100 miles
  • Age of fossils found: Many fossils in the park date back 30 million years to the Oligocene era.
  • Funky fact: The park's south unit was used as a training ground for bombers during World War II.