Badlands National Park is the largest protected mixed grass prairie in the United States. I never would have thought prairie lands could be so amazingly beautiful. You see, I grew up in North Dakota and never made a trip south to visit the Badlands. I finally made my way on an epic road trip to Badlands National Park.
Three Units in the Park
There are three primary units that comprise this national park. The Stronghold Unit, Palmer Creek Unit; which are located within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and there is the North Unit. This is the area where we did our exploring which includes the Badlands Wilderness area and Badlands Loop Road.
These lands are some of the most desolate and isolated lands you can find. Don’t be fooled by these peaceful calm looking prairie lands. The prairie can be unforgiving from the burning sun and the dry high winds, the plants and trees can literally dry up and blow away.
The elements may be tough out here, but the history entailing this prairie is in full abundance! The Badlands are gleaming with historical remnants and fossils. As you glance out at the landscape or hike through the mounds and spires, it feels like a journey though time.
Badlands National Park is comprised of the world’s most significant fossil beds from the Oligocene Epoch of the Age of Mammals. (Sourced from Black Hills Vacation Guide). It is illegal for visitors to remove or collect any fossils from this park. Prehistoric bones are still being uncovered even today.
The Fossil Preparation Lab located in the Ben Reifel Visitor Center is a great place to watch paleontologists perform their work. You can also learn about the discoveries currently happening in the park.
Plan Your Visit
When you plan to visit this park, it is a good idea to consider the seasons. In the summer, make sure to have plenty of fluids with you. In the winter, dress appropriately and make sure your vehicle is equipped for slippery roads and other scenarios, etc.
The most popular route through this park is the scenic Badlands Loop Road. When you enter the park from this Northeast Entry point, one of the first things you encounter is a beautiful overlook area that will take your breath away! We chose to enter the park at this entry because we planned to visit several sites such as Mt. Rushmore and Custer State Park heading westbound so this worked great for us!
Westbound travelers on I-90 may wish to take exit 131. SD 240 leads you to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and Badlands Loop Road. Then SD 230 will connect back up with I-90 around exit 110, near Wall, South Dakota. For fun attractions, museum and lots of variety, stop by Wall Drug Store.
Wildlife and Plant Life
Beautiful landscapes, spires, and rock formations are not the only cool things you will see here. You will also find and encounter wildlife and plant life. Wandering bison may cross your path in the road or be grazing alongside the road, so please be take caution when driving. Prairie dogs are abundant out on the prairie landscape, but there is another little furry guy thought once to be extinct back in 1981.
The Black footed ferret, one of the rarest mammals on earth, thought to have died out some time ago. However, these creatures were found living wild and free in the Wyoming area. During this time, Wyoming authorities created a conservation campaign to save these animals. Today, the ferrets are flourishing and scientists and biologists hopeful about this success campaign.
Other animals that call this land home include mule deer, pronghorn, coyotes, and big horn sheep. Although climate can be extreme in this region, plant life is never a shortage. You will find plant grass land species anything from big bluestem and prairie cordgrass. As these lands were once a forest, you have plenty of plants such as the narrow leaf yucca and the prairie cone flower.
Did you know?
While visiting the Badlands, architect Frank Lloyd Wright made the following quote: “I’ve been about the world a lot, and pretty much over our own country, but I was totally unprepared for that revelation called the Dakota Bad Lands.” (Sourced from NPS brochure.)
Badlands Must See Spots
We actually did not see any wildlife in the Badlands park on this trip. But we did see some amazing sites! There are plenty of unique and beautiful canyons and rock formations here. You will also notice several scenic spots and open canyons that offer perfect photography opportunities!
The Door Trail
Get lost in the layers, canyons and spires here on the Door Trail. The sediment formations and layers will make you feel lost and alone that is for sure. This path leads you to historical fossil beds of ancient times. Ancient as in like around 30 plus million years ago.
The Notch Trail
You will be amazed at the rock formations and shapes you find in this area. It feels like you are in a different world.
White River Valley Overlook
Stumble into no man’s land and be captivated by this amazingly beautiful landscape scene!
Burns Basin Overlook
A spectacular and interesting view of sedimentary soil and rock mounds. It sure looks so brilliant with the contrasting grasslands and open prairie!
The multi colored red, yellow, beige soil layers represents possibly the age of this particular sediment. In a geological survey report published 2003, titled Geology of Badlands National Park, Retallack, G.J., (1983) supported the idea that the Yellow Mounds represent a paleosol, or series of paleosols, of Eocene age. He suggested that the yellow coloration of the Yellow Mounds was a result of meteoric weathering of older marine sediments exposed near the surface over a long period of time.
Here is another colorful location of sedentary mounds and open prairie grasslands. These areas of unique stunning beauty can certainly leave you speechless.
Ancient Hunters Overlook
This is an area where you may see several low areas where plant life and grasses can reside. Early prehistoric residents were able to collect rain and spring water that ended trapped in these low areas. The low areas formed as a result of active landslides in the badlands of the White River sedentary deposits. (Sourced from usgs.gov)
With all the craziness going on the world today, it was refreshing to take a road trip with my family to the beautiful state of South Dakota. The pure beauty and allure of this place will have you wanting to explore more. As I stand on these grounds, I imagine how these mounds and formations looked 37 million years ago. If you are looking for a quiet, low key, and full of nature and learning, then South Dakota is the perfect place to visit! And it’s even more special when you do it with family!
25216 Ben Reifel Road
Interior, SD 57750
Phone: (605) 433-5361
 Geology of Badlands National Park: A Preliminary Report Philip W. Stoffer