Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park sees more than one million visitors each year

Badlands National Park is a collection of buttes, pinnacles, spires, and mixed-grass prairies. The White River Badlands contain the largest assemblage of known late Eocene and Oligocene mammal fossils. The wildlife includes bison, bighorn sheep, black-footed ferrets, and prairie dogs.


A combination of deposition and erosion left Badlands National Park looking beatiful

How did the Badlands form? They are largely the result of two basic geologic processes: deposition and erosion.


A quick look at the Badlands will reveal that they were deposited in layers. The layers are composed of tiny grains of sediments such as sand, silt, and clay that have been cemented together into sedimentary rocks. The sedimentary rock layers of Badlands National Park were deposited during the late Cretaceous Period (67 to 75 million years ago) throughout the Late Eocene (34 to 37 million years ago) and Oligocene Epochs (26 to 34 million years ago). Different environments—sea, tropical land, and open woodland with meandering rivers—caused different sediments to accumulate here at different times. The layers similar in character are grouped into units called formations. The oldest formations are at the bottom and the youngest are at the top, illustrating the principle of superposition.

The lighter-colored Sharps Formation was deposited from 28 to 30 million years ago by wind and water as the climate continued to dry and cool. Volcanic eruptions to the west continued to supply ash during this time. Today, the Brule and Sharps form the more rugged peaks and canyons of the Badlands.

A thick layer of volcanic ash known as the Rockyford Ash was deposited 30 million years ago, forming the bottom layer of the Sharps Formation. The Rockyford Ash is a distinctive marker bed used in geologic mapping.

The tannish brown Brule Formation was deposited between 30 and 34 million years ago. As the climate began to dry and cool, the forest gave way to open savannah. Bands of sandstone interspersed among the layers were deposited in channels and mark the course of ancient rivers that flowed from the Black Hills. Red layers found within the Brule Formation are fossil soils called paleosols.

The greyish Chadron Formation was deposited between 34 and 37 million years ago by rivers across a flood plain. Each time the rivers flooded, they deposited a new layer on the plain. Alligator fossils indicate that a lush, subtropical forest covered the land. Most fossils found in this formation are from early mammals like the three-toed horse and the large titanothere.

The sea drained away with the uplift of the Black Hills and Rocky Mountains, exposing the black ocean mud to air. Upper layers were weathered into a yellow soil, called Yellow Mounds. The mounds are an example of a fossil soil, or paleosol.

The black Pierre Shale was deposited between 69 and 75 million years ago when a shallow, inland sea stretched across what is now the Great Plains. Sediment filtered through the seawater, forming a black mud on the sea floor that has since hardened into shale. Fossil clams, ammonites, and sea reptiles confirm the sea environment.


Erosion began in the Badlands about 500,000 years ago when the Cheyenne River captured streams and rivers flowing from the Black Hills into the Badlands region. Before 500,000 years ago, streams and rivers carried sediments from the Black Hills building the rock layers we see today. Once the Black Hills streams and rivers were captured, erosion dominated over deposition. Modern rivers cut down through the rock layers, carving fantastic shapes into what had once been a flat floodplain. The Badlands erode at the rapid rate of about one inch per year. Evidence suggests that they will erode completely away in another 500,000 years, giving them a life span of just one million years. Not a long period of time from a geologic perspective.

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Native American History

Home of the Arikara

This 244,000-acre landscape is both barren and beautiful. Wind and rain erosion have created an eerie moonscape of deep gorges and jagged sawtooth ridges with rock layers painted in subtle hues of sand, rose, gold and green.

Bison (aka buffalo) were reintroduced here almost 50 years ago, and the park also offers critical habitat for pronghorn, bighorn sheep, coyote, deer and rattlesnakes, as well as eagles, hawks and turkey vultures which can be seen soaring above. For millennia, American Indians used this sacred land, which provided both physical and spiritual sustenance, as hunting grounds.

In fact, American Indians have had a presence in the area now known as the Badlands for more than 11,000 years. The little-studied paleo-Indians arrived first, followed by the Arikara. Archaeological records combined with oral traditions indicate that the Arikara people camped in secluded valleys where fresh water and game were available year round. Eroding out of the stream banks today are the rocks and charcoal of their campfires, as well as the arrowheads and tools they used to butcher bison, rabbits, and other game. From the high ground of the Badlands Wall, a ridge that cuts through the present-day park, they could scan the area for enemies and wandering herds. If hunting was good, they might stay through winter, before retracing their way to their villages along the Missouri River.

By 150 years ago, the Great Sioux Nation, consisting of seven bands including the Oglala Lakota, moved into the area. They found the Arikara and forced them northward into present-day North Dakota where the Arikara are now known as one of the Three Affiliated Tribes, joining in confederation with the Mandan and Hidatsa peoples.

The Sioux Nation is made up of three linguistic groups: the Nakota who make their home in Minnesota, the Dakota who range from western Minnesota into eastern South Dakota, and the Lakota, the furthest western group. “Oglala” is one of seven bands within the Lakota linguistic group. After the introduction of the horse, these westernmost Sioux became master equestrians and continue this tradition today.

Fiercely proud of their warrior heritage, the Lakota produced such great leaders as Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, Bigfoot, and Spotted Tail. To the Lakota, the Badlands were far from bad. They competed with grizzly bears and coyote in their hunt for bison, pronghorn, elk and other game that roamed the Badlands at will.

The next great migration came toward the end of the 19th century as homesteaders moved into South Dakota. The United States government stripped American Indians of much of their territory and forced them to live on reservations. Ongoing struggle between the United States military and American Indians eventually led to the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek. Before it was over, nearly 200 American Indians and 30 soldiers lay dead.

Wounded Knee is located approximately 45 miles south of Badlands National Park on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The United States government and the Oglala Lakota Nation have agreed that the story of Wounded Knee is a story to be told by the Oglala of Pine Ridge and the Minneconjou of Standing Rock Reservation. The interpretation of the site and its tragic events are held as the primary responsibility of these survivors. Learn more at the Wounded Knee Museum.

In 1976, Badlands National Park established a partnership with the Oglala Sioux Tribe, sharing lands, specifically the South Unit, and splitting entrance fees. Today 50 percent of the fees collected in the park are transferred to the tribe for resource management and recreation projects. The South unit contains many sites sacred to the Oglala Lakota and other American Indian cultures. Please show respect by not touching or removing objects tied to trees and shrubs. All artifacts must be left in place.

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Park History

How Badlands became a National Park

For eleven thousand years, American Indians have used this area for their hunting grounds. Long before the Lakota were the little-studied paleo-Indians, followed by the Arikara people. Their descendants live today in North Dakota as a part of the Three Affiliated Tribes. Archaeological records combined with oral traditions indicate that these people camped in secluded valleys where fresh water and game were available year round. Eroding out of the stream banks today are the rocks and charcoal of their campfires, as well as the arrowheads and tools they used to butcher bison, rabbits, and other game. From the top of the Badlands Wall, they could scan the area for enemies and wandering herds. If hunting was good, they might hang on into winter, before retracing their way to their villages along the Missouri River. By one hundred and fifty years ago, the Great Sioux Nation consisting of seven bands including the Oglala Lakota, had displaced the other tribes from the northern prairie.

The next great change came toward the end of the 19th century as homesteaders moved into South Dakota. The U.S. government stripped American Indians of much of their territory and forced them to live on reservations. In the fall and early winter of 1890, thousands of Native American followers, including many Oglala Sioux, became followers of the Indian prophet Wovoca. His vision called for the native people to dance the Ghost Dance and wear Ghost Shirts, which would be impervious to bullets. Wovoca had predicted that the white man would vanish and their hunting grounds would be restored. One of the last known Ghost Dances was conducted on Stronghold Table in the South Unit of Badlands National Park. As winter closed in, the ghost dancers returned to Pine Ridge Agency. The climax of the struggle came in late December, 1890. Headed south from the Cheyenne River, a band of Minneconjou Sioux Indians crossed a pass in the Badlands Wall. Pursued by units of the U.S. Army, they were seeking refuge in the Pine Ridge Reservation. The band, led by Chief Big Foot, was finally overtaken by the soldiers near Wounded Knee Creek in the Reservation and ordered to camp there overnight. The troops attempted to disarm Big Foot’s band the next morning. Gunfire erupted. Before it was over, nearly two hundred Indians and thirty soldiers lay dead. The massacre at Wounded Knee was the last major clash between American Indians and the U.S. military until the American Indian Freedom actions of the 1970s, most notably again, at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

Wounded Knee is not within the boundaries of Badlands National Park. It is located approximately 45 miles south of the park on Pine Ridge Reservation. The U.S. government and the Oglala Lakota Nation have agreed that this is a story to be told by the Oglala of Pine Ridge and Minneconjou of Standing Rock Reservation. The interpretation of the site and its tragic events are held as the primary responsibility of these survivors.

The history of the White River Badlands as a significant paleontological resource goes back to the traditional Native American knowledge of the area. The Lakota found large fossilized bones, fossilized seashells and turtle shells. They correctly assumed that the area had once been under water, and that the bones belonged to creatures which no longer existed. Paleontological interest in this area began in the 1840’s. Trappers and traders regularly traveled the 300 miles from Fort Pierre to Fort Laramie along a path which skirted the edge of what is now Badlands National Park. Fossils were occasionally collected, and in 1843 a fossilized jaw fragment collected by Alexander Culbertson of the American Fur Company found it’s way to a physician in St. Louis by the name of Dr. Hiram A. Prout.

In 1846, Prout published a paper about the jaw in the American Journal of Science in which he stated that it had come from a creature he called a Paleotherium. Shortly after the publication, the White River Badlands became popular fossil hunting grounds and, within a couple of decades, numerous new fossil species had been discovered in the White River Badlands. In 1849, Dr. Joseph Leidy, published a paper on an Oligocene camel and renamed Prout’s Paleotherium, Titanotherium prouti. By 1854 when he published a series of papers about North American fossils, 84 distinct species had been discovered in North America – 77 of which were found in the White River Badlands. In 1870 a Yale professor, O. C. Marsh, visited the region and developed more refined methods of extracting and reassembling fossils into nearly complete skeletons. From 1899 to today, the South Dakota School of Mines has sent people almost every year and remains one of the most active research institutions working in the White River Badlands. Throughout the late 1800’s and continuing today, scientists and institutions from all over the world have benefited from the fossil resources of the White River Badlands The White River Badlands have developed an international reputation as a fossil rich area. They contain the richest deposits of Oligocene mammals known, providing a brief glimpse of life in this area 33 million years ago. Comparisons between the fossils here and fossils of similar age around the world have helped paint a picture of life on earth millions of years ago.

Aspects of American homesteading began before the end of the Civil War; however, homesteading didn’t really impact the Badlands until well into the 20th century. Many hopeful farmers travelled to South Dakota from Europe or the East Coast to try to eke out a living in this hard place. The standard size for a homestead was 160 acres. This proved far too small to support a family in a semi-arid, wind-swept environment. In the western Dakotas, the size of a homestead was increased to 640 acres. Cattle grazed and crops like winter wheat and hay were cut annually. However, the Great Dust Bowl events of the 1930s combined with waves of grasshoppers proved too much for most of the hardy souls of the Badlands. Houses built out of sod blocks and heated by buffalo chips were soon abandoned. Those who remained are still here today – ranching and raising wheat. The roots of these people of the prairie run deep. Like the grasses they depend on, they are tenacious, surviving blizzards, droughts, and floods to remain firmly grounded in a place as unforgiving as it is beautiful.

The Stronghold District of Badlands National Park offers more than scenic badlands with spectacular views. Co-managed by the National Park Service and the Oglala Sioux Tribe, this 133,300 acre area is also steeped in history. Deep draws, high tables, and rolling prairie hold the stories of the earliest Plains hunters, the paleo-Indians, as well as the present day Lakota Nation. Homesteaders and fossil hunters have also made their mark on the land. There is a more recent role this remote, sparsely populated area has played in U.S. history: World War II and the Badlands gunnery range.

As a part of the war effort, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) took possession of 341,726 acres of land on the Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala Sioux people, for a gunnery range. Included in this range was 337 acres from then Badlands National Monument. This land was used extensively from 1942 through 1945 as air-to-air and air-to-ground gunnery ranges. Precision and demolition bombing exercises were also quite common. After the war, portions of the bombing range were used as an artillery range by the South Dakota National Guard. In 1968, most of the range was declared excess property by the USAF. 2500 acres are retained by the USAF but are no longer used.

Firing took place within most of the present day Stronghold District. Land was bought to leased form individual landowners and the Tribe in order to clear the area of human occupation. Old car bodies and 55 gallon drums painted bright yellow were used as targets. Bulls-eyes 250 feet across were plowed into the ground and used as targets by bombardier bombing flights. Small automatic aircraft called drones and 60 foot by 8 foot screens dragged behind planes served as mobile targets. Today, the ground is littered discarded bullet shells and unexploded ordnance.

For safety, 125 families were relocated from their farms and ranches in the 1940s. Those that remained nearby recall times when they had to dive under tractors while out cutting hay to avoid shells dropped by planes miles outside of the boundary. In the town of Interior, both a church and the building housing the current post office received six inch shells through the roof. Pilots in practice, operating out of Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City, found it a challenge to determine the exact boundaries of the range. Fortunately, there were no civilian casualties. However, at least a dozen members of flight crews lost their lives in plane crashes.

Just as it was difficult for pilots to determine the gunnery range from the air, it is challenging to find your way when exploring the Stronghold District. There are few roads. The natural conditions of rain and snow add to the complexity. Throughout the Stronghold District are spent 50 caliber machine gun shells and 20mm cannon shells. Larger explosive shells are occasionally found eroding out of the Badlands buttes. If you find any shells, do not touch them. Note where you are. If you have a map, note on the map where you are. As soon as possible, report this to the White River Ranger Station at (605) 455 – 2878. The National Park Service, working with the Oglala Sioux Tribe, the U.S. Air Force, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are undertaking a clean up effort for this sacred ground. Do your part. Leave all objects you find in the park in place. Report anything unusual you find to a park ranger.

Stand on the edge of a canyon carved through the Badlands and imagine a time when the faint hum of planes grew into a steady buzz. The White River Badlands, avoided by the soldiers of the nineteenth century, becomes a training ground for the airmen of the twentieth. The wind gives way to an explosion. Or not. Those unexploded ordnance wait for the opportunity to do what they were built to do: detonate. Remain safe by remembering. For More Information on the Badlands Bombing Range Visit: Badlands Bombing Range

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Mount Rushmore leads and impressive list of things to do at Badlands National Park

The Badlands provide considerable opportunities for discovery and exploration. From camping and hiking to bird watching and auto-touring, visitors to Badlands National Park can enjoy countless outdoor adventures.

Drive the Badlands Highway 240 Loop Road
Stop at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center
Visit the Fossil Prep Lab
Hike a trail
Become a Junior Ranger
Complete the Badlands GPS Adventure
Go camping & Explore the backcountry

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The wildflowers alone make Badlands a can’t-miss park

Prairies and Grasslands
Badlands National Park protects one of the largest expanses of mixed-grass prairie in the United States. The mixed-grass prairie contains both ankle-high and waist-high grasses, and fills a transitional zone between the moister tall-grass prairie to the east and the more arid short-grass prairie to the west.

Biologists have identified more than 400 different plant species growing in Badlands National Park. Each plant species is adapted to survive the conditions prevalent in the mixed-grass prairie ecosystem. The climate here is one of extremes: hot, cold, dry, windy and stormy with blizzards, floods, droughts, and fires. Although you can find trees, shrubs, and forbs, it is grasses that dominate the landscape.

Prairie coneflower
Western wheatgrass is the predominant grass in the prairie areas of Badlands National Park. Growing one to two feet high, it is a sod builder and thrives on the clay soils of the Badlands. Some forbs and grasses that grow in association with western wheatgrass are prairie coneflower, white milkwort, needle-and-thread grass, and prairie dropseed.

The native grasses of the mixed-grass prairie serve as important food sources for many species of wildlife, from prairie dogs to bison. Historically, grasslands were North America’s most extensive biome, but today most of the prairie has been altered by agriculture or development. As part of its preservation efforts, the National Park Service personnel manage non-native species and reintroduce native species where they have been extirpated. Learn more about how the National Park Service works to preserve biodiversity.

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Flowering Plants
Despite the harshness of the badlands terrain, a diversity of colorful flowers, especially during years of sufficient rainfall, peek through the wavering grasses of the mixed-grass prairie. Planning a trip to the park from May through June increases the likelihood of viewing patches of flowers within the grasses, along trails, and clinging to the banks of washes. Badlands National Park contains one of the largest contiguous native mixed-grass prairies under federal protection in the United States.

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Animal Life

The mixed-grass prairie is home to many species of animals.

The mixed-grass prairie is home to many species of animals. In Badlands National Park, scientists have observed 39 mammal species, 9 reptile species, 6 amphibian species, 206 bird species, and 69 butterfly species.

The prairie animals are well adapted to their environment. They can handle climate extremes and find protection in these vast, open spaces. Most small prairie mammals either dig burrows or invade another animal’s burrow for shelter. Others hibernate or become dormant in the cold of the winter. Larger mammals may seek protection from the winter wind by taking cover in badlands canyons or in low spots such as drainages or woody draws. Some ungulates find protection in herds as they graze throughout the year.

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Hiking Trails

The best trails at Badlands National Park

Notch Trail (1.5 miles) The Notch Trail goes from the Door/Window parking lot and through canyons to a log ladder. …
Medicine Root Trail (4 miles) …
Cliff Shelf Nature Trail (0.5 miles) …
Fossil Exhibit Trail (0.25 miles) …
Castle Trail (10 miles)

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