Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park comprises 380 square miles at an elevation of 2,443 to 3,255 ft. 

The backbone of the Park - the geological feature from which it derives its name - is a ridge, or "wall," that stretches 100 miles south into the Nebraska panhandle. 

Formed by sedimentary deposits, this land was first set aside in 1929 as a National Monument. It 1939 President Franklin Roosevelt officially established Badlands National Park. 

In 1976, the South Unit was added to the Park, bringing it to its present size of 244,300 acres.


During the late Cretaceous period, some 80 million years ago, the northern Great Plains were covered by an extensive sea. North America was located closer to the equator than it is now, and the climate was humid and tropical, supporting a variety of primitive creatures and vegetation. It was a time of tremendous sedimentary deposition, during which the Pierre Shale - the bottom rung of the Badlands geological ladder - was laid down. Deposited over a span of 20 million years, the layers of ocean slime were uplifted and drained by the same forces that raised the Rocky Mountains.

Later, the dried up lakebed was the stomping ground of ancient camels, three-toed horses, and sabertoothed tigers, whose remains continue to be uncovered by the elements.


Water is the main sculpting tool of the Badlands, the freeze-thaw cycle is also a contributor. The surface of the Badlands Wall wears away at a rate of as much as one inch a year. The Wall divides the upper, or northern, grasslands - those "above the Wall" - from those to the south. The latter, on average, are 200 ft lower in elevation.

Prehistoric Animals (Fossils)

Fossils are traces of prehistoric life, be they animal tracks, leaf impressions, shells, bones, or teeth. Only a few plants and animals become fossilized after they die. Usually they decay into the earth. Rapid burial is necessary for fossilization to occur. Sediments buried these remains deep. Ground water seeping through the sediments deposited calcium and silica in the spaces within the organism, fossilizing it. Fossils in the park date from about 38 million to 25 million years ago, during the so-called Age of the Mammals. Dinosaurs, which lived in an earlier era, are not found in the park.

A common fossil in Badlands is the stylemys, or turtle. The Pierre Shale has yielded many sea-turtle fossils. Oreodontas, which may have looked like pigs but which chewed cud like a cow, wandered around in large herds.

The mesohippus was herbivorous horse about 20 inches high. It first appeared some 58 million years ago. It had four toes on the front feet, and three on the hind feet. 25 million years later, each foot had just three toes, the largest being in the middle, suggesting the formation of a hoof. The mesohippus died out long before the Spanish reintroduced the horse to this continent in the sixteenth century.

Other fossils include remains of an ancestor of the camel; the saber-toothed cat; and the protoceras, a sheeplike creature that had three pairs of horns sticking out on its face and head at different angles.

Modern Animals

After being almost exterminated by white hunters in the nineteenth century, the buffalo (bison) has returned to the Badlands. A small herd was reintroduced in the Sage Creek Basin in 1963; within 24 years it had increased to more than 450 animals.

Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, coyote, mule deer, prairie dogs and other various rodents are found within the Park. The only poisonous snake in the park is the prairie rattlesnake. It is brown, with diamond-shaped marking on its back.

Prehistroic and Historic Indians

The exact time of the entry of humans into the Badlands in unknown. More than 80 archaeological sites have been located within the park boundaries, the oldest dating back 7,000 years. Radiocarbon tests indicate that fire pits in the Pinnacles area were used around AD 9000. A hundred years later, nomadic tribes roamed the territory. Primarily hunters and gatherers, they belonged to the Caddoan, Athapaskan, Kiowa, and Shoshonean linguistic groups.

The preeminent Native American in the Badlands in historical times have been the Dakota, more commonly called the Sioux. When Columbus first arrived in the New World, the Sioux were living in what is now North Carolina. A migration that lasted almost 300 years took them from North Carolina through present-day West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin, to Minnesota. There they came up against the Chippewa. Supplied with guns by French traders, the Chippewa drove the Sioux west and south onto the Great Plains. In the late 1700s, the Sioux acquired horses. Their culture changed dramatically, and they became fierce warriors.

A division of the Sioux Nation, the Teton, first crossed the Missouri River about 1775. They chased away the Spanish and French traders and displaced the Arikaree. In 1804 the explorers in the first Lewis and Clark Expedition had a tense encounter with the Teton near the site of Pierre, South Dakota. The Teton sought to prevent the expedition from proceeding up the Missouri River, but they relented when the Americans threatened to use force.

By 1840, the Sioux were the masters of the northern Great Plains, dominating the territory from the Canadian border to the Platte River, and from the eastern Dakotas to the Rocky Mountains. The Oglala Sioux, a branch of the Teton division, hunted buffalo and antelope throughout the Badlands. When the whites first invaded the Dakotas, the Sioux fought back, led by warriors like Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse. In the late 1880s, the Sioux embraced the religious movement called the Ghost Dance, which promised that the buffalo would return and that the white Americans would disappear. The Sioux danced without interference in remote strongholds within the Badlands. Faced with growing militancy by the Sioux, U.S. Army troops entered the area. In 1890 Chief Big Foot and his band passed through the present-day park and were detained at Wounded Knee, just to the south. Tension led to shooting, and Big Foot and more than 150 of his followers were killed.

Historical Background

Fur trapper and mountain man Jedadiah Smith led an expedition through the Badlands in 1823. Although Smith had been preceded by French Canadian trappers, his was the first recorded trip, and due to the lack of potable water, it nearly ended in disaster. Twenty years later, Alexander Culbertson, chief agent for the American Fur Company, collected several wagonloads of fossilized bones and teeth in the Badlands and shipped them back east to the Smithsonian Institution. In 1849, a scientific party under John Evans was sent to the Badlands by the federal government to collect more fossil specimens.

Texas cattlemen, attracted by federal government leasing of Indian lands in the 1880s, drove huge herds up to the Dakotas. In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed a proclamation that took more lands away from the Sioux and opened the Badlands to homesteading. Settlers, brought by railroad, arrived in large numbers; by the first decade of the nineteenth century, sod huts and dugouts dotted every section of western South Dakota. Heavy plowing took away topsoil, and the droughts of 1911 and of the 1930s forced many farmers to abandon their lands.

Badlands National Monument was established in 1929. In 1976, the South Unit was added to the existing park. While this section is still owned by the Oglala Sioux, it is administered by the National Park Service.

Driving Tour

Big Badlands Overlook provides one of the best views of The Wall from above. The characteristic terraced cliffs of the badlands drop down to the lower prairie, and the White River.

Mako (land) sica (bad), is the expression the Indians used to describe this area that makes up the White River Badlands of South Dakota; the French, on the other hand, called the same area mauvaise terres, literally translated as "bad lands." So, maybe it isn't too surprising that after taking control of the area, the U.S. Federal Government opted for the highly descriptive name of "The Badlands." In developing this area, the government aimed to preserve and restore the animal and plant life that is native to this area.

Windows Overlook The windows" for which this overlook is named are the notches which have eroded out of the top of the cliffs. This overlook also serves as the trail head for three short nature trails - the Door, Window, and Notch Trails.

Cedar Pass is named for the few Rocky Mountain juniper trees, often mistakenly called Cedar, in the vicinity. Except for the occasional ponderosa pine, it is the only evergreen in the Badlands. It attains a height of 20 ft; the scaly bark, mixed with herbs, is known as kinnikinnick, the "tobacco" that the Sioux smoke in their ceremonial pipes.

Cliff Shelf was created many years ago, when a giant block of stone fell from the surrounding cliffs, creating this relatively flat shelf. The impact of the fall, compacted the stone, making it less porous and allowing water to collect here. The resulting vegetation makes this an oasis in the otherwise barren wall.

Cedar Pass Lodge and Visitors Center sit on the floor of the lower prairie. The Visitors Center contains various exhibits which provide a good introduction to the park's history and geology. Near the Visitors Center The Wall towers up to 150 ft above the upper grasslands and up to 450 ft above the lower grasslands. From this point, the road first descends into the lower prairieland and then begins a gradual climb back up the Badlands Wall.

Big Foot Pass is so named because, it was through this natural opening that the Indian chief, Big Foot, led his band of 400 warriors, eluding the United States soldiers who had thought that every possible pass was guarded. John J. Pershing, then a captain, was one of the soldiers attempting to stop Big Foot. After penetrating the Badlands, Big Foot and his warriors met a disastrous end at the Battle of Wounded Knee, when he and almost all of his band were annihilated in the last conflict between the whites and the Indians, the culmination of the Messiah War.