Badlands National Park has been so worn down by wind and water; it is now one of the most stunning natural formations on earth. On 244,000 acres in southwest South Dakota, visitors find eroded spires and gorges made up of layers of colorful sedimentary rock, the largest mixed-grass prairie in the country, and no signs of civilization. The bizarre landscape of the Badlands is unlike anything you have ever seen before. And while "beautiful" may not be the best way to describe it, it certainly takes your breath away.
The Badlands are home to the largest collection of mammalian fossils from the Eocene and Oligocene epochs. They include three-toed horses, camels, rhinos, rabbits, beavers, and birds. Fossils of marine life from the Cretaceous period are also in the deposits of an ancient sea bed in the park. The fossils unearthed here are on display in museums around the world.
Hiking in the Badlands is an experience you cannot get anywhere else. The Castle Trail is the longest at about 10 miles long. The 0.24-milelong Saddle Pass trail has a steep 200-foot rise, making it the most strenuous hike in the park. Even moderate hikes like the Cliff Shelf and Saddle Pass are worth your time because they provide stunning views of the dramatic landscape. Easy trails like the Door Trail, Window Trail, and Fossil Trail are even wheelchair accessible.
There are two campgrounds in the park, Cedar Pass and Sage Creek. Both are open all year round. Cedar Pass is located near the visitor center and has 96 different sites with stunning views of the badlands rock formations. Sage Creek is the more popular campground. It is located near the park's wilderness area, and it is not uncommon to see a bison wandering by.
The Cedar Pass Campground is an amazing place to stargaze thanks to the dark skies and dramatic surroundings. In the summertime, use the telescopes in the amphitheater to catch a glimpse of the Milky Way. Rangers are on-hand to point out planets and constellations. The Badlands Astronomy Festival is also held every summer and features family-friendly games and activities during the day with guest speakers and presentations into the night.
The Badlands got its name from nineteenth-century trappers who felt that these were bad lands to travel across. To experience the pinnacles, ravines, and spires that gave this land its reputation, venture into the backcountry. Notify a ranger at the White River Visitor's Center before heading out and be careful about crossing private lands. Primitive camping is permitted in the backcountry, too, just make sure you come prepared.
Looking at the landscape, you might not think diverse animal life can thrive in the Badlands, but that's not the case. The mixed-grass prairie surrounding the park is home to mammals, reptiles, birds, and amphibians. While a lot of the prairie animals can handle the extreme climate changes, some burrow and hibernate in the winter. Animals you will come across in the park include bison, coyotes, bobcats, foxes, antelope, badgers, and more.
There are a lot of interesting things to see in the Badlands, but a few formations are more notable than others. The Wall is a 60-mile long heavily eroded formation located in the heart of the park revealing rock layers that are tens of millions of years old. One of the busier spots is the Pinnacles Overlook where you can usually spot some of the park's wildlife. If you are prepared to explore the backcountry, check out Sheep Table Mountain for some of the most pristine views in the Badlands.
One of the most scenic drives you will ever take is the Badlands Loop Scenic Byway. The twists and curves make it a fun road to drive, too. The Badlands Loop Scenic Byway is 39 miles long and takes about an hour to drive straight through, but you will find it impossible not to stop along the way. The road is lined with trailheads and 16 scenic overlooks where you can take amazing photos of the scenery and animal life.
The Ben Reifel Visitor Center should be your first stop in the park. It has information about everything you need to know when visiting the Badlands. There are also exhibits about the history of the park and a gift shop where you can get a stamp for your National Parks passport. Make sure you stop by the Fossil Lab to learn more about the prehistoric discoveries found in the park.
If you want to stay in the park but are not up for camping, Cedar Park Lodge is located just down the road from the visitor center. The Lodge opened in 1928, eleven years before the Badlands was named a national monument. New cabins were recently constructed that were designed to look like the originals and feature modern-day amenities like private baths, flat-screen satellite TVs, and air conditioning. Each cabin has a porch featuring large, handmade pine chairs to comfortably catch the perfect view.
Weather in the Badlands is unpredictable. Summers see temperatures as high as 116 degrees F and are usually dry with occasional thunderstorms, particular in June, the wettest month in the park. In the winter, temperatures can fall as low as -40 degrees F with up to 24 total inches of snowfall. Weather in the Badlands changes quickly and dramatically, so be prepared with layers, hats, sunscreen, and plenty of water for hiking.
Badlands National Park is so large that roads and trails not usually overcrowded, though concessions, entrances, and the visitors center are busy during peak travel season in July and August. For smaller crowds and agreeable weather, visit in the late spring or early fall. To get the full experience, plan to spend two days and one night in the park. Dusk and dawn are amazing times to get photos and when you are more likely to see wildlife wandering about.