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Badlands National Park, South Dakota, USA

Brule Formation, Badlands National Park, South Dakota, USA [photo: NPS]
Brule Formation, Badlands National Park, South Dakota, USA [photo: NPS]
Norbeck Pass, Badlands National Park, South Dakota, USA [photo: NPS]
Norbeck Pass, Badlands National Park, South Dakota, USA [photo: NPS]
Brule Formation, Badlands National Park, South Dakota, USA [photo: NPS / Sarah Feldt]
Brule Formation, Badlands National Park, South Dakota, USA [photo: NPS / Sarah Feldt]

Land of Stone and Light

The formations in Badlands National Park and badlands formations around the world are the end-product of two simple processes: deposition and erosion.

Deposition is the process of rocks gradually building up. Over the course of millions of years, the layered rocks of the Badlands were slowly stacked on top of each other like a layer cake. These rocks were deposited by a number of natural forces which range from shallow inland seas to rivers to wind. Deposition began about 75 million years ago with the formation of the Pierre Shale, the base of the geologic formations in the park. Deposition ended about 28 million years ago with the Sharps Formation, the uppermost unit of Badlands stratigraphy.

Erosion is the process of rocks gradually wearing away. The Badlands began eroding about 500,000 years ago as the Cheyenne and White Rivers carved their way through the landscape. They are the reason for the narrow channels, canyons, and rugged peaks of the Badlands which we see today. And the Badlands are still eroding – it is estimated that the Badlands erode at the rate of one inch per year, which is a rapid rate for rocks. In contrast, the granite of the Black Hills, to the west of Badlands National Park, erodes at the rate of one inch per 10,000 years. Scientists estimate that in the next 500,000 years, the Badlands will have eroded completely

Archaeology in the Badlands

The oldest archaeological site in the Badlands is over 12,000 years old and likely represents a temporary camp for traveling hunters. Over 300 sites have been found and described within the park’s boundaries. Some of these locations contain scorched rock and charcoal that indicate ancient campfires. Other sites are full of bison bones that mark prehistoric butchering locations. A few areas show evidence of quarrying and worked stone. This indicates where ancient residents of the Badlands fashioned tools out of chert, chalcedony, and other hard rocks. Pottery can occasionally be found at these stone-working sites.

To date, archaeologists have not discovered any sign of permanent habitation in the park. Instead, campfire, butchering, and quarry sites suggest that the Badlands served as a seasonal hunting ground for a succession of peoples. The earliest sites belong to a culture known to archaeologists as “Plains Archaic,” while more recent sites include the Arikara and the Oglala Lakota, tribes found in South Dakota and North Dakota today. Archaeological evidence paired with oral histories indicates that the Arikara were pushed out of the region by the Oglala Lakota in the 1700s; the succession of earlier tribes and cultures in the Badlands is uncertain.

Many of the archaeology sites are found on the margins of eroding sod tables, fragments of ancient prairie found throughout the park. Due to how easily the Badlands wear away, exposed archaeological sites must be surveyed and described quickly, before they are broken apart and washed away. If you come across any material in the park that you suspect may be archaeological, please let a park ranger know!

The name Badlands

The name Badlands National Park poses an interesting question: why would you try to entice people to visit a park by calling it bad? In truth, the name is an homage to people that lived in the Badlands before it was a national park. For hundreds of years, the Lakota people have called this area mako sica, which literally translates to “bad lands.” When early French fur trappers passed through this area, they called the area les mauvaises terres a traveser (‘bad lands to travel across’). Since the French trappers spent time with the Lakota, it is likely that the French name is derived directly from the Lakota one. But why? What made this area deserve a “bad” name?

The Badlands presents many challenges to easy travel. When it rains in the Badlands, the wet clay becomes slick and sticky, making it very difficult to cross. The jagged canyons and buttes that cover the landscape also make it hard to navigate. The winters are cold and windy, the summers are hot and dry, and the few water sources that exist are normally muddy and unsafe to drink. These factors make the land difficult to survive in, and evidence of early human activity in the Badlands points to seasonal hunting rather than permanent habitation.

One final fun fact about the name of Badlands National Park: In 1922, when Badlands was first proposed as a national park, the suggested name was Wonderland National Park!


The Badlands weather is variable and unpredictable with temperature extremes ranging from 116° F to -40° F. Summers are hot and dry with occasional violent thunderstorms. Hailstorms and occasional tornadoes can descend on the Badlands with sudden fury. Winters are typically cold with 12 to 24 inches of total snowfall.

Entrance Fees – 2020

Private Vehicle: $30.oo – Valid for 7 days
Motorcycle: $25.oo – Valid for 7 days
Individual (hiker, bicycle): $15.oo per person 16 and older – Valid for 7 days

Admits the purchaser and passengers in a single, private, non-commercial vehicle or the purchaser when entry is by other means (hiker, bicycle) – Non-transferable, non-refundable, and does not cover camping fees

Operating Hours & Seasons

The park’s main visitor center, the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, is open daily all year, except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. During the summer months, ranger-led programs, and other events are offered throughout the day. In the South Unit, the White River Visitor Center is open during the summer months and offers information, restrooms, and cultural exhibits.


Cedar Pass Lodge is the only lodging and restaurant in the park and offers visitors a memorable stay. The gift shop provides a distinctive collection of regional and handmade gifts, Native American crafts, and park memorabilia. Cabins book up fast and visitors should contact the Lodge directly for reservations.


There are two designated campgrounds available at the park: Cedar Pass Campground and Sage Creek Primitive Campground. Cedar Pass Campground is managed by Cedar Pass Lodge. The primitive Sage Creek Campground is operated on a first come, first serve basis. Both have a fourteen-day limit.


What better way to experience the beauty of the Badlands than to hike through the prairie grasses and unique geologic formations? Plan ahead to ensure you have a great and safe hike.


Public WiFi is available.

Public Wifi is available at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. Cell phone coverage for major carriers varies throughout the park from full coverage to no coverage depending on your location in the park. Please plan accordingly for communication and safety needs.

All the park details can be found here:

Official Park Website: https://www.nps.gov/badl/
— Camping in Badlands: https://www.nps.gov/badl/planyourvisit/camping.htm


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