About the Site
Badlands National Park  


Park History

Pinnacles Overlook

Overlooks (North)

Overlooks (Central)

Overlooks (South)

Big Badlands Overlook

Door & Window


Cedar Pass Lodge

Cedar Pass Area

Badlands Loop Road

Norbeck Pass

Fossil Exhibit Trail

Cliff Shelf Nature Trail

Other Trails



Badlands National Park preserves some of the most interesting landforms in North America. It features a semi-arid setting of prairie and grasslands which is bisected by a long rock wall featuring spectacular geological formations. Located in the western section of South Dakota, about 45 miles east of the Black Hills, the park features includes 244,303 acres (380 square miles) of spectacularly shaped peaks, mountains, and canyons, as well as grasslands and prairie. The park is not far from other notable parks, including Wind Cave National Park and Mount Rushmore, both to the east.

The name of the area comes in part from the native American inhabitants, the Lakota, who called it "mako sica", which reflects the dryness of the area and the difficulty of passing through the severe topography of the land. The French fur trappers called the area "les mauvaises terres a traverser", while the Spanish referred to "tierra baldia" or "waste land." Although there are "badlands" in various locations in the west, the "White River Badlands" preserved in Badlands National Park, named for the White River which runs just to the south and west, is unquestionably the most spectacular of them. The park was originally established as a national monument in 1939, but it was elevated to national park status in 1978, making it one of the newer national parks.

The centerpiece of the park is the 80 mile-long "Wall" much of which runs through it and which separates the upper grassland from the lower grassland and serves as a barrier to the passage between the two areas. This "wall" is a 200 foot cliff which has been carved by the erosive effects of wind and water into wild and picturesque shapes somewhat unique in North America. These formations are the result of the erosive agents operating on the soft rock for a half million years.

Another notable feature of the park is the many fossils which were preserved and which have been exposed by erosion. The park and the White River area is one of the world's richest sources of Oligocene mammal fossils. Fossils found in the park are believed to be about 23-35 million years old. Large numbers of fossils have been uncovered via the erosion of loose, fine-grained rock by rain and wind. Some fossils in the park are displayed for visitors on the Fossil Exhibit Trail and the processes of cleaning and preparing new finds can be seen in the visitor center.

The park is particularly easy to to visit by car. The paved Badlands Loop Road runs the length of the park largely along the rim of the Wall and features a large number of overlooks located on pullouts. These overlooks provide views of the valleys, peaks, and canyons of the Wall, passes which run through it, as well as the vast grasslands to the east and west. The Cliff Shelf Nature Trail leads though one of the few verdant areas in the park situated below Millard Ridge.

There are also several trails through the arid landscape. The park does not feature a wide array of trails as some parks have, but there are several which allow users to get a closer look at the prairies and the landscape around the Wall. There are also visitor facilities in the Cedar Pass area which include a visitor center, lodge with cabins, restaurant, campground, and amphitheater.

Badlands National Park is located far away from major population centers, and is not one of the most heavily visited of the national parks. About a million visitors a year come to the park. However, it provides one of the truly unique experiences in the national park system.

Park History

Geological History The land which is now occupied by Badlands National Park 80 million years ago was at the bottom of an shallow inland sea. Covering the central portion of North America, this was known as the Pierre Sea or the Western Interior Seaway. Some 55 or 65-70 million years ago, the continent buckled in a north-south direction, leading to the creation of the Rocky Mountains and the Black Hills to the west. Some 28 million years ago the uplift of the area drained the sea and dried the area and exposed the marine sediments where the Badlands now exist. Rivers running into the region because of the uplift carried more sediments deposited them in the area. Forests and grasslands appeared, and animal life thrived. Later, at the begining of the Oligocene epoch, volcanic activity to the west led to additional deposits of ash, which are visible today in the park in areas of chalky gray coloring.

About 4.5 million yers ago the last major uplift of the Rocky Mountains and the Black Hills and the general rise of the Great Plains occurred. Deposition of sediments from the Black Hills ceased. Rapid erosion of the sediments and ash which had been deposited for so long began after the Miocene epoch ended. Where once material had been carried into the area, now it was removed by erosion and water flow.

For potential visitors, ParkVision recommends "Story Behind the Scenery" guides and "Trails Ilustrated" maps.

The erosion of the soft materials by wind, weather, and other climatic events created the spectacular formations and other features which are visible today.

Human History The first human residents of the area probably arrived as they followed the migrating animals moving from Asia to North America across the Bering land bridge sometime around 11,000 years ago. Remains of the ancient camps of Indians have been found in dozens of locations in the Badlands. These remains include fire pits, stone tools, flakes from flint, bone fragments, bone tools, and potsherds. More than 300 archaeological sites have been documented in the park area. Remnants of fire pits in the Pinnacles are have been dated to some 900 years ago.

Initially, human residents probably hunted bison and mammoth and other animals and camped in the area. Eventually, they developed agriculture and planted corn on the floodplains on the prairie.

From about 1000 A.D., the entire Black Hills area was occupied by a collection of nomadic Indian tribes. A number of different tribes used the Badlands area at one time or another. In the late 1700's, the Teton Sioux (who called themselves the Dakota, or Lakota, meaning "friends" or "a confederation of allies") arrived. These people, who had originally migrated from the east coast to Minnesota, moved into this area, and by 1840 they dominated the area from the Badlands to the Bighorn Mountains. Having adopted the horse which was introduced into North America by the Spanish, the Oglala Sioux abandoned their earlier woodland lifestyle and created a nomadic culture focused on the buffalo, and hunted both buffalo and antelope in the Badlands.

Toward the end of this period the Europeans arrived. In the late 1700's and early 1800's European fur trappers and traders visited the area. In 1823 famed explorer Jedediah Smith led an expedition of fur traders through the Badlands. Trading routes and other trails crossed the Badlands area, although for many trappers and other travelers it was easier to go around the area than through it.

The sheer number of fossils which could be easily seen was noticed by early explorers. The first man to systematically collect fossils in the area was Alexander Culbertson in 1843. As chief agent for the American Fur Company, he collected fossils from the Badlands area and shipped them to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

In 1849 Dr. John Evans of the Evans Expedition and E. de Girardia also collected fossils in the area. In 1852 Evans created the first map of the Badlands.

More people were drawn to the area late in the 19th Century. Miners were drawn by the prospect of gold, which was found in the Black Hills to the west in 1874. By 1890, cattleman were also using the vast expanses of the plains in the area. Farmers and settlers came because of the prospect of free land. In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison took lands from the Sioux and opened the area between the White and the Cheyenne Rivers for settlement.

By the early 1900's there were a number of settlers who had arrived with the intention of farming. In 1907, 2 railroad lines, one above (the Chicago and Northwestern) and one below (the White River Division of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul) the Wall were built, making travel much easier and carrying additional people to the area. By 1922, one half of the land which currently lies within the park was occupied by homesteaders. However, the weather and the aridity of the land made it difficult to farm. Plowing of the prairie took away topsoil in many areas, and droughts in 1911 and in the 1930's drove many of the famers out of the area. Only a small number of homesteaders, perhaps a 100 or so, were able to survive. In the mid-1930's, the Submarginal Land Division of the National Park Service purchased agricultural land which was unable to support farming but had potential as recreational land from some of the individuals.

The idea that the area, with its unique and spectacular sights, ought to be set aside as a national park began to take hold. The primary proponent of this idea was Peter Norbeck of South Dakota, a governor of the state and later U.S. Senator. In 1909, the South Dakota Legislature petitioned the federal government to set asides the lands in the Badlands as a national park. In 1922 Norbeck introduced a bill to Congress to create a national park in the Badlands. As a result of the construction of the creation of a highway built to the south of the park in 1919, tourists in greater number had begun to arrive at the park.

Norbeck was never successful in convincing the government to create a national park. However, after much further effort, in 1929, a bill authorizing the area as a national monument was passed by Congress and signed by President Calvin Coolidge, encompassing 50,830 acres. However, establishment was contingent on the condition that first South Dakota had to acquire necessary land and build a road through the most significant of the Badlands formations. By 1939 these conditions had been met, and on January 25 the Badlands National Monument was established by President Roosevelt. It was intended to preserve the spectacular scenery carved by erosion and protect the fossil beds found there.

The South or Stronghold Unit, to the southwest inside the Pine Ridge Indian reservation, and the Palmer Creek area to its east, were acquired and added to the National Monument in 1976. This doubled the overall acreage of the park to 244,300, of which half are located on Pine Ridge. In that year the Badlands Wilderness area (the Sage Creek Wilderness) also received Congressional recognition.

The national monument was elevated to national park status through the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978 on November 10, 1978.

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