Badlands National Park Overview
The Badlands are a work of art still in progress. Water and wind continue to sculpt the pliant soil into sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles, and spires that resemble medieval castles made of sand. It's in the golden light of sunrise or sunset that the artistry is on full display, when the duff-colored soils glow in shades of red, pink, and purple.
Hikers, backpackers, cyclists, and casual wanderers can explore this Byzantine labyrinth of shifting sands and experience the vast expanse of azure sky and forbidding land that greetedand ultimately defeatedthe earliest settlers. Each panorama offers a glimpse into millions of years of geologic history, paleontology, and the inevitability of a changing earth.
Hike 35 Million Years into History
The park's seven short trails sufficiently penetrate the diverse terrain found within the Badlandseasy loops through wooded prairie give way to steep hikes along precipitous Badland formations. The Fossil Exhibit Trail is a quarter-mile loop that allows visitors to see fossils dating from the late Eocene and Oligocene epochsoften referred to as the Age of Mammals. The Door Trail allows visitors to break on through to the other sidethe "door" is a break in the wall of wickedly eroded Badlands.
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Ride Herd with Buffalo
It's hard to miss the massive 2,000-pound bison that graze on prairie grass in the Badlandswith a herd 600 strong, chances are good that you will see American Buffalo (as they're popularly called) if you drive along Sage Creek Rim Road. And there's always a chance that you will catch a rare glimpse of the 25 to 30 black-footed ferrets living in the park. They're the most endangered mammal in North America.
Backpack with the Baddest
To relieve the unbearable urge to explore, which overtakes many Badlands visitors, try backpacking the backcountry. You can camp anywhere on this 244,000-acre expanse so long as you're at least a half-mile away from any road or trail. The Sage Creek Wilderness in the park's northern region provides 64,250 acres of remote wilderness where backpackers can get lost and found with the aid of topographical maps. Bad-to-the-bone backpackers can test their limits in this parched terrain where other living creatures barely survive by subsistence.
Cycle the Badlands
Although forbidden on hiking trails, cyclists can ride along the park's paved loop road. Get someone to shuttle you up to Pinnacles Overlook and you can cruise downhill for 22 miles to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. The closest thing to off-road action is gravelthe Sage Creek Rim Road along the northern boundary of the park snakes its way from the Pinnacles Overlook past a prairie dog town, and on to wonderful views of the Badlands Wilderness Area.
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Drive through Hostile Country
A drive along the Badlands Loop Road evokes some of the same emotions experienced by early settlers crossing this ominous and forbidding terrain in horse-drawn caravans. French-Canadian trappers described this area as les mauvaises terres, or "bad land to travel across." The Lakota translated this into their language as mako sica, or "land bad." Several overlooks offer visitors the opportunity to pull over and behold this paradoxthe sheer beauty of a potentially hostile and barren landscape.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication