Badlands National Park


At Badlands National Park, weird shapes are etched into a plateau of soft sediments and volcanic ash, revealing colorful bands of flat-lying strata. The stratification adds immeasurably to the beauty of each scene, binding together all of its diverse parts. Viewed horizontally, individual beds are traceable from pinnacle to pinnacle, mound to mound, ridge to ridge, across the intervening ravines. Viewed from above, the bands curve in and out of the valley like contour lines on a topographic map. A geologic story is written in the rocks of Badlands National Park, every bit as fascinating and colorful as their outward appearance. It is an account of 75 million years of accumulation with intermittent periods of erosion that began when the Rocky Mountains reared up in the West and spread sediments over vast expanses of the plains. The sand, silt, and clay, mixed and interbedded with volcanic ash, stacked up, layer upon flat-lying layer, until the pile was thousands of feet deep. In a final phase of volcanism as the uplift ended, white ash rained from the sky to frost the cake, completing the building stage.

Approximately 75 million years ago Earth's climate was warmer than it now is, and a shallow sea covered much of the region we know as the Great Plains. Stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada and from western Iowa to western Wyoming, this sea teemed with life. In today's Badlands the bottom of that sea appears as a grayish-black sedimentary rock called the Pierre (pronounced "peer") shale. This layer is an incredibly rich source of fossils, for creatures sank to the bottom of the sea when they died and over a long course of time became fossils.

During the Oligocene epoch 40 to 25 million years ago, the region that is now the White River Badlands supported many kinds of animals. The land was then lush, well watered, and much warmer than now. The animals, mostly mammals, roamed the floodplains; many died in floods and were quickly buried in river sediments. Conditions for preservation were excellent; the Oligocene beds are one of the world's richest vertebrate fossil sites, though they represent only a short segment of Earth history.

Broad regional uplift raised the land about 5 million years ago and initiated the erosion that created the Badlands. The White River, which now flows west to east five or ten miles south of the park, eroded a scarp, the beginning of what is now called the Wall. Numerous small streams and rills furrowed the scarp face and eventually intersected to create the Badlands topography. Each rainstorm over the next 5 million years chewed away at the Wall, making its crest recede northward away from the river as its base followed suit. This is an old story in the arid and semi-arid regions of the West. It always happens in rocks that are relatively non-resistant to erosion and it always starts with a scarp. On average, the White River Badlands of South Dakota erode one inch per year.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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