Badlands, South Dakota

This article was contributed by Suzie Jones, travel writer for Fodor's Gold Guides.

Badlands National Park is a Sioux Indian war ground in South Dakota with a history that includes illegal settlement by immigrant homesteaders, a National Monument declaration, and becoming the last resting place of a T-Rex named Sue.


History of Badlands

The Badlands as we know it was named by early 1800 fur trappers for its lack of water – which is ironic considering it used to be the bottom of an ocean. The story of this modern day 244,000-acre protected area and the land surrounding it really starts 25-35 million years back. Today paleontologists are constantly revealing new chapters as they explore the Oligocene period through the rich fossils found in the Pierre Shale. This steel colored geological formation lines the rutted ravines, pinnacles and spires jutting from the large rolling grass prairie.

Humans have hunted the Badlands for the last 11,000 years. Paleo-Indian, Arikara and Lakota all have a colorful history of summering and hunting here. During the last two centuries the Badlands have also hosted notable clashes between homesteaders and American Indians.

The 1890s religion of the Ghost Dance originated here and culminated in the Battle of Wounded Knee Creek (45 miles south of the park). The American Indian Freedom actions of the 1970s also took place at Wounded Knee. The oral history of this site is considered one of the primary responsibilities of the Oglala of Pine Ridge and the Minneconjou of Standing Rock Reservation who are among the survivors of the battle.

Paleontological exploration of the area was started by the Lakota who collected fossilized bones and shells – and even speculated about the origin of their finds. Interest in the area exploded in 1846 when Dr Hiram A. Prout published a paper about a fossilized jaw fragment found in the White River Badlands. The largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton nicknamed Sue was accidentally discovered not far from the current park.

The Badlands lived up to its name during the Second World War when the US Air Force used part of the Pine Ridge Reservation (including 337 acres from the then Badlands national Monument) as an air-to-ground gunnery Range.

A National Monument from 1939-77, it has been designated as the Badlands National Park since 1978. Within the park is the 64,000 acre Badlands Wilderness project which is the site of the reintroduction of the most endangered land mammal in North America: the Black-footed Ferret.

What to See at Badlands

At first glance it may seem austere and deserted but look a little closer and you will glimpse many a treasure unfolding. The Badlands was a fond favorite of Teddy Roosevelt and around one million visitors follow in his footsteps every year.

As soon as the sun announces a spectacular dawn the Badlands will offer to entertain nature lovers, science buffs and history aficionados. You can simply drive the highway 240 Loop Road to take in the strange landforms but if you intend to spend a bit more time there are various activities including horse riding and fishing to add an extra dimension to your time in the Badlands. Visit to find the perfect accommodation match in South Dakota. Alternatively you can head out on a hiking trail and camp.

The desolate, harsh beauty is everywhere. It is easy to imagine the long and varied history of the Badlands playing out against this backdrop of dramatic scenery - also look out for Pronghorn, Bison and Bighorn sheep. (Do not approach the wildlife!)

The North Unit includes the Sage Creek Wilderness area. At Robert’s Prairie Dog Town down Sage Creek Rim Road you can learn about the history and charm of the Lynch Dawg. 

In the South the Palmer Creek and Stronghold Units can be found within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The White River Visitor Center is run by the Oglala Sioux Tribe – they will give you a list of contacts for contacting landowners about touring the South unit of the park (where much of the land is privately owned)

There are few roads in the Stronghold Unit. This area coincides with the defunct military gunnery range. If you find any explosive shells do not touch them (and report your location and find to the White River Ranger Station).

Quick Facts on Badlands

Site Information
Names:Badlands · Badlands National Park
Categories:sacred rocks
Visitor and Contact Information
Coordinates:43.750761° N, 101.938448° W
Address:South Dakota, South Dakota
Lodging:View hotels near Badlands
Note: This information was accurate when first published and we do our best to keep it updated, but details such as opening hours and prices can change without notice. To avoid disappointment, please check with the site directly before making a special trip.


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Map of Badlands, South Dakota

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