Join the Almanac in a coast-to-coast exploration of America’s most beloved national parks and historic sites. This time, we visit the out-of-this-world landscapes of Badlands National Park in South Dakota.
Badlands National Park
As we drove through South Dakota, cornfields started to give way to rolling hills, which eventually turned into the South Dakota Badlands: mind-blowing rock formations resulting from millennia of erosion.
The spires, pinnacles, and buttes are mostly hidden from the interstate and seem to materialize out of nowhere once you cross into the park. Though the word “badlands” can be used to describe any dry terrain (usually composed of sedimentary rocks and clay-based soils) that has been extensively eroded by wind and water, these look more like Mars than South Dakota.
A 1950s-era photo of the alien landscape of Badlands National Park. Photo courtesy of the National Parks Service.
Despite its foreboding facade, though, life does flourish here. Species like pronghorns, black-footed ferrets, bison, and prairie dogs make their homes in the protected wilderness areas. Fragile and timeless, the soft sandstone can be eroded with your finger.
The colorful, picturesque landscape is sacred to the indigenous people whose cultures, traditions, and existence are profoundly tied to the land. The Great Sioux Nation, a confederacy of seven groups, including three distinct Lakota groups, called this place home at the time of European contact. The Oglala Sioux people now manage and maintain the land as a key part of their history.
It would be easy to forget its bloody history, but Wounded Knee, where in 1890 US troops massacred hundreds of Lakota people, many of them women and children, lies only 45 miles to the south. The decades of conflict that led to the creation of the National Monument in 1939, and the National Park in 1978, is apparent in the park’s bookstore.
Badlands National Park invites visitors to wander and to wonder. Drive past open prairie, uninhabited but for the prairie dogs who stand guard over their dens and chirp loudly to alert others to human presence.
Travel Tip: Keep your camera ready at sharp curves for any bison or pronghorns that may have wandered into the road!