Badlands National Park
In 1872, Yellowstone National Park was created, the first of many land areas set aside for the enjoyment of the people. From that time, a system of National Parks, National Monuments, and other sites have been set aside for scenic, historic, prehistoric, or scientific interest.
Peter Norbeck, a United States senator from South Dakota, was the chief instigator for setting aside the Badlands as a National Monument, and that designation was given to the park in 1939. When the park entered into a joint-operating agreement with the Oglala Lakota in 1976 for the South Unit of the Badlands, known as the Stronghold Unit, the managed area grew to over 244,000 acres with 64,000 acres of wilderness. In 1978, it was designated Badlands National Park.
The entrance fee to the park is $15 per car. Bicyclists and pedestrians can enter the park for $7.50. Passes are good for seven days. The Interagency Annual Pass for designated federal fee areas is valid here. The park is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
A place of otherworldly beauty, the Badlands are also a paleontologist’s dream. Each layer of the Badlands has a story to tell about the plants, animals, and climate of the region at the time of the deposit. The oldest layer, the Pierre Shale, contains the fossilized remains of clams, ammonites, and sea reptiles, proving the existence of the inland sea that once covered the area.
As the sea receded, the area became a lush tropical environment, as evidenced by the Chadron Formation. Deposits in this formation are 35–37 million years old and contain evidence of alligators and palm-type plants in the region. Also commonly found in this layer are many ancient mammals, including a rhinoceros-like creature called the titanotheres. As the climate cooled and became drier, different kinds of fossils began to appear. Evidence of herd animals, including a sheep-like mammal, have been found.
Paleontologists have been doing research in Badlands National Park since the first published record of a fossil jaw was found in 1846, and the Park Service intends to continue that tradition into the future. In 1993, two visitors to the Badlands discovered a large backbone protruding from the ground and notified park personnel. For 15 years, the Park Service and the South Dakota School of Mines worked together at “Big Pig Dig,” the site where the backbone was found.
Over 15,000 bones were recovered from the site, including three-toed horses, tiny deer-like creatures, turtles, and a saber-toothed cat. (There were no ancient pigs found at the site.) The site was closed in 2008. The park plans to begin more fossil excavations beginning in 2012. Should you discover any fossils in the park, report them to park personnel. It is illegal take any of the fossils, plants, or rocks out of a National Park; they are to be left where found.
It is worth visiting the Badlands any time of year, but the best time to visit Badlands National Park is in the spring or early summer. The grasses are still a luscious green early in the year and the daytime temperatures are milder than the very hot days that occur more frequently in July and August. By the end of summer, the grasses are brown, removing a bit of color from the view, but the spires, buttes, and tables of the area are no less beautiful.
Getting to Badlands National Park
There are two routes to Badlands National Park from Rapid City. Highway 44 skirts the southern edge of the North Unit of the park and enters the North Unit through the Interior Entrance. It’s about a 75-mile drive and should take about an hour and 20 minutes at the posted speed limit (65 mph). The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is located near this entrance.
If a night in the park isn’t an option, I’d suggest traveling this route to the park. Stop at the visitors center to get oriented and to get a schedule of park-sponsored events for the day of your visit, and then wander north along the Badlands Loop Road. Exit the park via the Pinnacles Entrance on the north side of the park. Head toward the town of Wall, where you can visit Wall Drug, take in a late dinner or just head back to Rapid City along I-90.
The second route to the park is I-90. It is the fastest route between Rapid City and Badlands National Park: just 63 miles of 75-mph driving. If you are planning on spending the night in or near the park, this is the best route to get there. Visit the town of Wall for breakfast and a peek at Wall Drug and then head into the park.
Get a schedule of events at the park entrance and then travel the Badlands Loop Road headed south. The loop is just 23 miles, but should take some time. There are many scenic overlooks and short walking trails along the way. Stop at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center at the south end of the park, do some hiking on trails near the center, stay at the lodge and enjoy the evening program sponsored by the park.
Get up early enough for the sunrise, exit the park via the Northeast Entrance (which will allow a visit to the Minuteman Missile Site) and then loop back to Rapid City via I-90. Or exit the park and head east on Highway 44, which will also return you to Rapid City.
Longer stays allow for a trip through the Sage Creek Wilderness Area via the gravel Sage Creek Rim Road, where some of the oldest layers of the park formations are visible and where much of the wildlife, including the bison herd, is located.
Travelers headed east on I-90 will want to take exit 131 at Cactus Flat and head south on Highway 240 to the Northeast Entrance of Badlands National Park. It is about 10 miles from the Northeast Entrance to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site is located off this exit as well, and is between the interstate and the park entrance.
Visitors who are planning to visit the Pine Ridge Reservation, subsequent to their visit to the North Unit of the park, may well want to make a stop at Sheep Mountain Table in the Stronghold District. To do this, take Highway 44 west to the town of Scenic and head south on Bombing Range Road (BIA Road 27, Hwy. 589). Travel about four miles and look for Sheep Mountain Table Road on your left. This seven-mile gravel road will bring you to the top of the table with spectacular views. Head back to the main road to continue south into the reservation. An alternate route to the reservation; head south on Highway 44 from Interior and then turn west on Highway 2 to head for Kyle on reservation land.
© Laural A. Bidwell from Moon Mount Rushmore & the Black Hills, 1st Edition