Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park

In A Nutshell

The stunning panorama of Badlands National Park rests just an hour east of Rapid City on I-90 (exits 110 or 131). This 244,000-acre landscape is both barren and beautiful. Wind and rain erosion have created an eerie moonscape of deep gorges and jagged sawtooth ridges with rock layers painted in subtle hues of sand, rose, gold and green.

Geology and Fossil History

Starting 65 million years ago, weather patterns shifted, and the area now called the Badlands was lifted and transformed by geological forces. The black, muddy floor of an ancient sea that once covered this area was compressed into a band of 2,000-foot-thick rock known as the Pierre Shale. Forests flourished and withered away. Volcanoes laid down a thick layer of ash and rivers repeatedly flooded the region, depositing sediment. These successive layers of matter often held the bodies and bones of animals now long extinct and preserved for posterity as fossils.

Wind and the rushing waters of rivers now long vanished eroded the dry, fragile soil, coursing through different layers of harder and softer rock, gouging out channels and gulleys, and carving the cliffs, spires and odd rock formations.

Erosion continues to this day, frequently revealing long-buried fossils. Drawn by the fossilized remains of saber-toothed cats, miniature camels and horses, and huge rhinoceros-like beasts known as titanotheres, scientists discovered millions of years of geologic history buried in the multicolored layers. One of the world's richest Eocene/Oligocene Epoch fossil beds is located here, yielding a wealth of information on the "Golden Age of Mammals" of approximately 2 million to 37 million years ago.

South Dakotans began petitioning Congress to set aside a portion of the Badlands as a preserve as early as 1909. The area was designated Badlands National Monument in 1939, then given national park status in 1978.

Not So "Bad" Today

Today, the Badlands are more hospitable than when American Indians, trappers and early fossil hunters explored its wonders. Highway 240, known as Badlands Loop Road, snakes through the passes, offering fourteen scenic overlooks, roadside exhibits, developed nature trails and an air- conditioned visitor center at Cedar Pass.

Getting Oriented

Entrance to the park is $15 for passenger vehicles, $7.50 for pedestrians and $10 per motorcycle with passenger. Commercial entrance fees are $60 for a minibus and $150 for a motor coach. The 12-month Interagency Pass, valid for entrance fees in all U.S. national parks and other federal recreational lands, is available at entrance stations for $80. For U.S. citizens or residents ages 62 and older, the Interagency Senior Pass is available for a one-time $10 fee. The Interagency Access Pass is free to U.S. citizens or residents with lifetime disabilities.

The Ben Reifel Visitor Center at Cedar Pass was named after the first American Indian to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives (from 1961— 1971). The visitor center is open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the summer and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the winter. The Ben Reifel Visitor Center offers a park orientation film, exhibits featuring models and murals of Badlands' landscapes of the past and pres-ent with interactives, animations, and video presentations, as well as a bookstore with proceeds donated to the park's education program. Cedar Pass Lodge, operated by Forever Resorts, continues the tradition of service to park visitors that was begun back in 1928. The Lodge is closed during the winter months but offers a restaurant, cabins, and gift shop in summer. 

The White River Visitor Center is about 20 miles south of the town of Scenic on BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) Route 27. It is open early June through mid-September 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Located within the South Unit of the park (which encompasses part of the adjoining Pine Ridge Reservation), it is staffed by members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe working as cultural interpreters. 

For more information or free maps, please contact the Superintendent's Office, Badlands National Park, P.O. Box 6, 25216 Ben Riefel Rd., Interior, SD 57750; (605) 433-5361; or send email to [email protected]


Badlands trails range from a 0.25-mile loop past fossil displays to a 5.25-mile path across a prairie. Park naturalists present guided walks and hikes throughout the park, as well as talks, Junior Ranger Programs, and evening programs at Cedar Pass Campground. Check the visitor centers for times and locations.

Journeying west to the Sage Creek Basin area of the park, look for 500 head of bison as well as pronghorn, bighorn sheep, coyote, deer and rattlesnakes that live in the 64,250-acre Badlands Wilderness Area. Though known for the Badlands formations, most of the park acreage is prairie. The Badlands wilderness is the largest remaining expanse of wild prairie in the NPS system. There are no marked trails within the wilderness, but it is entirely open to hiking, camping and backpacking. Potable water is available only at park visitor centers, Cedar Pass Campground and Cedar Pass Lodge. Boiling, using chemicals or even filtering won't make the chalky water drinkable.

Note: For your safety, it is extremely important to carry water and tell someone your itinerary before you go.

While admiring the creatures and abundant wildflowers on the lands, don't forget to watch the ridges where eagles, hawks and turkey vultures soar on warm updrafts. The best time to visit the Badlands is early morning and early evening when soft lighting brings out wildlife and the subtle colors found in the layers of compressed sandstone and Pierre shale.