Visiting the Park
Badlands National Park is comprised of the North Unit and the more remote Stronghold District (including the disconnected Palmer Creek Unit). Park headquarters are at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center at the southeastern entrance to the North Unit. There are two designated campgrounds, Cedar Pass and Sage Creek. Primitive camping is allowed throughout the park as long as it is at least a half-mile from a road or trail and concealed from roadways.
Traveling to many parts of the Stronghold District, jointly managed with the Oglala Lakota Tribe, requires the permission of private landowners; consult the White River Visitor Center for more information about regulations.
More than 64,000 acres of the park are devoted to the Badlands Wilderness.
The White River Badlands lie near the southern edge of the Missouri Plateau, the most eroded of the U.S. Great Plains provinces. South of the Badlands is the Pine Ridge escarpment, which divides the lower dissected Missouri Plateau from the High Plains to the south.
West of the Badlands are the Black Hills, a granite-hearted mountain range swelling from the surrounding short-grass plains and containing the highest peaks (more than 7,000 feet) in the country east of the Rocky Mountains.
Badlands National Park is bordered by the 597,431-acre Buffalo Gap National Grassland, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and a small portion of private land.
The striking scarp called the Wall is the great landmark of the Badlands, a 60-mile battlement stretching from Scenic to Kadoka and gradually retreating northward from the White River that excavated it. (Check out the park's easy Door and Window walking trails, both less than a mile round trip, to visit dramatic gaps in the Wall.) The corrosion of water---raindrops from the Great Plains' brief but ferocious thunderstorms, the network of drainages feeding into the rivers---has, coupled with wind and freeze/thaw cycles, denuded and sculpted the scarp. Weaker rock was worn away, while more resistant layers stood out as pinnacles, towers, knife ridges.
The colorful buttes reveal many layers of sedimentary rock. Some of the clay and shale beds were laid down by rivers (such as the 2 million-year-old Medicine Root Gravels, outwashed from the Black Hills) and some by inland seas. The terrain continues to erode at an approximate pace of 1 inch per year---impressively fast by geologic standards. Exposed in this excavation are a remarkable variety of fossil flora and fauna (learn more at the visitor centers and along the Fossil Exhibit Trail off the Loop Road). The drainage networks of the White, Bad and Cheyenne rivers continue to work at the Badlands landscape. While credited in the name of this famous nest of badlands, the White River itself barely passes through the national park (in the southeast corner of the Stronghold Unit), mainly flowing south of it on its 500-mile course to the Missouri.
The park is thought to protect the largest expanse of mixed-grass prairie in the nation. Only sparse vegetation grows on the dissected slopes---hastening their erosion---but the tablelands and gully floors support a rich mixture of grasses from the moister tall-grass prairies to the east and the semi-arid short-grass prairies westward. Rocky Mountain juniper is scattered throughout the badlands, and cottonwoods and other riparian vegetation grow along the rivers and creeks. You're also bound to see a lot of prickly-pear cactus.
The largest animal in the national park is the reintroduced American bison, a true symbol of the Great Plains. Bison might be seen grazing and wallowing throughout the park; the rut, usually in late summer, provokes much activity in the herds, including, occasionally, furious dominance battles between the huge bulls. Other mammals include the pronghorn, bighorn sheep, coyote, bobcat, Rocky Mountain elk, mountain lion, mule and white-tailed deer, black-tailed prairie dog, American badger, swift fox and the critically endangered black-footed ferret. Look for burrowing owls in the numerous and lively prairie dog towns, and scan the skies for ferruginous hawks and golden eagles.
The White River Badlands long have been host to various Indian tribes and are encompassed in the traditional homeland of the Oglala Lakota, many of whom still reside in and around the Pine Ridge Reservation that borders Badlands National Park. The last Ghost Dance---a ceremony adopted by the Lakota in 1890 in the hopes of returning their world to a more pristine state, free of Euro-American dominion---occurred on the Stronghold Table, a large mesa between Battle and Cottonwood creeks, shortly before the Wounded Knee massacre. Visitors to the national park and Pine Ridge should be sensitive to the cultural and spiritual significance the Badlands landscape continues to hold for the Lakota people.