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Interesting Facts About Badlands National Park

My personal favorite national park for a few years now, Badlands National Park gained in popularity after being featured in the Oscar-winning film, Nomadland.

And it’s not just the scenery in Badlands that is super interesting.

We’ve got some facts on this South Dakota National Park.

Badlands National Park is situated in South Dakota. It includes 242.756 acres divided into 2 units:

  • North Unit: In this location, you can find the park headquarters and the Badlands Loop Road. The Buffalo Gap National Grassland encircles the park. The North Unit is cut from east to west by a ridge, or “wall,” which forms the backbone of the park.
  • Stronghold Unit: It is in this unit, situated within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of the Oglala Sioux, that the Sioux warriors performed the Ghost Dance rituals in the 1890s.

Badlands National Park was recognized as a national park in 1939.

The North Unit is managed by the National Park Service, whilst the Southern Unit is co-managed with the Oglala Lakota tribe.

The park offers beautiful landscapes, layered rock formations, steep canyons, and towering spires.

It’s also home to the largest undisturbed mixed-grass prairie in the US.

5 Badlands grandness


For thousands of years, Native Americans have occupied this area and used it as their hunting grounds.

Thanks to oral stories passed through the generations and archeological records, we know Native Americans would set up camp in secluded valleys, where they had easy access to water and food.

150 years ago, the Great Sioux Nation, which consisted of seven bands, including the Oglala Lakota, had completely taken over the northern prairie, displacing the other tribes.

In the 19th century, homesteaders moved into South Dakota.

The U.S. government forced Native Americans into a small portion of the territory, called reservations.

Tensions continued to rise until December 1890, when a band of Minneconjou Sioux Native Americans, led by Chief Big Foot, was overtaken by the U.S. Army near Wounded Knee Creek in the reservation.

When the soldiers attempted to disarm the Native Americans, gunfire erupted, killing 200 Native Americans and 30 soldiers.

This massacre was the last big clash between Native Americans and the U.S. military until the American Indian Freedom Acts in the 1970s.

What is the park famous for?

The Badlands themselves are mostly devoid of vegetation, but it hosts the largest protected mixed-grass prairie in the U.S.

The park is inhabited by bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorns, antelopes, mule deers, coyotes, jackrabbits, numerous species of birds, and the endangered black-footed ferret.

The flora includes Rocky Mountain juniper and Great Plains Cottonwood.

The park is also famous for its numerous fossil beds, including the world’s richest bed from the Oligocene Epoch.

They hold the remains of both extinct animals and ancestors of today’s animals, such as the rhinoceros.

Scientists have studied specimens from the White River region since the 1840s and, by the mid-1800s, they had identified 77 distinct species of animals.

The park’s fame is due to its geology.

These geologic formations are the end products of deposition and erosion.

In the park you can find:

  • Clastic dikes: Vertical sheets of rock, mostly of tan, green, and red shades caused by minerals like hematite (rust) and chlorite. They’re found in the North Unit of the park, especially in the area around the Door/Window overlook.
  • Sod tables: Sod tables are the last traces of ancient prairies that disappeared as the environment became slowly warmer and drier. They’re broken sections of grass and soil that sit on top of badlands material and protect the rocks below from erosion by soaking up rain during intense storms.
  • Layered rock formations: These formations contain different types of rocks such as sandstone, siltstone, mudstones, clay, limestone, volcanic ash, and shale. They come from several sources, like ancient river channels (sandstones), or calcium-rich groundwater (limestone). Volcanic ash comes from eruptions in the Great Basin, a geology province. The only layer of pure volcanic ash in the park is the Rockford Ash.

The layers of the badlands correspond with different eras in geological time.

  • Pierre Shale: This is the bottom layer, deposited 75-69 million years ago. It was laid down by the Western Interior Seaway, a shallow inland sea. Some of the creatures that we find from this time include shelled cephalopods like ammonites and baculites alongside mosasaur (giant marine reptile).
  • Yellow Mounds: This layer is an altered version of the Pierre Shales, but presents a striking difference in appearance. They are the result of the Western Interior Seaway draining. The remaining shales weathered into loam and are today preserved as the Yellow Mounds.
  • The Chadron formation: This layer consists largely of lightly grey claystone beds, deposited around 37-34 million years ago. The environment during this era was hot and wet, similar to the Everglades National park, and it contained similar creatures, like alligators and the extinct massive brontothere.
  • Brule formation: This layer was deposited 34-30 million years ago. It was a cooler and drier time in geological history, similar to a Savannah with occasional river channels. It was home to many grazers, like the oreodonts (commonly found in the park) and predators like the nimravid, an extinct cat-like animal with saber-teeth.
  • Sharps formation: This is the youngest geological formation, deposited around 30-28 million years ago. At the base, we can find the Rockford Ash. Much of the sharps formation is characterized by sandstone channels as the era climate continued to cool and dry.

Things you might not know about the park:

  • The site used to be covered by a shallow sea which, when it drained, shaped the terrain into the rock formations that we see today.
  • The rocks in the park are still eroding at the pace of 1 inch per year.
  • The name “Badlands” comes from the Oglala Lakota. They had named the site mako sika which literally means “bad land.”
  • During WWII, the site was used to test explosives.
  • The black-footed ferret, a native species close to extinction in the 20th century, is beginning to make a comeback.

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