Southwestern South Dakota is home to 244,000 acres of towering tawny pinnacles and buttes overlooking one of America’s largest protected prairielands. Established as a national monument nearly 80 years ago, the wind-ravaged, eroded formations were named “Mako Sica,” or “land bad,” by the Lakota Sioux Native Americans who reside primarily in the Dakotas. Badlands National Park is considered one of the world’s richest deposits of mammal fossil beds, where the remains of ancient carnivores, reptiles, and marine life rest indefinitely in the otherworldly veins of Chadron and Brule rock. Living mammals are in equal abundance – the park is a fountainhead of bison, prairie dogs, pronghorn, endangered black-footed ferret, and more than 200 kinds of bird. Maybe your first experience with the park was on social media, where it inspired the Alt National Park Service, a vocal and rogue defender of environmental protections and conservation under the Trump administration.
Politics aside, the rugged beauty of Badlands National Park transcends discourse and facilitates respect for a history beyond our years. If you’re looking for a summer of unstinted travel, explore these suggested hikes and sights for an emotionally refreshing sojourn.
The Door Trail
This facile, one-mile hike takes you into the heart of the Badlands, where dramatic views of ravines and gullies follow you to the edge of the park’s famous “Wall,” and lets you walk through it. A short boardwalk winds along the perimeter to a viewing deck of broken, prepossessing landscape. Continuing past the Door Trail, you’re rewarded with more challenging terrain deep into the canyons and up into the spires of the Badlands. This trail is marked with daffodil-colored posts to keep you on track.
Castle Trail – Medicine Loop
One of the park’s most strenuous hikes, this multi-junctioned looped trail winds through extensive prairie, rolling hills, carved buttes, sod tables, and washes pressed against the north edge of the Badland Wall. It bends southeast to the Medicine Root Trail – Saddle Pass Trail junction, allowing hikers the option of hiking up to eight miles through various landscapes. These trails are best for wildlife viewing, especially at dusk and dawn. These trials offer the most comprehensive views of the park’s topographic features.
Fossil Exhibit Trail
For an intimate encounter with the park’s expansive fossil beds and geological anomalies, this brief, well-trafficked boardwalk trail is unparalleled. Although a popular tourist attraction, the trail offers prehistoric remains, wildflower fields, and birding opportunities.
A photographer’s paradise, the short walk up to Pinnacles Overlook yields staggering views of the rocky pinnacles, overhangs, and chimneys that compose Badlands National Park. Once you arrive at the overlook, find the observation area below the parking lot along the Badlands Loop Road for views of the park’s most unlikely collection of Rocky Mountain juniper trees. Compression caused by fallen rocks allows the trees to thrive in the dry region. Views of the nearby Black Hills are also visible from Pinnacles on a clear day.
Mount Rushmore National Monument
If you missed that class field trip to Mount Rushmore, your excursion to the Badlands region is a good excuse to make up for lost time. Located roughly 80 miles from the park, this national monument in South Dakota’s Black Hills is a manmade marvel. Massive carvings of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln rest in the mountain’s granite stone.