Hiking Trails in Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park - Overview

The Ogalala Sioux called this area mako sica, meaning "land bad". Borrowing from this apt description, early French-Canadian trappers referred to the daunting terrain as les mauvaises terres traverser, or "bad lands to cross". Today, we know this visually stunning landscape as 'The Badlands'.

President Franklin Roosevelt issued a proclamation on January 25, 1939 establishing Badlands National Monument. In the late 60's, Congress added more than 130,000 acres of Oglala Sioux tribal land to be co-managed with the NPS. The Badlands were officially designated as a National Park on November 10, 1978.

The Park - 244,000 acres divided into 3 distinct units - only maintains trails in the Sage Creek Wilderness Unit. The following trails and backcountry routes are located in the Sage Creek Wilderness Unit.

Perhaps the Park's most recognizable and geologically significant feature is the Badland Wall.

Stretching for nearly 60 miles east to west, The Badland Wall we see today was carved over the past 500,000 years by three river systems and millennia of rain, wind and exposure.

Predating and setting the stage for such a rapid occurrence, The White River eroded a scarp - a long steep slope or cliff at the edge of a plateau - south of the Park. Subsequent storms over the next 5 million years chipped away at this Wall-in-the-making, causing its crest to recede northward away from the river and toward the upper plains.

This natural geologic barrier helped determine the Park's northern boundary.

Despite the Badland Wall's formidable appearance, it is actually a loose composite of soft sediments, silt, clay and volcanic ash. Such composition succumbs easily and rapidly to natural erosive forces.

As the soft ground erodes, it yields bones of mammals many millions of years old. The Park is coveted by geologists and anthropologists for this reason. It is not uncommon for casual visitors to find new fossils.


In 1976, Badlands National Monument entered into an agreement with the Oglala Lakota Nation to co-manage and protect 122,000 acres that had been used as an aerial bombing range during World War II. This doubled the size of the Monument and led Congress to redesignate the area as Badlands National Park in 1978.

The new Badlands National Park was now subdivided into two units: the North Unit, consisting of park land north of Highway 44, and the South Unit, park land south of Highway 44.

The South Unit contains many sites sacred to the Oglala Lakota and other American Indian cultures. Please show respect by not touching or removing objects tied to trees and shrubs. All artifacts must be left in place. Remember to practice Leave No Trace principles at all times in the Stronghold District.

The White River Visitor Center was opened in 1978 and has remained open during the summer months to provide orientation to the South Unit and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Due to the quantity of unexploded ordnance that continues to litter the areas used for bombing practice, a multi-agency task force is working toward clearing the South Unit of these devices. Please contact a ranger if you find an unexploded ordnance. Cellular phones can detonate these devices.

The South Unit remains largely undeveloped and lacks access points, such as roads and trails. The South Unit is a protected natural area and is not managed as a four-wheeldrive recreation area. Travelers must remain on existing primitive road tracks. Do not leave these tracks. We encourage anyone interested in backcountry hiking or camping in the South Unit to notify the ranger at the White River Visitor Center to ensure your safety and that you are not trespassing on private lands. Explorers must often cross private land to access the public land. Always obtain permission from landowners for vehicular or foot access before setting out for Cuny Table, Stronghold Table, and Palmer Creek. A list of land owners is available at the White River Visitor Center. Be prepared with alternative destinations if land owners do not grant permission to
cross their property. Hikers in the South Unit must be experienced map readers. Plan on a minimum of two days to hike in and out of the remote Palmer Creek area.

One of the few designated roads is the Sheep Mountain Table Road, 4 miles south of the town of Scenic on Pennington County Road 589. The stunning views from windswept Sheep Mountain Table are accessible under dry conditions, but the road is impassable when wet or snow covered (high clearance vehicles recommended).

Please use caution along the unstable cliff edges of the table. Sheep Mountain Table is designated a day use area. Overnight camping is not allowed.

Badlands National Park - Geology

Deep canyons, towering spires, and flat-topped tables can all be found among Badlands buttes. Yet, despite their complex appearance, they are largely a result of two basic geologic processes: deposition and erosion.

The serrated Badlands terrain did not begin eroding until about 500,000 years ago when water began to cut down through the rock layers, carving fantastic shapes into what had been a flat floodplain. The ancient fossil soils, buried for millions of years, became exposed once again. Many of the layers are gently warped and faulted due to mountain building activities that formed the Black Hills, 70 miles to the west.
Erosion is ongoing. Every time it rains, more sediment is washed from the buttes. One day, a peak may tower above the land; the next, a storm may weaken it just enough for it to crash to the ground. While the Badlands are long lasting in human terms, they are short lived in terms of geologic time. Evidence suggests that they will erode completely away in another 500,000 years, giving them a life of one million years. Compare that to the age of the earth, which is 4.6 billion years old. Even the Rocky Mountains, considered young, started to rise only 70 million years ago. On average, Badlands buttes erode one inch each year. However, change can occur much slower or faster.

As the Badlands buttes erode, some of the sediment is washed onto the prairie below, building up its level while the rest is carried by small streams to the White, Bad, and Cheyenne Rivers. These tributaries flow into the Missouri River, which drains into the Mississippi River. Eventually, some Badlands sediments will travel as far as the Gulf of Mexico.

The Loop Road hugs the Badlands wall, a long, narrow spine of buttes that stretches 60 miles from Kadoka west towards the town of Scenic. Wind, rain, and freeze/thaw action have gradually worn down the badlands sediments, leaving the Badlands Wall behind. As erosion has continued, the wall has retreated from the three major drainages. The town of Wall, South Dakota takes its name from this feature that dominates the horizon.

A quick look at the buttes will show that the Badlands were deposited in layers. These layers formed soft, sedimentary rocks, composed of minute grains of sand, silt, and clay that have been cemented into solid form. Geologists study sedimentary rocks to determine what type of environment caused the material to accumulate. Layers similar in character are grouped into units called formations with the oldest layers at the bottom.


The lighter colored Sharps Formation was primarily deposited from 28 to 30 million years ago by wind and water as the climate continued to dry and cool. Volcanic eruptions to the west continued to supply ash during this time. Today, the Brule and Sharps form the more rugged peaks and canyons of the Badlands.

As the Oligocene Epoch continued, a thick layer of volcanic ash was deposited, forming the bottom layer of the Sharps Formation. This Rockyford Ash serves as a boundary between the Brule and Sharps.

During the Oligocene Epoch, between 30 to 34 million years ago, the tannish brown Brule Formation was deposited. As the climate began to dry and cool after the Eocene the forests gave way to open savannah. New mammals such as oreodonts(sheep-like, herd mammals) began to dominate. Bands of sandstone interspersed among the layers were deposited in channels and mark the course of ancient rivers that flowed from the Black Hills. Red layers found within the Brule Formation are fossil soils called paleosols.

The greyish Chadron Formation was deposited between 34 to 37 million years ago as a river flood plain that replaced the sea. Each time the rivers flooded, they deposited a new layer on the plain. Alligator fossils indicate that a lush, subtropical forest covered the land. However, mammal fossils dominate. The Chadron is known for large, rhinoceros-like mammals called titanotheres. The formation can be recognized because it erodes into low, minimally vegetated grey mounds.

The sea drained away with the uplift of the Black Hills and Rocky Mountains, exposing the black ocean mud to the air. Upper layers were weathered into a yellow soil, called Yellow Mounds. The mounds are an example of a fossil soil, or paleosol.

The oldest formation is the Pierre Shale, these black layers were deposited between 69 and 75 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period when a shallow, inland sea stretched across what is now the Great Plains. Sediment filtered through the seawater, forming a black mud on the sea floor that has since hardened into shale. Fossil clams, ammonites, and sea reptiles confirm the sea environment.

Badlands National Park - Paleontology


A fossil is a preserved sign of ancient life. Paleontologists study animal tracks and plants preserved over time, as well as bones that have been converted into fossils through natural chemical processes.

Additionally, other signs such as feces and pollen have also been fossilized and are studied to help get a broader picture of life in prehistoric North America. The area in and around Badlands National Park has had a long association with research on fossil vertebrates. Scientists have been using this area as an outdoor laboratory for over 150 years.

For field work here at the Badlands, the paleontologist’s tools of choice are soft bristled brushes, dental picks, and small trowels. Field specimens are “jacketed,” or carefully encased in plaster and burlap for transport to the storage facility to await preparation for study or display. Fieldwork has a glamorous reputation from movies like Jurassic Park. Firmly in our minds is the idea of sun burnt scientists diligently working to uncover huge fossilized bones. However, reality is that for every hour of fieldwork, fossil preparators and other scientists spend twelve or more hours in a laboratory cleaning, repairing, and identifying each specimen. Badlands fossils range in size from elephant-sized mammals to microscopic rodent teeth. A single specimen may fill a storage building or one hundred specimens may fit inside a film canister.

The Museum Fossil specimens are maintained in storage facilities for research purposes or for display in museums and similar educational facilities. Each specimen is assigned a unique number for the larger collection of which it is a part. This process of cataloging specimens includes critical information such as where the specimen was found, when it was found, and identifies it with as much detail as possible. This process enables scientists of the future, who may have more information or improved technology, to continue learning about these important fossils.

The Big Pig Dig

The National Park Service, working with South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSMT), will spend another summer at the Pig Wallow Site, nicknamed the Big Pig Dig. From early June through late August, park staff and students from the SDSMT carefully remove sediment to expose more mysteries buried within the Badlands strata. The excavation began in June 1993 when two visitors from Iowa discovered a large backbone protruding from the ground near the Conata Picnic Area. Fortunately for all of us, these visitors followed the correct procedure: They left the bones undisturbed and contacted staff at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. The newly discovered site sparked the interest of the park staff. Originally thought to be a four-day excavation, the site is now in its fifteenth and final season of excavation.

The site’s name, the Pig Dig, comes from that first exposed fossil, originally thought to be the remains of an ancient pig-like mammal called Archaeotherium. It was later identified as Subhyracodon, a hornless rhinoceros, but the name “Big Pig Dig” stuck. Rhinoceroses are found today in Africa and Asia but
smaller versions once lived in the Badlands. Along with Archaeotherium, eighteen other animal species have been found at the site. Discoveries include ancient three-toed horses, tiny deer-like creatures, turtles, and a bobcat-sized saber-toothed cat. Over 15,000 bones have been excavated from the site for
research purposes.

The Pig Dig is an excellent example of the questions professionals have to answer: What events led to this large conglomeration of dying animals in one place? Scientists hypothesized that 33 million years ago the area was a watering hole, similar to the large watering areas used by African game today. Due to a drought, the creatures had to travel longer and longer distances to find water. Some perished as they fought to survive after being mired in the soft sediments. Opportunistic animals were drawn to feed on the dead carcasses. Archaeotherium was a scavenger, feeding on both plants and flesh. These large creatures trampled the site, deeply imbedding some bones and breaking up skeletons.

You can help protect paleontological resources here and anywhere you travel by following these tips:

•Leave fossils where you find them. It’s tempting to pick them up and take them with you, but don’t. Removing them from their context destroys much of the information critical to scientists. Context refers to where they are found geologically and in what position the fossils are found.
•Be an informed visitor. Be familiar with current issues in paleontology. Once you watch for fossils in the news, you’ll find them discussed almost daily.

Badlands National Park - Camping

Cedar Pass Campground

Located near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, the Cedar Pass Campground has 96 level sites with scenic views of the badlands formations. Camping fees are $10 per night with a 14-day limit. The campground is operated on a first-come, first-served basis and rarely fills to capacity. Cold running water, flush toilets, and covered picnic tables are available. There are no showers or electrical hook-ups. A dump station is available for a $1.00 fee per use. Due to fire danger, campfires are not permitted.

Group Camping

Four campsites are available in the Cedar Pass campground for organized groups with a designated leader. The nightly fee is $2.50 per person with a minimum fee of $25 per site.

Advance reservations are required and can be made by contacting the park via email, phone, or mail at:

Group Camping Reservations
Badlands National Park
25216 Ben Reifel Road
P.O. Box 6
Interior, SD 57750
(605) 433-5235

Sage Creek Campground

Open year round, this primitive campground is located on the west side of the park's North Unit, near the Badlands Wilderness Area. Bison frequently roam through the campground. Access is located off of the Sage Creek Rim Road, an unpaved road that may temporarily close after winter storms and spring rains. The road provides limited turnarounds for large recreational vehicles. Camping is free of charge with a 14-day limit. Pit toilets and covered picnic tables are available, but no water is available on-site. Due to fire danger, campfires are not permitted. A portion of the Sage Creek Campground is designated for horse use.

Backcountry Camping

The Badlands is an excellent place for backpacking and backcountry camping. The Sage Creek Wilderness Unit, specifically the Deer Haven area provide tree cover in an otherwise exposed landscape. Deer Haven is a popular backcountry destination, offering a solid basecamp for backcountry exploration.

It is HIGHLY recommended that any backcountry trip in the Badlands is planned in detail. Potable water is virtually non-existent and camp should never be set up in the path of Buffalo herds. Always select high ground for your backcountry campsite.


•Permits are not currently required for overnight stays in the Badlands backcountry. You should contact a staff member at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center or Pinnacles Ranger Station before setting out on an overnight trip.
Backcountry registers are located at the Conata Picnic Area, the Sage Creek Basin Overlook, and the Sage Creek Campground.
•Twisted or fractured ankles are the most common serious injury sustained in Badlands National Park. Make sure you are wearing sturdy boots with good ankle
support. The park is home to many burrowing animals. Watch your footing.
•Campfires are not allowed under any circumstances. Use a backpacking stove.
•Pets are not permitted on trails, in backcountry, or Wilderness
•The location of your campsite must be at least 0.5 miles from a road or trail and must not be visible from a roadway.
•There is little to no water available in the backcountry. The small amounts of water found are not drinkable or filterable due to the high sediment content. Always carry at least one gallon of water per person per day.
•All refuse must be carried out. Use the cat hole method to dispose of human waste. Dig a small hole 6 to 8 inches deep and a minimum of 200 feet from any watercourse. Since animals will often dig up cat holes and scatter the toilet paper, it is preferred that you pack out any toilet paper used. If you must bury toilet paper, use a minimal amount and bury with at least 6 inches of soil. Strain food particles from wastewater, pack out food scraps, and scatter remaining water more than 200 feet from any stream channel.
•Check the weather forecast. Severe thunderstorms are common during the summer, so are days above 100ºF (38ºC). September and early October are the best backpacking months.

Badlands National Park - Contact

Badlands National Park is open 24 hours a day, seven days per week. Entrance fees are collected year round. The park is located within the Mountain Time Zone.

Badlands National Park
25216 Ben Reifel Road
P.O. Box 6
Interior, SD 57750

Park Headquarters: (605) 433-5361
By Fax: (605) 433-5404

Ben Reifel Visitor Center

Hours of Operation
8 a.m. - 5 p.m. (August 17 - October 11)
9 a.m. - 4 p.m. (October 12 - April 2009)

CLOSED on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day

Ben Reifel Visitor Center Location: Cedar Pass "Badlands Loop Road" Hwy 240.

Located at park headquarters, the Ben Reifel Visitor Center reopened in 2006 with new exhibits, a 95-seat, air conditioned theater, a new film, Land of Stone and Light, and improved classroom and restroom facilities.

The Badlands Natural History Association operates a bookstore in the visitor center. Postcards, books, videos, posters, and other educational materials about the park and its resources are available for purchase.

Special Programs: Ranger programs, such as guided hikes, talks, activities, and evening programs, are offered during the summer season.

Exhibits: Exhibits, many interactive, focus on the cultural history, prairie ecology, and paleontology of the White River Badlands. Children can enjoy assembling a virtual skeleton on a touch screen computer and touching fossilized animal casts.

Nearby Facilities: Cedar Pass Lodge, operated by Forever Resorts, an authorized concessioner of the National Park Service, is only open during the summer season. The Lodge offers rental cabins, a gift shop, and full-service restaurant. Feel free to call (605) 433-5460 for reservations.

Gift Shop Hours of Operation
7 a.m. - 9 p.m. (May 24 - September 8)
7 a.m. - 7 p.m. (September 9 - September 26)
8 a.m. - 4 p.m. (September 27 - October 19)

The dining room closes 30-minutes before the gift shop.

White River Visitor Center

Hours of Operation
10 a.m. - 4 p.m., June 1 - September 15

Phone: (605) 455-2878

Location: SD HWY 27 roughly 20 miles south of Scenic, South Dakota.

Available Facilities: Located on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the visitor center is operated by the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority (OSPRA) and offers a staffed information desk, exhibits, restrooms, picnic tables, and water. Impromptu talks are offered daily throughout the summer season.