In Badlands National Park, there are several campsites, but they also have the option where you can go backcountry camping--meaning you can set up a camp wherever you like in the park! I've never done this but I definitely plan to in the future, because it sounds adventurous and fun!
There are a few guidelines of course--you must camp somewhere within 0.5 miles of the road and be out of sight from the road. No campfires, camp stoves only, and you must bring all waste with you. No permit is required, the cost is totally free and you get to really rough it in the park and sleep under the beautiful stars!
They do suggest you stop by the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to get some more information (and check out the website below) before setting off. If driving through the Badlands isn't enough for you and you want a close-to-nature experience (not to mention to see the sun rise and set and the stars come out over this beautiful landscape), check out this option!
Another popular and very fun place to stop and look in the badlands is the prairie dog town. Prairie dogs are highly social and live in small communities. You will frequently see one of the prairie dogs on the outer rim of the town watching the perimeter and "barking" a warning when danger approaches. A frequent visitor to these towns is the burrowing owl who likes to station themselves on top of a pile of bison excrement looking for the beetles that settle there. This is one of the owls favorite foods. The Prairie Dog Town is a short distance down the unpaved Sage Creek Road.
Here you can see more of the grassy tops of some of the buttes. Early settlers could not get their stock up onto the buttes so they waited until the grasses grew tall and then harvested it to feed their livestock.
There was once a shallow sea here. About 65 million years ago, this sea drained away and was replaced by a jungle. As the vegetation from the jungle died, chemicals from the plants produced a bright yellow soil. About 35 million years ago sediment from the west covered the yellow soil and the jungle revived. The jungle then produced the red soil you see on top of the yellow. Over the years both soils fossilized. To me this is one of the most striking features of the park.
The different colored fossil soils that make up the badlands are very evident here at Conata Basin. This area shows the conditions in the area during the Oligocene and Eocene Epochs (between 37 and 23 million years ago). 37 million years ago the badlands were warmer and much wetter. The area was covered with dense forests occupied by Saber-toothed Cats and an elephant sized mammal called a Titanothere. By about 30 million years ago, the climate became cooler and drier restricting the forests to stream banks. Between these stream were fields of grass and low bushes that supported a population of deer-like Leptomeryx and land tortoises. By 23 million years ago the climate was still cooler and drier giving rise to the beginnings of the North American Prairie you see today.
In 1907, the Milwaukee Railroad completed a railroad line through the White River Valley opening the area to more settlers. Many people came here to claim homesteads. Most of these homesteads failed. Even today, this area makes for very difficult living.
This overlook gives you a good view of the grasses that make up this part of the prairie. Prairies burn easily and early settlers feared these fires. Today, however, we realize these fires are a necessary part of the life of the prairie. The native grasses recover quickly from the fire but invasive non-native grasses like the Smooth Brome (see photo 2) do not. This helps return the prairie to its natural state.
Panorama Point is a good place to get an idea of the vast size of the badlands. Compare the view you see during your visit with the one on the informative display to see the affects of modern air pollution.
On the bitterly cold Christmas Eve of 24 December 1890, Minneconjou Chief Big Foot led a band of 350 men, women and children who cleared a pass through the badlands wall near this point. They were fleeing units of the US Army, and Chief Big Foot was near death. Five days later Chief Big Foot and 200 of his people and 30 soldiers died in the infamous massacre at Wounded Knee, 65 miles south of here.
This overlook provides a nice view of some of the badlands and the quite different terrain of the White River Valley in the distance. A good indication of the difference a little water can make to the environment.
Driving west from the visitors center, one of the first exhibits along the Badlands Loop Road is the Fossil Exhibits Trail. This is a fascinating stop and I highly recommend it. This exhibit shows how the fossils were uncovered and shows some very interesting fossils of some of the inhabitants of the badlands some 34 to 24 million years ago. Fossils shown here include: 1) Archaeotherium: These pig-like animals had large heads, sometimes up to 4 feet long, and tusks on the upper jaws. They are not directly related to modern pigs but have a common ancestor; 2) Hyaenodon: This animal is related to the modern hyena in Africa. Like the hyena, the Hyaenodon may have crushed the bones of its prey to get to the marrow; 3) Hyracodon: This was a small, speedy rhinocerous. It is not directly related to the modern rhino which descended from larger stock; 4) Mesohippus: This animal is related to the modern horse but was much smaller; about the size of a collie dog; 5) Stylemys: This animal was similar to the modern tortoises in the Galapagos Islands. It is one of the most common fossilized animals in the park.
The badlands get an average of less than 16 inches of rain in a year. The Cliff Shelf is a bowl shaped depression that helps collect this scare commodity and maximize its benefits. This gives rise to a bigger abundance of plant and animal life that much of the surrounding area. Because of this, humankind has frequented this area for over 11,000 years. This is also why Cedar Point Lodge was built nearby.
The base of the badlands formed some 34 to 24 million years ago while dog to pig sized herbivorous mammals called "oreodonts" grazed here. At that time, the surface was a muddy streambed that hardened into the current grey/red rocky surface. The layers are given their formations by vertical formation of rock called clastic dikes, which are harder rock that erodes much more slowly than the surrounding materials. Much of the ground surface is covered with bentonite, a clay that includes volcanic ash and which expands and gets very slick when wet. Bentonite is also commonly called popcorn rock because of its appearance.
There are at least five hiking trails near the visitors center: The Window, Door, Notch, Cliff Shelf, and Castle Trails. I took the first four. I will go into further detail about these trails under the Sports Tips.
The Badlands National Park consists of 244,000 acres of desolate wilderness that the French explorers called "les mauvaises terres a traverser" or "a badland to travel across". One of the main terrain features defining the park is the "badlands wall", a 60 mile long cliff that divides the upper and lower prairie. The Badlands Loop Road travels back and forth from the upper and lower parts of the prairie. The wall is constantly moving north as it erodes into the White River Valley. Note the different colored layers in the hill formations (most visible in Photo 4) showing the difference in geological history.