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.
While I did see some flowers what surprised me was the amount of animal life I saw. The reason I saw so much wildlife may be partly because there is much less vegetation to hide it. There are a couple of other animal pictures in a later tip on the Prairie Dog Town.
There are several hiking trails and an overlook near the visitors center; but most of the attraction in the park are along the 11 miles of the Badlands Loop Road between the visitors center and the Pinnacles Entrance. This is a scenic drive through a very interesting and unique terrain.
There is a small picnic area near the visitors center too, with these interesting looking picnic enclosures. The unique design helps protect you from the sun and offers some protection from the wind. This is a nice budget option to eating while at the park.
Near the visitors center is the Cedar Pass Lodge which offers limited grocery items and camping supplies along with gifts and souvenirs, postcards, lodging in cabins, and some dining options (in season).
There were several very well done, interesting, displays about the geological history and formation of the badlands, the vast difference in its climate and wildlife millions of years ago, and its history of human habitation. I especially liked their educational/hands-on displays for children.