Badlands (South Dakota) on the map. National Park Badlands (South Dakota state) on the map of USA

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Badlands  (South Dakota) on the map. National Park Badlands  (South Dakota state) on the map of USA

Previous pages: The delicate beauty of a rainbow provides a striking contrast to the awesome cliffs of Badlands National Park.

Below: To the early French settlers, the tall spires of the Badlands were les mauvaises terres a traverser—bad lands to travel across—but to us today they are a scenic and geologic wonder.

Badlands, South Dakota

Established: 1978   Acreage: 243,302

French-Canadian trappers were among early European visitors to the Badlands, calling the region 'bad lands to travel across.' Badlands National Park is a remnant of one of the world's great grasslands, stretching from southern Alberta and Saskatchewan almost to Mexico, and from the Rockies to Indiana. Rain, wind and frost have carved steep canyons, sharp ridges, gullies, spires and knobs from the rolling Dakota prairie, providing a look into the pace of geologic change.

The oldest formation in the Badlands is a 65-million-year-old layer of black shale that formed on the bottom of an ancient sea. About 37 million years ago, the Badlands area was a broad, marshy plain crossed by sluggish streams. The animals thrived on the jungle and marsh plants that grew here. Toward the end of the Oligocene Epoch, volcanoes spewed huge volumes of ash into the atmosphere, which eventually became the whitish layer near the top of the Badlands formations. Slowly, the climate changed and became drier. The animals also changed, with grass eaters emerging.

The Arikara are the first known Indians to have lived in the area, but by the mid-eighteenth century the Sioux Indians dominated. Their culture, based on hunting the large bison herds that roamed the plains, flourished for the next one hundred years. Then the migration of Eastern settlers, miners and, finally, the US Army sealed the fate of the Sioux at the infamous battle at Wounded Knee in the winter of 1890. The arrival of the white man also led to a similar fate for some of the large plains animals—the gray wolf, the elk and the grizzly. Although almost wiped out, bison and bighorn sheep have been reintroduced to the prairie.

Other wildlife—pronghorn antelope, prairie dogs, cottontail rabbits, mule deer and meadowlarks—inhabit the Badlands. Among the Badland's wildflowers, Barr's milkvetch and Visher's buckwheat show contrasting adaptations to the dry climate. The milkvetch, a perennial that can live for as long as 50 years, has a long root that anchors the plant and reaches down deep into the soil for water. In contrast, the buckwheat blooms each spring when the rains of April and May bring to life the seeds that have lain buried during the long winter.


Badlands  (South Dakota) on the map. National Park Badlands  (South Dakota state) on the map of USA