Badlands National Park

By Damon Dance, Kaylee Peck and Kylee Pourier

On Sunday, September 27, 2015, we visited Badlands National Park. The Badlands stretches for 379.3 square miles across South Dakota, but we chose to visit the stretch 7.7 miles south of Wall, SD. This park attracts thousands of visitors each year. The Badlands are maintained and funded by the Federal Government, as all national parks are. This park is a combination of bedrock consisting of sedimentary rock formations that have eroded over time and have resulted in beautiful scenery for visitors, along with a home for various species of wildlife. For the small fee of $15, you can buy a weeklong pass from the Visitor’s Center located at the entrance of the park and experience the beautiful sights of the world’s richest fossil beds and abundant wildlife that the Badlands have to offer.

Figure 1: Badlands National Park
Figure 1: Badlands National Park

For thousands of years, Native Americans have been hunting throughout the Badlands. Before them, the Arikara called this region home. There has been charcoal found from their fires, and arrowheads that prove they were hunting game on the Badlands long before anyone else. Apart from the rich history, there are many stories and legends that are associated with the Badlands. One is how it got its name. In the late 18th century, Lakota people referred to the land as Mako Sica, meaning “land bad”. The French had a similar idea, calling this land “les mauvaises terres a traverser” which translates to “bad lands to traverse”. According to the Badlands National Park Service, this land was not suitable for easy travel, farming, or homesteading, so the name has stuck to this day. The Badlands were formed by the geological forces of deposition and erosion. It began 69 million years ago out of hard rock tables that covered softer rock that lay underneath the Earth. Where the hard rock wasn’t covering the softer material, it began washing away while the covered material was preserved. As a result, the uneven plateaus were formed after millions of years.

Figure 2: Badlands National Park
Figure 2: Badlands National Park

On the day we visited, it was foggy and gloomy. It definitely gave us an eerie feeling as we scanned the horizon from north to south. Slowly the flat land that we had come from turned into steep rugged terrain. Some of it was unlike anything we had ever seen before. It was like we had stepped into a whole different world. There were no sounds coming from vehicles or any human activity really. It was like the area was buffered from sound. There was even a slight breeze in the air, but there still wasn’t sound which made it easier to connect to the landscape without the distractions. As we stood at the edge of a small cliff it was as though time had stopped. The three of us weren’t thinking about things we did yesterday or things we were going to do tomorrow; we were completely taken back by what we were looking at that it forced us to be in the moment. The feeling that we had was something that is indescribable; it made us feel as though we were irrelevant. Millions of people have come and gone in the past, but the Badlands are still there. The Badlands invoked the same feeling in us like it did to the people who came before us. We wondered what it must have been like for travelers long ago who didn’t know about this place. Did early pioneers ever ask themselves, “Could this be the end of the Earth?” To them this could have meant life or death. Do they cross through the Badlands and risk incidents, or do they turn back and go a different way that would take more time? We reflected as a group that the sky mirrored the land. This barren landscape has been known for its rough terrain and how uninhabitable it is.

Figure 3: Badlands National Park
Figure 3: Badlands National Park

Although it is known today as a spectacular National Park with beautiful sights to see from the viewing points, it was not always seen this way. For animals that still inhabit the park, they face the same challenges of the rugged country that the first travelers did. The park consists of 39 mammal species, 9 reptile species, 6 amphibian species, 206 bird species, and 69 butterfly species. As we drove through the park we encountered a herd of Bighorn Sheep. There were over 30 of them all sitting on the bank of the road. These seemingly wild animals did not shy away from our vehicle like most would. It was almost like they were tame and we were able to drive up right next to them and take some pictures. Although it is important to note that even though these animals appeared tame it was still best that we viewed them from our vehicle to ensure that we did not disturb them. There is still opportunity for hikers to enjoy the Park close up. There are two trails that are regarded as favorites which are the Fossil Exhibit Trail and Cliff Shelf Nature Trail. It was a slightly brisk day and we thought about hiking one of the trails, but ultimately we decided against the idea. As we drove through we all started to think about how if we were to go wandering off somewhere how easy it would have been to get lost. The terrain itself looked so similar and it would have been quite difficult to establish a point to use for reference. Just this summer a hiker got lost and never returned. It wasn’t until recently that authorities recovered this person’s remains. Nature doesn’t have rules, and it doesn’t pick and choose its victims. It was essential that we remembered this because being rambunctious young college students we sometimes forget that we are not invincible and we take unnecessary risks.

The Badlands had been deposited in layers which resulted in the oldest sediment being left at the bottom. This caused for the unique feature of colorful layers to be seen throughout the formations. Water carved the geological features away leaving us with the opportunity to examine these iconic formations. The best way to describe the look of the formations is comparing the overall landscape to a layer cake. Each layer appeared to have a different color to it and a different thickness. The layers that lined the formations were all level with one another. So no matter which formation you were looking at if you scanned across to another formation the layers didn’t change.