If you want to get a great idea of what South Dakota looked like millions of years ago, come visit Badlands National Park. Eons of wind and water have created deep canyons and high buttes where dinosaurs once roamed freely. Parts look like the dead surface of the moon. Others are so filled with life and color you’ll wonder how the two can exist together.
The Badlands holds some of the world’s most extensive fossil deposits. Scientists have uncovered the remains of saber-toothed cats and their prey, a tiny ancestor of the deer. The bones of three-toed horses are scattered over many of the sites, along with ancient turtles and other reptiles.
Still being actively excavated, the Pig Wallow Site offers the nearby Conata Picnic Area. Among other fascinating finds here, paleontologists found the bones of a hornless rhinoceros called Subhyracodon. Have lunch at one of the tables and you might get lucky enough to talk to one of the workers.
For a greener environment, head over to one of the 64,000 acres of grass-covered wilderness. Here graze Bighorn Sheep, American Buffalo, Swift Fox and the Black-footed Ferret, among many other creatures. It’s easy to spot deer and antelope bounding over the roadways and hanging around the picnic areas.
Hiking is a favorite activity along many of the trails within the 240,000 acres of Badlands National Park. There are easy trails and those that will challenge the most experienced hikers as well. The vistas from the jagged spires looking out over the prairie are well worth the effort. Check in at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center for backpacking information, especially if you plan an overnight trip.
You can explore a fascinating area called the Stronghold District. Half lies within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Used during WWII as a gunnery range, this section of the park also houses the Minuteman Missile National Historic site.
Visitors can get a close-up look at the equipment and structures that housed one of America’s major defense installations. Manned for 30 years during the Cold War era, it now is a museum site. You can see the gadget-filled underground launch control center and a defunct silo that held a (now-disabled) nuclear missile. Tours are two-hours long.
One feature of Badlands that can be found in no other national park are the houses built by homesteaders here. Built out of sod blocks and heated with some of the plentiful buffalo chips, some are still standing. The Great Dust Bowl period of the 1930s finally proved too much even for these hardy pioneers. But some evidence of their courageous struggles remain.
The colors of the golden sand and azure sky make the Badlands a beautiful place to visit. The many things to see and do make it fascinating. Come see why.