Hiking the Badlands of South Dakota

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Painted desert of the Badlands National Park with reds and browns contrasted against a blue sky and green fields
Painted desert of the North

In the southwest corner of South Dakota is a place of preserved prairie that will have you feeling like you’re on the set of Dances with Wolves. And that’s because, well, you are. Hiking the badlands of South Dakota will put you among endless fields of yellow, fragrant clover (depending on the time of year) and seriously wide-open spaces. You’ll experience crags and the endless hills of an eroded landscape filled with hues of purple, blue, and pink.

  • Blue skies in the Badlands National Park with red foreground colors of a painted desert
  • Close up shot of yellow clovers in bloom in the Badlands National Park

Wildlife Mecca

Badland’s National Park has two distinct ecosystems: badlands & mixed-grass prairie. It is home to an impressive array of animal life. Many of which you will be able to see up close on a trail or from your car along the Badlands Loop Road. The stats are impressive. Scientists have recorded the presence of 39 mammal species, 9 reptile species, 6 amphibian species, 206 bird species, and 69 butterfly species. Some of the more memorable species we observed there were the American bison, prairie dogs, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep. One of the most endangered mammals in the world, the black-footed ferret was reintroduced in the park.

Native Culture

Another unique feature of this national park is that it’s co-managed with the Oglala Lakota Tribe. This is one of the seven subtribes of the Lakota, and they oversee the south unit of the park. This is the area of the 1890s ghost dances. The last of which (until recent times) was performed on the Stronghold Table in the south unit. The ghost dance and ghost shirts were part of the resistance movement. According to native American prophet Wovoka, they were supposed to make the people impervious to bullets.

The Lakota have an interesting social organization that prioritizes community and family above all other things, including personal property and ambition. It is said that in their tradition, a person who doesn’t seek to attain community and family above all else is not, in fact, Lakota or even human for that matter.

Lakota is preferred because the word Sioux may mean “snake” in the language of their enemies, the Ojibwe.

Fossils Galore

The “bad lands to travel through”, as the French-Canadian trappers called it, is a significant place for fossils. In fact, it is the largest accumulation of mammal fossils from the late Eocene and Oligocene. Findings include camels, three-toed horses, rhinoceroses, rabbits, beavers, land turtles, rodents and birds. In 2010, a young girl named Kylie discovered an extraordinary saber-tooth cat skull. It is an international hotspot for fossils 33 million years old and older.

European Settlers

The U.S. government, in the interest of settling the west, marketed the badlands as “the wonderlands”. Promising homesteaders farmable land, many people migrated there looking to work the land. Because this land is semi-arid and windy, the homesteads capable of supporting a family needed to be greater than 500 acres. The mass clearing of land during the westward expansion caused the dust bowl and devasted the environment. With the added destruction caused by grasshopper plagues, many settlers failed.

Hiking the Badlands of South Dakota

This park has a lot to offer. From backpacking to established trails, you could stay for days. Backpacking permits aren’t required. We recommend the Medicine Root Loop for a solid day hike.

  • A landscape photograph of the red badlands with green clover foreground, with the cut path of the medicine loop trail
  • Clouds forming over the Badlands campground, green fields with a tent and clouds

Medicine Root Loop

This is a stellar way to glimpse the buttes and pinnacles of the badlands ecosystem at Badlands National Park. It’s an easy 4-mile loop that showcases the formations. You may get lucky and see a herd of bighorn sheep just like we did! Honestly, the scenic drive is the best view of the badland formations, so make sure you do that. You’ll glimpse bison, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs by the hundreds. There are plenty of scenic turnouts and places to enjoy a sunset or sunrise vista.

Photo Credit: NPS

Hiker Tips:

  • Sunglasses & desert hat.
  • Plenty of water.
  • Protective shoes.
  • Remember LNT. Take away memories & photos only. If you find something, report it.
  • Keep away from wildlife.
  • Check out the Sage Creek Campground. It’s free!

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About Hikerlore

We’re Melony and Travis LaCoss.  Better known on the trail as Stretch and RamboJuice, hikertrash bloggers, photographers, and all-around dirtbags.

A few years ago, we took a giant leap away from our conventional lifestyle to backpack in the United States. After spending 5 months on the Pacific Crest Trail, we started our blog Hikerlore to share stories and provide useful information to backpackers, hikers, and outdoor travelers.

We plan to hike as much as we possibly can.  During that time, we’ll write articles about our experiences and share photographs.  Some of our posts will be narrative in nature, others will review backpacking gear and offer advice to hikers.  Recently, we bought an old service van and converted it into a sweet travel van.

We are adventure seekers who hike national scenic trails, visit national parks, and travel around in a van blogging about outdoor travel.  We have thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail (2,200 miles), Florida Trail (1,100 miles), and half the Pacific Crest Trail (1,400 miles).  Our adventures have led us to over 50 national parks and monuments.

In 2019, we put over 20,000 miles on VANilla (our sweet travel van that we built ourselves).  Above all, Hikerlore’s articles are a service intended to provide good information and inspire our readers to get outside and have fun!

We don’t want our readers to be annoyed to death with banners and pop-ups. As a result, Hikerlore is completely advertisement free.  Instead, we focus on providing quality content.

Also, we sell handicrafts and photographs that we make on the road to support ourselves.  Even more, your patronage will allow us to continue to write useful articles for you about our scenic trails, national parks, and other outdoor travel experiences.  Visit our shop here.  So Happy trails to you!

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