Badlands National Park: A Natural History Museum
Badlands National Park encompasses about 244,000 acres in the southwestern grass prairies of South Dakota. The park contains sharply eroded rocks of all shapes and sizes, in some parts resembling landscape closer to mars than earth.
To appreciate this park's full beauty you'll need an interest in natural history because that is what makes this place so unique. Don't get me wrong, the abundance of wildlife, and strange rock formations are enough to make this place pretty awesome but you can't fully appreciate what the park has to off if you don't have the curiosity to learn about what your looking at. You could really say that about the entire natural world but Badlands National Park is arguably one the closest things on earth to a living natural history museum. It has clearly visible rock layers from different periods in the Earth's history and a nearly infinite supply of fossils, many found by visitors after a heavy rain.
Badlands National Park has one of the richest fossil beds in the world. The Ben Riefel Vistor Center displays replicas of many fossils that have been found and it also provides life-size statues of the animals the fossils belong to.
Over a 3 week period I visited 9 National Parks for my first time with Badlands National Park being the first of the 9. Visiting the Badlands first was a fitting start because it enabled me to better understand the physical geography of the Great Plains plains and the Rocky Mountains region. What makes all 9 of these national parks from Canyonlands to Theodore Roosevelt National Park geographically connected is that they were all at one time covered by the Western Interior Seaway, a body of water that once split the United States into two regions. This sea played a hug role in creating much of the diverse landscapes and ecological systems in the Great Plains and Rockies.
Now enough talking about the Badlands' past. Currently, Badlands National Park is home to almost 1000 bison but you aren't likely to see any along the paved Badlands Loop Road unless they are hanging around the pond at the Pinnacles Entrance. In order to see bison, or really much wildlife at all, you'll need to go a little off the beaten path and take the gravel Sage Creek Rim Road. About a half mile down this road is also a prairie dog town where you can see hundreds of prairie dogs. If you're lucky you might even spot the endangered black-footed ferret, one of the rarest mammals in North America.
Badlands National Park isn't known for its hiking trails. You could honestly do all of the established trails in a single day if you have the energy. They have two trails that are definitely worth your while though; Notch Trail and Castle Trail. Notch Trail is a moderate 1.5 mile trail with a few obstacles a long the way including a 50+ step ladder. Much of the trail is also on the edge of a cliff and there are sections that are not very well marked. At times you'll have to look hard for the next pole marking the trail up ahead. The view at the end is pretty rewarding but the fun obstacles and sights along the way are what make the trail worth your time.
Castle Trail is an easy 10 mile round trip hike through the grasslands and around rock formations. I like this hike because it's the only trail in the park where you have a chance at some solitude away from the crowded trails and pullovers. The best hiking in the park is in the backcountry of the Badlands wilderness. In the backcountry there are no trails but are free to roam as you please. In this remote section of the North Unit you'll run into an abundance of wildlife that you might not find at the common destinations within the park including pronghorn, bison, and bighorn sheep.