Located in South Dakota, the Badlands is a pretty unique part of the United States. Known for dramatic landscapes that seem almost like something from another planet, the Badlands has long been one of the more fabled parts of the United States.
In this quick Badlands trivia guide, we’ll not only answer what states the Badlands are in, but will also give you some fascinating history about why the Badlands are called that, the backstory of the region, and why you should even consider visiting the Badlands yourself!
What State is the Badlands in?
The Badlands and Badlands National Park are located in western South Dakota. Although the Badlands are officially located solely in South Dakota, similar badlands areas can be found in parts of North Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, and central Canada.
Here you can see a map of the Badlands on Google Maps:
Why are the Badlands called the Badlands?
The Badlands earned the nickname from the Lakota Tribe, which called the land “mako sica” – or translated as “badlands.” French fur-trapping traders picked up on the Lakota nickname and called it “les mauvaises terres a traveser” – or “bad lands to travel across.”
Over time, the name has stuck.
But why the phrase “badlands” for this particular area? What is so bad about them?
Well, it’s a pretty desolate area and a pretty stark contrast to the vast expanse of farmland that leads up to the Badland.
For miles and miles across the Great Plains, the plains are well, just plains. Then, suddenly, the terrain and landscape change in major ways when the plains run into the Badlands. The Badlands are made up of canyons, rock, jagged peaks, pillars, ash, and sand.
The bottom line is that the Badlands feel a bit like an alien landscape, or a hostile territory that is – well – bad.
Things to Know About the Badlands
How the Badlands Formed
Going back to the time of the dinosaurs, this part of the world was swampy and had numerous volcanoes. During a major ice age, from 1-2 million years ago, over what would become the United States and Canada, ice caused and shifted river beds. In the Badlands today, the mountains and rock formations show millions of years of geologic changes of ash, shale, lime, sandstone, and sand.
The climate of the Badlands is mostly arid. It is very hot, desert-like, in summer, and frigid, in winter – which, along with the terrain itself, has made settling and agriculture difficult in the region. When there is rain or precipitation, it turns the dry, sandy, canyons and crevasses into flooded, muddy, and impassible areas.
History of the Badlands
The U.S. government established Badlands National Monument in 1939 and Badlands National Park in 1978, but the Badlands have a long history of human settlement before then.
Native populations have lived in the region and used it as hunting grounds and a spiritual ground for at least 11,000 years. However, a site of a permanent settlement, village or town has never been found in the Badlands. This is evidence Native Americans never had a permanent presence in the area, but instead traveled through it, hunted here, stayed seasonally and used it for religious reasons.
Native people before the Lakota people did live in the area of what would become the Dakotas and Nebraska. In the Badlands, they spent time in the valleys where fresh water and game were easier to find.
The Great Sioux Nation – a nation of seven bands of Native Americans, including the Oglala Lakota, lived in the area in the mid 19th century.
By 1890, Americans and the U.S. government had claimed most of the territory and forced the Native Americans onto reservations.
In December 1890, the U.S. Army chased, then massacred about 300 Native Americans at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, which is south of the southern park boundary in the Pine Ridge Reservation. Stronghold Table, in the park, is the site of one of the last known ghost dances by Sioux Indians – a spiritual ritual meant for protection and strength in war.
For many Native Americans, the Badlands area in South Dakota is still a spiritual home for fasting, visions, praying, and worshiping.
Wildlife in the Badlands
The Badlands are home to incredible and maybe surprising wildlife not usually thought off when it comes to the United States or interior North America.
Wildlife common in Badlands National Park include:
- Bighorn sheep
- Prairie dogs
- White-tailed deer
- Prairie rattlesnake
- Black-billed magpie
- Black-footed ferret
- Black-tailed prairie dog
- Mule deer
- Swift fox
Roberts Prairie Dog Town is along the northern border of the North Unit of the park. It’s a scenic spot for prairie dogs and a lot of other animals and unique wildlife. You’ll see prairie dog mounds and hear prairie dog squeaks. Prairie dogs are closely related to chipmunks and squirrels, not dogs. They can run up to 35 mph!
Visiting Badlands National Park
Although South Dakota is not the state with the most national parks, it does host a very prominent one: Badlands National Park.
The northern part of Badlands National Park, outside of Pine Ridge Reservation, is the most-visited part. Ben Reifel Visitor Center, near the town of Interior, population 94, is the park headquarters.
White River Visitor Center is the visitor center for the park in Pine Ridge Reservation. There are almost no roads or public access without permission from private landowners in the reservation part of the park, such as Stronghold Table.
Badlands National Park offers many scenic overlook areas and trails, including Cliff Shelf Nature Trail, Notch Trail, Windows Trail, Door Trail, Saddle Pass Trail, Medicine Root Trail, Castle Trail and Fossil Exhibit Trail.
Archaeological sites and finds in the Badlands chart the whole human history of the land. It’s possible to see charcoal and scorched parts of land or rock. Animal fossils from decades, centuries or longer ago are present. Archaeologists have found tools, pottery and hunting material.
Ben Reifel, or Lone Feather, served South Dakota in Congress from 1961-71 and in the President Nixon and President Ford administrations in the National Park Service. He was the first congressman of Lakota Tribe heritage.
The White River Visitor Center, the headquarters for the South Unit in the Pine Ridge Reservation, has exhibits about Lakota heritage and culture. There are also picnic areas, restrooms and water in the center.
Pets are permitted in the park in “developed areas” such as campgrounds, picnic areas, on paved roadways, and in parking lots. Pets are not permitted on hiking trails, in public buildings, and outside of “developed areas.”
That’s it for this quick guide to what state the Badlands are in! We hope you learned something useful.
Want to keep reading more geographic trivia?
👉 Check out our post on which US state has the most caves, or our guide to which states are considered a part of the deep South.