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Badlands National Park, South Dakota
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Badlands National Park

 

Photo by Alfredo De Simone

Badlands National Park is a place of stark beauty. Grasslands meet eroded canyons at the aptly named wall. Pinnacles, spires and buttes are tinted pink, purple and red by the rising and setting sun. Storms rage on the Badlands many a summer afternoon. It's dry as a bone at all other times. So why take the kids? Beneath the façade lies a whole 'nother world. The badlands boast a human history 11,000 years long. Mammoth hunters, Native Americans, cattle ranchers and homesteaders have all dwelled in this dry, desolate place. Badlands National Park is home to a variety of wildlife. Bighorn sheep, swift fox, prairie dogs, black-footed ferret and bison inhabit this 244,000-acre (98,743 hectare) expanse. What's more, the geological formations at Badlands National Park harbor life systems millions of years old. The gray-green Chadron Formation, made of siltstone and soft clay, contains fossils of flat, broad-teethed animals. Fossils of early horses, pigs and camels are found in the gravel and sandstone rock that form the Brule Formation. The gray and black shale, known as the Pierre Formation, contains remnants of ancient marine life. A lush forest, savannah and shallow sea once spread out across Badlands National Park.
Getting There
 
Badlands National Park is located in southwestern South Dakota. The park is located 80 miles (129 km) east of Rapid City, SD. I-90 offers the easiest access; Hwy 44 a scenic drive.
Getting Around
 
There are several short easy trails - Door Trail, Notch Trail, Window Trail, Fossil Exhibit Trail and Cliff Shelf Nature Travel - and one 10-mile trek - Castle Trail. Off trail hiking requires more than a map and compass, backcountry preparedness is essential. (Of note, Notch Trail involves climbing a ladder and walking a ledge.) All park roads offer scenic views. Bicycles are prohibited on all park trails. Oversized RVs make cycling park roads a difficult undertaking. The Stronghold and Palmer Creek units are located within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
When to Travel
 
South Dakota has a continental climate with hot summers and cold winters. The average temperature in January is 12°F (-11°C). The high in summer often exceeds 100°F (37°C). And while the temperature is fairly consistent from east to west, precipitation isn't. Eastern South Dakota lies in Tornado Alley and, in addition to twisters, receives three times more rain and snow than the western part of the state.
Health & Safety
 
Heat exhaustion, dehydration, improper footwear, sudden storms and wildlife encounters are the main health risks at this U.S. national park. Wear sturdy shoes, light long-sleeved shirts and a hat with a brim. Apply high factor sunscreen to all exposed areas, including your child's nose, ears, and toes, before you set out and repeat applications throughout the day. Carry plenty of water (4 liters per person per day is recommended when hiking in summer) and select a trail that is commensurate with the age and ability of the kids. Maintain a safe distance from all wildlife and don't feed the animals. A closed vehicle is safer than the open air during a lightning storm. If you are unable to reach your vehicle go to a low-lying area. Keep away from open areas, high spots and tall objects.
Hours & Seasons
 
Badlands National Park is open daily throughout the year. Ben Reifel Visitor Center is open 8:00 - 17:00 late April to late May and mid-August to late October, 7:00 - 19:00 June 1 to mid-August, and 8:00 - 16:00 mid-October to late April. The center is closed Thanksgiving, December 25 and January 1. White River Visitor Center in the park's south unit is open 10:00 - 16:00 June 1 to mid-September only. Ranger-guided programs are offered daily from June 1 to mid-August.
Admission & Fees
 
A single entry fee, valid for 7 consecutive days, is charged per vehicle. Visitors entering the park on foot and bicycle are accessed individually. Annual passes offer value for repeat and multiple national park visits. Ranger-led programs are free of charge. Camping fees are charged separately.
Things to Keep in Mind
 
Unless you intend to hike Castle Trail or the backcountry Badlands National Park can be visited in a day. Junior Ranger booklets are available at Ben Reifel Visitor Center. If you are traveling to Wounded Knee take a 30-minute detour at White River Visitor Center.
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Travel Trivia
Magellanic penguins breed in: