South Dakota’s Badlands were authorized as a National Monument in 1929, officially established in 1939 and designated as a National Park on November 10, 1978. Badlands National Park is home to haunting natural beauty and some of the richest fossil beds in North America.
The name “Badlands” comes from the Lakota, who moved into the western plains during the late 18th century. They called the area Mako Sica, which translates as “eroded land” or “bad land.” As they traveled and hunted, the Lakota found the White River Badlands fossil beds and correctly surmised that the area had been underwater. They believed the skeletons belonged to a great sea beast called Unktegila. The ghost dances of the Lakota, led by the visionary Wovoka, were held in the remote tablelands of the Badlands.
History echoes in the spires and peaks of the eroded rock formations, across the prairies, and in the secluded valleys where Native American tribes have been hunting and living for 11,000 years.
Settlers and homesteaders arrived in the 20th century, but struggled to find a foothold in such arid conditions. The Dust Bowl wiped out most of the area’s farming, and plagues of grasshoppers took care of the rest. Abandoned sod houses dotted the area until the wind and weather took them down. Today, the area supports wheat farming.
Badlands National Park is a designated wilderness preserve. Here, you can experience the largest protected mixed-grasses prairie in the US. You can see mule deer, antelope, bighorn sheep and coyotes. Look a little closer to the ground, and you will see black-tailed prairie dogs. You might even catch a glimpse of the black-footed ferret, the most endangered land mammal in North America. And of course, you’ll see the American Land Bison, or buffalo.
The Badlands are an “avian crossroad,” a habitat for both eastern and western birds. The cliffs make excellent hunting grounds for golden eagles and prairie falcons. Cliff swallows and rock pigeons nest in the countless hollows. It is a birder’s paradise, but explore this park with caution; the country is hard to travel, with sharp rocks, yielding substrate, and very little water.
Sunset here is particularly beautiful. Enjoy it among the formations, as the setting sun catches the pinnacles, casting dramatic shadows.
Or settle onto the prairie, and enjoy the sounds of South Dakota; the wind in the grass and the evening birdsong.
Photography by Emmanuel Beltran: @stick_e
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