Badlands Location Facts History South Dakota USA

Badlands Location Facts History South Dakota USA

From the green of the surrounding farmland, with its vast stretches of nodding grain, you come abruptly upon the Badlands of South Dakota. The arid hills and ridges do not rise from the plain – they stand below it, like a landscape carved in relief.

Stone Haystacks


Spread suddenly before your feet is a starling panorama of jagged and windswept rock – crumbling pinnacles and ramparts cleft any winding gullies, and endless haystack mounds that change from pink to a glowing red as the sun moves across the sky.


Rugged and austere, the Badlands were for centuries the haunt of the Sioux, who named them make ‘bad’ Siko ‘lands’. This 100-mile (160km) long swathe of broken country, 50 miles (80km) wide, is parched in summer except for rare torrential rainstorms and cold in winter. But the Badlands are not quite as stark as they initially sound, for a few junipers cling to the rocky slopes, and tough grasses flourish in creeks and basins, along with cottonwoods and wildflowers.


The Badlands owe their beginning to the pine-clad Black Hills to the southwest, rising to 7242ft (2207m). The Black Hills have pushed up out of an inland sea about 65 million years ago. As time went by, soil and fine stone were continually flushed down the slopes of the hills to form a layered, swampy plain on the flat land to the east. About 30 million years ago there was climate change, and the swamp slowly turned into grassland.

As time went on, wind and water eroded part of this grassland, gnawing into the layers of frail soil and soft stone – erosion that continues. Grass torn up by the roots in rainstorms left a sludge of exposed soil that was washed away in rivulets, carving the stone into pinnacles and domes that baked hard under the searing sun.


The pale stripes that run horizontally across the soft rocks marl the layers of sediment flushed down from the hills aeons ago. Revealed in these layers and the bedrock are fossils millions of years old – marine turtles, for example, and the rhinoceros-like titanothere of the forested swamp: the Sioux called its giant fossil the Thunderhorse.

With the coming of European settlers in the 1870s, there was an invasion of buffalo hunters. The great herds of buffalo (or bison) of the plains were almost wiped out, and the Sioux, whose lives depended on them, were in despair. In 1890 the South Dakota Badlands became a centre for Ghost Dances – the focus of a new religious cult that promised a revival of native American Fortunes and the return of the buffalo.

One buffalo, hunting technique sometimes used by the Sioux was to drive to herd over the edge of a cliff. The Badlands was a suitable spot for such mass killings, and the carcasses were butchered at the base of the cliff. The Sioux made use of every part of the buffalo – the flesh and fat were used for food; the hides for lodge walls; blankets, clothing, saddles and things; the horns for ladles; the bones for clubs, saddle trees and sledge runners; and the bladders for water carriers.

During the unrest that occurred as a result of the Ghost Dances, the US Seventh Cavalry intercepted Chief Big Foot and a group of 350 Sioux as they crossed the Badlands in 1890. The incident led to the tragic killings at Wounded Knee Creek.

Wildlife Returns

Bison in the Badlands

Many Settlers tried to farm the Badlands, but drought and erosion caused repeated crop failures Wildlife revived in 1930, after the setting up of the Badlands National Monument, which became a National Park in 1978.


It covers about 380sq miles (980sq km) in the heart of the area and is home to lizards, rattlesnakes, many kinds of birds, bats, and ever-busy colonies of tunnelling prairie dogs and small herds of bison and pronghorn antelopes.

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