Badlands National Park is a picture of contrasts. While seemingly a harsh desolate environment made up of eroded buttes, spires and pinnacles, it also contains the largest undisturbed mixed grass prairie in the United States. A prairie that teams with life.
Badlands began as Badlands National Monument on March 4, 1929 when it was authorized by Herbert Hoover, although it wasn’t established until January 25, 1939 (Franklin Roosevelt was President by then). It was re-designated as a National Park on November 10, 1978. The park protects 242,756 acres of land, of which 64,144 is designated wilderness. The park had 966,263 visitors in 2016 – my mom and I were two of them!!
The park boundaries are brimming with fossils; it actually contains the richest deposits of Oligocene mammals known. It sort of boggles the mind to imagine mammals roaming around on this land 33 million years ago, but there they were. The fossil remains in the park include camels, three-toed horses, oreodonts, antelope-like animals, rhinoceroses, deer-like mammals, rabbits, beavers, creodonts, land turtles, rodents and birds. There are also a fair number of marine animals in the fossil record here, including ammonites, nautiloids, fish, marine reptiles, and turtles.
Badlands has known human habitation for approximately 11,000 years. The paleo-Indians, although little studied, are the inhabitants who arrived after crossing the ice bridge from Eurasia in the late Pleistocene period (“i” before “e” except after “c”, or in Pleistocene, apparently…). Stone tools, including projectile points, have been found in the area, as well as charcoal from ancient campfires. Later came the Arikara, and then the Lakota, who used the elevation of the Badlands Wall to scout for herds for hunting, as well as approaching enemies.
At the end of the 19th century, homesteaders and gold miners moved into the nearby area, and the U.S. government forced the tribes onto reservations, including one called the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Many of the Oglala Sioux in the area fought the orders to move to reservations, and instead chose to defy the order, following the prophet Wovoka. From this movement, the Ghost Dance was born. The Sioux believed that the Ghost Dance would restore their land and force the white settlers and government agents to leave, and that the Ghost Shirts that they wore would be impervious to bullets. Well… This didn’t end up panning out, and sadly the ghost dancers, being pursued by government troops in 1890, ended up seeking refuge on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Gunfire erupted as the soldiers were attempting to disarm the group – as the story goes a deaf man named Black Coyote was reluctant to give up his rifle, since he had paid a lot for it. On December 29, 1890, what became known as the Wounded Knee Massacre killed over 300 Native Americans and 30 soldiers. It was the last big clash between Plains Indians and U.S. troops in the series of clashes that became known as the Indian Wars. The Pine Ridge Reservation now contains the Stronghold Unit and the Pine Creek Unit of Badlands National Park within its boundaries. Although the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre is not within the boundaries of the park, it is nearby and open to the public.
Badlands has lots to do – there are hikes of all levels, from a 0.25 mile flat traverse over a raised boardwalk to a 10 mile back-country hike. The trails range from easy to strenous, but you do need to plan accordingly for extreme temperatures and weather (both in summer and winter). You can back-country camp, cycle on the roads (paved, dirt or gravel), and there is a night sky program. Wildlife viewing is also popular at the park, with prairie dogs, bison, deer, pronghorn, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, badgers, coyotes, bobcats, and black-footed ferrets being just some of the species found in the park. 67 species of birds are known to nest within the park and over 200 species have been documented there. There are also reptiles, amphibians and butterflies present there.
I have been excited about visiting this park for a long time, and I was finally going to be able to visit! Posts coming soon!