Native Lakota people named this 400-square-mile maze of buttes, canyons, pinnacles and spires in South Dakota “Mako Sica” or “Bad Land.” Nowadays, it is usually tagged as “surreal” or “otherworldly.”

Too dry and inhospitable for settlement or development (save its former use as a U.S. Air Force bombing range), the Badlands eventually gained the favor of conservationists who recognized striking landscapes and paleontological riches (fossilized remains of many ancient species are found in abundance here) and moved to preserve the area as a national monument in 1939.

Protected as a national park since 1978, the Badlands are definitely a good choice for visitors. The scenery is mind-boggling, wildlife abounds and there’s plenty of hiking and camping opportunities throughout the 244,000-acre preserve.

Located about 75 miles east of Rapid City, the park is in close proximity to a number of other vacation-worthy attractions, including the Black Hills; Custer State Park; Mount Rushmore; the rustic mining town of Deadwood; and Wall Drug, one of the West’s most eclectic and popular roadside attractions.

Most visitors arrive at the park’s northeast entrance on SD Highway 240 just off Interstate 90, where the Ben Reifel Visitor Center provides a captivating introduction to the Badlands’ fascinating fossils at its working paleontological laboratory. Skeletons of mammoths, rhinos, three-toed horses and saber-toothed cats are found in abundance in the park and visitors can watch experts prepare fossils for study and display.

The center, named after an early congressman, offers interactive exhibits such as assembling a virtual skeleton on a touch screen and a hands-on display of fossilized animal casts. A 95-seat theater showcases the natural and cultural history of the Badlands.

SD 240 — also known as the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway — leads visitors on a 38-mile odyssey through the center of the park. The route features 16 scenic overlooks and eight trails, ranging from handicapped-accessible quarter-mile boardwalks to a 10-mile-long trek.

The eroded pinnacles and rugged buttes and canyons after which the park is named were created from a flat flood plain about 500,000 years ago when the water began to seep through the sedimentary layers. So, at some points along the byway you’ll see prairie — part of the largest undisturbed mixed grass prairie in the U.S. — on one side of the road, contrasted by classic Badlands landscape on the other side.

Those with an interest in fossils should be sure to take in the Fossil Exhibit Trail; it’s an easy quarter-mile boardwalk that showcases replicas of some of the fascinating extinct creatures that once roamed the region. It is noteworthy that

Badlands National Park contains the world’s richest and most important deposits of fossils from the Oligocene epoch. Specimens from the park are displayed in major museums around the world.

The park also is home to a surprising variety of contemporary critters as well. It is common to spot antelope, deer, bighorn sheep and bison wandering close to the road. A couple of prairie dog colonies along the route are guaranteed to amuse the kids. More elusive is the rare and endangered black-footed ferret.

Warning: rattlesnakes are common throughout the park, so caution is advised when exploring afoot.

There are two campgrounds in the park — Cedar Pass and Sage Creek — and both are open year-round, but only a limited section of Cedar Pass Campground is open during the winter months. Camping is limited to 14 days. Campfires are not permitted in either campground (camp stoves and contained charcoal grills are OK).

Cedar Pass Campground is located near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and has 96 sites, 21 of which feature electric hookups. Current fees for up to two people are $22 per night ($37 for sites with hookups). Water, flush toilets and covered picnic tables are available, as is a dump station ($1 per use fee).

For advance reservations, call 605-433-5460 or go to For those not traveling in an RV, Cedar Pass Lodge offers cabin accommodations and dining.

Sage Creek Campground, located on Sage Creek Road (unpaved) on the park’s west side, offers dry camping only and is not recommended for large motorhomes. Pit toilets and covered picnic tables are available, but there’s no water on-site. Sites are free of charge on a first-come, first-served basis. There also are several private campgrounds in the vicinity of the park and in the nearby town of Wall.

For more information:, 606-433-5361