Have you ever wanted to travel back in time? The striated mounds and formations of Badlands National Park will take you there—75 million years ago, to be exact. The Badlands are a rugged landscape formed through deposition and erosion. Deposition began 75 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period. As time passed, the landscape and climate in western South Dakota changed, dictating the types of sediments that were deposited in the area. Over the years, the place we know as Badlands National Park transformed from ocean to rainforest to swamp to open grassland.
Today, the differing sediment types that accumulated across millions of years are visible thanks to erosion. Beginning around 500,000 years ago, the Cheyenne River flowing out of the Black Hills, a mountainous region to the west of the Park, began to wash away all of those deposited sediments, forming the incredible landscape we call the Badlands. The Badlands are eroding at an astonishing rate of one inch per year, exposing fossils that offer insights from an earlier time. The lowest portions of the Park are the oldest, while the highest peaks are more recent. By and large, the most common fossil found in Badlands National Park is the oreodont, a deer-like herbivore, but rhinoceros, alligator, and ancient sea creatures are also uncovered annually.
I spent two nights in Badlands National Park in June 2018 as part of a longer trip through western South Dakota. We made the most of our time there by attending two ranger-lead programs, embarking on a long loop hike, and stopping at the many overlooks to enjoy the scenic landscape. Along the way, we spotted bighorn sheep and bison and there was no shortage of prairie dogs; we even saw a coyote in camp one morning. We were also reminded by one of the park rangers that half of the Park is after dark! We saw Jupiter and its Galilean moons through a telescope while the ranger explained that when we look up at the stars, we are peering back in time. It can take light thousands of years to travel from a star to earth, so what we see in the night sky reflects a previous time. The lack of city lights in the Badlands makes for ideal star-gazing.
The best part about Badlands National Park? It is a giant playground! The staff know that human disturbance can’t cause more damage to this quickly eroding landscape than a heavy rainfall. That means you are free to run, jump, and climb off the beaten path, weaving your way through the park any which way you like. In the grand scheme of earth’s existence, the Badlands will only be around for about one million years. You don’t want to miss this vanishing geological treasure!
I’m knocking all 60 National Parks off my bucket list. Be sure to follow Summer, Scientifically for some behind the scenes science and fun from my trips.