Continuing south, and a bit east, from Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, we come to another signature park of the Great Plains: Badlands National Park. Badlands National Park, a.k.a. “The Badlands” appears abruptly for travelers along Interstate 90 in western South Dakota. The scenery changes suddenly from rolling ranch land to carved canyon lands and eroded mesas. This is the transition form the Midwest to the West made tangible. For travelers heading west, there can be no mistaking that you’re no longer in Iowa, or Ohio.
The Badlands got their name, not surprisingly, by being bad. Not in the sense of having done anything wrong, but in the sense of not being productive in the usual way. Native Americans could not plant here, and were the first to call the land “mako sica,” or land bad. French fur trappers crossing here in the 1800s agreed. They referred to this part of the Great Plains as “les mauvais terres pour traverse.” Literally, bad lands for traveling. Europeans homesteaders coming west in the 1900s continued the theme. They were looking for places to make a home. For this, they needed the land to be productive either as cropland, or as grazing land. The Badlands are neither of these – they’re steep, eroded, dry, windswept, chalky, and devoid of vegetation in most places. This caused them to be spared by homesteaders, and in turn, were saved for the modern recreational tourist to enjoy, eventually as a national park.
The unique formations in the park were formed by long ago ocean deposits (when much of what is now the Great Plains was covered by the sea) coupled with wind and water erosion plus a whole lot of time. It’s a place where a large number of fossils have been and continue to be found. These ancient creatures suggest long ago times when different ecosystems flourished in the region.
The Badlands are, personally speaking, one of my favorite places on Earth. I have been there many times on trips back and forth from my home state of Minnesota, to the various points I have called home in the West. I have slept under the stars, and tramped well of the beaten path to discover a place of immense beauty and fascination. In my mind, Badlands National Park is one of the crown jewels of the National Park System. It’s right up there with Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Glacier and Yosemite. I know that there are many who would agree with me.