Located in the southwest corner of the state, the incredibly beautiful and wild Badlands South Dakota encompass 244,000 acres of dramatic eroded rock spires and hoodoos, jagged pinnacles, and buttes interspersed with the largest mixed grass prairie ecosystem in the United States. More than 64,000 acres of the park's nearly quarter million acres are designated wilderness. It was made a National Monument in 1939, and became Badlands National Park in 1978. Situated about eighty miles from Rapid City, one hundred miles from Mount Rushmore, and forty miles from Custer State Park, it is full of indigenous wildlife, including bighorn sheep, bison, pronghorn, mule deer, three species of fox (including the endangered swift fox), and the black-footed ferret, one of the most endangered mammals in the world.
Before white homesteaders arrived in the mid to late 1800s, this was the territory of the Oglala Band of the Sioux Nation, who named it "Mako Sica," meaning "bad land." The human history of the South Dakota Badlands stretches 11,000 years further back than that, and its animal life is many more millions of years old. Today, it is the most significant paleontology site on the continent, containing the world's richest fossil beds. The evolutionary story of the ancient three-toed horse, rhinoceros, saber tooth cat, and other prehistoric creatures can be found in the digs of the South Dakota Badlands where tens of thousands of bones, skeletons, and dinosaurs in South Dakota have been unearthed.
About half of Badlands National Park is within the Pine Ridge Reservation of the Oglala Lakota Sioux. This is the second largest Native American Reservation in the United States, and the poorest region in the country. The tribe co-manages this section of the park, called the South Unit. If you are hiking in this Black Hills region, be aware that it is largely undeveloped and permission may be needed to cross over certain areas that are private property. Many sites in the South Unit are sacred to the Oglala people, and you are encouraged to show respect when visiting—do not touch or remove any items you might see tied to trees or shrubs.
Permits are not currently required for either hiking or camping in the Badlands South Dakota backcountry, but it is recommended that you register at the Visitor's Center before venturing into the area. Moderate to strenuous trails on designated trails in the backcountry areas are not recommended for inexperienced hikers and campers. No open fires whatsoever are allowed within the park.
The South Unit of Badlands National Park was used as a practice bombing range during World War II. You can explore evidence of the Cold War during tours of the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, located about 75 miles east of Rapid City not far from the South Dakota Badlands eastern border of the park and administered by the National Parks Service.
Among the other things to do in Badlands South Dakota are horseback riding and cycling. There is no hunting inside the park, but there is fishing in lakes and rivers outside the park boundaries. Nearby attractions include the caves of the Black Hills as well as Custer State Park. There are primitive campgrounds in the park, and Cedar Pass Lodge (open only in the summer) has rental cabins available as well as a restaurant and gift shop.