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Geo-Joint: The Badlands of South Dakota

Posted on March 27 2018

Sitting in a state that most people have probably not been to is a region that doesn’t necessarily sound inviting. The state is South Dakota, and in its southwestern stretches is the ominously named Badlands. They didn’t pick up the moniker from the quick judgment of explorers or pioneers just passing through, but from the Lakota people, who had lived in the vicinity for countless generations. Their name for the place, “mako sica” literally means “land bad,” and it probably earned the title because of its heat, dryness, desolation, and general impediment to reasonable travel. What made it the way it is? The weather, alternately baking in the summer but bitter cold in the winter, is a function of its location in the northern plains of the United States. Far from any cooling ocean or montane breezes in the warm months, and exposed to cold winds descending from Canada when the days grow short, those who call this place home are a hardy crew.

Badlands National Park—north of Wounded Knee, and just south of Wall Drug. (another South Dakota landmark)

More than the sun, the snow, and the wind, the rain is responsible for the look of the Badlands. But first it helps to understand the makeup of the landscape itself. This area in the interior of a large continent was once itself a wide shallow sea. Millions of years of sediment deposits built layer upon layer of seafloor. Volcanic activity in areas to the west contributed a supply of ash, some of it laid down in remarkably thick layers. These layers alternated with sand, silt, and mud layers. Pressed together for millions of years, the sediment turned to rock, and the sandy layers made harder material than the ash. When the seas dried up or were pushed aside by uplift, rainfall and flowing waters began to sculpt the Badlands. Layers of compressed ash eroded easily, unless protected by a layer of sandstone overhead. Often, the softer layers beneath the harder ones will erode into vertical walls. Because the rainfall in the area is infrequent but intense, streams cut deeply in V-shaped courses, leaving sharp ridges and peaks in the horizontally oriented sediment. The clayey layers absorb a great deal of the rainfall and expand their volume. When they dry out, soil particles to several inches in depth are more loosely attached to one another, setting up the next round of easy erosion under subsequent downpours.

The Badlands stand out prominently from the surrounding grasslands.

Swift erosion in the soft layers cuts deep channels; a landscape not made for easy crossing.

The iron content of some of the Badlands’ many layers lend reddish and pink hues to the otherwise gray and yellow-tinged hills. Thanks to the low rainfall and the quickly eroded surfaces, green vegetation is at a minimum in the hills, but what is there stands out in stark contrast to the dry, bare soil. Surprisingly, over 400 plant species have been counted in the park. Surrounding Badlands is the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, of course rich in grasses. Still, the focus of the park, the hills, are a spare tableau, with an air of otherworldly desolation.

Iron content lends reddish hues to some of the Badlands’ many layers.

Badlands topography has long fascinated visitors, and as early as the mid-1800s, scientists were discovering what the local tribes already knew, that the hills contained large deposits of fossilized bones and shells. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Badlands were held in high regard for their wealth of Late Eocene and Oligocene mammal bones, as well as a vast trove of sea creature remains. Overly enthusiastic and acquisitive fossil hunting was one of the things that led South Dakota legislators to petition the US government for protection of the area. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt named the Badlands a national monument, and by 1978, it had become Badlands National Park.

Titanothere, relative to the rhinoceros, roamed and laid down its bones in the Badlands.

Archaeotherium was another big bruiser in the neighborhood.

Just before rising to the stature of national park, the protected area was widened to include a location called the Stronghold Table. This place is a powerful historical setting for Native Americans, as it was the site of the last Ghost Dance. In 1889, a Paiute shaman named Wovoka had a vision during a solar eclipse that involved the second coming of Christ, the visitation of dead tribal members, and the downfall of the white man. He saw that the native tribes would regain their land and hunting access, and life would be good again. He called for a series of ceremonies that would each last five days, with dancing, meditation, and spiritual cleansing. Participants in these Ghost Dances wore shirts that were said to be transformed by the rituals into bullet-proof protection against the whites. The last of these dances was held at Stronghold Table in 1890. Unfortunately, the white population saw the Ghost Dance movement as a threat and a sign of impending uprising, and they overreacted. Soon after the Stronghold Table event, during an attempt to disarm a group of Lakota Sioux, things turned violent. Military forces killed from 150 to 300 men, women, and children in an event that became known as the Massacre at Wounded Knee. Nearly 130 years later, the Lakota now co-manage much of the park land, including Stronghold Table.

Like Death Valley and the Grand Canyon, the broad vistas of dry rock and soil make visually intriguing settings for photographers, under a wide variety of lighting conditions. The scene is under constant change, as erosion can strip away as much as an inch a year from the surface of the Badlands. Though it has been under nature’s continual episodes of wasting for 500,000 years, it won’t be there forever. It is estimated that the Badlands have perhaps another half-million years until the last bits of them are washed down into the Missouri and then the Mississippi rivers, heading out to coat another seabed with their sediment and start the process all over again.

Head for South Dakota this spring, and experience the Badlands firsthand! This DeLorme  Atlas and Gazetteer of South Dakota will guide you through the state and provide a ton of recreational information. Available through—click here:





caption: The Badlands stand out prominently from the surrounding grasslands.
source: pxhere: unknown (CC0 Public domain)

caption: Swift erosion in the soft layers cuts deep channels; a landscape not made for easy crossing.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Viplav Valluri (CC by SA 4.0)

caption: Iron content lends reddish hues to some of the Badlands’ many layers.
source: Flickr: Joel Hernandez (CC by SA 2.0)

caption: Titanothere, relative to the rhinoceros, roamed and laid down its bones in the Badlands.
source: Flickr: Kim Scarborough (CC by SA 2.0 Generic)

caption: Archaeotherium was another big bruiser in the neighborhood.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Ghedoghedo (CC by SA 3.0 Unported)

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