Natural Phenomena in the Badlands

by Mary Barton

Badlands National Park near Rapid City, South Dakota consists of more than 242,000 acres of some of America's most unique landscape. A popular tourist attraction, the Badlands received national acclaim in 1929 when it was designated as Badlands National Monument and became a national park in 1978. The vast other-worldly park continues to entice visitors, with a count of more than one million yearly.

Rock Formations

Badlands National Park is best known for its scenic, colorful spires, pinnacles, buttes and deep gorges. This rugged landscape developed over millions of years due to erosion, receding oceans and rivers, and volcanic activity. Purple and yellow shale, red-orange iron oxides, tan and gray sand or gravel, and white volcanic ash stripe the rugged mountains with color. The striking Brule and Sharps rock formations contain the most rugged peaks and canyons of the Badlands. Descriptive names have been given to the formations. Castles are large star or block shaped rocks located at the intersection of multiple ancient streams. A wall, one ridge at 100 miles long, is a vertical escarpment. A monument is a lone pinnacle of rock, while a hoodoo is an inverted cone-shaped rock that is smaller than castles or monuments. Sod tables are low, grass-covered mesas in the valleys between the higher peaks.


The Badlands are filled with fossils of mammals and sea life. Fossilized bones, seashells, turtle shells, clams, ammonites, fish and swimming reptiles are evidence of the receded oceans. From the Oligocene era of the Age of Mammals fossils of ancient camels, saber-toothed cats and giant rhinoceros-like creatures are among the many fossilized remnants. Two of the most common fossils found in the Badlands are that of a sea-turtle and an oreodontas, which is a form of pig that chewed its cud like a cow. There was also a type of horse that was only 20 inches high with four toes on the front and three on the back. A sheep-like fossil features three pairs of horns on its head.


The Badlands are peppered with a wide variety of wild animal life. Bighorn sheep, coyotes, buffalo, pronghorn antelope, mule deer and the endangered black-footed ferret roam the rugged countryside. Among the colorfully striped domes, there are more than 200 species of birds including owls, hawks, black-billed magpies, shorebirds, doves, eagles, waterfowl, bluebirds and vultures. The grassland prairies are rife with swift fox, black-tailed prairie dogs, rabbits, bats, rattlesnakes, frogs, porcupines, bobcats, prairie rattlesnakes and butterflies.


The Badlands receive only 16 inches of precipitation each year. This lack of rainfall limits the types of plants that grow there, but encourages 60 varieties of grass to grow on the rolling hills and prairies. The grasses survive because three-quarter of the plants are below ground level. Some of the most common types of grasses seen include the western wheatgrass, prairie coneflower, white milkwort, needle-and-thread grass and prairie dropseed. Some of the plants that thrive are the prickly pear cactus, thistle, knapweed, yucca, a few tree and shrub species, and a wide variety of wildflowers.

About the Author

Based in the Pacific Northwest, Mary Barton has been writing professionally since 1990. She has written two nonfiction books, worked as the product manager for a publishing company, an editor for two newspapers and was the content manager for various Microsoft websites. Barton has a Bachelor of Science in computer science from the University of Texas at El Paso.

Photo Credits

  • Thinkstock/Comstock/Getty Images