The badlands sweep from north to south in the Western United States, covering thousands of square miles. They seem otherworldly, but a closer look reveals wildlife and wildflowers that somehow manage to eke out a living. And the badlands are a work in progress, eroding into hoodoos and exposing bands that burst with color at dawn and dusk.
These are seven of America’s most beautiful badlands, from North Dakota to New Mexico.
1. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s North and South Units give visitors ample panoramic views of the badlands. At the edge of the South Unit, right off Interstate 94, the Painted Canyon Overlook whets your appetite for a trip into the park’s interior. A 36-mile scenic loop within the park promises views of striated buttes poking through juniper forests at pullouts along the way. Access to the scenic loop is through the entrance at Medora.
The North Unit, a 68-mile drive from Medora, boasts an out-and-back road deep into the badlands with plenty of opportunities to admire and photograph the scenery.
Hikes in the park range from short, accessible walks to strenuous, all-day hikes. The .4-mile Wind Canyon Trail is easy and rewards walkers with a sweeping view of the Little Missouri River. The park’s website breaks the available trails down by difficulty, length, location, and notable features.
Both the South and North Units are home to bison, while prairie dogs, elk, and wild horses can be found only in the South Unit. Longhorn cattle graze in the North Unit.
Pro Tip: If you have limited time, visit the Painted Canyon Overlook. If you have a day to explore, add on a visit to the South Unit. Two days will allow for touring both the North and South Units. A third unit, Elkhorn Ranch, contains the ruins of Roosevelt’s ranch. It is only accessible by unpaved road with a high-clearance vehicle.
2. Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Badlands National Park is about 8 miles from Wall, South Dakota. The Badlands Loop Road, which links the Pinnacles Entrance with the Northeast Entrance, hits the park’s highlights.
Scenic overlooks of these badlands showcase the variety the park has to offer, from eroded mountains in a rainbow of colors rising from a barren wasteland to windswept grassland with grazing bison, bighorn sheep, and pronghorn antelope. The colors are most dramatic and the wildlife is most active at sunrise and sunset.
The overlooks -- plus two trails, the Fossil Exhibit and Door Trails -- are wheelchair accessible. The park’s website outlines additional trails of varying levels of difficulty. The park allows open hiking to any place your feet can take you.
A drive on Sage Creek Rim Road passes spire rock formations, called the pinnacles, and prime grazing land for wildlife. In addition to scenic overlooks, the well-maintained gravel road leads to the Roberts Prairie Dog Town, where you can wander through the colony and hear the prairie dogs chirp warnings to their neighbors.
Allow one day to visit the park.
Pro Tip: You’ll see clever signs advertising Wall Drug throughout South Dakota. If you need a midday donut break and a 5-cent cup of coffee, you’ll find it at this family-run drugstore-turned-tourist destination.
3. Medicine Rocks State Park, Montana
A young Theodore Roosevelt had this to say about what is now Medicine Rocks State Park in Montana: “It was as fantastically beautiful a place as I have ever seen.”
I was put off at first by the graffiti that’s been carved into nearly every face of these Swiss-cheese-like sandstone formations. Even though park rules prohibit carving the soft, eroded stone, I saw plenty of “Joe loves Valerie,” and someone even loved a woman enough to carve her cameo-like profile into the rocks. To honor the area’s first use by Native American hunting parties, a chief is supposedly etched into one of the buttes jutting out of the prairie, but I could not find him.
The trails are not wheelchair accessible, but you can thoroughly appreciate the park by driving through it.
Allow 2 hours for your visit. Out-of-state visitors pay an $8 entry fee for any Montana state park.
4. Makoshika State Park, Montana
Named Makoshika, meaning “Bad Earth,” by the Lakota Sioux, these badlands form Montana’s largest state park. It’s adjacent to the town of Glendive. The park focuses on both dinosaurs -- 10 species have been found here -- and the rugged terrain.
The one-story visitor center showcases triceratops and tyrannosaurus rex skulls, along with tools used by early occupants of the area.
The geology of the park dates back 65 million years. Wind and water erosion have left capstones, or formations of hard sandstone atop pedestals of softer clay and shale. The capstones, fluted buttes, and pinnacles can be easily viewed from your car.
If you want an up-close view of the capstones, the moderate, 2.5-mile Cap Rock Trail weaves around them, allowing views and photographs from different vantage points. The trail is not wheelchair accessible.
Allow 2 to 3 hours for your visit.
Pro Tip: If you’re an out-of-state visitor and plan to visit a number of Montana state parks, you can buy a seven-day state park pass for $35 or a 12-month pass for $50, rather than a one-time pass for $8.
5. Terry Badlands Wilderness Study Area, Montana
The Terry Badlands Wilderness Study Area in Montana has two access points. The first is via a gravel road at the northeastern side of the park. The out-and-back road traverses prairies with some interesting rock formations and skirts the top of a plateau. At the road's end, you’ll have a breathtaking panoramic view of the canyons and banded mountains as far as the eye can see. It is an ideal spot to watch the badlands glow orange and red at sunset.
The second entrance, called the Calypso Trail, begins after crossing the Yellowstone River on a one-lane bridge that was once a train trestle. Navigating the Calypso Trail is easiest with a vehicle with four-wheel drive. Signs mark the moderate, mile-long trail to the natural bridges. Along the trail, you may see what look like cannonballs embedded in sandstone. When split in half, they resemble eggs with yolks, but a geologist I met swore they were concretions and not dinosaur fossils.
Allow a full day to visit both areas. Any recent rain or snow will make the roads impassable.
Pro Tip: If you visit the Evelyn Cameron Gallery in Terry, you’ll see an 1899 self-portrait of Cameron wearing a long skirt and holding a magazine while sitting on a stone bridge. It was part of a contest by The American Bystander to show the unlikeliest place the magazine had been read.
6. Lybrook Badlands, New Mexico
Located near the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, the Lybrook Badlands, also called the Lybrook Fossil Area, was a coastal swamp 70 million years ago. Over time, as with the other badlands, erosion created a land of massive hoodoos, clay domes, and mesas that appear to have carved stairs leading from the valley floor to the top. The only way to visit the area is to park and roam among the towering hoodoos.
Georgia O’Keeffe called one area in Lybrook the Black Place. She frequented the place from 1936 to 1949. It became a source of inspiration for her paintings and drawings.
Pro Tip: There are no designated trails in these badlands, and cell service is spotty. The site’s website has coordinates for popular, named rock formations. Bring a compass (or download an app) in case your GPS fails you, and allow a full day to visit.
7. Bisti Wilderness Area, New Mexico
The Bisti Wilderness Area lies between Highways 550 and 371 in the Four Corners region. As with Lybrook, hiking is the only way to see the area. The De-Na-Zin Trail on the eastern side leads to winged formations. The trail is easy to navigate, but not paved.
The 5.5-mile Bisti Badlands Trail entering from the west is longer but more rewarding. By hiking along the wash’s walls without climbing them, you’ll find the wilderness area’s most famous landmarks: the Tabletops, an area littered with petrified wood; the Cracked Eggs; and the Chocolate Hoodoos. This map shows the trail and various offshoots you can explore. Sunrise and sunset offer unparalleled photo opportunities, since the soft light brings out the most color.
Allow for a full day to visit the western side and a half day to visit the eastern side.
Pro Tip: You’ll need a GPS or a compass to navigate this area, too. Lybrook and Bisti Badlands do not have visitor centers or concessions, so bring plenty of water and food with you. Fall is the best time to visit because of the milder temperatures. With the clay-based soil, hiking is slippery after rain.