Battle of the Badlands: North Dakota vs. South

February 21, 2022

Millions of years ago, when the continent was lifting and bending beneath itself to form mountains, and places unimaginable were underwater, large amounts of sand, silt, and ash flowed in the rivers. Eventually these sediments deposited in layers, and over time became sandstone, siltstone, mudstone and clay, the foundation of what you see in these Badlands of North and South Dakota today.

Ravines, gullies, buttes, hoodoos and other such geologic forms are common in badlands. This is terrain in which water erosion has cut a very large number of deep drainage channels, separated by short, steep ridges, due to the soft, easily carved nature of the sedimentary layers.

What we are left with is something out of this world; colorful, striped, oddly-shaped hills and towers that run in succession or random dispersement; and an instant change of terrain, from cow fields to stark, rolling hills or peaks, and back to pasture again. This curious process is found on every continent except Antarctica.

Badlands South Dakota

Badlands is a word that lives in the imagination of Americans. It has a pleasing, notorious ring to it. It was first titled “Land that is Bad” by Native Americans, and then dubbed with the same, dreadful moniker by French fur traders.

The badlands are where bandits risk their lives to hide from the Marshall. Perhaps they die of thirst in suffocating heat, or encounter some nefarious beast. Whatever takes their lives, we get what we deserve when we wander into the badlands.

Badlands South Dakota

Let the Battle of the Badlands Begin

The most famous of the US badlands is Badlands National Park in South Dakota. However, two other “Badlands” parks inhabit the Dakotas region: Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota and Toadstool Geologic Park in NW Nebraska (minutes from the S. Dakota border).

We think it is worth it to visit all three parks, as each is unique and beautiful in its own way. Our intention with this Battle of the Badlands article is to illustrate the differences between the parks.

Each park will be rated on four categories: Location, Beauty, Crowd, and Vibe. Hopefully, a compartmentalized view of the parks’ attributes will help you make an informed decision about which one to visit. If you would like to know more about each of the parks, please click the blue links in each section.

Badlands National Park

Badlands South Dakota

The three things that matter the most in property are location, location, location. Located a couple of minutes off of I-90, next door to the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, and an hour from Rapid City, it is so easy to visit Badlands National Park.

Hundreds of years ago, the Natives and early settlers steered clear of this parched region, yet today Americans and worldwide tourists flock to it.  The reason is Badlands National Park is stunningly beautiful. These grand mountains are unlike any others found across the United States of America. 

Badlands South Dakota

Believe it or not, the entire 244,000-acre area was under water at one time.  Sediment filtered through the seawater and formed a black mud on the sea floor. Over time this mud hardened into shale. As the water receded it revealed the gorgeous, striped peaks and plateaus you see today.

Badlands National Park is 244,000 acres and is visited by about a million people annually. From the lowest point to the highest is 1,000 feet of elevation change. Badlands National Park was declared a national monument in 1939 by President Franklin Roosevelt. It was then reclassified as a national park in 1978 by President Jimmie Carter. 

Badlands South Dakota

There are four obvious things to do in Badlands National Park: 1. Marvel at the big views. 2. Hike around on the hoodoos and trails. 3. Drive through the the park. 4. See the Visitor Center. The badlands are easily enjoyed in a day or less. A visitor could simply drive through on their way to somewhere else, stop at a few overlooks, and feel like they’ve seen it. 

If you are looking to visit this park, we’ve discussed all the things to see and do in this article, South Dakota National Parks: The Badlands.

Location: 5/5

Beauty: 4/5

Crowd: 2/5

Vibe: 3/5

Total: 14

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, South Unit

Badlands North Dakota

Badlands North Dakota is quite different than its South Dakota and Nebraska counterparts. The parks share common features, yet Theodore Roosevelt N.P. is lively with vegetation, which in many ways makes it more beautiful. 

In 1883, a 25-year-old Theodore Roosevelt fell in love with the North Dakota Badlands and established a ranch himself. His residence, the Maltese Cross Cabin, is on display at the South Unit Visitor Center.

The stark harshness of Badlands National Park is dramatic and spellbinding, but here in TRNP one feels at home in the vast, strange world. It is easy to see how Teddy Roosevelt made this his residence.

Badlands North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt Badlands North Dakota sees about 600,000 visitors annually, which makes it one of the least explored parks in the USA National Parks system.  The South Unit is the most frequented portion of the park. At 46,158 acres it contains the majority share of land.  The primary entrance is in Medora, although the park has a visitor center at Painted Canyon and primitive inroads in other places.

The South Unit is best accessed by a 36 mile loop in the middle of the park. Currently, the loop is broken due to a landslide in May of 2019, and has temporarily become an out-and-back road. The Boicourt Overlook is about halfway around the loop, or about 40 minutes from the park entrance.

Badlands North Dakota

To witness a portion of this otherworldly expanse, this spectacular badlands territory that extends deep into the horizon, would make any visitor question the shortsighted vision of early North Dakota ranchers. You see, they didn’t want to give up the land for a National Monument. They much preferred to continue using it as ranch land.

Teddy Roosevelt once said, ““Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.” 

Badlands North Dakota

The South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt N.P. is full of spectacular, soaring views. What it lacks in dramatic peaks, it makes up in green carpeted valleys.

If you visit TRNP you might just have the park to yourself, depending on time of day and year. To learn more about what to do here, check out Beautiful Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Location: 2/5

Beauty: 4/5

Crowd: 4/5

Vibe: 5/5

Total: 15

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Unit

Badlands North Dakota, North Unit resides deep in buffalo country. The panoramas are some of the finest in the nation.

The North Unit consists of 24,070 acres. Its located an hour north of the South Unit and sees far fewer visitors. Worth mentioning is, the layout of the North Unit is more straightforward than the South Unit: A 14-mile out-and-back road begins on one side of the park and commences on the other side.

Badlands North Dakota

Some of these valleys are preposterously large. In the corners of the park the buttes are a mesmerizing pale blue. If you’re lucky you’ll be treated to turkey vultures circling the canyon floor as they search for the rodentia of an alien world.

“The farther one gets into the wilderness, the greater is the attraction of its lonely freedom.” Theodore Roosevelt.

Badlands North Dakota

Some of our favorite views are found in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The mix of colorful buttes and vegetation coupled with the vastness of the canyons makes for exquisite scenery.

Badlands North Dakota

Badlands North Dakota, North Unit couldn’t be much more out of the way. Think about this: We’re talking about North Dakota, the last state people visit on average, with no major freeways connecting it to other states, and then we’re pushing about as far north as one dares travail, close to the border of Canada.

Is it worth it to come here? We think so.

Location: 1/5

Beauty: 5/5

Crowd: 5/5

Vibe: 5/5

Total: 16

Toadstool Geologic Park

Badlands Nebraska

Toadstool Geologic Park is part of the Nebraska National Forests and Parks system, located in the NW corner of Nebraska amidst the Oglala National Grasslands. Far from a household name, Toadstool Geologic Park is known for its interesting, toadstool-shaped formations and fossil deposits.

The park is out-of-the-way — about an hour drive south of Hot Springs, SD — but if you’re spending time in the Black Hills it is certainly worth the drive.

Badlands Nebraska

The park is an incredibly well-kept secret, located down a 12-mile dirt road in the middle of nowhere. A small campground with six primitive sites and a handful of parking spots is utilized by tent campers. There are bathrooms in the campground. 

At Toadstool Geologic Park it is easy to have an intimate experience with the formations. The trails are a little bit complicated (see the Toadstool article for a map).

Badlands Nebraska

A five minute walk from the campground will place you in the “playground”. Like a UFO museum on the moon, this spooky and enigmatic scene might be the most interesting part of the park. A half-dozen or more large rocks pose cryptically atop piles of eroded clay, while large buttes stand as sentinels in the background.

Badlands Nebraska

The single greatest attribute of the park is the extraterrestrial appearance of the landscape. A close second the solitude you will experience at Toadstool. You’re basically in the middle of nowhere, and there’s a very cool sensation when you’re doing something awesome and no one is around. There aren’t many places like this left in the USA.

To learn more about Toadstool Geologic Park, click the link!

Location: 1/5

Beauty: 3/5

Crowd: 5/5

Vibe: 4/5

Total: 13

Winner: Theodore Roosevelt N.P., North Unit

Badlands North Dakota

We’re not trying to follow consensus here. Simply put, Theodore Roosevelt N.P. is more beautiful, more diverse, and less crowded than Badlands National Park. Between the North and South units, the North wins out because it is even less crowded, the buffalo are a bit more prevalent, and a couple of the views are true jaw-droppers.

While we would spend a day at Badlands or Toadstool, we would spend weeks at Badlands North Dakota, Teddy Roosevelt National Park.

To learn more about this incredible place, check out Beautiful Things to Do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

And if you would like to learn about all the other amazing things to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota, check out The Black Hills of South Dakota: A Complete Guide.

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