What Are Badlands, And Where Do They Occur?

The unique Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah "hoodoos" (foreground) amidst the badlands (background) of San Juan County, New Mexico, United States of America.
The unique Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah "hoodoos" (foreground) amidst the badlands (background) of San Juan County, New Mexico, United States of America.

What Are Badlands?

Badlands are some of the most beautiful examples of naturally occurring, erosion-shaped terrains on earth. They are simply clay soils in dry areas that have been eroded to a significant degree, so as to form their iconic shapes and topographies. Some think that the term badlands (French: terres mauvais a traverser), was coined by the French, when they became among the first Europeans to explore the South Dakota area. The best known examples of badlands topography is the South Dakota Badlands. The White River Badlands, located in southwestern South Dakota, are considered the most famous in the world. This area is 100 miles long and three to five miles wide. The Missouri Plateau features numerous badlands formations on the west of the Missouri River. Another area with badlands is the “Jump Off” badlands at the source of the Moreau River. The Grand River valley also features smaller scale badlands.


The creation of badlands began around 65 million years ago when the upwelling of land forced the sea waters to recede, resulting in dry seabeds. The dry seabeds trapped underneath their substrates many marine animals that later fossilized. After a period of time, the climate became warmer and more humid, allowing low vegetation to grow on higher grounds. More plants and trees colonized these areas, turning them into jungles. Then floods, carrying volcanic ash, sand, and mud, covered these areas. Successive layers began covering the lower layers of sediments until they became compacted and turned into soft rock, creating extensive areas. Rain, floods, and wind started eroding the rocks and hills to form ravines, buttes, mesas, canyons, gullies, and hoodoos. The exposed layers created an alternate display of colors from black to red to brightly-hued clay.

Ecological Significance

At the same time that the badlands were forming during the Eocene and Oligocene epochs 57 to 26 million years ago, many animals lived in these areas. The remains of these animals became trapped under soft-rock layers to form fossils that are today found in many areas of the badlands, such as those in South Dakota. Today, the area is populated by prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, deer, and cliff swallows. One of the conservation programs being considered is the reintroduction of the Black-footed ferrets into the White River region. In the past century, the government allowed the removal of tons of fossils by scientific expeditions sponsored by museums and universities. However, today, as much of this area is now part of the Badlands National Park, the taking of anything out of the park is strictly prohibited, although many geologists are still allowed to study the topography of the area as a geological resource.

Geographic Distribution

There are many badlands to be found around the world today. New Zealand has the Putangirua Pinnacles on its North Island, Italy has the Calanchi in Basilicata, Spain has the Bardenas Reales in Navarre and the Tabernas Desert in Almeria, Argentina has the Valle de la Luna in its midwestern regions, and Taiwan has the Gutingkeng Formation in its south, just to name a few. Badlands vary in their respective topographies and rock formations, but the most famous ones are located in the United States and Canada. These include the Big Muddy Badlands is in Saskatchewan, Canada and the spectacular Dinosaur National Park, also in Canada, which was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. In the United States, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has the Chinle Badlands in Utah, the Makoshika State Park is in Montana, the Toadstool Geologic Park is found in Nebraska, and the El Malpais National Monument is in New Mexico.


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