Photograph by Annie Griffiths Belt
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Storm clouds gather over the Wall, a 100-mile stretch of tiered cliffs in Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

Photograph by Annie Griffiths Belt

These Colorful, Dramatic Cliffs Are a Half Million Years Old

Location: South Dakota
Established: November 10, 1978
Size: 244,300 acres

They call it The Wall. It extends for a hundred miles through the dry plains of South Dakota—a huge natural barrier ridging the landscape, sculptured into fantastic pinnacles and tortuous gullies by the forces of water. Those who pass through the upper prairie a few miles north might not even know it exists. Those who traverse the lower prairie to the south, however, can't miss it; it rises above them like a city skyline in ruins, petrified.

The Badlands Wall, much of which is preserved within the boundaries of Badlands National Park, may not conform to everyone's idea of beauty, but nobody can deny its theatricality. It's been compared to an enormous stage set—colorful, dramatic, and not quite real. Water, the main player on this stage, has been carving away at the cliffs for the past half million years or so, and it carves away an entire inch (three centimeters) or more in some places each year. But there have been other players, too. Beasts with names like titanothere and archaeotherium once roamed here; their fossilized bones can be found by the hundreds. And today the Badlands Wall serves as a backdrop for bison, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep, as well as the million human visitors who pass through the park every year.

A national monument since 1939, Badlands acquired the South (Stronghold) Unit in 1976, adding yet another dimension to the drama. This large stretch of land belongs to the Oglala, and one of their most sacred places is now preserved within it. It was here, on Stronghold Table, that the final Ghost Dance took place in 1890, just a few weeks before more than 150 Lakota were massacred at Wounded Knee, 25 miles south.

Badlands National Park is considered home to one of the world's richest deposits of mammal fossil beds.

The Oglala Lakota Nation, the second-largest American Indian Reservation in the United States, co-manages half of Badlands National Park.

The Badlands average one inch of erosion per year.

Dazzling Time-Lapse Reveals America's Great Spaces October 23, 2013—After quitting a comfortable day job, photographer Shane Black spent two months on the road shooting time-lapses of some of America's most beautiful spots. His "Adventure Is Calling" video is the mesmerizing result, made from about 10,000 of the photos he took.


00:00 - Badlands National Park, South Dakota

00:16 - Yosemite National Park, California

00:26 - Zion National Park, Utah

00:37 - Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

00:44 - Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

01:06 - Monument Valley National Park, Arizona

01:20 - Marysville, Ohio

01:31 - Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

01:58 - Central Florida

02:03 - Flagstaff, Arizona

02:09 - Bruneau Dunes State Park, Idaho

02:13 - Holbrook, Arizona

02:21 - Marysville, Ohio

02:25 - Monument Valley, Arizona

02:29 - Texas

02:32 - Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

02:36 - Bandon Beach, Oregon

02:39 - White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

02:43 - Big Sur, California

02:46 - Santa Barbara, California

02:53 - Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

03:26 - Bruneau Dunes State Park, Idaho

03:51 - Zion National Park, Utah

04:03 - Yosemite National Park, California

04:19 - Zion National Park, Utah

04:34 - Monument Valley National Park, Arizona

04:46 - Yosemite National Park, California

The photographer would like to thank Flickr and Coca-Cola for supporting the trip.
Copy for this series includes excerpts from the National Geographic Guide to the National Parks of the United States, Seventh Edition, 2012, and the National Parks articles featured in "Cutting Loose" in National Geographic Traveler.