Everything You Need To Know About Fossil Hunting In Badlands National Park, South Dakota - National Park Obsessed (2022)

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Did you ever dream of being a Paleontologist? I know I did. Even if someday my job would be replaced by technology that would bring the dinos back to life, then the dinos eat all the humans. No biggie. Dreams die a painful death when you realize most Paleontologists work at a university and might get to dig a couple of months a year (if they are lucky). Over the years, the United States has been home to thousands of fossil dig sites. I picked one of the best fossil formations to try my luck at being a paleontologist. I went fossil hunting in Badlands National Park, South Dakota.

Getting to Badlands National Park?

Badlands National Park is located in southwestern South Dakota. The park is just west of the famed Dakota Black Hills. My visit to Badlands NP was part of my South Dakota road trip and was my 31 national park in my quest for all 61.

The closest airport to Badlands is Rapid City Regional Airport. It is located about an hour away from the park entrance. The next closest airport is Casper/Natrona County International Airport (CPR) which is 263 miles west of Badlands. Additional airports are much further away.

Estimated Drive time to Badlands National Park

  • Rapid City, South Dakota – 1 hour
  • Sioux Falls, South Dakota – 4 hours
  • Bismarck, North Dakota – 5.25 hours
  • Denver, Colorado – 6 hours
  • Omaha, Nebraska – 6.5 hours

Badlands can not be reached by public transportation. It might be possible to reach Rapid City via public transport but you will need a car.

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South Dakota Dinosaur Fossils

South Dakota is well known for its fossil. The state is the home of the most complete and largest T-Rex fossil ever found. Her name is Sue. She can be seen at the Chicago Field Museum. Finds like this are rare and the exception rather than the rule in fossil discovery.

Public fossil hunting is allowed in South Dakota. Keep your eyes peeled, it is possible to find fossils just lying on the ground or on an exposed rock face. That being said, if it’s on public land it either belongs to the state of South Dakota or the United States. Unless you have permission from the landowner, staging your own dinosaur fossil dig isn’t allowed. It is disappointing you can’t have your own South Dakota Fossil dig, but that is life.

If you are looking to discover fossils, the best site for South Dakota fossil hunting is Badlands National Park. Most South Dakota fossils are found in the Badlands.

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Things to Know about Fossil Hunting Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park protects an exposed area of geological formations. Each layer represents an era of history. The Badlands started as an inland sea that over millions of years transitions to a swampy floodplain. As more time passed, the land transitioned into a forest and then into the barren landscape that is eroded by wind, water, and ice.

Most of the badland fossils come from the swampy floodplain era. This layer is greyish and is called the Chadron Formation. Most of the deposits are between 34 and 37 million years old.

The entire park is a fossil site that is open to the public. As mentioned earlier, it is one of the best places to discover fossils. You can’t just bring a shovel and dig. You have to let the wind and water reveal the fossils.

There is a team of Paleontologists who dig up fossils, but most fossils are found by you and me. Park visitors especially those under the age of 10 seem to find most the fossils. Badlands has several hiking trails but park guests are encouraged to hike anywhere. Ask any park ranger and the stories of discoveries abound. Kids are the ones who are scrambling up and down the buttes. Their exploration is why they are the ones to discover the fossils.

If you find a fossil, take a picture of it. Note the location. If you can get a GPS location, that is amazing. But get as much info as you can.

To aid with the investigation, preservation, and recovery of the fossils, Badlands has a form for visitors to fill out should they find a fossil. I am not joking there really a form. Park Service will send a paleontologist out to investigate all fossil reports. If you are really lucky, you might make an epic discovery.

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It happed to Kylie Ferguson. She was visiting the park with her family and while completing her Junior Ranger program found a few bones outside Ben Reifel Visitor Center. She reported them to park staff. As the find was near the visitor center, park staff left the fossil in place and allowed erosion to expose the rest of the find. The park expected to find a sheep-like animal but what they got was an almost perfect sabretooth cat skull. The skill also proved that the cats were cannibals.

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Kylie got a 3D printed copy of the skull and a second trip back to Badlands.

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Another story involved a park visitor finding a backbone near one of the picnic area. He left the park without reporting it and then decided it was important to report. He returned and when Rangers went to examine the find they found more fossil and started digging. What started as four-day dig turned into a massive multi-year paleontologists dig.

Badland National Park Fossils

Fossil discoveries in Badlands vary. Most visitors find a small piece of bone or maybe some teeth. Those small pieces can lead to bigger finds. Until you explore the badlands, you don’t know what you could find. Who knows?

The majority of found fossils in Badlands National Park are not from the dinosaurs. The dinosaurs walked the earth between 243 and 233.23 million years ago. The fossils found in Badlands tend to range from 34 and 37 million years old. Commonly found fossils include parts of ancient alligators, Dinictis (saber-tooth cat), ancient camels, ancient rhinoceros, larger rodents, and small rodents.

Best Time of Year for a Fossil Hunting Vacation?

Fossils can be found pretty much year-round in the Badlands. Most fossils are found during the summer. Most tourism occurs during the summer so it is no surprise that most fossils are found then. Plus all the kiddies are out of school as well.

If you are looking to find fossils the best time to search is right after a rainstorm. Fossils tend to stand out while the ground is wet after a rainstorm. The three highest months of precipitation is May, June, and July. Even then rainstorms are not an everyday occurrence. June is the wettest month and it only gets 3.12 inches of rain on average.

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My Unsuccessful Fossil Hunting Adventure

I got up for my first full day in Badlands National Park. I was looking forward to going to fossil hunting in the South Dakota Badlands. I was planning on a 10-mile hike along the Castle Trail from the Door and Window Trail parking lot to Fossil Exhibit Trail parking lot.

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The first mile or two of my hike was through the mixed grassland. A short uphill hike led me to Saddle Pass. This is the start of the badlands. I took a short break here and explore the rocks. I was looking for two things. One I was seeing if I could discover any fossils. The second was to see if I could locate a rattlesnake that had been hanging around in the area. I wanted to take his portrait. He decided not to grace me with his presence. Most likely he was still out on his morning hunt. No luck on finding any fossils but I was hoping it would rain before the end of my hike.

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After heading down from the pass, I was surrounded by the badlands. I was solo hiking so I wasn’t willing to head super far off the marked trail. I kept the trail insight or just over the top of one dunes. It was hard work hiking up and down the dunes looking for little pieces of bone that look like rocks. I probably doubled my hiking distance.

I loved seeing all the geological layers. Hiking in badlands lets you get up and close to each layer. Each color is a look into the past. It is a time capsule waiting to reveal its secret. The rain and wind work in tandem to help reveal their secrets.

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As I Fossil Exhibit Trail parking lot, I noticed two male Bighorn Sheep about 300 yards from me. I quickly swapped to my 75-300 mm lens. I checked where the wind was coming from and slowly and deliberately moved to get a better angle for photographs. I kept an eye on the Bighorn’s body language as I moved. They were relaxed until I heard from behind me.

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“Look there are some sheep!”

I glance behind me to see where the yelling is coming from. A kid is running at a full sprint from the parking lot into the badlands. He sprints past me and sure enough, the sheep turn tail and run.

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I just shook my head and headed into the parking lot so I could eat lunch on a picnic table. As I hike up the short incline. As I do, the kid’s mother sees me. The smarts off to me with “Thanks, a lot for scaring those sheep off.”

I really wanted to give her a piece of my mind. I controlled myself, a bit. I tell her it’s his fault for running at the animal. It’s the truth. Those Bighorns were fine with me. I was non-threating and their posture was relaxed until the kid showed up.

I finished my hike and arrived at the Fossil Exhibit Parking lot. In my two hours of searching in the badlands, I hadn’t found any fossils. But I did help remove some litter from the park. I wish that wasn’t a common occurrence.

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During the summer, the park rangers do a program on badland fossils at the Fossil Exhibit Trail. I stayed for that program. It was about an hour and the ranger shows fossil and explains the history of the badlands. You are allowed to touch all the fossils and fossil replicas. As the program ended, a lightning storm rolled in. I knew I was in trouble. Hiking 5 miles in the rain is one thing. Hiking in an arid landscape with a lightning storm where I am the tallest object is another thing.

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I looked around and figured I need a Plan B. Plan B was to find someone to give me a ride back to my starting trailhead. I was looking for a nice older couple or a group of young Europeans. It took about 5 mins and one couple going the wrong directions to find someone to give me a lift back to my car so I could ride out the storm.

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I got back to my car as the lighting and rain increased. I was soaked in the short 5 ft walk to my car. I decided it was nap time and crossed my fingers and hoped the rain would clear for the star viewing program that evening.

I did several more hikes in hoping to find some fossils, alas, my badland fossil hunting expedition was an epic failure.

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Have you ever been fossil hunting in Badlands National Park? Did you find anything?

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FAQs

Can you take fossils from Badlands National Park? ›

Unless you have permission from the landowner, staging your own dinosaur fossil dig isn't allowed. It is disappointing you can't have your own South Dakota Fossil dig, but that is life. If you are looking to discover fossils, the best site for South Dakota fossil hunting is Badlands National Park.

Why Badlands are good areas for finding fossils? ›

A: The yellow and red layers in the badlands formations are fossilized soils, called paleosols. Fossil root traces, burrows, and animal bones found within the soils provide scientists with evidence of environmental and climatic changes that occurred in the badlands over time.

What should I bring to fossil hunting? ›

Tools for Collecting Fossils
  • Hard hat. ...
  • Safety glasses. ...
  • Gloves to protect your hands.
  • Hammer. ...
  • One or two chisels, preferably one large and one small.
  • Backpack or cloth bag in which to carry the fossils.
  • Old newspapers or a roll of tissue paper for protecting fragile specimens.

How many fossils have been found in the Badlands? ›

The Big Pig Dig took 15 field seasons and recovered over 19,000 fossils. Read more about this excavation and its story here.

Can you keep fossils you find on public land? ›

Collected fossils remain public property and are placed with museums, universities or other public institutions for study and exhibition. You may collect reasonable quantities of common invertebrate fossils such as mollusks and trilobites, but this must be for personal use, and the fossils may not be bartered or sold.

Can you take rocks from the Badlands? ›

Remember that all park resources -- fossils, plants, animals, artifacts, and rocks -- are to remain as you find them. All visitors are entitled to the same sense of discovery you experience when traveling the park trails, and collecting these items is illegal.

What dinosaurs are in the Badlands? ›

Dinosaurs & fossils

The largest number of dinosaurs on display in North Dakota, including full skeletons of Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, Triceratops, Edmontosaurus, Albertosaurus, and Thescelosaurus.

Why are there so many dinosaurs in the Badlands? ›

Perfect Preservation

Reptiles with wingspans wider than a small plane soared across the skies. Those great rivers left behind the sand and mud deposits where dinosaur bones were quickly buried and then fossilized, and now form the hills and hoodoos of the Badlands.

Can you hunt in Badlands National Park? ›

This area is open to hunting by members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe with a valid tribal hunting license with restrictions as agreed upon by both the Oglala Sioux Parks & Recreation Authority (OSPRA) and Badlands National Park. Big game shall include mule deer, white-tail deer, and pronghorn antelope.

What do you wear for fossil hunting? ›

If you are on an organised field trip, such as our UKAFH fossil hunts, or collecting in a quarry, there are important health and safety requirements by law. These are that you must wear a hard-hat, high visibility jacket and strong boots with good ankle supports.

How do you tell if a fossil is in a rock? ›

Paleontologists also examine the surfaces of potential fossils. If they are smooth and do not have any real texture, they are probably rocks. Even if it is shaped like a bone, if it does not have the right texture then it is probably a rock.

What do you wear to dig fossils? ›

Definitely be sure to bring water, snacks, sunglasses, sunscreen and a hat. The dig sites are usually higher in elevation than town, so bring warm layers and gloves in case they don't provide those. There is an abundance of knowledge to take in about the different fossils and why they're in that part of Wyoming.

Did dinosaurs live in the Badlands? ›

Fossils in the Badlands date back to the late Eocene and Oligocene epochs, when three-toed horses, camels, creodonts and other intriguing mammals roamed the world — so don't expect to find any dinosaurs here.

Why are so many dinosaurs found in South Dakota? ›

During the late Mesozoic (Cretaceous), a great seaway developed, once more covering much of South Dakota with marine waters. This seaway was home to abundant invertebrates, marine reptiles, and aquatic birds, while dinosaurs, small mammals, and birds inhabited the shores and inland areas.

What types of fossils are in the Badlands? ›

What Fossils Are Found In The Badlands? The Badlands are known for their abundance of fossil mammals. Preserved in the layers of exposed rock and ancient soils are fossil brontotheres (see Figures 1 and 3), rhinoceroses, horses, oreodonts , camels, entelodonts (pigs), rabbits, rodents, and carnivores.

Can I keep a fossil I find? ›

The US federal land laws forbid any collection of vertebrate fossils without an institutional permit, but allow hobby collection of common invertebrate and plant fossils on most federal land , and even commercial collection of petrified wood.

Can I sell a fossil I found? ›

But in America, fossils discovered on private property belong to the landowner. So if you, as a resident of the United States, find a dino skeleton on real estate that you own, you can legally keep, sell or export it.

How much is a dinosaur bone worth? ›

A complete dinosaur skeleton can cost millions, even many millions! A real dinosaur tooth can run anywhere from $20 to a few thousand dollars depending on the quality of the tooth and how rare it is to find a particular species. Bone fragments, coprolite, and eggshell pieces can be very reasonably priced.

Are there bears in the Badlands? ›

There are no bears currently living in Badlands National Park in South Dakota, but there are a lot of other cool animals that you may see, including: Black-footed ferrets. American bison. Bighorn sheep.

Are there geodes in the Badlands? ›

Erosion carves the badlands and then destroys them

These spherical nodules are called geodes. In some parts of the United States they occur in sizes as large as a basketball or even larger.

What can I bring into the Badlands? ›

Badlands National Park Clothing Checklist
  • Lightweight Fleece. My biggest tip for travelling to Badlands is make sure you are in the park early – this is actually my tip for any National Park. ...
  • Rain jacket. ...
  • Windbreaker , Hooded Top or Sports Jacket. ...
  • T Shirt.
  • Zip Off Walking Trousers. ...
  • Hiking socks. ...
  • sunglasses.
12 Apr 2021

Can you hunt in Badlands National Park? ›

This area is open to hunting by members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe with a valid tribal hunting license with restrictions as agreed upon by both the Oglala Sioux Parks & Recreation Authority (OSPRA) and Badlands National Park. Big game shall include mule deer, white-tail deer, and pronghorn antelope.

Why are there so many dinosaurs in the Badlands? ›

Perfect Preservation

Reptiles with wingspans wider than a small plane soared across the skies. Those great rivers left behind the sand and mud deposits where dinosaur bones were quickly buried and then fossilized, and now form the hills and hoodoos of the Badlands.

Where are the dinosaur fossils in South Dakota? ›

South Dakota by the numbers

South Dakota's Black Hills are home to the most dinosaur fossils in the state. A handful of other spots—including the Journey Museum and Mammoth Site, not to mention The Badlands—also house prehistoric relics.

What dinosaurs are in the Badlands? ›

Dinosaurs & fossils

The largest number of dinosaurs on display in North Dakota, including full skeletons of Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, Triceratops, Edmontosaurus, Albertosaurus, and Thescelosaurus.

Can you carry a gun in Badlands National Park? ›

As of February 22, 2010, a new federal law allows people who can legally possess firearms under applicable federal, state, and local laws, to legally possess firearms in this park.

Where is the best hunting in South Dakota? ›

Aberdeen is known worldwide for producing ringnecks. With more than 200,000 acres of public hunting ground accessible, including 24,000 acres of Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (the most CREP acres in the state) walk-in hunting lands, this area is one of the most popular hunting destinations.

Are there rattlesnakes in Badlands National Park? ›

Badlands National Park is home to one species of rattlesnake -- the Prairie Rattlesnake. Prairie Rattlesnakes can grow up to 5 feet long. This species of rattlesnake has a triangular head and body covered in dark blotches which gradually turn into rings as they near the tail.

Why are so many dinosaurs found in South Dakota? ›

During the late Mesozoic (Cretaceous), a great seaway developed, once more covering much of South Dakota with marine waters. This seaway was home to abundant invertebrates, marine reptiles, and aquatic birds, while dinosaurs, small mammals, and birds inhabited the shores and inland areas.

Did South Dakota have dinosaurs? ›

South Dakota was once home to real-life Tyrannosaurus rexes like “Sue” and "Stan" as well as raptors like the Dakotaraptor. In 2020, a professor and his students found "Shady" — a 7-foot-long, 3,000-pound triceratops skull — near the town of Shadehill, in the Grand River National Grassland in northern South Dakota.

What dinosaurs have been found in South Dakota? ›

Local dinosaurs included the armored Edmontonia, duck-billed Edmontosaurus, the ostrich dinosaur Ornithomimus, Pachycephalosaurus, Triceratops, and Tyrannosaurus. During the early part of the Cenozoic, central and eastern South Dakota was still covered by the sea.

Did dinosaurs live in the Badlands? ›

Fossils in the Badlands date back to the late Eocene and Oligocene epochs, when three-toed horses, camels, creodonts and other intriguing mammals roamed the world — so don't expect to find any dinosaurs here.

Why are the Badlands famous? ›

Badlands National Park contains one of the world's richest fossil beds, permitting scientists to study the evolution of mammal species such as the horse, rhino and saber-toothed cat. From tiny shrews to 2,000-pound bison, the Badlands is home to many species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds and butterflies.

Where can I see fossils in South Dakota? ›

The South Dakota School of Mines and Technology Museum of Geology in Rapid City is the best place to view fossils in South Dakota.

Are there bears in the Badlands? ›

There are no bears currently living in Badlands National Park in South Dakota, but there are a lot of other cool animals that you may see, including: Black-footed ferrets. American bison. Bighorn sheep.

Is the Badlands worth seeing? ›

Badlands is among the most underrated and unique USA national parks. It is perfect for a day trip or a 2 day visit for the whole family. You will find a handful of fun and picturesque hiking trails in Badlands National Park, countless awe inspiring scenic overlooks and a surprising abundance of wildlife.

Was the Badlands underwater? ›

It all began about 80 million years ago when the Pierre shale, the bottom layer of the Badlands geology, was laid down by a great inland sea. About 35 million years ago, rivers and streams running downhill from the Black Hills spread sand, mud, and gravel on the area.

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