There is nothing "bad" about the idea of cruising down Interstate 90 in South Dakota and coming across the beauty, splendor and utter desolation that is the Badlands -- the collective name for eroded areas of exposed rock formations making passage through the area difficult.
Within the United States there are areas of badlands in the western parts of both North Dakota and South Dakota, and also in northwestern Nebraska and Montana. The Badlands National Park is perhaps the most famous area, located in South Dakota but parts of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park (in western North Dakota), Toadstool State Park in northwestern Nebraska and Makoshika State Park in Montana are also considered Badlands.
These remarkable landscapes and spectacular rock formations are also home to America's first settlers -- many of them of the four-legged variety -- namely dinosaurs and megafauna (massive mammals). These areas are also the origin of the most famous dinosaur from the Cretaceous period, the Tyrannosaurus rex. Even an amateur paleontologist can set out on an expedition in the Badlands and come across fossils and places of prehistoric significance. Other four-legged creatures in abundance in the park today are in the form of bison, coyote, prairie dogs, antelope and the endangered black-footed ferret.
About 100 prehistoric woolly mammoths can be seen en situ at Mammoth Site (www.mammothsite.com), in Hot Springs, South Dakota. These creatures were entombed there over 20,000 years ago, and their remains are visible today. The Badlands National Park (www.nps.gov/badl) in South Dakota has the world's richest Oligocene epoch fossil beds, dating back up to 35 million years. The area is especially known for its insight into the evolution of mammal species such as horses, sheep, rhinoceros and pigs whose fossilized remains have been unearthed in the Badlands formations. The park features miles of hikes and walks that lead to fossil beds and its Visitor Center has a varied collections of fossils, ranging from ancient megafauna to tiny prehistoric mice.
Skeletons of exotic animals like saber-toothed tigers, three-toed horses, giant pigs, miniature camels and rhinoceros-like titanotheres can be seen at Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historic Park (www.museum.unl.edu/ashfall/index.html) between Royal and Orchard in Nebraska. An interpretive trail leads from a Visitor Center (with its own working paleontology laboratory) to the actual excavation sites so you can see first hand the locations where the remains of these unique creatures were uncovered.
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument (www.nps.gov/agfo) features one of the richest mammalian fossil bone beds ever found in the United States. Fossils include rare prehistoric mammals like Menoceras and Moropus. The dig site is still active, so you may get to interact with paleontologists during your visit.
When you decide you would like to come indoors but you haven't had enough paleontology, there are several museums in the area that are both informative, educational and interactive. The Dakota Dinosaur Museum in Dickinson, North Dakota houses an extensive collection of dinosaurs found in the surrounding region, including a 2,000-pound Triceratops skull and an Allosaurus. The Museum of Geology in Rapid City, South Dakota displays an informative collection of Badlands fossils, including ancient camels, horses and a pregnant Oreodon with the skeletons of her unborn young encased within her.
A unique way to see the Badlands is by helicopter or hot air balloon. Both modes of transportation are available over the South Dakota Badlands area. Rapid Helicopters (tel. 605/343-5058) operates out of Rapid City, as does Dakota Balloons (tel. 605/393-8808). Both companies can arrange flights over the lunar-like landscapes of the Badlands and provide a bird's eye view of this magnificent region.
For an up-close and personal experience with prehistoric pets, the state of Montana also has a lot to offer. The Museum of the Rockies at Bozeman (www.montana.edu/wwwmor) is one of America's most renowned dinosaur attractions, with displays of dinosaur eggs, embryos and nests found near Choteau, Montana, an area known as Egg Mountain. The site is replicated at the museum with life-size reproductions of 32 dinosaurs, including skeletons of Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops. The Carter County Museum in Ekalaka, Montana has fossils, dinosaur bones and a complete skeleton of an Anatosaurus, or duck-billed dinosaur. A recent Triceratops discovery is the centerpiece of a new Visitors Center at Makoshika State Park (www.midrivers.com/~chamber/mako.htm) near Glendive. The park has a number of interpretive trails and is part of the Hell Creek Formation, a 65-million-year-old rock layer that winds through the Badlands of Montana.
For more information to help you plan your great South Dakota adventure, visit www.frommers.com/destinations/badlandsnationalpark.