The Underrated US National Park That Offers The Most Stunning Sunrise And Sunset Views

The ten most-visited U.S. national parks in 2022 included usual names like the Great Smoky Mountains and the Grand Canyon on top. However, there's one national park that didn't make the list that is known especially for the beauty of its sunrise and sunset views. This is a place where the layers of the rocks themselves seem to participate in the colorful sky display.

At Badlands National Park in South Dakota, fossilized soil layers give the rock formations a unique, red-striped appearance, not unlike the "rosy-fingered dawn" and dusk that poets have been writing about since the time of Homer and the ancient Greeks. As it happens, the striking pinnacles and buttes of the Badlands go back much further in history than that. In the same way that tree rings in Redwood National Park could tell the story of hundreds of years — putting events in human history in humble perspective — the rock layers in the Badlands form a visible geological record that dates back millions of years.

The oldest formation, the Pierre Shales, is 69 to 75 million years old, and across the millennia, the area has supported everything from prehistoric marine life to saber-toothed tigers and rhinos. Though it might seem strange to head to a place called Badlands for a gorgeous sunrise or sunset, seeing the rocks almost interact with the sky is just one reason why this park is worth visiting.

Why Badlands?

The National Park Service notes that the name "Badlands" derives from the Lakota people and was adopted by French fur trappers to describe the rugged terrain, which proved treacherous for early explorers when they were trying to cross it. It's one thing to stop and admire the view from one of the park's many overlooks. It's another thing to try and survive in such a landscape without clean drinking water or solid footing due to rain. The wildlife of the Badlands includes bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and rattlesnakes.

It's only been 45 years since the park traded its former national monument status for that of a full-fledged national park in 1978. However, it's been over a century now since it was first considered as a candidate under the name Wonderland National Park. Let's face it: Wonderland sounds more like an amusement park, or an attraction at a Disney park. The term "badlands," however, is one that is used not only in reference to this national park but to other regions where there's little vegetation and the processes of erosion and deposition have shaped the hills and landforms in dynamic ways.

The Pinnacles Overlook is one popular spot for taking in the sunset at Badlands National Park. You don't have to know the park's history, of course, to simply enjoy the view, but as the sun goes down or rises over the Badlands, it helps to have an appreciation of one's place in nature.

The start of a great road trip

Despite its natural splendor, one reason why Badlands National Park may receive fewer annual visitors than the Great Smoky Mountains and the Grand Canyon is because of its location. South Dakota doesn't necessarily have as many famous tourist attractions as other U.S. states, though it's where Black Hills National Forest and Mount Rushmore National Memorial are situated. This is also where the Oscar-winning film "Dances with Wolves" was filmed, with the Badlands making an appearance.

Depending on what part of the 244,000-acre park you're coming from, you could drive from the Badlands to Mount Rushmore in an hour and a half to two hours with traffic. From there, it's just over an hour to the Gold Rush town of Deadwood, which is designated a National Historic Landmark. Drive another hour and 15 minutes across the state line to Wyoming and you'll hit Devil's Tower National Monument, where you can camp in the shadow of the stone tower that served as a major setting in another Oscar-winning film, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

With all these other landmarks, monuments, and memorials in driving distance, watching the sunrise at Badlands National Park could just be the start of a great road trip. Or you could simply enjoy a scenic drive around the Badlands themselves, spotting animals and stargazing at night. With its fossil preparation lab also open for guided tours, there are any number of activities to enjoy in Badlands National Park.