Fossil Exhibit Trail

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Trip Date: Saturday, September 22nd, 2018
Last Updated: Tuesday, December 18th, 2018
By Ricky Holzer

Hike Information

Rating ★★★★☆(4/5)
Overall Difficulty Easy
Navigation Difficulty     Easy
Distance 0.25 miles roundtrip
Time 15 minutes
Terrain Mostly flat
Best Seasons All
Family Friendly Yes
Dog Friendly No
Accessible Yes


Hike Summary

While the badlands formations seen from this trail aren't as impressive as you'll find along the Door Trail or Window Trail, the real lure is the series of educational signs detailing the geologic history of the badlands, pictured below. The trail experience evokes a museum exhibit where the artifacts are the natural elements surrounding you. This is a worthy stop during your scenic drive through Badlands National Park, and one that will help you enjoy the park on an even deeper level.

Educational signs lining the boardwalk

Educational signs lining the boardwalk

You can start the trail in either direction since the "exhibit" was designed to be understood no matter where you start. As you step onto the boardwalk, you will see the badlands formations in the distance, as pictured below. The deposition of sediment over the course of millions of years was the beginning of the formation of these fantastic rocks. Each visible layer of rock corresponds with a different geologic era, and the signs will explain what fossils have been discovered in each uniquely colored rock layer -- some signs even feature replica fossils!
The many colored layers of the badlands formations correspond to different geologic eras

The many colored layers of the badlands formations correspond to different geologic eras

You will also learn about the second geologic process that created the badlands: erosion. About half a million years ago, rivers began transforming a previously flat prairie (much like the eastern part of South Dakota) by carving the rock at a rate of one inch per year. The result of this process is the spiky pinnacles pictured below and surrounding this entire boardwalk. Erosion continues to occur today, as torrential thunderstorms slowly wash away tiny bits of rock. Don't worry though, geologists estimate that the badlands have at least another half a million years before they disappear.
Spiky badlands formations in the distance

Spiky badlands formations in the distance

Though the boardwalk is short, the information you learn here will help you to better appreciate the formations you'll see throughout your journey in Badlands National Park. Connect with me using the social media links below and share your adventures!

Important Information

Dogs are prohibited on all trails in Badlands National Park. This fully accessible boardwalk is short and perfect for all ages -- kids will enjoy learning more about the dinosaurs that used to live in this area. You can hike this trail in all seasons, just know that hot summer days are very uncomfortable on this shadeless trail and that this trail is unmaintained in winter and snow and ice may cover the boardwalk. Expect to see plenty of people at any time of the day, though there will be fewer the earlier you arrive.


From Interstate 90, take exit 131 for South Dakota Highway 240 (you'll see a brown sign for Badlands National Park and the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center). Head south and continue to the park entrance station. Pay your fee, continue straight past the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, then turn left into the parking area labeled with a brown sign for the Fossil Exhibit Trail.

Google Maps Directions

Parking, Fees, and Facilities

Entrance to the park requires paying the $20 vehicle entrance fee ($25 starting January 2019), except on designated fee free days. Annual passes for Badlands National Park are also available at $40 ($50 starting January 2019). Interagency annual passes are available for $80 with discounts for seniors, military, and those with disabilities. Visit the Badlands National Park webpage about fees for more detailed information. There are pit toilets available in the center of this large parking lot.

Nearby Hikes

The undulating topography contained in the Medicine Root Loop
Saddle Pass to Medicine Root Loop
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
The expansive south-facing view from the top of the notch
Notch Trail
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The end of this trail is a window into the awesome formations of the badlands
Window Trail
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
The outstanding desert-like badlands formation at the end of the Door Trail
Door Trail
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External Links