When picturing national parks in the United States, places like Yosemite, Zion, and Yellowstone often spring to mind. But Badlands National Park in South Dakota is a place of extraordinary beauty. There are so many things to do in Badlands National Park and it utterly took our breath away. We had seen the Alberta Badlands, but I must admit, The South Dakota Badlands take it to a whole new level. We’re going to show you all the not-to-miss lookouts and things to see to make the most of your trip to this beautiful destination.
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Things to do in Badlands National Park
At 244,000 acres, there is a lot of area to cover. With bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and bison roaming the mixed-grass prairie landscape, Badlands National Park is a must-stop on any trip to South Dakota. From wildlife watching to scenic lookouts, there are plenty of hikes in Badlands National Park, but it can also be visited by car too.
- Suggested Hotel in Wall: Cedar Pass Lodge – Cedar Pass Lodge is located in Wall and offers cabins complete with refrigerators, coffee makers and microwaves.
- Best Hotel for exploring Badlands NP – Circle View Guest Ranch – Set out in the country with an authentic vibe plus ranch tours and bonfires at night.
- If you aren’t already on a road trip, we recommend renting a car in Rapid City to explore Badlands National Park. You can compare car rental prices at CarRentals.com
- If you don’t have a car, you can book this private tour from Rapid City – It includes a tour of the National Park with a stop at Wall Drugs in the town of Wall, with a stop at the ghost town of Scenic and the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.
Situated in an area known as mixed-grass prairie, meaning it sits between a tallgrass prairie on the east and short grass on to the west, Badlands is the largest mixed-grass prairie in the United States.
There are two sections to Badlands National Park. The North is the more popular portion run by the National Parks Service. It has the Badlands Loop Scenic Byway and the top hiking trails in Badlands National Park.
The South is managed by the Lakota Sioux People and there are no hiking trails or park services. Roads are not paved and it is much more rugged.
1. Drive the Badlands Loop Road – Badlands Wall
Start your visit driving the Badlands Loop Road. It is a beautiful scenic drive with the most striking view of the Badlands Wall. It is a long row of of rugged rock pinnacles.There are 16 designated scenic overlooks along this 39 mile route. You could drive it in an hour, but with views of pinnacles and canyons, spires and buttes, you will end up spending all day stopping at the many pull offs.
2. Ben Reifel Visitors Center
At this pull-off are the trailheads for some of the best hikes in Badlands National Park. Make sure to stop at the National Park Service to pick up maps and get all the information you need for exploring Badlands National Park.
There are several easy hikes in Badlands National Park that can be explored in a short amount of time. Hikes in Badlands NP range from a few minutes to a few hours. These are a few to check out.
3. Notch Trail
Notch Trail is one of the most popular hikes in Badlands National Park. At just 1.5 miles long (2.1 km) it is a fun hike that includes a scramble down a ladder and along a high ridge offering stunning views of the White River Valley. It can be located by driving to the Door and Window Parking area.
4. Fossil Exhibit Area
If you only have a short time and want a quick hike, The Fossil Exhibit Area has a .25 mile long boardwalk. This is an accessible area, with fossils on display and markers on the interactive display.
5. Castle Trail
If you are looking for a longer and more challenging hike, The Castle Trail is the longest hike in Badlands National Park at 10 miles (16 km) round trip and from the Fossil Exhibit Area, you can continue on to the Castle Trail. This hike will take about 6 hours so be prepared for a long day. It takes you through views of the prairies, pinnacles and offers the chance to do some wildlife spotting of Bighorn Sheep. This hike is relatively flat and is an easy trek.
There are actually different ways to hike Castle Trail as it connects to different hiking trails in the Badlands. You can hop on the trail and do a shorter route from the Window and Door Parking area at the Notch Trail head, or you can even combine longer trails to create the length that you want.
6. Cliff Shelf Trail
The Cliff Shelf Trail is another short loop in Badlands NP that takes you along a boardwalk (with stairs so it is not as accessible). It is only 0.5 miles (0.8 km) and this easy stroll takes you through a Juniiper forest. When the pond on the trail has water, you might even see Bighorn Sheep hanging out at the watering hole.
7. Sage Creek Wilderness Area
If you want to get off the beaten path, it is possible to hike a long 22 mile loop of the Sage Creek Wilderness Area. If you are camping at the Sage Creek Campground, this is a great entrance to the Sage Creek Wilderness Area, where you can follow unmarked trails away from the crowds. Even though it is unmarked, it is easy to navigate.
8. Pinnacles Overlook
You cannot visit Badlands National Park without stopping at the Pinnacles Overlook. This is the most popular overlook in the park and with good reason! With stunning views over the Sage Creek Area, it allows visitors to see the layers of rock formations formed over the centuries. At just .2 miles (.32 km) this is popular not only because of the extraordinary view, but for how easy it is. A set of wooden steps leads out to the overlook.
9. Yellow Mounds Overlook
One of the most unique features of Badlands National Park are its yellow mounds. At the Yellow Mounds Overlook you’ll get to see the rolling mounds of paleosols which means fossil soil. The layers weathered soil changed colour to create these yellow hills.
10. Stop at Wall Drug Store
A very quirky road side attraction near Badlands National Park is the tourist attraction of Wall Drug. It all began with the idea to give away free ice water to attract road weary travelers and it has grown today to attraction 2 million visitors per year! Aptly located in Wall, South Dakota, Wall Drugs is not to be missed with visiting Badlands National Park. A staple since 1931, this family run business is a great place to stop for a bit to eat and check out the cheeky displays and shops. If is located just 7 miles (12 km) away.
Another cool historic spot to visit in South Dakota is the Wild West Town of Deadwood.
11. Roberts Prairie Dog Town and Wildlife
We saw an abundance of prairie dogs scuttering about in Badlands National Park. In fact, there are so many, that there is a stop where you can get out and see them at Roberts Prairie Dog Town. As you approach you’ll see dozens of little heads sticking out of the sand.
You also have the opportunity to see Buffallo, Big Horn Sheep and even coyotes. Now where is Bugs Bunny? This park really did remind me of the Looney Toons cartoon Bugs Bunny and Wile E-Coyote.
Tips for Hiking Badlands National Park
The entrance fee to Badlands National Park is $30 per vehicle and that is valid for 7 days from purchase. It is open 365 days per year and 24 hours per day.
Purchase an annual National Parks Pass for entry to this and other national parks if you are planning to spend time outdoors in 2021.
Besides the Ben Reifel Visitor’s Center, there is also the White River Visitor’s Center.
Wear sturdy hiking boots or shoes. The terrain is uneven and there are obstacles to cross and climb including ladders.
Pack sunscreen and water – temperatures can vary and be quite cool in the mornings with extreme heat in the afternoon.
If you are visiting in May or June pack layers as it could rain.
You can get breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the Cedar Pass Restaurant. It is the only restaurant in the park, so bring your own snacks and water. You can pick up food at Wall Drugs before entering the park.
Check out the movies Dances with Wolves and Thunderheart both of which were partially shot in Badlands National Park.
We went to Badlands National Park for both sunrise and sunset and it was a beautiful time to capture to shadows and textures of the Wall
Facts About Badlands National Park
Located in the Black Hills region of South Dakota, this gorgeous region was first made into a national park in November 10, 1978. It was created to preserve the natural scenery. Home to a rich concentration of fossils, picturesque spires and pinnacles, it is no wonder it has been a national monument since 1929. Check out the first National Park on earth: Yellowstone National Park
Badlands National Park got its name from the Lakota People who called it “mako sica”, or “land that is bad”. Due to its lack of water, dry lands and extreme terrain, it was difficult for them to pass.
It was exactly its extreme terrain that has made it such a striking stop on any American road trip. Today, visitors enjoy Badlands NP for fossil spotting (please don’t take any home with you), hiking and photography.
Where to Stay Near Badlands National Park
Like many national parks, if you are camping, you can appreciate the park much better. But if you are road tripping, there are hotels near Badlands.
Wall, South Dakota
There aren’t a lot of luxury hotels near Badlands, but there are the staple road side motels in the town of Wall, that are perfect for a National Park visit.
- Cedar Pass Lodge – Cedar Pass Lodge is located in Wall and offers cabins complete with refrigerators, coffee makers and microwaves.
- Best Western Plains Motel – A well-appointed hotel that is close to the park entrance with pet friendly dedicated park.
If you are doing day trips from Rapid City, Badlands National Park is just one hour away. You can easily drive to visit the park and since the pass is good for 7 days, you can take several day trips.
- Rushmore Hotel and Suites located downtown in the historic district walking distance to popular attractions like the President walk, and Main Street Square.
- Canyon Lake Resort – If you want an out of town feel, the Canyon Lake Resort is nestled in the foothills of the Black Hills and an excellent choice.
And this is everything you need to know (at least what we know) to visit Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Are you going on a road trip this summer? Where to?