Badlands National Park: The Complete Guide

Badlands National Park

TripSavvy / Lauren Breedlove

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Badlands National Park

Address
South Dakota, USA
Phone +1 605-433-5361

More than 75 million years ago, the area now known as South Dakota's Badlands National Park was covered by a shallow sea and once it retreated and dried out, a wonderland of fossil-rich natural deposits was left behind. Each band of color, from the older layers at the bottom to the newer layers at the top, is indicative of a distinctive time period, carved out by water and hardened into sedimentary rock over time. If you visit Badland’s National Park, you can see nature at work—albeit slowly—as the landscape is still changing thanks to erosion.

South Dakota’s otherworldly Badlands are home to not only flummoxing erosional formations, hoodoos, and buttes but also fossil beds that are important to paleontological research. Ancient horses and rhinos previously romped around throughout this rough landscape and archaeological finds suggest that the Badlands were once used as a seasonal hunting ground for native populations. Bison slaughtering locations have been discovered as well as charcoal fragments, pottery, and worked stone remnants.

Things to Do

The park is best explored on foot along the numerous hiking trails or by car, making many stops at scenic overlooks. Horseback riding is also allowed in the park if you have your own horse.

Depending on the time of day, the Badlands look totally different. The Big Badlands Overlook, Door Trail, Norbeck Pass, Panorama Point, and Dillon Pass are recommended spots for viewing sunrises. Pinnacles Overlook and Conata Basin Overlook are ideal for capturing sunsets. Hikers should set out on Castle Trail for either time of day to view the various desert shades in their full splendor.

Best Hikes & Trails

From a quarter-mile to 10 miles long, there are trails to suit every ability and interest, including trails ideal for wheelchairs. Be sure to bring plenty of water and sun protection, wear appropriate closed-toe footwear, and remain at least 100 feet away from all wildlife. While the park has an Open Hike Policy, which means that you’re allowed to hike off-trail on social trails, you’ll still need to exercise caution.

  • Door Trail: An easy trail, three-quarters of a mile long, that takes you on a boardwalk adventure through a break in the Badlands Wall, also known as “The Door.”
  • Window Trail: For a quarter-mile, you can follow this short boardwalk trail until you spot a natural window in the Badlands Wall.
  •  Notch Trail: Good fitness is required to hike these moderate to strenuous stretches of trail through a canyon, which climbs a log ladder and leads to a ledge known as “The Notch.” From here, you'll have grand views of White River Valley. However, if you’re scared of heights, you’ll want to avoid this 1.5 mile-long trail, because there are many steep cliffs.
  • Castle Trail: At 10 miles long, this is the lengthiest trail in the park, beginning at the Door and Window parking lot and stretching 5 miles one-way to the Fossil Exhibit Trail.
  • Medicine Root Loop: For a moderate 4 miles long trail, explore Medicine Root Loop, which connects with the Castle Trail. You’ll see the expansive mixed-grass prairie.
  • Fossil Exhibit Trail: Families love this short quarter-mile trail that is fully accessible because it showcases fossil replicas and has exhibits of the animals that once lived in the area.

Read more about the best hikes in Badlands National Park.

Prairie Dog Standing On Field


Csaba Esvég / Getty Images

Wildlife

While flora is sparse, the park has wild mixed-grass prairies on its 244,000 acres that nurture bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and the elusive black-footed ferrets. At nearly 2,000 pounds, bison are an impressive sight to behold, and the park is home to about 1,200 tatanka, the Lakota word for the animal. In the summer, male bison knock heads, breed, and challenge each other for mating rights. In the spring, these creatures shed their heavy coats by rolling in the dirt, which helps the ecosystem by rotating the soil so that vegetation can grow. Keep a safe distance from bison as they are wild and dangerous—never approach them.

Large bighorn sheep can be found in the Badlands. Bighorn will eat grasses and shrubs before heading to higher ground in the cliffs and bluffs. With binoculars in hand, try to spot the herd as they try to blend into the rock, at Pinnacles Overlook and in the Cedar pass areas of Castle Trail and Big Badlands Overlook.

While bighorns and bison are imposing and regal, prairie dogs are adorable and scrappy. You’ll often see them pop out of their burrows and scurry across the dirt, before escaping to their underground colony. Although you can buy peanuts at some locations to feed them, the National Park Service asks that you refrain from doing so as they have sensitive stomachs and have been known to bite humans.

Black-footed ferrets, an endangered species, live underground and they are nocturnal and elusive, so it isn’t likely that you’ll spot them. They eat prairie dogs and move into their abandoned homes and do their best to stay away from predators like golden eagles, coyotes, snakes, owls, badgers, and bobcats.

Considerably less cute than the prairie dogs and ferrets, the prairie rattlesnake, which can stretch up to 5 feet long, is South Dakota’s only venomous snake. Along the trails, you'll notice numerous signs warning you of rattlesnakes accompanied with a photograph so you'll remember what to look for. The snakes typically seek shade under the boardwalks and in tall grasses, so you should never step or put your hand down anywhere that you cannot see, like a shadowy rock crevice.

Scenic Drives

You can drive through the park along many of the scenic routes to get a quick overview. When driving through the park, beware that wildlife is common, so you'll need to drive slowly and always keep at least a hundred feet of distance. When taking photos, visitors are required to pull over so as not to slow down traffic. Roads can be dangerous in rainy, snowy, and icy conditions so check the weather forecast before you go and make sure you have the right kind of car for the drive you plan to do.

  • Badlands Loop Road: It takes about one hour to drive this 39-mile loop that follows Highway 240 between the towns of Wall and Cactus Flat. Along this route, you'll pass numerous overlooks and Panorama Point, with a few picnic areas along the way, as well as the Ben Reifel Visitors Center. This is the best way to see the northern part of the park and the road is appropriate for all cars but does have some steep sections where speed limits are reduced.
  • South Unit: Driving around the South Unit is a great way to take in the park’s diverse landscapes from the safety and comfort of your own vehicle. It’s a seamless route, without any other roads intersecting, where you can spot wildlife, marvel at Red Shirt Table Overlook, take photographs at designated pull-outs, and stop in the White River Visitor Center. The whole drive takes about one hour, going one-way, making it an easy chunk to bite off.
  • Sage Creek Rim Road: The best chance to see the bison herd will be on this road and you can also see Hay Butte Overlook, Badlands Wilderness Overlook, Roberts Prairie Dog Town, and Sage Creek Basin Overlook. The whole experience will take you about two hours—more if you stop to photograph wildlife. The dirt and gravel road connects Highway 44 to the Badlands Loop (Highway 240). After heavy rain or snow, the road may be closed.

Where to Camp

There are two campgrounds within the park: Cedar Pass Campgrounds and Sage Creek Campgrounds. Both are beautifully positioned sites perfect for stargazing and enjoying a night or two in the fresh air of the park. Due to fire hazards, campfires are not permitted and visitors are not allowed to gather firewood at either location. There are also campsites located outside the park, where guests can enjoy more amenities not available in the park.

  • Cedar Pass Campgrounds: This is the larger site that offers electrical hook-ups for RVs, as well as showers and toilets. There are 96 campsites here and it is located closest to the Ben Reifel Visitors Center. This campground is open year-round, but there is a 14-day limit on stays. The Cedar Pass Campground Amphitheater sets the stage for star revelry like no other. Rangers will lead an informative talk, pointing out constellations and planets in the night sky, and then offer telescopes for pointed viewing.
  • Sage Creek Campgrounds: The 22 campsites here are free to use, but they are only available on a first-come-first-serve basis. The campground is located at the end of an unpaved road, which is prone to closure during and after winter storms or spring downpours. Motor homes and RVs larger than 18 feet are not allowed. There are pit toilets and picnic tables, but you won't find any running water here.
  • Badlands Interior Campground: Only a mile from the park entrance, this privately-owned site offers 45 to 100-feet long RV sites with full electric hook-up and regular campsites as well. The benefit of staying outside the park is the number of amenities, which include a restaurant, swimming pool, and fire pits.

Where to Stay Nearby

The closest towns to the park are Interior and Wall, while the closest large city, Rapid City, is approximately 76 miles away. If you do not want to camp or can't get a cabin at the Cedar Pass Lodge, there are many motels and hotels you can stay at nearby. You'll find outposts of standard American hotel chains like Best Western, Super 8, and the Days Inn, as well as independently-owned hotels.

  • Cedar Pass Lodge: Located within the park next to the campground, the lodge has modern eco-friendly cabins which were built to resemble the original cabins of 1928, but with modern amenities.
  • Frontier Cabins: This motel offers 33 custom-built log cabins with private bathrooms and daily housekeeping. It's located in Wall, 6 miles from the park entrance and two blocks away from local restaurants.
  • Badlands Inn: Rooms in this two-story motel in Interior, a mile away from the Ben Reifel Vistors Center, have hardwood floors, flatscreen TVs, and every room has a view of the park.
  • Hotel Alex Johnson: If you are looking for more upscale accommodation, you will be hard-pressed to find a hotel near the park, but you can stay at this luxury Hilton property in Rapid City if you don't mind the hour drive to the park entrance.
  • Sunshine Inn Motel: This low-cost and family-owned motel in Wall is 7 miles from the park entrance and has basic AAA-approved rooms.

How to Get There

If you are traveling to South Dakota from another state, you will want to fly into Rapid City, which has the closest airport to Badlands National Park. From there, you can drive to one of the two visitor centers: Ben Reifel or White River. The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is located on the north end of the park and is much larger and has a better location to find nearby accommodation, while the White River Visitor Center is located on the south end of the park and is much smaller.

From Rapid City, you can travel southeast via either I-90 toward Wall or Route 44 toward Interior to reach the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. Or, you could travel south via Routes 79 and 40 to reach the White River Visitor Center near the town of Porcupine.

Badlands National Park Trailhead

Earl Perez-Foust / National Park Service

Accessibility

Both the Ben Reifel and White River Visitor Center are accessible to wheelchair users with ramped entrances, accessible restrooms, and reserved parking spaces. There is also a tactile experience at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center where you can touch and hold fossils and rocks from the parks, and the introductory film is captioned for visitors with hearing impairments.

Accessible hikes include the Window and Door Trail, which are just a short drive away from the Ben Reifel Visitors Center but can also be reached from the parking lot. These trails have level boardwalks that lead to great viewpoints and are both less than a mile in length. The Fossil Exhibit Trail, which can be reached from the White River Valley Overlook, has accessible parking and a quarter-mile boardwalk that takes you past fossil specimens. The Bigfoot Pass Picnic Area has parking, ramps, and an accessible toilet.

There are two wheelchair-accessible sites at the Cedar Pass Campground, but they are only available on a first-come, first-served basis. Campgrounds have level sites that are possible for wheelchair users to navigate, and accessible bathrooms. If attending a program at the campground's amphitheater, you'll find that it has a paved and well-lit path that's easy to reach from the reserved parking spaces. However, ranger-led hikes take place on rough terrain and are not accessible.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Cell service in the park can be spotty, so pick up a map when you arrive in case you get lost and lose service.
  • There is no water for human consumption available in the park, so you'll need to bring enough water for your outing into the park because you will not come across any natural water source.
  • Star seekers should visit during the annual Badlands Astronomy Festival, a three-day celebration with astronomers, educators, and space scientists.
  • Consider venturing 43 miles east to experience 1880 Town, where you can see Dances with Wolves movie props alongside a giant herd of Texas Longhorns and 30 buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
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A Travel Guide to Badlands National Park