Badlands National Park: The Complete Guide

Badlands National Park

TripSavvy / Lauren Breedlove

Imagine you’re at the sea. You’re constructing mountains of pillars and pinnacles out of clumps of crimson and tortilla-colored wet sand. This is what South Dakota’s Badlands resemble. 75 million years ago, the area was covered by a shallow sea and once it retreated and dried out, a wonderland of fossil-rich natural deposits were 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, still eroding. Keep reading to learn everything that you need to know prior to visiting, including what you can see and do inside the park.

 

Geologic Features and History

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.

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.

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. Keep your eyes out for isolated stand-alone sod tables, which are broken off flat sections of the Badlands that have soil and grass surviving on top. As sections of the Badlands and prairies continue to erode, new sod tables will form.

 

Bison in the Badlands

You might remember hearing the Lakota word tatanka in the movie Dances with Wolves, starring Kevin Costner, where some scenes were famously shot in Badlands National Park. At nearly 2,000 pounds, tatanka, or bison, are an impressive sight to behold. The Badlands are home to about 1,200 bison.

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. You’ll see their large heads plow through the snow in the winter, so that they can graze.

Overlooking the Badlands Wilderness Area, drive along Sage Creek Rim Road for the best chances of seeing the bison herd. And, of course, keep a safe distance from bison as they are wild and dangerous—never approach.

Pro Tip: Travelers might also want to venture 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 1880—1920 era.

Other Wildlife in the Badlands

A herd of 250 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 see them pop out of their burrows and scurry across the dirt, before escaping to their underground colony.

Pro Tip: Do yourself a favor and make sure you visit The Ranch Store of the Badlands, where you can buy a bag of peanuts from the general store and hand feed prairie dogs in their habitat. You’ll hear them squeak, bark and sing as they scuttle from one hole to the other.

Black-footed ferrets, an endangered species, live underground and they are nocturnal and elusive, so it isn’t likely that you’ll spot them, but they’re worth knowing about. 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 five feet-long, is South Dakota’s only venomous snake.

Safety Tip: When hiking in the Badlands, you’ll need to have your eyes and ears alert. Prairie Rattlesnakes are often found under grasses or in the shaded areas of the formations. If bitten, call 911 immediately and seek medical help.

Best Things to Do

Badlands National Park is one of the best parks in America for accessibility. No matter what your age or ability, you can see something delightful here. Review a map and set course for adventure.

Drive Around the 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.

Explore Sage Creek Rim Road

There’s much to see along the gravely Sage Creek Rim Road, including 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.

See Striking Overlooks via Badlands Loop Road

The north section of the park is arguable the most popular. You’ll notice several trailheads and points of interest. Stunning overlooks include: Big Badlands Overlook, White River Valley Overlook, Bigfoot Pass Overlook, Panorama Point, Prairie Wind Overlook, Burns Basin Overlook, Homestead Overlook, Conata Basin Overlook, Yellow Mounds Overlook, Ancient Hunters Overlook, and Pinnacles Overlook.

Pro Tip: There’s a great park video at The Ben Reifel Visitor Center, as well as maps, exhibits, ranger talks, and general supplies. The Fossil Preparation Lab is also at the visitor center, which is a fun treat if you’d like to see paleontologists at work.

Photograph at Sunrise or Sunset

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.

Celebrate the Night Sky

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.

Pro Tip: Star seekers should visit during the annual Badlands Astronomy Festival, a three-day drop in celebration with astronomers, educators, and space scientists.

Best Trails for Hiking

From a quarter mile to 10 miles, there are trails to suite every ability and interest, including trails ideal for wheel chairs.

  • Door Trail: An easy trail, .75 miles-long, that takes you on a boardwalk adventure through a break in the Badlands Wall— “The Door”.
  • Window Trail: For a quarter of a mile, you’ll wander until you spot a natural window in the Badlands Wall.
  •  Notch Trail: Good fitness is required to hike this moderate to strenuous stretch of trail through a canyon, which climbs a log ladder and leads to a ledge— “The Notch”—providing grand views of White River Valley. If you’re scared of heights, you’ll want to avoid this 1.5 mile-long trail.
  • Castle Trail: At 10 miles-long, this is the lengthiest trail in the park, beginning at the Door and Window parking lot and stretching five miles one-way to the Fossil Exhibit Trail.
  •  Medicine Root Loop: For a moderate four 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.

Safety Tip: 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.

Tips for Visiting

  • The park has two visitor centers, one on each end: Ben Reifel Visitor Center and White River Visitor Center.
  • Two campgrounds are available for overnights: Cedar Pass Campground and Sage Creek Campground.
  • The Badlands are open for those with park passes 24 hours a day, seven days per week.
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