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The Ultimate Guide to Badlands National Park — Best Things To Do, See & Enjoy!

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Amar Hussain
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Amar Hussain

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Amar is an avid traveler and tester of products. He has spent the last 13 years traveling all 7 continents and has put the products to the test on each of them. He has contributed to publications incl...
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Badlands National Park is located in South Dakota, 75 miles east of Rapid City. This area of the U.S. was entirely formed by erosion and is called the Badlands because these were and are bad lands to travel over.

This park brings in nearly a million visitors each year from around the world who want to experience the dramatic landscape of layered rock formations, steep canyons, and towering spires. This incredible national park is a beautiful place to explore the scenic overlooks, abundant wildlife, and mesmerizing land features that can’t be seen in other places around the globe.

How To Get to Badlands National Park

Where Is Badlands National Park?

Badlands National Park is located in southwestern South Dakota near the Black Hills. The park is 75 miles east of Rapid City, South Dakota. Badlands National Park stretches over 244,000 acres and showcases beautiful landscapes, mesmerizing geological formations, and diverse wildlife.

Airport Nearest to Badlands National Park

The closest airport to Badlands National Park, and the most popular airport choice, is the Rapid City Regional Airport. Others are significantly further from the park. Let’s check out what makes Rapid City Regional Airport the best choice for traveling to Badlands National Park.

Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP)

Rapid City Regional Airport is located in Rapid City and provides travelers with a quick and convenient way to explore all that South Dakota has to offer. The airport offers nonstop flights to many major cities in the U.S. Airlines served by Rapid City Regional Airport include American, Allegiant, United, Delta, and Sun Country.

Several car rental options are available at the airport, including Hertz, Budget, Enterprise, and Avis. Rapid City Regional Airport is an hour and 20 minutes from Badlands National Park.

Driving to Badlands National Park

Driving to Badlands National Park
Image Credit: Lisa Johnson via Pixabay

A road trip is always a fun adventure, but a road trip to Badlands National Park is one you’ll never forget! For those who plan to drive to the park, it’s a relatively easy journey.

Interstate 90 is north of Badlands National Park and provides access to Highway 240 Badlands Loop Road. For travelers coming from the west on I-90, exit 131 toward Interior will take you to the Northeast Entrance. Travelers from I-90 East will take exit 110 toward Wall for 7 miles and arrive at the Pinnacles Entrance.

Hot Tip: An alternate route is to take the scenic State Highway 44 to the Interior Entrance of the park.

Taking the Bus to Badlands National Park

Greyhound Bus can take visitors from Rapid City to Wall. Once arriving at the bus station in Wall, those traveling to the park can use Uber or other rideshares to complete their journey to Badlands National Park. Wall is only 7 miles from the park, about a 10-minute drive.

Getting Around Badlands National Park

Despite the origin of its name, Badlands National Park is easily accessible and explored by vehicle. There are 3 major roads through Badlands National Park: Bandlands Loop Road, Sage Creek Rim Road, and Sheep Mountain Table Road. These roads take visitors to the spectacular sites and views around the park.

Maps

The National Park Service provides a variety of maps for visitors traveling to and through Badlands National Park, including printable maps, online interactive maps, and even a mobile app for navigating through the park. The park has you covered if you prefer to purchase a paper map. The Badlands Natural History Association has several different options available on its website.

What To See and Do in Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park is a small national park and is often times underrated. While it is smaller than most, it is filled with incredible sights, landscapes, wildlife, and trails just waiting to be explored. Let’s discover some must-see attractions and sites in Badlands National Park.

Badlands Loop Road

Badlands Loop Road
Image Credit: NPS

Badlands Loop Road is the ultimate activity when visiting Badlands National Park. This scenic drive is a paved, winding road that stretches for 30 miles through the parklands. Many overlooks, boardwalk trails, and jumping-off points for backcountry hikes are located along this road.

Incredible sites along this drive include Pinnacle Overlook, Yellow Hills of the Badlands, Yellow Mounds Overlook, and Panorama Point.

Driving this road without stopping would take approximately an hour and 15 minutes one-way, but once you add stopping to take advantage of the overlooks, hikes, and walks, this drive can take up to a full day depending on what you decide to do.

Ben Reifel Visitor Center

Ben Reifel Visitor Center is the main building in the North Unit of Badlands National Park. This visitor center has park rangers available to answer guest questions and help plan your time at the park. There is also a great number of impressive museum exhibits that teach about the geologic and cultural history of the park.

One of the most exciting aspects of the Ben Reifel Visitor Center is the Fossil Preparation Lab where visitors can watch paleontologists in action working on the fossils.

Hot Tip: Guests are able to ask questions and chat with paleontologists.

Castle Trail

Castle Trail is a 5-mile trail that cuts through the heart of Badlands National Park. This trail connects Fossil Exhibit Trail with the Window and Door Trails. While you wander, you will discover beautiful views of the prairie land, rocky pinnacles, and possibly bighorn sheep or pronghorn.

There are various ways the Castle Trail can be hiked, but the best way to hike this trail has several different sections. Saddle Pass and Medicine Route Loop are some visitor favorites.

Door Trail

Door Trailhead
Image Credit: Earl Perez-Foust via NPS

Door Trail is an incredible opportunity to get up close and personal with the fantastic rock formations in the badlands. This trail is 0.75 miles long and is an excellent option for those who want to avoid a strenuous hike.

The beginning of the trail is 100 meters on a boardwalk path. Once that ends, there are another 800 meters over rough, uneven land. Most people consider this an easy trail, but it is listed as strenuous on the National Park Service website.

Once the boardwalk ends, the trail descends to a field of fossil beds. This trail boasts stunning views of the pinnacles and spires of Badlands National Park. Door Trail is loved by adults and kids alike.

Fossil Exhibit Trail

Fossil Exhibit Trail is the best place for those who want to learn about fossils and the discoveries made in the Badlands National Park area. Fossil Exhibit Trail is a 0.25-mile-long boardwalk trail that takes visitors past 75 million years of history of the animals that once lived in this area.

Badlands National Park has one of the world’s most concentrated mammal fossil beds. There are exhibits of extinct creatures and fossil replicas for those to discover. This is a hands-on area, so visitors are encouraged to feel, touch, and interact with the exhibits along the way. The self-guided course is accessible for wheelchairs, strollers, or other devices.

GPS Adventures

An exciting way to explore the park, either solo or with a group of friends or family, is to participate in a GPS Adventure. Visitors can get a GPS Adventure activity book from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. The book highlights many exciting sites throughout Badlands National Park.

Visitors can use their phone GPS or another device to help them navigate to various points of interest, including trails, natural features, and wayside exhibits where you can learn more about this incredible park.

Those who complete at least 3 activities in the GPS Adventure book can take their book to a ranger at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center or mail it to the park. They will receive an “I Walked the Badlands” patch and bragging rights.

Notch Trail

Notch Trail is an exciting adventure for kids and adults. This 1.5-mile round-trip hike is a scenic walk through the canyon and a cliff trail, ending with a view of the scenery of the Badlands.

There’s a part where the course is only 5 feet wide and another section where you can choose which way to go, either up a ladder or a cliff trail. This trail is perfect for those who love adventure and excitement along their hike.

Roberts Prairie Dog Town

Roberts Prairie Dog Town is a fun attraction in Badlands National Park. This area of the park is home to many towns of prairie dogs.

Prairie dog towns are collections of burrows and family units that cover many acres across the land. Prairie dogs can be seen at the openings of their burrows, and you can even hear them barking to warn their fellow friends as others approach. If you get too close to a prairie dog, it will run into its burrow with a squeak.

If you’ve never seen a prairie dog, this is a place that you will want to visit during your park vacation. Parking your car and walking one of the trails into the town is a perfect way to see these remarkable animals.

Sage Creek Rim Road

Drive Sage Creek Rim Road
Image Credit: NPS

Sage Creek Rim Road is located in Badlands National Park’s western section. This park area is less traveled, allowing visitors to get close to the wildlife that makes their home. This road is made of gravel but is suitable for standard cars.

Sage Creek Rim Road starts not far from the Pinnacles Overlook on Badlands Loop Drive. This road is 25 miles long and is filled with wondrous sights along the way. This area of Badlands National Park feels rugged, remote, and wild. Bison, pronghorn sheep, bighorn sheep, and coyotes are often seen along the Sage Creek Rim Road.

Sheep Mountain Table Road

Sheep Mountain Table Road is on the border of the North and South Units of Badlands National Park. This dirt road begins in the town of Scenic and takes visitors up 5 miles to an overlook. It is recommended that visitors use 4-wheel drive vehicles when taking this road. This road should not be used during or after rain, as it becomes very slippery and dangerous.

If you don’t have the right vehicle for the trip, you can drive to the overlook and then walk the rest of the road, which is 2.5 miles to the end.

Sunrise at Big Badlands Overlook

Any time you have the chance to see the sun rise or set is an incredible opportunity to stand in awe of nature’s beauty. Watching the sunrise and sunset in Badlands National Park is nothing short of a magical experience.

Sunrises over the Badlands are an incredible sight to see. Big Badlands Overlook is one of the best places to see the sunrise in the park. From this overlook, guests can watch the sunrise from the viewing platform or the hilltops. Walking a short distance gets you closer to the striped rock formations and colorful pinnacles.

Hot Tip: This is a perfect opportunity to take stunning photographs of the sun coming up and casting light on these incredible rock formations.

The Best Times To Visit Badlands National Park

When planning a trip to Badlands National Park, it’s best to know your preferences. There’s an optimum time to visit the park for each activity or experience you seek. Here are some of the best times to visit Badlands National Park.

The Best Time To Visit Badlands National Park During Winter

Badlands National Park in Winter
Image Credit: Luke Wass via Unsplash

Winter in Badlands National Park is an incredible sight to see. Snow and ice clinging to the rock formations and landscapes give everything a magical glow. December and January are great winter months for a visit to the Badlands.

Plenty of activities are available during these months, including snowshoeing, camping, hiking, and stargazing. Be sure to prepare for hazardous driving conditions, road closures, and extra clothing and blankets for the frigid temperatures. The mobile app is a great tool to have on hand should you need to check for extreme weather or road closures that may occur during your visit.

The Best Time To Visit Badlands National Park To Avoid the Crowds

Planning a trip in December or January is your best option for those seeking a quiet, less crowded trip to Badlands National Park. The cold weather deters visitors, leaving those who dare to visit with a calm, serene, snow-dusted experience. Bundle up and get ready to explore this fantastic park during these winter months for an adventure you won’t forget.

The Best Time To Visit Badlands National Park for Viewing Wildlife

The beginning of fall is a spectacular time to visit Badlands National Park to see the wildlife that makes their home in the area. September is the best month to see incredible animals such as prairie dogs, bison, bighorn sheep, and possibly the rare, endangered black-footed ferret. This is the month when summer crowds dissipate and the temperatures are mild, cool, and comfortable.

The Cheapest Time To Visit Badlands National Park

If you are hoping to save money on a visit to Badlands National Park, plan a trip early in October.

There is a drastic drop in the number of visitors in early October, and travelers find better accommodation rates and lower prices for flights. A trip to Badlands National Park during this time of year will provide travelers with a great money-saving opportunity and a less crowded visit at the same time.

Annual Events at Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park hosts ranger-led programs regularly and several major events throughout the year. Among the park’s popular annual events are the Badlands Astronomy Festival and Wheelin to Wall. Make sure to plan your visit during one of these events to create lasting memories and uniquely experience the Badlands.

Badlands Astronomy Festival

The Badlands Astronomy Festival is a 3-day event in July each year. Badlands National Park and NASA South Dakota Space Grant Consortium co-sponsor this event each year.

This event is perfect for space science professionals, educators, amateur astronomers, and visitors to learn how Badlands National Park protects the sky through activities and presentations. These activities include technology demonstrations, solar telescope viewings, and stargazing.

Wheelin to Wall

Wheelin to Wall
Image Credit: Wheelin to Wall

Wheelin to Wall is a 2-day cycling event with 4 different courses in Badlands National Park every September. Cyclists of all abilities are welcome to participate in this event. This event provides an incredible opportunity to see the beauty of the Badlands in the fall.

Where To Stay in and Near Badlands National Park

There are several options for accommodations when visiting Badlands National Park. Whether you prefer to sleep under the stars in the great outdoors or at a cozy resort, there are plenty of choices for your Badlands vacation. Let’s explore some lodging options inside Badlands National Park and nearby towns.

Inside the Park

Badlands National Park has a few different ways for visitors to spend the night. A lodge, front-country campsites, and backcountry campsites are available for those wanting to stay in the park during their visit. Let’s look at these different options to help you determine which works best for your vacation needs.

Cedar Pass Lodge

Cedar Pass Lodge
Image Credit: Cedar Pass Lodge

Cedar Pass Lodge is the only lodging facility in Badlands National Park. Cedar Pass offers cabin rentals that feature everything needed for a perfect park stay. The cabins were built to resemble the original cabins in the park in 1928. Today, they are energy efficient with modern conveniences such as kitchenettes, heat and air conditioning, comfortable beds and linens, and large flat-screen TVs.

Cedar Pass Campground

Cedar Pass Campground is a campground in Badlands National Park that features 96 campsites, including tent camping sites and RV sites with electric hookups. Those who want to stay in this area must make reservations in advance and be prepared to pay a nightly fee. Reservations can be made online or by phone.

Sage Creek Campground

For a free option for staying in Badlands National Park, Sage Creek Campground is available on a first-come, first-serve basis. This campground has 22 campsites for those who enjoy a rustic camping experience. No water is available at these sites, and the campground is not open to recreational vehicles, motorhomes, or pull-behind trailers.

Backcountry Camping

Backcountry camping is available anywhere in Badlands National Park, as long as it is a half mile from a road or trail and not visible from a roadway or trail. Backcountry camping is perfect for adventurists who want a primitive, rugged experience.

Permits aren’t necessary for backcountry camping. More information about backcountry campsites and safety can be found on the National Park Service website.

Towns and Accommodations Near Badlands National Park

Let’s look at some of the top-rated places to stay near Badlands National Park. There are a couple of towns within 30 miles of Badlands National Park and several others within a 2-hour drive. The 2 closest towns include Interior and Wall. These towns have various lodging options for those who want to set up a home base near the park.

Interior

Interior South Dakota
Image Credit: Michelen Studios via Unsplash

Interior is an excellent place to set up a base camp when visiting Badlands National Park. This town is located only a few minutes from the park’s southeastern edge.

Interior is a tiny community that is perfect for travelers wanting to retreat and reset during their national park trip. Camping is one of the most popular options for this town. There are a few options for lodging, including motels, campgrounds, cabins, and ranches.

The town is in the ideal location for many outdoor adventures. Popular activities include winter sports, fishing, biking, scenic guides, stargazing, and exploring nearby natural attractions such as the Black Hills caves. The town also thrives with history and culture, and visitors enjoy visiting the museums and historical attractions in the Black Hills area.

Bottom Line: While Interior is a small town, it offers plenty of accommodations, dining options, and activities for those visiting Badlands National Park.

Wall

Wall is a 10-minute drive from Badlands National Park and a fantastic place to stay. The town has a population of only 800 people, but it offers plenty of accommodations, restaurants, activities, and entertainment. Wall is often called “The Gateway to the Badlands,” “The Window to the West,” or the “Heart of American Tourism.”

There’s a variety of places to stay in Wall, including camping, motels, hotels, and bed and breakfast accommodations. Visitors especially love the restaurants in Wall. There is an excellent range of dining options, from family-friendly diners to fast food to steakhouses and saloons.

Wall has an excellent array of activities for adventure and entertainment. Wall Drug has lots of family-friendly adventures, including a giant dinosaur and a splash pad for kids to enjoy some water fun. The town also has a great golf course, and Wall’s Main Street has many unique local shops and boutiques.

Where To Eat in and Near Badlands National Park

The only dining option in Badlands National Park is to grab something or dine at the Cedar Pass Lodge. There are also several restaurant options in the surrounding towns not far from the park. Let’s explore some of the most recommended places to eat in and near Badlands National Park.

Cedar Pass Lodge

Cedar Pass Lodge Restaurant is located in Badlands National Park and has an on-site dining room with various local and regional dishes for guests for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The menu includes items for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, desserts, and drinks.

Favorite menu items include homemade fry bread and Sioux Indian Tacos. This is the perfect place to start your day with a hearty breakfast or a great place to take a break in the middle of your park exploring for lunch or dinner.

Badlands Saloon and Grille

Badlands Saloon and Grille is just 13 miles from Badlands National Park in Wall. This restaurant is a favorite of park visitors and an excellent place for an authentic South Dakota experience.

Badlands Saloon and Grille is open daily and serves lunch, dinner, and drinks. This family-owned restaurant serves a menu with authentic, familiar dishes made from family recipes that have stood the test of time and one-of-a-kind meals created by their chef. This is a great place to refuel and relax with your family or travel buddies.

Red Rock Restaurant and Lounge

Red Rock Restaurant and Lounge is located in Wall, 13 miles from Badlands National Park. This restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, late-night desserts, and drinks. It offers American cuisine using locally-raised beef and pork. On top of a menu of delicious meals, Red Rock has billiards for those who enjoy playing a game of pool among friends.

Wagon Wheel Bar and Grill

Wagon Wheel Bar and Grill is located 20 miles from Badlands National Park in Interior. This restaurant serves a variety of American favorites, including burgers, pizza, and beer. Wagon Wheel Bar and Grill is known for its exceptional customer service and delicious dishes. The restaurant features a pool table and a jukebox, which makes this stop a great place to unwind and have fun with family or friends.

Wall Drug Café

Wall Drug Café is 13 miles from Badlands National Park in Wall. The restaurant at Wall Drug is a perfect place for family and friends to unwind and refuel from a day exploring the park.

Wall Drug is a historic attraction known for its famous homemade donuts. Not only does it have the famous homemade donuts, but it’s also notorious for its homemade hot rolls, pie, ice cream, legendary hot beef sandwiches with mashed potatoes and gravy, buffalo burgers, and 5-cent coffee.

This is a great place to relax and enjoy an incredible meal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Also, guests can visit the soda fountain ice cream shop at Wall Drug. This seasonally open attraction serves homemade hard and soft-serve ice cream, old-fashioned floats, sundaes, shakes, and malts. This has been a favorite stop for visitors since the 1930s.

Badlands National Park Facts

Badlands National Park South Dakota USA
Image Credit: Michael via Unsplash

1. French Fur Trappers and Native Americans Gave Badlands Its Name

Hundreds of years ago, French fur trappers would come to the Badlands National Park area, and they would refer to the land as “les mauvaises terres a traveser” which meant “bad lands to travel across.” These fur trappers spent much time with the Lakota tribe, who made their home in the area.

The Lakota began to refer to the area as “mako sica,” which translates to “bad lands.” They called the land bad simply because it was not easy to traverse. Over time, the English translation of “mako sica” became the park’s name.

2. It Was Established by President Roosevelt

Badlands National Park was originally a national monument established in 1939 by President Roosevelt. Later, in 1978, it was designated as a U.S. national park.

3. Surprising Fossils Were Uncovered in the Park

A multitude of fossils has been discovered in Badlands National Park. These fossils date back to 34 to 37 million years ago. Some impressive fossils that have been uncovered include ancient alligators, saber-toothed tigers, camels, rhinoceroses, and rodents.

4. People of the Badlands Date Back 12,000+ Years

People have lived in the Badlands National Park area for at least 12,000 years. The first to come to the area were mammoth hunters, followed by bison hunters from nomadic tribes. Finally, the Lakota moved into the area and settled. People from this tribe are still living in the Badlands area today. Many of the Lakota live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation located in the South Unit of Badlands National Park. The park is filled with a rich history of the Lakota tribe.

5. It Was a Shallow Sea in a Past Life

Badlands National Park has an interesting past life. Long ago, the park was covered by a shallow sea. Nearly 75 million years ago, the water started to recede and left behind the sand, silt, and clay sediments we see today.

6. Its Original Name Didn’t Stick

Before deciding on the name for Badlands National Park, a suggested name was Wonderland National Park. While that was a compelling name, Badlands National Park is the name that stuck as a way to pay homage to the Lakota.

7. It Has Celebrity Status

Badlands National Park has been used as a setting or backdrop in many famous movies. A few of these blockbusters include “Dances with Wolves,” “Starship Troopers,” “Armageddon,” and “Nomadland.”

8. Impressive Animals Live in the Park

Several resilient and endangered species can be found in Badlands National Park. These animals include the American bison, black-footed ferrets, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs. Badlands National Park has provided a place for these animal populations to thrive and grow in number.

9. It Contains One of the World’s Richest Fossil Beds

Badlands National Park is the location of one of the richest fossil beds in the world. For hundreds of years, incredible fossils have been found in this area. The park has an excellent fossil exhibit where visitors can learn about these discoveries and even have the opportunity to talk to paleontologists who work in the park.

10. The Grounds Were Explosive in World War II

During World War II, the army took over a portion of Badlands National Park. The area used is called the Badlands Gunnery Range, and from 1942 to 1945 it was used for bombing exercises.

11. Park Programs Enhance Education

Badlands National Park has a wonderful array of educational programs available. These education programs can be experienced in person or virtually.

These programs align with state and national standards for social studies and science. The park has an option where classes can take virtual field trips to get close-up views of the fossils, wildlife, and ecosystems found in the park.

The park also allows local schools to have park rangers come for an in-person visit. The park serves an impressive 80-mile radius and includes schools in the Black Hills, Philip, Kadoka, and the Pine Ridge Reservation.

12. Youth Adventures Abound

Badlands National Park has plenty of exciting opportunities for young visitors that seek adventure, both at the park and online.

Virtual activities are available on the park website for those who want to earn a Junior Ranger badge but cannot visit the park. Children can explore different areas through the Badlands and read an entertaining story along the way. At the end of every chapter, students choose what happens next.

This virtual adventure is a great way to explore Badlands National Park and learn at the same time. Once the adventure is complete, children can earn their Junior Ranger badge by emailing or sending a message to the park online. Once the quest has been verified, a badge and official badge will be mailed to the new Junior Ranger.

Final Thoughts

Badlands National Park is a bucket list location for those who seek nature, beauty, and adventure. This national park is filled with spectacular geologic formations, a rich cultural history, fossils that tell stories of the past, incredible wildlife, and more. Visiting Badlands National Park will create memories to last a lifetime and give an appreciation of the magnificence found in nature.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long should I plan for a visit to Badlands National Park?

An ideal trip to Badlands National Park is 2 full days. A 2-day trip will allow you to see the significant points of interest, hike several trails, and learn about the park at the visitor centers.

What are the fees for visiting Badlands National Park?

For a private vehicle, guests can expect a $30 fee upon entering Badlands National Park. This pass is valid for 7 days. Other passes are available for individuals who enter on foot or by bicycle. Individual passes are good for 7 days and cost $15 per visitor.

What is the weather like in Badlands National Park?

The weather in Badlands National Park varies throughout the year. The highest temperatures reach 116 degrees and the lowest -40 degrees. Summers are typically hot and dry, while winters can be snowy and frigid. When packing for your Badlands trip, prepare for unpredictable weather.

Is there a shuttle system in Badlands National Park?

Unfortunately, there is no shuttle system available for Badlands National Park. Visitors must use a private vehicle to explore this park.

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About Amar Hussain

Amar is an avid traveler and tester of products. He has spent the last 13 years traveling all 7 continents and has put the products to the test on each of them. He has contributed to publications including Forbes, the Huffington Post, and more.

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