Badlands National Park is one of the most underrated in the whole park system. Located just off I-90 in western South Dakota, this park features a landscape that is absolutely otherworldly. Much of it can be seen via a scenic drive that loops through the northern branch of the park, or you can hit a trail and take a hike to experience even more. Either way, the landscape will leave you amazed and wanting more.
What are the Badlands?
Conjure up a picture of South Dakota in your mind. Now throw it away because I can almost guarantee it’s nothing like the badlands. After miles and miles of rolling fields in any direction, the badlands stand out as a spot of white stone seemingly deposited from another world.
In reality, the landscape was formed thanks to eons of erosion as wind and water ate away at the rock layers. The geologic formations in Badlands National Park were created over thousands of years as layers of rock were deposited by various forces. Then the erosion of the softer rock by wind and rivers began to expose parts of it. You can see the striping from different rock layers – very clearly in many places – still evident when you look at the rock layers.The resulting maze of spires and canyons is mesmerizing and an absolute must-see in South Dakota.
Things to do in Badlands National Park
Most visitors experience the park via a 40-mile loop road that dips south from I-90 and runs through the heart of the northern portion of the park. Expect to spend a couple hours on this road if you’re just planning on stopping at overlooks as it winds through various rock formations from the yellow mounds to the peaks and spires that define the Badlands. Be sure to grab a map from the entry both so you can pick out the spots you want to stop. One of my favorite underrated stops is the Yellow Mounds Overlook which gives you views of very yellow earth exposed by erosion. If you’re planning on doing any hiking, expect to spend a few hours more depending on what trails you want to do.
Best hikes in Badlands National Park
If you want to get out of your car for a bit, try hiking Badlands National Park. There are trails ranging from short and easy to long and strenuous mapped out by the park. Unlike some other national parks, Badlands has an open hike policy, which means you’re free to hike anywhere you please outside of the official marked trails. Use caution when doing this as the terrain can make it easy to get turned around and you won’t always have good cell service.
If you’re looking for the perfect combo of relative ease and bang for your buck, try the Door Trail near the east entrance to the park. You’ll start out on a 1/4 mile wheelchair accessible boardwalk that takes you around a wall of rock to a “door” opening up to view the rolling badlands. At the end of the boardwalk, you can pick up a rougher, but not too challenging trail that leads you out into the rock formations. It can be done in half an hour, but be sure to bring water and wear good shoes as there are plenty of small drop offs along the way and no real shade anywhere. I loved this Badlands hike because it got us out into the stunning formations without too much exertion and it’s just plain fun to hop around on the different rocks.
This was my favorite hike in Badlands National Park. Leaving from the same parking area as the Door Trail, (although at the opposite end) it winds into the rocky wall and leads to a large wood and cable ladder. It’s a relatively easy climb, though I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone with a fear of heights. The first part of the ladder is actually at a low enough angle that you can walk it more like stairs and you really only have to start the ladder climb about halfway up. Once you’re up the ladder, the trail follows along a ridge in the rock formations to a “notch” that offers a view of the valley below where the rock formations peter out into rolling grassland. There is one section where you’re warned to follow a particular path because there is a decent sized dropoff (not hundreds of feet, but for sure enough to break a few bones) on one side. It’s about 1.5 miles round trip. As with any of the Badlands hikes, bring water and good shoes.
The longest trail in the park, this one is 10 miles round trip, but it can be hiked point to point as well if you have someone willing and able to pick you up or shuttle you back to your car. Despite its length, it’s not particularly strenuous and leads you through some nice views of the badlands formations.
Fossil Exhibit Trail
Technically a trail, though it’s very short and all boardwalk, this path makes a 1/4 mile loop through some rock formations and features replicas of several types of fossil that have been uncovered in the Badlands. It’s interesting for everyone, but definitely ideal for kids. On the back side of the loop, there’s an area that opens up to a small canyon area that’s great for photos as well.
Cliff Shelf Trail
This half mile loop includes boardwalks and stairs as it winds through a small forest along the Badlands wall. Under the right weather conditions, a small lake may form which increases the potential of spotting some of the popular animals in Badlands National Park. If you want the valley views without having to climb the ladder along the Notch Trail, you will get a similar, though lower, angle from the stairs here. If you want similar views of the valley without having to climb the ladder along the Notch Trail, you can take the stairs here to a platform. It’s set a bit lower than the overlook along the trail, but still offers a great view.
Medicine Root Loop
This 4-mile round trip trail (it also connects with the Castle and Saddle Pass Trails) takes you through rolling prairies. You may spot some wildlife along the way, but you’ll definitely enjoy the views of the Badlands in the distance.
Saddle Pass Trail
This short connector climbs up from road level to the Badlands wall and ends at the junction of the Castle Trail and Medicine Root Loop if you wish to continue on either of those.
This super short 1/4 mile trail takes you from the parking area to a “window” that opens out onto the area that the previously mentioned Door Trail winds through. There’s a railing and a bench at the end if you want to linger to enjoy the view. This one is an easy way for young kids or visitors with limited mobility to get a view of the rock formations without having to navigate difficult terrain.
Animals in Badlands National Park
Another one of the best things to do at Badlands National Park is to look for wildlife. As you make your way through the park, you’re almost guaranteed to spot a prairie dog town along the main road. Keep an eye out for these adorable little creatures bustling around their “town.”
Bighorn sheep were introduced to the park in the 20th century by conservationists hoping to save them. The national park currently has approximately 250 of them. We were lucky enough to watch a whole group crossing the road ahead of our car while we were driving around.
Bison aka buffalo also roam the park, and they make a striking scene against the landscape.
As always, keep a safe distance from wildlife and don’t attempt to pet the animals in Badlands National Park – or take selfies with them. The park website contains information about locations in which they’re frequently spotted if you want to know where your best chances to see them are.
Visit the Badlands South Unit
While most visitors stick to the scenic loop and hiking trails described above, there is a whole relatively unknown South Unit. This area overlaps with the Wind River Reservation and is jointly managed by the National Park Service and the Oglala Lakota Tribe. (This portion of the park is currently closed due to covid precautions at the tribe’s request.)
The south unit is undeveloped and no roads cross it, though you can take a scenic drive along the roads that pass along its edges. There is also a separate visitor center, the White River Visitor Center (currently closed due to covid), which operates during the summer season.
You’re able to explore the backcountry, but it’s important to note that much of this are was used as a bombing range during WWII and unexploded ordinance is frequently found. Find out more about the history of this area, including how it was seized from the landowners and eventually joined to the already existing Badlands National Monument here.
Where to eat in Badlands National Park
Your only option for food in the park is the Cedar Pass Lodge. You can get a full sit-down meal or pick up snacks. (Note that the restaurant is closed for the 2020 season) If you want to bring your own food in, there are several stops along the way with picnic tables available.
I’d also recommend grabbing food at Wall Drug in nearby Wall, SD at the west end of the park just for the cheesy tourist fun.
Where to stay in Badlands National Park
The Cedar Pass Lodge offers cabin rentals located near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. The cabins replaced the original 1928 ones with more modern and eco-friendly amenities. There are also hotels available in nearby Wall, SD.
The lodge also operates a campground and RV park nearby – close enough to take advantage of the dining options if you choose. The RV sites have electric hookups and a shaded picnic table and the tent sites include a picnic table. There are paid showers available at the campground. Note that fires aren’t allowed, but you can cook at your site with propane grills and stoves.
Tips for visiting Badlands National Park
- Bring lots of water. There is very little shade in most of the park and few places to fill up, so you’ll want to make sure you bring in plenty of your own.
- Since there is only one spot to buy food in the park, you’ll also want to bring your own if you don’t want to plan your day around being at Cedar Pass Lodge when you want to eat. At minimum you’ll probably want some snacks.
- Wear good shoes if you want to explore the rock formations. This isn’t the place for wandering around in flip flops.
- Pack plenty of sunscreen because as mentioned previously, there isn’t much shade.
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