Nestled in southwestern South Dakota, Badlands National Park harbors sprawling mixed-grass prairies amid surreal layered spires, buttes, and canyons. A closer look reveals vast communities of prairie dogs going about their day as more giant animals like bison and bighorn sheep garner all the attention. With its diverse landscapes and animals, the park offers a memorable experience. We cover everything you need to know for your Badlands National Park visit.
Why is it called the Badlands?
The area presents severe challenges to travelers. When it rains, the wet clay gets slick and sticky. The jagged canyons and buttes take a toll on the body regardless of your transportation mode.
Winters are cold and windy, while summers are hot and dry. The area offers few water sources. Those available water sources are typically muddy, making them unfit to drink.
All evidence suggests early humans used the Badlands for seasonal hunting rather than as a place to live. Accordingly, the Lakota people dubbed the region mako sica for hundreds of years. It translates to “bad lands.” The name reflects the rough terrain, harsh weather conditions, and lack of water sources.
Why Are the Badlands Famous?
Badlands National Park harbors one of the world’s richest fossil beds. Paleontologists have unearthed many fascinating finds, including ancestors of the modern horse and rhino.
The area is renowned for its stunning views and rugged terrain. It houses otherworldly landscapes of towering cliffs, deep canyons, and unique striated rock formations separated by mixed-grass prairies.
Visitors regularly spot exotic wildlife in the park. Bison graze on the grass prairies, while prairie dogs dig underground, creating complex burrow systems. Bighorn sheep roam in the park’s rocky terrain.
Is a Trip to the Badlands Worth it?
A trip to the Badlands is worthwhile if you enjoy scenic drives, short but rewarding hikes, or unique wildlife. The park shines in all three areas.
Many national parks boast exotic wildlife, but the animals are challenging to find. Visitors regularly spot bison, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs in the Badlands.
Most national parks require hikers to remain on marked trails. Badlands National Park permits you to hike off-trail. It is a unique opportunity to gain close views of prairie dog towns and the odd, brightly colored striated geological formations.
Rangers ask that you maintain a minimum distance of 100 feet from wildlife.
- Badlands National Park receives about 1 million visitors annually.
- The park spans approximately 244,000 acres.
- It became a national park on November 10, 1978.
- Its original suggested name was Wonderland National Park.
- The area that is now Badlands National Park was part of the famous Louisiana Purchase.
When is the Best Time to Visit Badlands National Park?
To say Badlands National Park is a land of extremes is an understatement. Summer temperatures can exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Although primarily hot and dry, violent storms can pop up suddenly without warning during summer.
I can personally confirm that summers are hot. The thermometer reached 101 degrees Fahrenheit when Julie and I visited the Badlands in late August.
Winters are cold, with temperatures regularly dipping well below freezing. The area typically gets one to two feet of snowfall annually.
Spring and fall are excellent times to visit. Mid-April through May and September through early October is especially good due to comfortable temperatures and smaller crowds.
June is the wettest month, while December and January are the driest.
How Much Time Do You Need To Drive Through Badlands National Park?
Driving Badlands Loop Road is one of the park’s most popular activities. The scenic drive snakes through the park’s heart for 30 miles.
You will discover eleven overlooks and short boardwalk trails along the paved road. The overlooks yield spectacular views along “the Wall,” a 60-mile expanse of eroded, jagged rocks separating the park’s upper and lower prairies.
Please plan to spend at least three hours savoring the scenic drive and its overlooks and boardwalks.
How Much Time Do You Need in the Badlands?
A half day to two days should be sufficient time in Badlands National Park, depending on your goals. You can drive Badlands Loop Road, stop at a few overlooks, and hike a short trail or two in a half day.
A full day allows you to stop at all overlooks and boardwalk trails on Badlands Loop Road. You can also enjoy short hikes, drive Sage Creek Rim Road, and watch sunrise or sunset.
A second day in the park allows you to revisit a favorite area to see more wildlife or hike additional trails. Or, you can visit the more remote Stronghold Unit and Palmer Creek Unit.
Can You Visit the Badlands and Mount Rushmore in One Day?
You can gaze upon Mount Rushmore and drive through the Badlands in one day. However, we recommend a half-day in Mount Rushmore and a full day in the Badlands to experience more of what each iconic destination offers.
How Far is Badlands National Park from Mount Rushmore?
The park is approximately 1.5 hours from Mount Rushmore, making it an excellent road trip where you can visit multiple iconic destinations.
How Far is Badlands National Park from Custer State Park?
Custer State Park is approximately a 1.5-hour drive west of the Badlands.
How Far is Badlands National Park from Crazy Horse Memorial?
Crazy Horse Memorial is about a 2-hour drive west of the Badlands.
Badlands National Park sits about 75 miles east of Rapid City, South Dakota. The physical address for the park headquarters and the Ben Reifel Visitor Center is 25216 Ben Reifel Road, Interior, SD 57750.
Badlands National Park comprises three distinct park units.
The North Unit is the primary district and the one to which we will refer for nearly everything in our guide. It houses the main attractions and is the most accessible. You will find scenic drives, rewarding hikes, and plenty of wildlife in the North Unit.
Two main roads allow you to see and do everything in the North Unit:
- Badlands Loop Road
- Sage Creek Rim Road
The South Unit is sometimes called the Stronghold Unit. It rests in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and contains no roads directly through the park. You can take a scenic drive around the South Unit.
For those who desire to explore the Stronghold Unit’s interior, it is only accessible by backcountry trails or driving Sheep Mountain Table, a rough road that requires a big SUV.
The South Unit has a visitor center, the White River Visitor Center. You can see museum exhibits, obtain park maps and information, and talk to park rangers.
Palmer Creek Unit
Like the South Unit, the Oglala Lakota and the National Park Service jointly manage the Palmer Creek Unit. It sits within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
The remote area is undeveloped and surrounded by private property. We suggest you talk to a park ranger before visiting this district.
The North Unit of Badlands National Park has three entrances.
You can access the Northeast Entrance by taking exit 131 on Interstate 90. Then, follow the signs. The Northeast Entrance address is 21020 SD Highway 240, Interior, SD 57750.
Aptly named, it is northeast of the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.
The Interior Entrance address is 20640 SD Highway 377, Interior, SD 57750. It sits on the east side, just southwest of the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.
You can access the Pinnacles Entrance by taking exit 110 on Interstate 90. Then, follow the signs. The Pinnacles Entrance address is 24240 SD Highway 240, Wall, SD 57790.
It is on the western end of the North Unit, near the intersection of Badlands Loop Road and Sage Creek Rim Road.
Rapid City Regional Airport in Rapid City, South Dakota, is the nearest airport to the Badlands. It is a 1-hour drive to the Pinnacles Entrance or a 1-hour and 15-minute drive to the Northeast Entrance.
Operating Hours and Seasons
Weather permitting, the park is open 24 hours a day, year-round.
Ben Reifel Visitor Center
Although the park is open daily, the Ben Reifel Visitor Center is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
Visitor center hours vary seasonally. Summer hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is regularly open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. during winter hours, November through March.
The park boasts something for everyone in the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. You can grab park maps and information, talk to rangers, watch a park film, look at museum exhibits, shop in the park bookstore, and see a working fossil preparation lab. It is an excellent place to start your visit.
We recommend you visit the park website to verify the fossil preparation lab hours.
Fees and Passes
The cost to enter the park is $30 per car, $25 per motorcycle, and $15 on foot or bicycle. Your pass is valid for seven consecutive days.
You can purchase an annual Badlands National Park pass for $55. Consider an America the Beautiful annual pass for $80, valid at all United States national parks.
Top Things To Do in Badlands National Park
Let’s peer through the tall prairie grass to reveal the best things to do in the Badlands.
The good news is that Badlands is simple to navigate. It contains two primary roads. Both offer excellent scenery with overlooks and opportunities to spot wildlife.
Badlands Loop Road
If you only do one thing during your visit, drive Badlands Loop Road or Highway 240. The park’s most famous road provides easy access to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and popular hiking trails. It spans 30 miles from the Northeast Entrance to the Pinnacles Entrance on the park’s west side.
You will discover many well-marked overlooks along the breathtaking journey. Like the Blue Ridge Parkway, we encourage you to go leisurely and savor the stunning views.
The park’s east side generally showcases towering rock formations, while the western half features canyons and distant rock formations. You can access the overlooks directly from designated parking areas or by a short boardwalk stroll. Visitors regularly encounter wildlife alongside the road or at the viewpoints.
All of the overlooks provide a unique perspective and are worth your time. However, here are some of our favorites on Badlands Loop Road, going from east to west.
Big Badlands Overlook
The first overlook accessed near the Northeast Entrance reveals the park’s vast size and sets the tone for your visit. In a word, it is breathtaking!
Bigfoot Pass Picnic Area
The stop offers a short boardwalk with a stunning view of the striped rock formations. As a bonus, it has shaded picnic tables where you can enjoy a relaxing snack or meal.
The viewpoint yields a nice mixture of grasslands and badlands, stretching forever.
Burns Basin Overlook
The Burns Basin Overlook is an excellent spot to watch prairie dogs in action.
The Homestead Overlook allows you to gaze down upon canyons and a vast prairie. It will always be one of my fondest memories since we spotted several bighorn sheep in this area. We stayed here awhile, admiring the bighorns as they grazed and jumped into the canyon.
Yellow Mounds Overlook
Badlands National Park reminds me of Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park. Both have rock formations with distinct layers or stripes.
Some of the most striking formations in Petrified Forest are blue, but Badlands has bold yellow mounds that steal the show. They are beautiful! Be sure to savor the view of these unique mounds.
Ancient Hunters Overlook
This viewpoint offers plenty of room to walk in the tall prairie grass, providing a unique view of the road ahead.
We found bighorn sheep near this viewpoint, which will always be special. Depending on where you enter the park, it will either be your first or last overlook on Badlands Loop Road. The fantastic view is an excellent way to begin or end your time on the park’s primary road.
Sage Creek Rim Road
With a well-maintained gravel surface, Sage Creek Rim Road intersects Badlands Loop Road near the Pinnacles Overlook. It stretches 25 miles, spilling out near Scenic, South Dakota. However, a little bumpy, standard vehicles can easily handle the terrain.
Sage Creek Rim Road yields more rugged views of the backcountry and grasslands. Although it has fewer pullouts than Badlands Loop Road, the course offers a few excellent overlooks. You also have good chances to observe wildlife along the route.
Roberts Prairie Dog Town
Our favorite overlook is Roberts Prairie Dog Town. A path takes you from the parking lot to the heart of a prairie dog town. Hiding underground is a collection of burrows and hundreds, if not thousands, of family units of prairie dogs.
Walk along the path and quietly wait a few minutes. The cute prairie dogs will put on a show. Some stare at you inquisitively, while others dart back down the burrow. In the distance, a few squeak loudly to warn the others of your presence. Some go about their business, ignoring you. A few may daringly venture closer to inquire about the intruders invading their territory.
If you have never seen prairie dogs, I encourage you to stop at Roberts Prairie Dog Town to get a firsthand account. They remind me of the comical meerkats from Disney’s animated film, The Lion King, and their adorable live counterparts at The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. At the very least, they will warm your heart and draw a smile.
Badlands National Park offers many short but rewarding hikes for those who prefer to explore more of the park’s interior. Most of the designated trails are near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.
It is essential to note that the park does not require guests to stay on the trails. You can walk about freely, but it is critical to mind your surroundings in terms of terrain and wildlife.
The 1.5-mile round-trip hike leads you through a scenic canyon and delivers a unique climb up a wooden ladder. You get rewarded with a breathtaking view of the Badlands.
The trail has a brief section where you walk along a cliff. You can skip the ladder and narrow ridge by taking an alternative path along the base. It eventually meets up with the higher trail.
Fossil Exhibit Trail
Although short and easy, the 0.25-mile boardwalk trail takes you back millions of years. The park contains one of the world’s most concentrated mammal fossil beds. Informational signs along the path tell you about the fossil discoveries and the animals that once roamed the Badlands.
A 0.25-mile boardwalk guides you to a gap in the ridge. The natural window provides an excellent view of “the Wall” and pinnacles rising from the rugged canyon below.
While the Window Trail allows you to see the Badlands, the Door Trail opens to a path into the Badlands. The 0.75-mile round-trip hike begins with a short boardwalk and then takes you along rugged, uneven terrain to experience the Badlands up close.
One of the park’s longer hikes, the Castle Trail, is 6 miles each way. It takes you through the heart of the Badlands, connecting the Fossil Exhibit Trail and the Window and Door Trails.
Cliff Shelf Nature Trail
The 0.5-mile round-trip path starts near the base of the last viewpoint along the Notch Trail. Although the elevation gain is 300 feet, most guests rate the hike as easy. The walk takes you through fragrant junipers and delivers stunning views of the Badlands Wall.
Looking for wildlife is one of the most exciting things in Badlands National Park. Generally, we found Badlands National Park one of the better national parks to observe wildlife. You should be able to find some animals whether you explore the park by scenic driving or hiking.
Animals are regularly more active near sunrise or sunset. Try to be in the park near these times to improve your odds.
So, where can you find animals in the park?
We have visited several parks where bighorns supposedly roam. Unfortunately, we came up empty on our quests to find them.
My number one goal on our South Dakota visit was to see bighorn sheep. Thankfully, Badlands National Park delivered!
Visitors regularly spot bighorn sheep along the rocky precipices of Pinnacles Overlook and in areas like Cedar Pass, Castle Trail, and Big Badlands Overlook.
You must stay alert when you enter the park, whether in the east or from the west. Your first primary overlook after the Pinnacles Entrance and the Northeast Entrance is one of your best opportunities to find bighorn sheep.
We entered the park around 7 a.m. through the Pinnacles Entrance and found several bighorn sheep grazing in the prairie before we even got to the Pinnacles Overlook. So, please stay alert between the entrance and the first overlook.
We encountered more bighorn sheep at the Homestead Overlook, which is the fifth viewpoint on Badlands Loop Road when coming from the Pinnacles Entrance.
For me, it was an absolute thrill to see an animal that had proven to be elusive. Julie and I could not stop taking pictures and videos.
It is essential to remember that wildlife has this name for a reason. They can be wild and unpredictable. Be sure to read the room. If any animal glares at you or makes a threatening sound, it lets you know your presence is unwelcome. It is best to slowly and quietly back away. If you give them the appropriate space and respect, you can gaze upon them in admiration.
The massive animals with thick, brown fur are a sight to behold. They can be up to 6.5 feet tall and weigh 2,000 pounds. Despite their size, bison can run 30 to 35 miles per hour. It is wise to observe them from a distance.
Many visitors call them buffalo. Park rangers will politely advise that they are indeed bison. The Lakota refer to them as Tatanka. Approximately 1,200 Tatanka or bison inhabit Badlands National Park today.
Visitors have spotted bison in many areas of the park’s North Unit except near the visitor center. At times, they graze near the road, while on other occasions, you will see them in the distance grazing in the mixed-grass prairies.
Julie and I spotted two bison near the Badlands National Park sign as we approached the Pinnacles Entrance. We knew we were about to have a great day!
We spotted a lone bison along several overlooks on Badlands Loop Road. Driving Sage Creek Rim Road, we saw a couple of herds in the distance.
Bison typically hang out near Pinnacles Overlook on Badlands Loop Road and at Badlands Wilderness Overlook on Sage Creek Rim Road. Our best advice is to drive slowly and scan the distant horizon and grassy areas near the road. Driving the park’s two primary roads, you should spot some bison during your visit.
Black-tailed prairie dogs inhabit Badlands National Park. The cute animals are usually 14 to 17 inches long and 1 to 3 pounds. Astonishingly, their colonies can span hundreds, if not thousands, of square miles underground.
Although tiny, prairie dogs are a keystone species in the Badlands. If they disappear, the entire ecosystem could collapse.
Prairie dogs dig burrows in which other animals sometimes live. They clip vegetation, making room for other plants to grow. Prairie dogs are also a food source for other animals and birds of prey.
While driving through the park, look for mounds of dirt atop the grasslands. When you find one bank, you will usually discover hundreds.
As you look closer, you will likely find prairie dogs digging, scurrying, and chattering. Please do yourself a favor and watch them for a while. They are quite the entertainers.
Although prairie dog towns exist throughout the park, popular spots to observe the critters include Burns Basin Overlook, Roberts Prairie Dog Town, and Sage Creek Campground.
Thought to be extinct in 1980, biologists estimate 120 black-footed ferrets currently live in the park. While observing one of North America’s most endangered species is exciting, black-footed ferrets are challenging to find.
Black-footed ferrets are nocturnal creatures. They feed on prairie dogs and live underground in burrows dug by prairie dogs. Accordingly, black-footed ferrets typically only emerge above ground briefly at night.
Please do not plan your entire trip to see the endangered animal. A park ranger advised me that he had never seen one in his sixteen years at the park. He went on to say that none of his fellow rangers had ever spotted one either.
Watch Sunrise or Sunset
Seeing either sunrise or sunset in Badlands National Park is fabulous. Filtering sunrays across the striated rock formations makes you realize how special this place is. It is the perfect way to start or end your day.
Sunrise typically draws fewer people than sunset. Only some people like to get up early.
Big Badlands Overlook, the Door Trail, and Norbeck Pass are excellent spots to observe sunrise. Popular places for sunset include Conata Basin Overlook, Pinnacles Overlook, Bigfoot Pass Picnic Area, Norbeck Pass, and Panorama Point.
Due to its remote location, Badlands National Park has little light pollution. Watching the Milky Way sparkle in the night sky is a great opportunity.
The park offers a ranger-guided night sky viewing program from Memorial Day through Labor Day at the Cedar Pass Campground Amphitheater. Rangers point out planets, stars, and constellations. They also provide guests with telescopes, making it a fun activity for adults and kids.
Wrap-Up: Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park offers surreal landscapes, unique wildlife, scenic drives, and short, rewarding hikes. It is located near the Black Hills, so you can easily visit iconic destinations like Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, and Custer State Park during your western South Dakota vacation. Plan your incredible adventure in the Badlands!
Featured image credit: Miles with McConkey
More Articles from Miles with McConkey
About the author
Scott McConkey is a nationally syndicated travel writer and the founder of Miles with McConkey, where he provides vacationers and travel enthusiasts with trip ideas, travel guides, and inspiration. His travel articles have been seen in The Associated Press wire, ABC, CBS, CW, FOX, NBC, MSN, and many more. He and his wife, Julie, left the corporate world after nearly 30 years for a life of travel and adventure. What started as a gap year has evolved into a second act. She creates visual content while he utilizes the written word. Their goal is to create content inspiring others to travel more and live their best lives now.