If you aren’t familiar with the term badlands, it might seem like an odd name for a National Park. Basically, it is a dry terrain formed by erosion from wind and water. The result is a spectacular display of color among the steep and rugged formations. Badlands formations can be found in a variety of places throughout the country, but one of the most extensive of these can be seen by visiting Badlands National Park in South Dakota.
While most people visit Badlands National Park for the visually stunning formations, it is also home to one of the world’s richest fossil beds. Additionally, there is a surprising amount of wildlife to be found, even in the harsh terrain.
In fact, this seemingly inhospitable land has supported humans for more than 11,000 years. The first people in the area were mammoth hunters, followed much later by nomadic, bison-hunting tribes such as the Lakota. In time, they were pushed out by the European fur trappers, who were eventually followed by cattle farmers and homesteaders.
Whether you are just visiting the Badlands on a quick drive through the park, are getting out on a hike or are looking to learn more about the history, geology or paleontology of the region, there are plenty of things to do while visiting Badlands National Park.
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Badlands National Park Basic Information
Location: just south of Wall, SD (about an hour east of Rapid City)
Entry Fee: $30/vehicle for a 7 day pass
What to Expect: Plenty of scenic views of various badlands formations, several hiking trails
Additional Information: Badlands National Park consist of three separate units. The North Unit is the main portion of the park and the easiest to explore. Unless otherwise noted, information is for the North Unit. The Stronghold Unit and Palmer Creek Unit (jointly, commonly called the South Unit) are on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and are cooperatively managed by the National Park Service and Oglala Lakota. There are limited facilities in the Stronghold Unit and virtually no access to the Palmer Creek Unit.
What Exactly are Badlands?
Badlands formations are created by the basic processes of deposits and erosion. Over millions of years, layers of rocks were deposited on top of each other by a variety of natural forces. The different layers can now be clearly seen in a variety of colors. Eventually, these layers started to erode by wind and water. The result is the steep slopes of peaks and canyons that we call badlands.
Both the Lakota and the French Canadian fur trappers had phrases referring to this land as “bad land” or “bad lands to traverse.” I actually commented to Grant at one point that arriving at this area with a covered wagon would be quite daunting. Thus, while this land is actually teeming with life and beauty, I can certainly see where the term badlands comes from.
You can find other badlands formations in North Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Nebraska. We’ve even visited a few of them at Theodore Roosevelt National Park and Petrified Forest National Park. There are also badlands formations in Canada, New Zealand, Italy, Spain and Argentina. Hopefully, we’ll have the opportunity to visit some of these international badlands one day!
What to Do While Visiting Badlands National Park
Before you do anything at Badlands NP, you need to understand that it is an area of extremes. In the summer, when most people visit, temperatures are often near or above 100 degrees. Yes, you will find a few cool days here or there. Still, you need to be prepared for extreme heat.
At first glance, the Badlands appear dry and almost dead. Look closer, though, and you’ll find it full of life. In and around Badlands NP, you’ll a variety of grasses, flowers, and animals, both small and large. In fact, the park is surrounded by the Buffalo Gap National Grassland.
Drive the Scenic Loop Road
If there is only one thing you do while visiting Badlands National Park, it should be to drive the entire scenic road through the North Unit of the park. Thankfully, this is easy to do as a detour off I-90, from either direction. Along the scenic road, there are a number of turnouts and overlooks where you can enjoy the beauty of the area and take pictures.
You’ll likely want about two hours just to drive the road and stop at the overlooks. I suggest stopping at all the overlooks if you have time. Seriously, the views never get old or repetitive! Even the Prairie Wind Overlook is interesting as the flat grassland is in stark contrast to the colorful, dramatic slopes of the badlands.
While the main road of the park is the big attraction, there are several other scenic drives that are worth it if you have a little more time.
Sage Creek Road
The most accessible and closest drive is Sage Creek Rim Road (there are a couple of different ways that you can make it a loop with Sage Creek Road). This is an unpaved road that offers more views and a stop at a Prairie Dog town (more on that below). While unpaved, it is an easy drive that any vehicle should be able to handle.
If you are traveling west through the park, you can do Sage Creek Rim Road as a detour on your way out, heading back towards the town of Wall.
Sheep Mountain Road
Located in the South Unit of the park (just south of Hwy 44), Sheep Mountain Road is another unpaved road with spectacular views. The first portion of the road is well-maintained and most any car should be able to get to the parking/viewing area at about 5 miles (yes, there are fantastic views along the way).
Beyond that, you’ll need a high-clearance vehicle for the remaining 2.5 miles. We would recommend that you have four-wheel drive. Alternately, you can hike that section of the road – just be sure to bring plenty of water.
I’ll be honest here, the farther you go down this road, the better the views get. Seriously, just when you think the view can’t get any better, they do. Even if you have to hike it, it’s totally worth it!
The walls and spires in this area look quite a bit different than what you find the North Unit. Interestingly, though, they are the same formations, geologically. The environments that created the deposits were different in the north and south units, causing the different appearances. We haven’t spent much time exploring the national parks in the Southwest Region, but the formations in the South Unit of Badlands NP seemed more like what you’d find in southern Utah or Arizona.
For those spending a little longer in the park, I’d also encourage you drive Hwy 44 through the Buffalo Gap National Grassland on the south end of the park. You can access Hwy 44 on the east end of the park near the town of Interior. Or, you can take Conata Road south from the middle of the scenic loop road.
The drive through the grassland is scenic and relaxing. You’ll spot quite a few large prairie dog towns along both sides of the road.
As you drive Highway 44, be sure to look to the north for the “big picture” views of the expansive Badlands Wall. For a closer view of the Badlands Wall, drive Conata Road north from Hwy 44. There are several different ways you can create a loop with Hwy 44, Conata Road and Sage Creek Road.
Stop at the Visitor Center
We always encourage folks to stop at the Visitor Center, no matter what. With a stop at the Visitor Center, you’ll learn more about the park, its history and importance. In Badlands NP, the Ben Reifel Visitor Center is on the east end of the park. If you’re entering from the west (near Wall), just be sure to pick up a park map at the fee station.
At the visitor center, you can watch the park film, view the exhibits on the natural and cultural history, check out the gift shop and of course, check in with a ranger. For those interested, you can also pick up the Junior Ranger booklet for the little ones (or not-so-little ones).
In the summer, you can typically find a paleontology preparation lab at the visitor center. Here, you can talk to park paleontologists about the fossils found in the park and view some of the past discoveries. A note on fossils: any that you find in the park must be reported to a ranger; it is illegal to remove or collect fossils without a permit.
*As of June 23, 2020 the visitor center is still closed due to Covid-19 restrictions. The park did, however, have a small store set up out front where you can buy souvenirs and get a Junior Ranger booklet.
The White River Visitor Center is located in the South Unit of the park, on the Pine Ridge Reservation and is only open in the summer. During our visit in June 2020, the Reservation was closed to non-residents. Hopefully, we’ll make it back one day when we can explore the South Unit more.
Look for Wildlife
There is a surprising amount of wildlife for a park that at first glance looks completely inhabitable. Intermixed with the badlands, though, are a variety of prairie grasses, which support grazing animals.
There are a variety of mammals to be on the lookout for, such as Bison (buffalo), Bighorn Sheep and Prairie Dogs. You’ll also likely see a number of birds, big and small. You are more likely to find some of the smaller reptiles and amphibians out on a trail.
We saw bison in a few spots on the west side of the park. There were some near the Pinnacles entrance and more along the Sage Creek Road. While I’ve seen thousands of bison over my lifetime, I gotta admit, it never gets old! There is just something about bison that we both love.
Bighorn Sheep are certainly a less common animal to see, though we have been lucky to see them in several parks over the years. While visiting Badlands National Park, we saw a group of rams (males) while hiking the Castle Trail (thankfully, they were well off the trail and out of our way). We also found a small group of ewes (females) and lambs along Sage Creek Rim Road.
At the Pinnacles Overlook, we spotted a group of Bighorns off in the distance, high up on the steep spires. Watching Bighorn navigate the steep, rocky terrain always amazes me.
In contrast to the large, majestic bison and bighorn, are the small, cute prairie dogs. The best place to spot prairie dogs inside the park is at Roberts Prairie Dog Town, along Sage Creek Rim Road. Here, you can get out of your car and walk around to watch, listen and take pictures.
There are several other places outside the park where you can find prairie dogs, including along Highway 44 through the Buffalo Gap National Grassland on the south side of the park.
As with any wildlife, please don’t feed or try to touch the prairie dogs! If you need a reason why beyond it’s the right thing to do, you should know that many prairie dogs still carry the plague.
While hiking, we saw a few toads, a snake and some sort of spider (we’re guessing it was a tarantula).
The snake we saw was some sort of green snake – it was slithering across the trail before hiding in the grass. It did not appear to be anything that was concerning. Rattlesnakes are somewhat common in the Badlands, though, so you do have to be careful when hiking.
Much to Grant’s chagrin, we didn’t see any rattlesnakes but we did hear some. For me, hearing them and not seeing them is certainly a bit disconcerting, so I didn’t want to poke around too much. It was obvious, from the sounds, though, that we did find a rattlesnake den. Actually, it was another family who found it and pointed it out to us.
As for the spider, I have no idea what it was but it was big and scary looking. Even worse, it was carrying tons of tiny babies on its back. Thankfully, I saw it before I stepped on or near it. I can’t even imagine how much I would freak out if I had a spider carrying babies on me! And, don’t let Grant fool you – he would freak out too.
Take a Hike
Please don’t let the talk of snakes and spiders scare you too much from getting out on at least a short hike while visiting Badlands National Park. In two visits, we’ve done more than 15 miles of hiking and never had any problems. And, there are plenty of short, relatively easy hikes that you can do with little concern.
The park maintains 8 hikes, ranging from 1/4 mile to 10 miles. In fact, most of the hikes are 1.5 miles or less. While there may not be a lot of official trails, Badlands NP does have an “open hike” policy, which allows you to hike off-trail.
Whether you choose to stay on the trail or explore on your own, it is extremely important that you make sure you have plenty of water and sunscreen. I’d also suggest starting fairly early in the morning so that you can be done before the full heat of the day hits.
Yes, in the Badlands there is typically a dry heat. Yes, that is better than hot and humid. Still, it can get really hot, especially when there is little to no cloud cover. If you can work it out to do your hiking on a cloudy day, that will help quite a bit. Still, be sure to carry plenty of water if you’re going to be out of your car for more than about 15-20 minutes.
Door and Window Trails
If you’re not up for any hiking, but want to do a little exploring, be sure to stop at the parking lot for the Door, Window and Notch Trails near the Northeast Entrance. While listed as trails, the Door & Window Trails are both short, easy boardwalks that anyone can do. There are also tons of spires right in the parking lot that you (or the kids) can climb and explore.
Also at this parking lot is the Notch Trail, which is a bit more technical but is a great hike if you have the desire and capability. It’s about 1.25 miles round-trip but does include a steep ladder-climb at one point. The end of the trail provides a grand view over the area just south of the parking lot.
Stayed tuned for Grant’s upcoming article on Hiking in Badlands National Park for more information on the various hiking trails.
Take Pictures at Sunset and/or Sunrise
The layered colors of the Badlands really comes alive with the right light, which is typically at sunrise and sunset. If you can, I highly encourage you to give yourself some time in the park to enjoy this spectacular display of color! Truly, the colors just aren’t the same any other time of the day.
I’ll be the first to admit that getting up at 3:15 am to get into the park before 5:00 for a summer sunrise was not easy. It was absolutely worth it, though. If that just isn’t your cup of tea, you can easily hit a 8:30ish sunset after dinner. See… something for both early-risers and night owls!
I’ll say this, while getting up super early for a summer sunrise may not be enticing, it does allow you to explore the park before it really gets hot. You could easily watch a sunrise and then hit the trail and be done well before lunch. In fact, we took pictures at sunrise, hiked three trails, drove out to Sheep Mountain Road and were back at our campground by about 1:00.
Other Attractions Nearby
Badlands National Park is one of those parks that really feels like it is in the middle of nowhere. Still, there are a few other things to do while visiting the Badlands.
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site – This site preserves two facilities that were part of the United State’s vast arsenal of nuclear missiles during the Cold War. The Visitor Center and two missile sites are located right off I-90, between the east and west exits for Badlands National Park. Even non-history buffs will enjoy a tour of the Launch Control Facility and a walk through the exhibits. Check the park web site for information and tour reservations.
Wall Drug – If you are anywhere near South Dakota you will see signs for Wall Drug. Along I-90, you’ll spot them every minute or so, if not more often. Wall Drug is known for its free ice water and 5 cent coffee but is a huge store selling just about anything you can imagine. Whether you stop in for a snack, a few toiletries, clothes, art or just to see the wild and wacky decor, you can’t drive I-90 without stopping at Wall Drug.
Where to Stay When Visiting Badlands National Park
We stayed in Wall for both of our visits to the Badlands. While it is small, there are a couple of campgrounds, a few hotels and restaurants, a grocery store and, of course, Wall Drug. Our preferred campground is Sleepy Hollow RV Park. We’ve now stayed here twice with the camper and once while we were tent camping. There are a variety of basic hotels in Wall, but we haven’t stayed at any of them, so can’t recommend anything specific.
From Wall, it’s about a 10-15 minute drive to the west entrance of the park.
If you prefer to stay inside the park, the Cedar Pass Lodge and Campground are located right by the main visitor center on the east side of the park. The campground offers electric hookups only; no water or sewer connections. The cabins at the lodge offer the amenities of any basic hotel. While we haven’t stayed at either, we drove through the area and it looks nice. They certainly have better views and are much closer for sunrise/sunset photos than our campground in Wall!
The tiny town of Interior is just south of the Cedar Pass/Visitor Center area and offers some basic supplies.
For those that prefer all the comforts of a large town, Rapid City is about an hour west of Wall and the west entrance of the park. We have previously stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn in Rapid City and had a great experience there. In Rapid City, you will find a wide variety of hotels, restaurants and shops. It is a great base if you are also exploring Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills.
Final Thoughts on Visiting Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park really is one of the most unique parks in the country. Yes, you will find badlands formations in other parks and other areas of the country. Those formations pale in comparison to what you’ll see while visiting Badlands National Park, though.
Pictures just don’t capture the vastness and grandeur of this landscape. It’s really something that you just have to see and experience for yourself.
We always encourage park visitors to take their time and enjoy the parks. That said, at Badlands NP, a quick drive through the main scenic road will expose you to much of what this park has to offer. Still, taking time to explore the smaller roads and do a little hiking will improve your experience at the park.
Whether you are visiting the Badlands for a couple of hours or a couple of days, it is a grand park and well worth a visit. I promise, you won’t leave disappointed.