Badlands National Park is one of those places that flies under the radar. Maybe it’s the name, tricking people into thinking they shouldn’t visit. But there’s nothing quite like the Badlands, and whether you drive through the park in an afternoon on your way across South Dakota or spend 4 days here, these unique rock formations are sure to impress you.
Where to Stay in Badlands, South Dakota
Badlands National Park is located just south of Wall, South Dakota and is easily accessible from Interstate 90, giving you a couple of different lodging and camping choices in a fairly small area. The town of Wall has several hotel and motel options for guests visiting the area, but you also have lodging options right in the middle of the action. Cedar Pass Lodge is inside the park boundaries with two other Badlands motel options just outside of it. If you’d like to camp, your options range from two campgrounds inside the park to boondocking just outside the park to Sleepy Hollow Campground in the town of Wall. If you’re booking a campsite at Sage Creek Campground or Cedar Pass Campground inside Badlands National Park, be sure to check early to see when reservations become available.
Best Time to Visit Badlands National Park
The unpredictable weather is one of the reasons the Badlands earns its name. While it receives relatively little rain, storms can be sudden and fierce. And temperatures fluctuate wildly with lows below freezing in the winter and highs well above 90 in the summer. 116° F is the park’s highest recorded temperature.
We visited in early May because we were heading to the Black Hills and wanted to balance the heat of the Badlands with the cooler spring temperatures of western South Dakota. One day in the Badlands we were wearing long sleeves and wind breakers and the next day we were wearing short sleeves.
Whether the temperatures are high or low, keep in mind that there’s almost nothing in this landscape to break the wind or to shade you from the sun. Visiting the Badlands is sure to be a wild adventure!
How to See Wildlife in Badlands, South Dakota
Driving through Badlands National Park, you should see bison and prairie dogs pretty easily. During our visit, the bison were congregated around the Pinnacles Entrance Station and we also saw a few on Sagecreek Rim Road. Prairie dogs were abundant, especially in the Roberts Prairie Dog Town area, where they’re right by the road and you can easily pull off and watch them scurrying around.
The bighorn sheep are another animal that park visitors are commonly looking for. We asked the park rangers where to look and had success finding one in the Castle/Door/Window trailhead area.
Other animals like deer, coyotes, turkeys, and snakes can be spotted around the park. We saw both deer and turkeys.
Tips for Your Visit to Badlands, South Dakota
One unique aspect of Badlands National Park is its open hiking policy. Visitors are free to explore off-trail. The park service cautions visitors to use their best judgment when adventure hiking and remember that it is often easier to climb up a formation than to climb down from it. And of course, if you see wildlife while hiking, be sure to keep your distance.
Prepare to be out of cell signal while inside the park and in the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands as well. Carry a printed map and download GPS maps for the area before your visit to ensure that you don’t get lost.
Carry plenty of food and water with you and keep your vehicle fueled up. Beyond the main scenic drive, you’ll pass very few vehicles on your Badlands South Dakota vacation.
Prairie rattlesnakes can be found throughout the park. While they’re not usually aggressive, take care where you put your hands and feet while hiking. It’s also recommended that you wear long pants and boots instead of shorts and hiking sandals.
You’ll also want sturdy hiking boots with good ankle support for climbing. Prairie dogs and other burrowing animals cause the ground to be very uneven.
Things To Do in Badlands National Park
Notch, Window, & Door – 3 short trails accessed by a single long parking lot. This is a fun open exploration area. Notch Trail is the longest at 1.5 miles round trip and includes a log ladder. Door and Window are both very short boardwalks to Badlands viewpoints.
Cliff Shelf – .5 mile loop trail with boardwalks and stairs. We took this trail clockwise to go down more stairs than we climbed up.
Fossil Exhibit Trail – A quarter mile boardwalk trail with fossil exhibits and replicas.
Saddle Pass – Only a quarter mile, but a strenuous climb up the Badlands wall.
Castle Trail – 5 miles one way on a relatively level path that stretches from the Fossil Exhibit to the Door/Window trailhead parking lot. While this trail is longer than our boys usually undertake, we enjoyed walking the first portion of the trail from the Fossil Exhibit area and found some fun formations in that area.
Medicine Root Loop – 4 mile moderate trail that connects to Castle.
Backcountry hiking – Visitors interested in backcountry camping might plan to hike through Deer Haven or the Sage Creek Wilderness Area.
Scenic Drives and Overlook Areas
Badlands Loop Road – The 27 mile stretch from the Northeast Entrance Station to the Pinnacles Entrance station is the main drive through the park that visitors take. Visitors who are very short on time will drive through the park on this road and continue on their South Dakota road trip. You’ll find over a dozen viewpoints and overlooks along this road.
Sage Creek Rim Road – We highly recommend driving this road at least as far as Roberts Prairie Dog Town even if you’re short on time.
Sheep Mountain Table – This dirt backcountry road is a beautiful scenic drive recommended for four wheel drive vehicles and perfect for a more secluded adventure. Most vehicles should be able to make the ascent to the top of the table and visitors can hike to the overlook or the end of the road if they’d like. The road continues past Sheep Mountain Overlook (where you’ll have a beautiful, secluded Badlands view) and requires a high clearance vehicle. Many sections of this road are very uneven and your vehicle will be off camber for much of the drive.
The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is the park’s main visitor center, with museum exhibits and a working paleontology lab. It was closed during our visit but be sure to stop by and learn more about the many fossils found in this park! You can also visit the dining room at Cedar Pass Lodge next door to try a bison burger or their famous fry bread, served as a dessert or as a taco.
The White River Visitor Center is located in the south unit of the park. This area is comanaged with the Oglala Lakota Tribe. To drive through this area, start in Scenic, SD and drive south to the visitor center before continuing on to Red Shirt, SD. There are no cut through roads on this route.
Watch Sunrise, Sunset, or the Stars
When the sun’s rays light up the Badlands, you can better see the depth and dimension of these beautiful rock formations, making sunrise and sunset both excellent times to drive through the park. Park rangers recommend viewing the sunrise from the Door Trail, Dillon Pass, or Big Badlands Overlook and finding a spot at Pinnacles Overlook, Bigfoot Pass Picnic Area, or Conata Basin Overlook for sunset. Norbeck Pass is a great spot at both times of day or you can walk the Castle Trail at either time of day.
For star gazing and night sky viewings, head to the Cedar Pass Amphitheater around sunset for the park ranger’s nightly program during the summer.
Explore Wall and Nearby Attractions
Wall Drug – While it might seem like a kitschy tourist trap, Wall Drug has been a piece of South Dakota history for nearly 100 years. This small town drug store began marketing itself to travelers in 1936 offering free ice water and 5 cent coffee, which you can still get! Kids will enjoy playing in the backyard area, which is also a great spot for a photo opp. The buildings are full of historic photographs and paintings as well as small practical shops like a pharmacy, fudge shop, and camping store. Get ice cream at the soda fountain or lunch from the café. We found the donuts to be large and fluffy. The maple was our favorite.
Minute Man Missile Site – This national historic site educates visitors on the Cold War at two ballistic missile control centers. Be sure to visit the museum location and reserve tours of the other facilities.
Buffalo Gap National Grasslands Visitor Center – As you drive through the Badlands, you’ll pass in and out of the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, which surrounds part of the national park, so we stopped to see the animal exhibits at this small visitor center in Wall.
Prairie Homestead – Tour a historic sod home just outside the national park and learn more about the early pioneers of the Great Plains.
1880 Town – 40 minutes east of Badlands South Dakota, this historic cultural village contains historic 19th century buildings, a museum, and many artifacts from the era.
Badlands South Dakota with Kids:
Read Books Before Your Trip
Who Pooped in the Park – There isn’t a South Dakota specific edition, but the animals here are very similar to what you’ll find in Yellowstone
Junior Ranger Program
The Badlands is a great place to take part in the Junior Ranger program, because you can actually complete two different books here! In addition to the Badlands badge, you can also earn the Paleontology badge, which is offered at a handful of national parks around the country with significant fossil histories. And if you’re spending a little bit of time in Wall, SD during your visit, you can also stop by the Buffalo Grasslands National Forest Visitor Center to do their ranger booklet and earn a patch at the Minute Man Missile Historic Site.
Badlands Activities Kids Will Love
Climbing – This park has an open hike policy, so visitors are free to walk and climb anywhere that feels safe to them. Our kids loved climbing on some of the formations, but naturally we also had to be a little stricter with them in certain places where there were drop-offs.
Prairie Dog Towns – The prairie dogs here are so active! Our kids loved watching them scurry around.
Paleontology Lab – Only open during the peak season, this working lab gives guests the chance to watch paleontologists at work. The Fossil Exhibit Trail is also a great spot to stop.
Ben Reifel Visitor Center Displays – Walk through the mini museum of artifacts and chat with the rangers too. They had several fossils behind the desk that they let the kids touch.
Wall Drug – There’s so much to look at and enjoy here, from the covered wagon and stagecoach in the Backyard area to the T-Rex animatronic in the building behind.
How to Plan Your 3 Day Badlands Vacation
Two or three days is a great amount of time for a Badlands road trip travel itinerary. But many people have limited time and lots of guests end up visiting this park for just a few hours. Either way, we’ve got you covered. Here are our recommendations for a 1, 2, or 3 day Badlands road trip travel itinerary.
1 Day Badlands South Dakota Itinerary
With only 1 day to adventure in Badlands South Dakota, you’re really just doing a drive-thru of the park. If you’re driving east to west, enter the park at the Northeast Entrance Station. On your drive towards the Pinnacles Entrance Station, stop at as many overlooks as you can and hike the Door and Window Trails. Both are extremely short and will only take a few minutes. You can also hike the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail if you have time. Be sure to stop at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to see the exhibits and paleontology lab and then walk the Fossil Exhibit Trail. If you have kids who want to be Junior Rangers, mention to the park rangers that you’re just driving through, and they’ll probably give you the badges along with the books.
Hopefully you’ll get some good views of bison and prairie dogs on your way through the park. If not, you can detour just a bit to Roberts Prairie Dog Town before heading into the town of Wall.
Stop by Wall Drug, get a few kitschy photos, and have a donut, before continuing on your South Dakota road trip or stopping at your hotel for the night.
2 Day Badlands South Dakota Itinerary
Day 1 – Focus your attention on Badlands Loop Road, taking your time to do as much hiking as you’d like. Remember that open hiking is allowed. A couple of great open exploration areas are the end of Door Trail and along Notch and Castle trails. Spend as much time as you’d like at the visitor center and stop at Cedar Pass Lodge to enjoy a meal.
Day 2 – Choose an overlook to watch the sunrise or sunset. Then spend the rest of the day driving the western side of the park. Drive Sage Creek Rim Road to Sheep Mountain Table, stopping at Roberts Prairie Dog Town on the way. After driving or hiking Sheep Mountain Table, continue your loop of the park through Conata Basin Road and back to Badlands Loop Road. You’ll drive through parts of the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands on this day, so consider spending part of the day in Wall at the visitor center and Wall Drug if time allows.
3 Day Badlands South Dakota Itinerary
With a third day for your Badlands family vacation itinerary, you’d have the time to do another hike in Badlands National Park if there’s something you missed. You could also use this day to visit the Minute Man Missile Site or the Prairie Homestead.
If you have any bad weather days during your visit, spend those exploring the Minute Man Missile Site museum and Wall Drug and save your time for adventure in Badlands for when the weather is a bit nicer.
7 Day Badlands to Yellowstone Travel Itinerary
If you want to plan a truly amazing road trip adventure, consider connecting your stay in the Badlands with a trip to Yellowstone. Visit the Badlands, Black Hills, and Yellowstone National Park all at once for an amazing once in a lifetime family vacation! Here’s what I would recommend for a 7 day Badlands to Yellowstone travel itinerary.
Start out your Badlands to Yellowstone road trip following my 1 day in Badlands plan. After spending a few hours in the park, drive 90 minutes to the Black Hills of South Dakota.
On Day 2 and 3, follow my 2 Day Black Hills travel itinerary, visiting Custer State Park and Mount Rushmore. Drive as far across Wyoming as you can on Day 3, to give you as much time on Day 4 to get started exploring Yellowstone.
On Day 4, finish the 8.5 hour drive to Yellowstone. And from here, follow my 4 day Yellowstone travel itinerary. Four days is enough to hit the highlights of the entire park, from Old Faithful to Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone to Mammoth Hot Springs.
If this 7 day Badlands to Yellowstone Road Trip Itinerary doesn’t sound long enough for you, extend the trip with a stop in Grand Teton National Park either before or after visiting Yellowstone. Find my 1 and 2 day Grand Teton travel itineraries here. Or you could spend longer in Yellowstone, following my 6 day Yellowstone travel itinerary.