Badlands National Park in South Dakota is a must-see for National Park, fossil, and geology enthusiasts. This area of the vast American grassland was once an ancient seabed, and over time, has eroded away into intricate rocky formations of multicolored buttes, canyons and delicate spires.
The park is home to diverse wildlife, including many quintessential mammals of the American west including Bison, Bighorn Sheep and Pronghorn. There are several large Prairie Dog towns within the park, performing their role in the larger grassland ecosystem.
Despite the vastness of the park, most of the major attractions can be seen within one day. Peak season for Badlands National Park is during May to September, when the kids are out of school and most folks are taking their vacations. We recommend going a bit before May or after September to avoid the crowds and heat. If you’re planning to go during the winter, keep in mind that the weather can get quite cold!
Sightseeing in Badlands National Park
Badlands is an extremely harsh natural environment, as you will no doubt hear during your visit to the park. Even the name “bad lands” comes from this assessment.
The beautiful eroded buttes, cliffs and canyons of the Badlands are amazing to wander through, but offer little shade and can be dangerous to explore during the day. The vast grassland that seems so gentle and peaceful, is made up of tough and spiky grasses. On top of all this, there is little water available in the park, especially in the record drought season.
If you’re heat sensitive, I recommend staying indoors or in the car after 11 AM, as the park is just too hot. That said, Badlands is a great place to experience via car, and there are so many fantastic overlooks and pullouts to stop at, that it could easily take up the better part of a day if you stopped at each one!
To experience all the scenic views within the park, simply drive along the Badlands Loop Road that cross sections the park. You can enter on the Western side via the Pinnacles Entrance or to the east via the Northeast Entrance, and from either entrance, the scenic drive is straight to the opposite end of the park.
To see wildlife, especially the park’s Bison herd, head to the Western section of the park, past the Pinnacles Entrance via Sage Creek Rim Road. This is also a great scenic drive but it is unpaved and quite rocky. 4-wheel drive isn’t necessary but we don’t recommend going in a low clearance vehicle.
Hiking Trails in Badlands National Park
Hiking trails in Badlands tend to be of the short but scenic variety. We highly recommend going in the early morning, both to avoid the heat and to get the best photos. Not only do you have less people around, but if you go at sunrise you’ll be able to take stunning photos simply because of golden hour. Also the sunrise over Badlands is fantastic 😀
This 10 mile trail, 5 miles in one direction, is the longest in the park and offers a mixture of views of the expansive prairie and the rocky buttes. If you’re itching for a good walk, we’d recommend the Castle Trail, but it’s neither particularly difficult nor particularly scenic, so don’t feel like you have to go the whole way to see it all.
This fun trail was our favorite trail in park. It’s a windy route through a canyon that includes a daring log ladder up a steep cliff and ends in some incredible lookouts.
This trail is short but extremely steep, requiring you to scramble up a sharply graded rocky butte. Once you reach the top, however, you’re rewarded with a great lookout of the park, framed by staggered peaks and formations.
What You Need:
- Sunglasses and/or a hat. It’s bright out there!
- A water bottle. Drink water! Can’t stress this enough. The Badlands are cool at night but get very hot very quickly during the day. Stay hydrated to avoid heat exhaustion.
- Comfortable shoes with a reliable tread. Some of the trails involve walking up the rocky buttes, so you’ll want shoes that don’t slip. If you plan on walking in the prairie or on the Castle Trail, wear close toed shoes- there are many sharp and thorny grasses and plants that you don’t want getting attached to your bare feet :/
Camping in the Park
The Badlands natural environment is a harsh one, and backcountry camping is not for the feint of heart. We highly recommend staying in one of the maintained campgrounds at the park, but just know that RVing and camping are popular activities in the park and space fills up quickly.
Cedar Pass Campground
In the neighborhood of the of all the main attractions, and right next door to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, is a campground maintained by the Cedar Pass Lodge. The campgrounds have potable water and flush toilets but are $18 per site per night.
Sage Creek Campground
Far from the main attractions of Badlands National Park, on the western edge, is Sage Creek Campground. It’s a 12 mile drive on a rocky, unmaintained dirt road, and there is no water, but it’s free.
If there’s no available space at any of the park campgrounds you have the option of camping on the grasslands within the park- as long as you’re more than half a mile away from the road or established trail. Before you dive right in, take a look at a map of Badlands National Park and you’ll see that there are not a lot of spots where you can camp with these restrictions.
Not pictured on the map is a dirt road that heads directly north out of the park, paralleling highway 240 to the west. To find a spot to camp for the night, we recommend heading out on this road, parking your car and walking at least half a mile to the west to find a suitable spot.
The buttes and formations in the park are extremely fragile, so do not camp on or near them. You’ll have to camp on the grass, and once you start hiking out to find a site, you’ll see how thick and spiky the grass is. We told you it wasn’t for the feint of heart! Just be sure to have a tarp or some Tyvek to tent on so the grass doesn’t damage your tent.
Have suggestions for how to experience and plan your Badlands National Park itinerary? Have any questions about the trails and activities we’ve listed? Please share with us in the comments section below!