Badlands National Park is an underrated gem in the US national park system. Easy to visit and fun to explore, this park is well worth a day or two of your time.
The colorful badlands are filled with zebra-striped buttes and spires that create one of the most photogenic landscapes in the USA. Sunrise and sunset are the best time to see the park aglow in the warm light, but it’s a beautiful sight all day long.
Bison and bighorn sheep roam the largest mixed-grass prairie in the United States. The hiking trails are short and sweet and if you are looking to get away from the crowds, venture into the backcountry.
In this guide, we hope to introduce you to the wonders of the Badlands and help you plan your perfect visit.
BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK FACTS
Founded: November 10, 1978
Annual Visitors: 1.2 million in 2021
Size: 240,000 acres
Location: South Dakota
Top Experiences in Badlands National Park
Drive Badlands Loop Road. Badlands Loop Road is a 30-mile, paved road that runs through the most scenic part of the park. Located along this road are overlooks, boardwalk trails, and the jumping off points for backcountry hikes into the interior of the Badlands.
Watch the sunrise and/or the sunset. Visiting the overlooks at either sunrise or sunset is one of the best things to do in the Badlands. The warm glow of the sun illuminates the rock formations, turning the park into a kaleidescope of colors.
Hike the Notch Trail. This very short hike is the best in the park. Walk through a scenic canyon, climb up a wooden ladder, and then it’s a brief walk along a cliff trail to get to an amazing viewpoint of the Badlands.
Hike the Castle Trail. This 5-mile point-to-point trail connects the Fossil Exhibit Trail with the Window and Door Trails. Along the way, you are treated to views across the prairieland, rocky pinnacles, and you might even get to see bighorn sheep or pronghorn.
Hike the Door and Window Trails. These two very short trails sit side-by-side and offer more great views of the badlands.
Fossil Exhibit Trail. This short boardwalk trail takes you past 75 million years of history and the animals that once inhabited this land.
Drive Sage Creek Rim Road. If you want to visit a less-traveled part of the park, get up close with wildlife, see more of the prairie land, or head into the backcountry, it’s worth doing this short drive. This area of the park feels more rugged, wild, and remote than the paved Badlands Loop Road.
Roberts Prairie Dog Town. Located on Sage Creek Rim Road is Roberts Prairie Dog Town. If you have never seen prairie dogs this is a great place to observe them.
Go hiking in the backcountry. The Badlands are one of the few national parks where visitors are permitted to hike off trail, exploring the wilderness on their own. The Deer Haven Wilderness and the Sage Creek Wilderness are two areas to go hiking in the backcountry and have a great chance of spotting wildlife.
Visit Sheep Mountain Overlook. This overlook is an off the beaten path experience in Badlands National Park. Drive Sheep Mountain Road, a gravel road, to a remote area of the park for more great views of the badlands.
Badlands National Park gets its name from the Lakota people, Native Americans who inhabited this land. The Lakota people called this land “mako sica” which translates to “bad lands.”
Why is this land called “badlands?” Summers are hot and dry. Winters are cold and windy. There is very little drinking water and the land is hard to travel through. It makes a great place to visit (especially from an air-conditioned car) but this is not the kind of place that many would like to call home.
The term “badlands” also indicates a type of terrain where clay-rich soils have been eroded by wind and water. In the United States, you can also see “badlands” in Death Valley, Petrified Forest, and Theodore Roosevelt National Parks.
Learn More about Badlands National Park
How to Get to Badlands National Park
Rapid City Regional Airport, located in Rapid City, South Dakota, is the closest airport to Badlands National Park. From here, it takes one hour to drive to the national park.
You can either visit Badlands National Park as a day trip from Rapid City or the Black Hills of South Dakota, or spend one to two nights in Wall, the closest town to the national park.
Best Time to Visit Badlands National Park
The best time to visit Badlands National Park during the spring and fall months.
Spring is a nice time to visit the park, with cool temperatures and low crowds. As the warmer weather moves in, rain chances increase. June is the wettest month in the park. If you don’t mind the chance of rain, May is a beautiful time to visit the park.
In summer, temperatures can soar well past 100°F. Violent thunderstorms with hail can spring up with little warning and tornadoes are a possibility.
The fall months are a spectacular time to visit the Badlands. Temperatures are cool, rainfall is low, and crowds begin to lessen once kids return to school.
Winters are cold and windy. Snowfall is very likely and the Badlands typically get 12 to 24 inches of snow per year.
How Many Days Do You Need in Badlands National Park?
On the quickest of visits, you can visit Badlands National Park in half of a day, driving Badlands Loop Road and spending some time at the overlooks.
With one day in Badlands National Park, you have enough time for most of the highlights of the park. Watch sunrise from Big Badlands Overlook. Hike the Notch, Door and Window Trails. Then, drive Badlands Loop Road, stopping at the visitor center and overlooks along the way. Walk the Fossil Exhibit Trail and continue west through the park. In the afternoon, drive Sage Creek Rim Road until you get to Sage Creek Wilderness overlook. Return to the Pinnacles Overlook for sunset.
With two days, you have time to go hiking in the backcountry, hike the Castle Trail, or explore the South Unit of the park.
Where to Stay
Cedar Pass Lodge is the only lodge inside of the park. There are two campgrounds inside of Badlands National Park: Sage Creek Campground and Cedar Pass Campground.
Outside of the park, Wall is the best place to stay. From here, it is just a 15-minute drive into Badlands National Park. This very small town has a handful of hotels and motels and decent restaurants.
USA Road Trip Ideas
On a one week road trip through South Dakota, visit Badlands National Park, Wind Cave National Park, Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer State Park, and the Black Hills of South Dakota.
You can also visit Badlands National Park as part of a big road trip with Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. On this 10 day Wyoming South Dakota road trip, start in Grand Teton, then spend a few days in Yellowstone, visit Devils Tower on the drive to South Dakota, and then spend a few days in and around the Black Hills, with a day in Badlands National Park.