Julie United States 2 Comments

One day in Badlands National Park is just enough time to visit the overlooks, hike the short but sweet trails, and see how many bison you can count. If you get your timing right, you can also watch the sunrise and/or the sunset, when this park is its most beautiful.

Quick Facts about Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park is a relatively small park and it is super easy to visit.

One road, Badlands Loop Road (Highway 240), cuts through the heart of the park. This road is 30 miles long and it takes about an hour to drive the length of it, without stops.

However, it will take you much longer than an hour to drive through the park. With one day in Badlands National Park, you will spend most of your time driving Badlands Loop Road, visiting the overlooks and walking the short trails.

One Day in Badlands: Best Things to Do

With one day in Badlands National Park, here are the best things to see and do:

  • Visit the overlooks along Badlands Loop Road
  • Watch the sunrise and/or sunset
  • Hike the Notch Trail
  • Fossil Exhibit Trail
  • Window Trail
  • Door Trail
  • Sage Creek Rim Road

For a full list of things to do in Badlands National Park, don’t miss our post 15 Great Things to Do in Badlands National Park. 

One Day in Badlands National Park Itinerary

With one day in Badlands National Park, I recommend getting an early start. Sunrise is spectacular in the Badlands and it is well worth rolling out of bed early to watch as the sun comes up over the hills, bathing them in a soft, golden light.

The early start also gives you plenty of time to get to everything we list on this itinerary, without feeling rushed. Plus, if you plan to do a little bit of hiking, and will be here during the hot summer months, it is a good idea to do this first thing.

Ideally, spend the night in Wall, which is the closest town to Badlands National Park. At the end of the day, you can stay in Wall for a second night or continue on your road trip through South Dakota. For many people, that means continuing on to Rapid City or the Black Hills.

If you do this itinerary starting and ending near Rapid City, just be aware that you will have roughly an hour drive to get to Wall, the starting point of this itinerary.

On this itinerary, you will drive 70 miles. This is the full loop, starting and ending in Wall, including the short drive on Sage Creek Rim Road.

How to Use This Map: Click the tab in the top left hand corner of the map to view the layers (places to go and the driving route). You can click the check marks to hide or show layers. If you click the icons on the map, you can get more information about each point of interest.
 
If you click the star next to the title of the map, this map will be added to your Google Maps account. To view it on your phone or computer, open Google Maps, click the menu button, go to “Your Places,” click Maps, and you will see this map on your list.

Sunrise/Early Morning: Big Badlands Overlook

Big Badlands Overlook is the first overlook you will get to when you enter the park on the east entrance.

To get here from Wall, it is a 25 mile drive that takes 30 minutes. You will pass through the park entrance station, which may not yet be open, especially if you are getting here at sunrise. You can simply drive through the entrance station (Badlands National Park is open 24 hours a day) and pay your park fee later at the visitor center.

Big Badlands Overlook is our favorite sunrise spot in Badlands National Park. But even if you don’t get here right at sunrise, it is still stunning. This is a great introduction to Badlands National Park, with hundreds of zebra-striped hills stretching off in the distance.

You can walk out to the viewing platform or follow one of the trails into the hills for close-up views.

Big Badlands Trail

Badlands Sunrise

Things to do Badlands National Park

Big Badlands Overlook

When in Badlands National Park, please practice the seven principles of Leave No Trace: plan ahead, stay on the trail, pack out what you bring to the hiking trail, properly dispose of waste, leave areas as you found them, minimize campfire impacts, be considerate of other hikers, and do not approach or feed wildlife.

The Notch Trail

From Big Badlands Overlook, it takes a whopping 4 minutes to drive to the next stop. The Notch Trail, Door Trail, Window Trail, and Castle Trail all start from one very large parking lot.

I recommend parking in the center of the lot, so you don’t have long walks to the start of each of the trails. Or, if you really want to minimize how much walking you do, park in the southern end of the lot next to the Notch and Window Trailheads. Later, drive to northern end of the lot to walk the Door Trail. First thing in the morning, the lot should be fairly empty.

I recommend hiking the Notch Trail first to avoid the mid-morning crowds.

Best Badlands Hike

Notch Trail

The Notch Trail is the most thrilling hike in Badlands National Park. It features a walk through a scenic canyon, a climb up a wooden ladder, and a brief walk along a cliff trail. The Notch Trail ends with a beautiful view of the Badlands.

It is only 1.5 miles round-trip and takes an hour or less.

PRO TRAVEL TIP: Do this before the Window and Door Trails. There is a good chance you could have it all to yourself if you are here very early in the morning.

Window Trail

The Window Trail sits right next to the Notch trailhead. It is a 0.25 mile boardwalk trail that takes you to a viewpoint of the Badlands.

Window Trail Badlands

Window Trail view

Door Trail

The trailhead for the Door Trail is located at the opposite end of the parking lot. If you are feeling lazy or want to save some time, consider getting back into your car and driving to opposite end of the parking lot. I know this sounds silly, but this parking lot is really long. 

The Door Trail is 0.75 miles long. It starts off as a boardwalk trail and then enters the hills of the Badlands. The national park service lists this part of the trail as strenuous, which I think is a stretch, unless you are doing this midday in July. The trail descends down into a field of fossil beds and the entire way you have views of the pinnacles and spires of the Badlands.

Door Trail Badlands

Door Trail

Door Trail

Cliff Shelf Nature Trail

Continue on Badlands Loop Road. The next stop is the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail. If you want a nice view of the park and don’t mind a stair climb, this is worth the stop. This walk is 0.5 miles long, round trip. You will walk up a series of boardwalk trails and stairs and this takes most people 15 minutes.

Ben Reifel Visitor Center

At the visitor center, get updates on park conditions, learn more about the park, and visit the gift shop, if you like.

The Cedar Pass Lodge, which is located next to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, is the only place in the park to get food.

PRO TRAVEL TIP: For lunch, you can either pack a picnic lunch, grab a bite to eat at Cedar Lodge, or exit the park and have lunch at Wall Drug. If you choose to go back to Wall, you will be adding on about an hour of driving plus the time it takes to eat (about 2 hours total). If you are visiting Badlands National Park during the hot summer months, this midday lunch break might not be a bad idea.

Optional: Saddle Pass + Castle Trail + Medicine Root Loop

On this 5 mile loop, you get to hike up the hills of the Badlands and into the backcountry. The views are beautiful and you have the chance to see bighorn sheep along the way.

Park at the Saddle Pass trailhead. The trail heads up into the colorful, chalky hills of the Badlands. It is a short, strenuous climb to the top but the remainder of the hike is flat and easy. From the top of Saddle Pass, the views over the Badlands are awesome.

Saddle Pass Hike

The Saddle Pass Trail climbs up through these hills

 

Saddle Pass View

View from the top of Saddle Pass

Continue on the Saddle Pass Trail until you reach a trail junction. Take the Castle Trail to the Medicine Root Trail and then return to your car by hiking back down Saddle Pass.

Castle Trail

This is a great hike to do if you want to venture into the backcountry of the Badlands. Get the full details on how to do this hike here.

PRO TRAVEL TIP: If this sounds like something you would like to do but will be visiting the Badlands during the hotter months, either do this hike in the morning (right after the Notch Trail) or at the end of the day.

Fossil Exhibit Trail

From the Saddle Pass trailhead, it takes 7 minutes to drive to the next stop, the Fossil Exhibit Trail. The Fossil Exhibit Trail is just .25 miles long. A boardwalk trail takes you past 75 million years of history and the fossils of the animals that once inhabited this land.

Fossil Exhibit

Fossil Exhibit Trail

Overlooks along Badlands Loop Road

For the rest of the drive along Badlands Loop Road, from the Fossil Exhibit Trail to the start of Sage Creek Rim Road, you will pass numerous overlooks. There is no need to visit all of them since they get repetitive (we stopped at every single one of them so we know).

As you drive along Badlands Loop Road, here are our favorite viewpoints.

White River Valley Overlook

This overlook is one of Tim’s favorites. You can walk short trails further out into the Badlands for an even better view. Just beware! Don’t get near the edge…the ground can be slippery and the cliffs are fragile and can give way under your feet.

White River Valley Overlook

White River Valley Overlook

Panorama Point

Walk on a short boardwalk trail to this stunning viewpoint. It’s beautiful during the day and gorgeous at sunset.

Panorama Point

Panorama Point

Conata Basin Overlook

This overlook gives you your first view of the Yellow Mounds and more multi-colored layers of the Badlands.

Conata Basin

Conata Basin Overlook

Yellow Mounds

From the parking or from the short hiking trail you have close-up views of the Yellow Mounds. The yellow color comes from fossil soils, called paleosols, that have weathered and changed color when exposed to the sun.

Yellow Mounds Overlook Photo

Yellow Mounds Overlook

Yellow Hills of the Badlands

This is not an official overlook but we really liked it. As you approach the Pinnacles Overlook (the next overlook in this itinerary), you will drive through vibrantly colored yellow hills. There is a turnout here where you can safely park your car and get out to enjoy the view. GPS coordinates: 43°50’58.2″N 102°12’48.4″W 

Yellow Mounds Badlands

Pinnacles Overlook

This is one of the most popular viewpoints in Badlands National Park. It is a fantastic sunrise and sunset spot. It is worth the visit now but consider returning here at the end of the day to watch the sunset.

Pinnacles Overlook

Pinnacles Overlook midday

 

Pinnacles Sunset

Pinnacles Overlook at sunset

Sage Creek Rim Road

This is the final stop on our one day in the Badlands itinerary.

Sage Creek Rim Road heads into the western section of Badlands National Park. This road is a well-maintained gravel road that is suitable for standard cars. 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.

Sage Creek Rim Road

Sage Creek Rim Road starts on the Badlands Loop Road near the Pinnacles Overlook. It is 25 miles long, ending near Scenic, South Dakota. As you head farther west from the Pinnacles overlook, the pinnacles and spires gradually fade away, to be replaced with rounded hills and small forests of pine trees.

This area of the park feels more rugged, wild, and remote than the paved Badlands Loop Road. What it lacks in scenery it makes up for with wildlife sightings. On this road, and really not all that far from the Pinnacles overlook, we saw lots of bison, some pronghorn and bighorn sheep, and a coyote.

Badlands Bison

You don’t have to drive very far down this road to see wildlife, or the best views from the overlooks. I recommend visiting Hay Butte Overlook and the Badlands Wilderness Overlook. At Roberts Prairie Dog Town, walk out into the field and say hello to the barking prairie dogs.

Sage Creek Road View

Hay Butte Overlook

The drive out and back from the start of Sage Creek Rim Road to Roberts Prairie Dog Town is 9 miles round trip and will take about an hour, with stops.

Late Afternoon/Evening: Things to Do

Depending on your timing and how much energy you have left, here are several suggestions on how to end the day.

Sunset at the Badlands

If it is close to sunset, make your way to one of the overlooks. The Pinnacles Overlook is the most convenient, since it is located near Sage Creek Rim Road and just a short drive to Wall. Another option is Panorama Point, our favorite sunset spot in the Badlands.

Badlands Sunset

Sunset at Panorama Point

Dinner in Wall

It takes just 15 minutes to drive to Wall from the Pinnacles Overlook and the start of Sage Creek Rim Road. You could go into town for dinner and then drive back to the Pinnacles Overlook to watch the sunset. This works best when the days are long (May, June, July and August).

Rapid City/Black Hills

If you will be staying in Rapid City or the Black Hills tonight, you can start your drive now. Take Highway 240 to Wall and then drive Interstate 90 to Rapid City. From the east end of Sage Creek Rim Road, this drive takes one hour if you go to Rapid City and an hour and thirty minutes if you will be staying in the Black Hills.

Things to Know Before You Go

The only restaurant is Cedar Lodge, located next to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. I recommend packing a picnic lunch, but you can get lunch at the Cedar Lodge or have lunch at Wall Drug (this will take about 2 hours).

Toilets are located at the busiest trails (Door/Window/Notch Trail and Fossil Exhibit Trail), the visitor center, and Pinnacles Overlook.

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.

We visited the Badlands in early October and had a great experience. We were here during a heatwave and it did get up to 89°F one day, but the mornings and evenings were cool and clear. Typically, the high temperature in October is 65°F.

Winters are cold and windy. Snowfall is very likely and the Badlands typically get 12 to 24 inches of snow per year.

Badlands Sunrise Photography Tour

Big Badlands Overlook (can you spot the people on the sunrise photography tour?)

Where to Stay

With one day in Badlands National Park, I recommend spending at least one night near the park (preferably the first night). This makes it much easier to see the park at sunrise, if this sounds like something you would like to do. 

If you want to stay in the park, you have a few options. The only lodge in the park is the Cedar Pass Lodge. There are also two campgrounds in the park. The Cedar Pass Campground has some sites for RV’s but the Sage Creek Campground does not. Backcountry camping is permitted in Badlands National Park. Learn more on the official website.

The closest town is Wall. To get into the park it is just a 15 minute drive. Wall is a very small town, with a handful of hotels and motels and a few decent restaurants.

In Wall, we stayed at the Best Western Plains Motel, which is one of the highest rated properties in town. Rooms are nothing fancy but they are clean and quiet and the WiFi was decent. America’s Best Value Inn and the Days Inn get mediocre reviews.

In Wall, you can have lunch at Wall Drug (they close at 6 pm so don’t expect to get dinner here). We ate at Badlands Saloon and Grille twice for dinner and enjoyed it. 3 Amigo’s Cantina was recommended to us by our hotel staff.

Practical Information

Entrance Fee: $30 per vehicle, valid for 7 days.

Hours: The park is open 24 hours, 7 days a week, 365 days per year.

Cellular Service: We had a decent cellular signal on Badlands Loop Road. It was enough to send texts and use Google for directions. But I wouldn’t expect to text your friends big video files or surf the internet while you are here. Public WiFi is available at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.

Current Conditions: Get updated conditions in Badlands National Park before your visit on the official national park website.


If you have any questions about how to spend one day in Badlands National Park, let us know in the comment section below.

 

Where Are You Going Next?

If your visit to Badlands is part of a bigger road trip through South Dakota, here is more information for your trip.

If this is part of a bigger road trip through the USA, visit our United States Travel Guide for more inspiration and travel planning tips.

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Comments 2

  1. You missed the most outstanding place to stay when touring the Badlands
    That would be the Circle View Bed and Breakfast..The B & B overlooks the White River and has spectacular views of the working cattle ranch there. Their breakfast features local products and are fantastic. This is the most outstanding lodging in the Badlands area.

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