Bighorn Sheep at dawn on the Sage Creek rim road. #findyourpark #badlands

The AFT Guide to Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park is a study in contrasts—half stark landscape of layered geologic formations, half grassland covered in bison and prairie dogs.

The Lakota people called this area “bad land” for its extreme terrain and climate. Fur trappers came along and agreed that it was pretty lousy; settlers with their wagons cursed the landscape as impassable—and the name has stuck til today.

The Badlands that give the park its name are created by water erosion. The stripes are different rock layers deposited by ancient seas, rivers, volcanoes and wind.

Read about our first visit to Badlands here.

family in badlands national park

Where Badlands National Park is located: 

Badlands National Park is located 75 miles east of Rapid City, South Dakota. The Northeast Entrance of the park is just 3 miles off I-90.

Getting to Badlands National Park: 

This is a park that all but requires a car to get to and around.

Badlands Loop Road is the main route around the park; it’s paved. Sage Creek Rim road is a gravel road that leads to overlooks of the wilderness area. Sheep Mountain Table Road is a dirt road and can get very rough, especially after a storm. Four-wheel drive is recommended.

Where to stay in Badlands National Park:

Badlands has two campgrounds, both open year-round.

Cedar Pass Campground requires paid reservations; it has 96 sites, some with RV hookups. No campfires allowed.

You can also rent a cabin at Cedar Pass. The cabins are new (built in 2012/13) and cost about $200/night.

Sage Creek Campground is free and first-come, first-served. There are 22 sites; no vehicles longer than 18 feet are allowed. Sage Creek has pit toilets, but no water, and campfires are prohibited.

Backcountry camping is allowed anywhere in the park, as long as you set up more than half a mile from a road or trail, and aren’t visible from a road or trail. No permit required.

The nearby town of Wall also has lots of accommodations, from chain hotels to AirBnb’s.

How long to stay at Badlands National Park: 

We recommend 2 to 3 days, or more if you want to explore the backcountry.

Because Badlands is so close to I-90, many visitors passing by will drive the loop and then be on their way. This is certainly an option, and will allow you to see the iconic Badlands formations.

But if you stay longer, you can hike, drive the more remote Sage Creek Rim Road, learn more about the history and geology of the area, and enjoy the wide night skies while camping.

When to go to Badlands National Park: 

This area is known for its extreme weather. Summer can get very hot; winter can be bring bitter storms. But if you’re prepared for weather, you can visit any time of year. Spring and fall will bring the most comfortable temperatures.

We visited in early spring and enjoyed the small crowds and cool weather, as well as easily getting a campsite at Sage Creek Campground.

Best for:

  • Wildlife
  • Hiking
  • History
  • Scenery
  • Wildlife
  • Stargazing

Pair with:

Badlands National Park is only 2 hours from the Black Hills region of western South Dakota, where Mt. Rushmore, Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park are located. The Black Hills are stunning, and we highly recommend pairing your Badlands visit with this area.

Activities:

Sunrise/Sunset:

Badlands is at its most vibrant when the formations are wet, bringing out their varied colors, or when the light is not too harsh, during sunrise and sunset.

Time your visit so you can see the badlands in soft, warm light, especially if you’re interested in photographing them!

Bighorn Sheep at dawn on the Sage Creek rim road. #findyourpark #badlands

Scenic Drive:

Badlands comprises a South Unit and a North Unit. The North Unit is by far the more popular, as it’s more accessible.

The 39-mile Badlands Loop Road takes you from the Northeast Entrance to Pinnacles Entrance, past most of the park’s maintained trails and designated overlooks.

The Sage Creek Rim Road, also in the North Unit, takes in the vast grasslands of the park and offers the best chance to see wildlife, such as bison and prairie dogs.

Get away from the crowds by visiting the South Unit. You can drive the often-rough Sheep Mountain Table Road to get onto park land, or follow BIA Hwy 2 and BIA Hwy 41 to circle the unit’s perimeter and see it’s huge badland formations.

Fossils:

Badlands’ soft rock erodes at a rate of about one inch per year. Because of this rapid erosion, new fossils are being turned up all the time and the parks is home to many important findings.

You can learn more about them at the Ben Refeil Visitor Center, where there is a working paleontology lab. You can watch scientists at work in the Fossil Preparation Center, and be sure to check the calendar for an interpretive program.

A few miles from the visitor center, check out the quarter-mile Fossil Exhibit Trail, which has lots of interpretive signs and molds of the major fossil finds of Badlands.

Wildlife:

Badlands is home to bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorn and loads of prairie dogs (who move into an area after the bison have trampled it, helping loosen the soil back up!)

Bighorn sheep are frequently spotted around Pinnacles Overlook. Sage Creek Rim Road is a great place to see bison roaming and prairie dogs bobbing and squealing.

Birdwatching is best in one of the park’s “slumps.” These are spots where erosion has created a spot flat enough for junipers and cottonwoods to grow, creating homes for some of the dozens of bird species that call Badlands home.

See more about wildlife viewing in Badlands here.

Night Sky:

In its remote location, Badlands is a great place to take in the night sky. The park often hosts astronomy programs, with a large telescope and rangers to help you know what you’re looking at.

Check the park’s calendar for programs.

Hiking:

Badlands has an open hike policy, which means you can go anywhere you want, even when there’s no trail.

The park’s maintained trails are, for the most part, very short. If you’re looking for a longer trail, you can try the 10-mile out-and-back Castle Trail. Otherwise, ask a ranger about good areas for hiking within the backcountry.

Here are a few trail options, all of them appropriate for kids:

Fossil Exhibit Trail

This half-mile boardwalk loop features interpretive signs about and casts of fossils that have been found in the area.

Door Trail

An easy 0.75 mile roundtrip trail leads you to a wide view over the badlands.

Notch Trail

This 1.5 mile roundtrip trail will take you to an overlook of the White River lowlands and the Pine Ridge Reservation. About halfway through, there’s a long log ladder to climb, which might be tricky for small or heights-averse kids.

Bringing Kids:

Bison and prairie dogs are always a winning combination for our kids; Badlands has them in abundance. Kids will also love being able to explore off-trail, climb badland formations and watch the paleontologists at work in the Fossil Preparation Center. There are lots of easy trails, including boardwalk options. And tell your kids to keep their eyes peeled—in 2010, a 7-year-old found an important fossil of a saber-toothed cat right by the visitor center!

FAQ’s:

The following are questions we received from our readers about Badlands National Park:

Where can we camp?

There are two developed campgrounds: Cedar Pass and Sage Creek. Cedar Pass is more developed and requires reservations. Sage Creek is first-come, first-served and free.

But you can actually camp just about anywhere in the park, so long as you are half a mile or more from a road or maintained trail, and not visible from either.

There are also campgrounds and RV parks in nearby Wall or Interior.

Does the surrounding area have food or hotels?

Yes! There are lots of restaurant and lodging options within half an hour of the park’s entrance, especially in Wall.

Wall Drug is a famous landmark of the area; stop by for some of the widely advertised “free ice water,” some fresh donuts or an ice cream cone.

How much is there to do outside of the park?

The Black Hills is only two hours away and has so many wonderful sites, including the Crazy Horse Memorial, Mt. Rushmore, Wind Cave National Park and Custer State Park.

Is it very kid-friendly?

Extremely kid-friendly! See the “Bringing Kids” section above.

Are you allowed to climb on the formations by the parking areas? I saw so many people doing it, but wondered if it was really the right thing to do?

Yes, you can! Badlands has an open hike policy; you can walk pretty much wherever you want.

Do be careful, though. The badland formations can get very slick and crumbly.

Are all roads open all year?

For the most part, yes. There are occasional closures for weather.

What are your favorite kid hikes?

Our kids really enjoyed the Notch Trail and the Fossil Exhibit Trail.

Where did you stay?

We camped at the Sage Creek Campground, and it was lovely. There were bison all around us and it’s free!

Tips from our Readers:

“Stop at the Cedar Pass Lodge Restaurant and try an Indian taco or a buffalo burger. So good!”

“Camping at Cedar Pass Campground is great. Beautiful sites that offer great views!”

“The Notch Trail is a must! Such a fun trail with awesome views.”

“Visit at sunset when Badlands truly comes to life.”

“Go early in the day to beat the heat.”

“Be prepared for wind!”

“The best animal viewing is at dusk on Sage Creek Road.”

“Take plenty of water; especially in the summer months, there is zero shade.”

“It was awesome covered in snow!”

“Put your toddler on a leash.”

“The Door Trail! Follow all the yellow numbered poles til it basically reaches a cliff.”

“Dress in layers and hit a sunrise/set.”

Final tips:

There is little food or water available in the park, so be sure to stock up before you drive in. Be prepared for weather. And hang around a prairie dog town to hear the little cuties squeak!

Graham is being a tiger and Margi is not wearing any pants, because that is the state of things. Badlands was so good: crazy cool alien landscapes, bison and prarie dogs galore, and killer sunrises and sunsets. Two thumbs up.

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