I truly believe that the Badlands are one of the most underrated national parks in the United States. This park is beautiful and has scenery and terrain like nowhere else! Flowing grasslands merge with colorful, staggering rock formations, buttes, and pinnacles. Buffalo, prairie dogs, and longhorn sheep roam the land and add to the experience.
About Badlands National Park
The Badlands were designated as a national monument in 1939 and eventually a national park in 1978. There is a lot of paleontology research here since the climate has preserved many ancient fossils. There is a great deal of history here and it is important land to the Sioux Indian tribe. The most visited (and most accessible) part of the park is the North Unit of Badlands National Park. There are two other units, Stronghold and Palmer Creek that are managed in part by the Oglala Lakota. More history about Badlands National Park can be read here.
How to get there
To see Badlands National Park, driving is the best and only way. There is not a shuttle throughout this park, so you will need a car to get around.
If flying to South Dakota, the nearest main airport is in Rapid City. There are several options for car rentals at the airport which can be found here.
There are several different entrances to the North Unit of the park. If coming from Kadoka or the eastern side of South Dakota, the closest entrance is the Northeast Entrance. If coming from Wall, Rapid City, or the western US, the Pinnacles Entrance is likely the most convenient for you. If you are coming from the south, you can enter from the Interior Entrance.
Where to Stay
If you’re interested in staying in the park, there are a few options. There is the Cedar Pass Campground located near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and the Sage Creek Campground which is in a more remote part of the park. There is also Cedar Pass Lodge, which has small cabins and is located near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. If staying out of the park, the closest towns that have hotels are Wall and Kadoka. Rapid City is a little farther away, but has many lodging options and is convenient if visiting any of the other South Dakota Parks. There are also a variety of rental homes in the area too.
We stayed at an adorable bed and breakfast called Triangle Ranch Bed and Breakfast that was so close to the Northeast Entrance of the park. It is located on a large farm in the middle of the grasslands. It was so peaceful on their farm. The two owners were the sweetest people that were so hospitable and kind during our stay. A huge, fancy breakfast was provided was delicious. If you have the time, staying at Triangle Ranch Bed and Breakfast would be a wonderful experience to add to your trip
Be sure to book you lodging early, since many lodging options are booked up in advance, especially during the summer.
What to See and Do
I recommend entering from the Northeast Entrance and driving west towards the Pinnacles Entrance. However, if you do the opposite and enter at Pinnacles Entrance, make sure to do this list backwards 🙂
Big Badlands Overlook
This is the first big overlook in the park. While entering the park, you are driving through flat grasslands, so you don’t expect what you are about to see. Immediately, the land drops down and opens up into the rock formations of the badlands with all the varying colors of reds, browns, oranges, and yellows. It is breath-taking the first time you see it. You can park your car here and walk around to see different views and perspectives of the pinnacles.
The Notch Trail parking lot is shortly after the Big Badlands Overlook. Here you will find several different trailheads and bathrooms. We did the Notch Trail which is considered moderate. There is a wide ladder to climb up at one point and some slippery rocks throughout, but it isn’t very long of a trail at only 1.3 miles round-trip. It is a unique experience as you get to walk through the midst of the pinnacles and feels like you’re on a different planet. If you are unable to do this trail or looking for something a little less strenuous, the Door Trail and the Window Trail both leave from the same parking lot and are rated as easy and are on boardwalks.
Ben Reifel Visitor Center
The visitor center here has a small gift shop, restrooms, and information on the park. There is also a picnic area here with a pretty view of rock formations.
Fossil Exhibit Trail Area
Fossil Exhibit Trail is a short 0.4 mile trail that is on a boardwalk. Here you can spot various fossils. However, my favorite part about this area was the male bighorn sheep! Across the road, at the west end of the Castle Trail, there are plateaus that the sheep like to graze and rest on. While we were there, watching from a distance, they decided to run down the plateau and right through the group of people watching! They then went across to the Fossil Exhibit Trail. It was such a neat experience. It seems that this is an area that they are frequently in, so be sure to look for them if you stop here (or even as you drive by).
Panorama Point is another lookout point with different views of another area with pinnacles. Here we saw some female bighorn sheep up close and even some babies in the distance.
Yellow Mounds Overlook
If you have time, Yellow Mounds Overlook showcases some rock mounds that have a yellower color than the rest of the Badlands. The colors here are bright and vibrant.
Pinnacles Overlook is another beautiful lookout point that shows unique views of the rock formations. It is near the Pinnacles Entrance.
Sage Creek Rim Road
I recommend keeping left and NOT exiting at the Pinnacles Entrance, but instead continue on the Sage Creek Rim Road for several miles. This road is gravel but is very wide and flat. We had no issues in our small 2WD car.
Badlands Wilderness Overlook
One of the first pull-offs on Sage Creek Rim Road is Badlands Wilderness Overlook, which has many of the same features as the other overlooks, but also more grasslands in the distance.
Roberts Prairie Dog Town
This is definitely a must stop. Prairie dogs are everywhere here. Prairie dogs have mounds at the surface to connect all of their underground tunnels to the above-ground world. Here they run around and play with each other. They make little chirping sounds to communicate. It is really cute to watch them play and run around here.
Look for Buffalo
There are around 1200 buffalo in the park. One of the herds lives around the Sage Creek Rim Road area. Both times I have been to the Badlands, we have seen many buffalo up close in this area. If you want to see buffalo, keep your eyes out for them on Sage Creek Rim Road. If they are farther out in the field, they may look like black “blobs” out in the field. Up close, they are huge, massive, magnificent creatures. They came close to our car. Be sure to stay in your car and do not approach them. They can be very dangerous if you get near but are beautiful to watch from a distance.
From here, you can either backtrack on Sage Creek Rim Road to the Pinnacles Entrance, or take the first road on the right onto 502 (which is about 7 miles after turning onto the gravel road), which will connect back to the main road close to Wall, SD.
Outside the Park
Giant Prairie Dog Statue and Store
Right outside the Northeast Entrance of the park, there is a store with a giant statue of a prairie dog and a field of overly friendly prairie dogs beside it. Here you can purchase food for the prairie dogs and feed them up close. The prairie dog population here is thriving and you can get very close to them here. The store also has lots of nice souvenirs and clean bathrooms.
Wall, South Dakota
Closest to the Pinnacles Entrance is Wall, South Dakota. If you have been driving on the main interstate I-90 to get to the area, you have likely seen many (if not hundreds) of billboards advertising Wall Drug Store with 5 cent coffee and free ice water. We had to stop here to see what they had to offer and to see if it was really 5 cents for a cup of coffee.
Wall Drug Store is definitely a tourist trap, but it is worth your time. There is so much going on here. There are many stores with souvenirs, books, and outdoor gear. There are many free things to do, such as sitting on a giant jackalope, running through a mini water fountain, walking through the halls filled with old wild west gear and funny taxidermied animals, and drinking the free ice water.
The 5-cent coffee is as advertised, only being 5 cents. You can find it in any of the Western Art Gallery Dining rooms. There is a box to put a nickel (or more) in and stacks of ceramic coffee mugs, drip coffee, sugar packets, and creamer. We put in a quarter and got 5 cups of coffee 🙂 For being free coffee, it wasn’t too bad. In the same area, you can find their restaurant where you can get many food options including buffalo burgers. Here there is also the best homemade donuts we have ever tried. You can watch them make the donuts as you wait to order. When we were there, there were glaze options of vanilla, chocolate, and maple.
We sat in the Western Art Gallery Dining rooms, which has the largest private collection of Western and illustration art in the country. We ate the delicious homemade donuts and enjoyed our 5-cent coffee.
Wall Drug also has a giant 80ft tall dinosaur which can be found on the left side as you’re heading out of town back to the interstate.
I hope you enjoyed this guide and are able to visit Badlands National Park! Did we miss any places in the park? Let us know any questions or comments down below in the comments!
Thanks for reading!