Unique and surreal are the two words that pop into my mind when thinking about Badlands National Park. The South Dakota desolate terrain and unusual formations are an enigma of sorts. I had never seen anything like it.
Exploring and hiking through the rugged area was a highlight of our summer road trip. While you could easily spend weeks wandering around the moonscape, here are our picks for the best things to see and do in the area.
1. Badlands Loop Road with Overlooks
The 31-mile scenic road slices right through the middle of the park. Include a drive on Interstate 90 outside of the park to make it a full 50-mile loop. The extra 20 miles adds all the other must-see attractions in the area.
With over a dozen overlooks throughout the park, there’s no shortage of vantage points. We recommend you stop at EVERY one if you have the time. Each vista provides a different view of the crazy labyrinth that is the Badlands.
2. Hike Notch Trail
If you are only going to get out for one hike in Badlands National Park, choose Notch Trail. The 1.5-mile path is not for the faint of heart or the clumsy though. The walk begins with a brief stroll through a canyon that leads to a ladder set up against a steep wall. After the climb, you continue the hike hugging the inside of a rocky cliff. The path widens and is less stressful as you get closer to the viewpoint. Upon reaching the Notch, dramatic panoramic views of the White River Valley are yours for the taking.
Tips and Details for Notch Trail
3. Search for Prairie Dogs
The Badlands are breathtaking. It will be difficult to take your eyes off of the wild landscape, but don’t forget to look down at the ground. You’ll find the lovable Prairie Dog colonies. They are running around squawking at all times of the day. Missing these kooky animals would be a shame. Watching them run around was one of my favorite memories in the Badlands. They are rather entertaining.
4. Soak up the Energy at the Yellow Mounds
Once upon a time, South Dakota was covered by an ancient sea. When it diminished and was exposed to air, the mud weathered to yellow soil. It left us with the Yellow Mounds.
It is said that the color yellow promotes happiness and enthusiasm for life. The glowing mounds in Badlands National Park will make you jump on that jolly train. Smack in the middle of the park, the warmth of this area is a sharp contrast to the rigid landscape before and after.
5. Stick around for a Sunset
When we first started our drive through the Badlands, I commented that the rock was different than I imagined. At first glance, it appeared crumbly, dull and faded. It wasn’t until the sun began to set that the intensity and layers of the rock announced themselves. It was worth the wait.
The likelihood of spotting one of the many animals in the park increases at dusk as well. We encountered bighorn sheep, mule deer and pronghorn in the last hour of the day.
6. Get off the Beaten Path on Sage Creek Rim Road
We were a bit nervous at first about taking the rough gravel road near the Pinnacles entrance, but it proved to be fine. There were many warnings and we had our pop up camper hooked up behind our truck. We had no issues and actually saw a few cars drive by as well.
The scenic drive (Rte 590) near the northern border of the park runs about 13 miles and has a few overlooks. It’s a great road to see wildlife; we saw bison and bighorn sheep.
*Tip: Make sure to ask a ranger about road conditions before taking the drive.
Cheap Lodging near Badlands National Park
We didn’t want to set up the pop up for only one night so we stayed at the Rodeway Inn on Interstate 90 in Kadoka. It’s roughly 25 miles to the Northeast Entrance of the park. The rooms are not luxury, but are clean with a small fridge and microwave.
Plan Your Trip
We have been budget traveling for over ten years and love finding deals. Here are a few websites that we use consistently to save money and time booking accommodations, flights and car rental.
- Hotels.com has a best rate guarantee program that allows you to price match up until 24 hours prior to arrival and its rewards program gives one free night for every 10 nights collected.
- Airfarewatchdog.com is a comparison website that searches through tons of flights. It compares airline pricing up to three times a day, having up to date information and also includes airlines such as Southwest and Allegiant that other websites do not include.
- Priceline is usually the cheapest for car rentals and has a best rate guarantee program as well.
Have you been to Badlands National Park? What was your favorite thing to do? Tell us in the comments below!
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