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 through 13 states and 13 national parks. 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. After reading through the tips for the Badlands, check out our full Black Hills Itinerary and Guide next to help plan your trip!
Hotels and Cabins near Badlands National Park
- $$$ Family-Friendly: Rustic cabin with multiple bed arrangements.
- $$ Budget: No frills hotel near northeast entrance.
- $$ Budget: No frills hotel near Pinnacles Entrance.
- $$ Budget: No frills near the Pinnacles entrance.
Camping Options near Badlands National Park
- $ Cedar Pass Campground: Inside the park near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, open April 1 – October 31st, electrical sites, flush toilets, cold running water, and covered picnic tables.
- $ Badlands/White River KOA Campground: Full hookups, pull-through sites, premium tent sites, and shaded tent sites.
- FREE Sage Creek Campground: West side of the north unit, closed during inclimate weather, unpaved road to primitive campground with pit toilets and covered picnic tables. NO running water. Any recreational vehicle over 18-feet long is prohibited.
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. After the Badlands, we sprinted off to one of the most beautiful state parks in the United States.
Visit Badlands National Park Video
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 Badlands
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
- Roughly 1 ½ to 2 hours long round-trip, considered moderate to strenuous.
- Wear sturdy shoes -no flip-flops.
- Bring water, a hat and snacks.
- Not recommended for anyone with fear of heights.
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.
>>> Don’t forget to check out the video below!
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.*
Have you been to Badlands National Park? What was your favorite thing to do? Tell us in the comments below!
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