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.
RELATED: 8 COOL AND UNUSUAL THINGS TO SEE IN RAPID CITY
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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I never knew there were so many sights and animals to see, and hikes to do in the Badlands. I sure missed my opportunity many years ago when my husband and I whizzed on by, thinking we’d seen most of what the Badlands had to offer from the window of our car. What a mistake! Thank goodness for today’s world of travel websites such as yourselves, as I’m sure we would have planned to carve out some time to explore the area. Your enthusiasm is contagious!
Even if you only are driving through, I would highly recommend it. It was the 1st national park we visited on our summer road trip and I’m glad we had it on the itinerary. Thanks for the encouraging words Chris!
same here, we just drove thru many yrs ago. but we had 6 kids with us so it was kind of hard to do to much hiking. told u about parts of our trip a while ago on here.
Yes I remember. It would be a bit hard to organize a hike with 6 kids! Don’t think you’d want that many climbing up a ladder to steep edges either! One or two would be okay, but six I don’t think so. We did all the short and semi-short hikes within the park. It is extraordinary scenery 😊
This is very much like our badlands in the Drumheller, AB region. The landscape is so surreal and I would love to try the Notch hike if we are on a roadtrip thru the area. And I wish ours had more wildlife, our sheep and goats tend to stick to the rockies 🙂
OMG! This looks like the one in Alberta! Have you been to Drumheller? I’d love to visit South Dakota’s badlands, too!
That looks like a great place to go. I’d love to see all the wildlife. Would be incredible. The hiking looks pretty awesome too. Thanks for sharing.
Kevins Travel Diary
looks like a really cool place to visit and explore. You have some incredible photos there.
Definitely on my bucket list! Great pictures!
These photos are amazing! I’ve heard of this place but I never knew anything about it. I would love to visit.
Wow! The landscapes are so stunning! The Yellow Mounds reminds me of Red and Rose Valley in Cappadocia.
Ben and Jess
Looks amazing! The photos are awesome!
The Badlands look beautiful! And I’d love to hike amongst the wildlife – the i’ve only ever heard of prairie dogs in cowboy stories!
I haven’t been to Badlands yet but I’m kind of obsessed with National Parks and would really love to see more of them. I’m pinning this because now it’s on my list and I’d love to try all of your suggestions – especially the hike!
The Badlands are one of my favorite areas. Great list. On a family vacation years ago, we went on a led astronomy hike. We saw Saturn and Jupiter. It was such an amazing experience. I don’t know if they still do it. I hope they do.
Wow……loved the landscape. Should take my camera to get those wonderful shots.
I am bookmarking places like this that I come across, preparing for an epic road trip through the US. I’ve spent a lot of time in the US in major cities, and have driven around a lot of places too.But, I haven’t done a lot of national parks etc and from what I’ve seen, they are so worthy of a visit. Am I the only person in the world that thought Prairie dogs were actually dogs? Wow, what a cute little animal.
Haha the name is a bit confusing! Our national parks are truly the crown jewel of America. You definitely have to add a few to your itinerary. We went on an 80 day road trip this summer and visited 13, they did not disappoint.
Badlands seems to be a very suitable name for this area, beautiful
Jan H Ohio traveler and dreamer
15 years ago I traveled through the Badlands. It was dark as we reached the exit ramp to the motel inside the park and so we saw nothing. That night in our cabin we heard drums and chanting off in the distance. When I left the cabin in the morning you can’t imagine my surprise! It was like waking up on the moon. What an awesome day…
That would be quite the view to wake up to!
We loved it and you can camp for free on the backside I believe Sage Creek it has toilets no showers but wide open spaces! The starts were amazing! Also the buffalo come down through the campground at night. You can hear them making noises I thought it was someone snoring until the next morning I heard it again and it was a big bull sauntering through awesome views and summer months a ranger comes and gives presentations for free can’t beat that!
Are you serious?!?! That is awesome! What an experience ☺
Michael A Hicks Sr
The badlands go into MT also another park to see is a state park in Glendive Mt, my home town so a bit sided but still nice. The park is Makoshika, there is a information center at the entrance with a bunch of dinasoure bones found in the park. You can even see some still in the ground. The view from the top is well worth the drive and the same with the hiking trails. There is a ton more I could say but will let the park speak the rest.
Pete Brahan | Just Go Travel Studios
Awesome photos! We especially loved the Notch Trail as well-but we recommend hiking early in the morning as the wait at the ladder can be long!
Also, don’t forget to visit Custer State Park while you are in the area, only about 90 minutes away!
We were there about 20yrs ago, with our kids. We took our 7 and 11 yr old grandkids this week. It is amazing. We got there late, did the scenic loop road and saw the sun setting. We also saw some sheep. Kids climbed at the Fossil Trail stop. No steep drop offs there.
Glad you had a great time Cathy! I’ll have to remember about the Fossil Trail if we ever take our nephews out that way.