The rock formations of Badlands National Park are starkly beautiful and divide the upper mixed grassland prairie from the lower. The Native Americans of the region first called the area Badlands because it was a difficult area to travel through. The name stuck with both the French and later American settlers.
Written by park rangers
Best time of year to visit
The summers can be hot and a bit humid, with temperatures reaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Winters can be very cold, with temperatures well below freezing and lots of snow. There are often thundershowers during the summer season.
The best time of year to visit Badlands National Park is on either side of summer: mid-April through May and September and early October.
How many days for Badlands National Park
Plan on spending anywhere from half a day to several days in the park depending on if you want to see more than one unit and if you want to hike. If you just want to take the portion of the loop drive within the North Section of the park, plan on three hours to do the whole things with stops.
There are 22 miles of paved road from the Visitor Center to the Pinnacles Overlook, and an additional 25 miles of very good gravel road including the section outside the park which takes you to Highway 44. Do not attempt to drive the gravel section of the road when it is wet, even with a 4-wheel drive vehicle. The road consists of Bentonite, which is like peanut butter when it is wet.
Badlands National Park visitor centers
The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is the main visitor center for the park and is located near most of the trails in the southeast corner of the North Unit of the park. It has a gift shop, a 20-minute introductory movie, excellent displays, and in the summertime a paleontology lab where you can see park paleontologists working on Badlands fossils.
Both the Stronghold, and Palmer Creek units of Badlands National Park are co-administered by both the National Park Service as well as the Oglala Lakota Nation. For any information about these two units, and what is available to visit, it is best to check at the White River Visitor Center first, when it is open. The White River Visitor Center has displays about to Native American Culture and often has Native American artists and fine arts sales in front. The White River Visitor Center is less than one hour from Wounded Knee.
Places to stay near Badlands National Park
The only lodging in the park is at the Cedar Pass Lodge and the associated Badlands Inn. Both are open early May through late September. It is best to have reservations. There also is lodging in the towns of Rapid City, Wall, and very limited lodging in the town of Interior.
Cedar Pass Campground is Open April 1 through October 31. In the summer it is important have reservations. Some sites will full RV hookups and showers available.
Sage Creek Campground is a rather primitive campground in the western portion of the North Unit. There is no water, and only vault toilets. There are approximately 27 sites which fill up quickly. Due to overcrowding there may be new limits on this campground starting in 2020. Please check locally for any changes.
The Badlands/KOA campground approximately 4 miles south east of the town of Interior. Some hookups are available.
Minuteman RV Park & Lodging is one mile south of I-90, exit 131 near the North entrance to the park. Hookups and showers are available.
You do not need a backcountry permit to camp in the backcountry within the park. Regulations state that you must be a half-mile from any road or trail, and not visible from any road or trail. If you are leaving a car, leave nothing in it, and a note on the dash explaining when you will be back. It’s best to park in an overlook and be sure you don’t block the road. Pack in all water, as even if you find water it is not drinkable, even filtered. Pack out all garbage and waste and leave no trace.
Things to do at Badlands National Park
The Ben Reifel Visitor Center has excellent displays, a gift shop, a 23-minute introductory movie, and during the summer months a paleontology lab where you can watch park paleontologists working on badlands fossils. They are always willing to answer questions and discuss their work. There are also formations close to the visitor center where car-weary people can climb. Just remember the rules of gravity are in effect in Badlands National Park; it is easy to fall.
From Memorial Day through Labor Day there is an evening program followed by a star program every evening in the amphitheater just north of the Cedar Pass Campground. The program topics vary, but there is always star viewing following the program, and often moon viewing before, if the weather permits. There are usually at least two different telescopes in use, sometimes more. With luck you may be able to see the International Space Station passing overhead.
The Fossil Exhibit Trail, about five miles north of the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, is a short quarter-mile paved walk with exhibits introducing the paleontology of the park. In the summertime, there are also fossil talks twice a day.
Almost all the overlooks along the loop drive are worth stopping at to view the Badlands and learn more of the natural and human history of the area. The Pinnacles Overlook, just below the Pinnacles Entrance Station has a superb view, and often is where the bighorn sheep hang out.
American Bison can now be seen in almost any area of the North Unit except for the area around the visitor center, however bison viewing is up to the bison, so you may or may not see them. Keep at least 100 feet from any wild animal. If the animal if reacting to you, you are too close.
The Stronghold Unit has a short gravel drive. For more information on what is available in the Stronghold or Palmer Creek Units, check at either visitor center.
Badlands National Park is in southwest South Dakota, where there are many other National Park Service areas, including Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Mt. Rushmore National Memorial, and Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. Custer State Park, run by the state of South Dakota is just south of Mt. Rushmore, and is not to be missed.
Badland National Park Hikes
Unlike many national parks, you can hike anywhere you want in Badlands National Park—you do not need to be on a trail. The few trails in Badlands National Park are in the southeast portion of the North Unit, in the Cedar Pass area near the visitor center.
The Notch Trail is the most popular because has a stair ladder on it. It is 1.5 miles round trip.
For a longer loop trail there is the Medicine Loop Trail, which is four miles, and only has one small hill.
The Cliff Shelf Nature Trail is a half-mile trail that is a loop and goes through a small copse of trees. It also has good views into the south portions of the park. Most of it is a boardwalk.
The Fossil Exhibit Trail is a quarter-mile short paved loop that has exhibits along the way that introduces the fossils and paleontology of the park.
Places to eat
You won’t have many options, even in the summer. It is best to bring what you want with you, but here are some places you may want to check out.
Cedar Pass Lodge, which is located next to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center has a restaurant that is open roughly from the first of May until the middle of September. Check locally for hours.
Cowboy Corner, which is the only gas station in the town of Interior, generally has a one-item lunch most days, however you eat what they are serving, and they often run out.
There are two bars in the nearby town of Interior. The Wagon Wheel is family friendly and serves food.
There are a variety of restaurants in the town of Wall, near the Pinnacles Entrance to the North Unit.
There are small convenience stores in Interior, Scenic and near Cactus Flats 8 miles north of the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, and one mile south of exit 131 from Interstate 90. However, they may be seasonal, so it is best to check locally. There is also a convenience store about 10 miles south of the White River visitor center, and a small supermarket in the town of Wall.
Full-service grocery lodging and dining are in Rapid City.
Driving in Badlands National Park
Can you drive your car through Badlands National Park?
North Unit – The entire loop drive from Highway 44 to the Visitor Center is approximately 50 miles. Do not attempt the gravel section of the road if it is wet.
Stronghold Unit – There is a poorly maintained gravel road that climbs to Sheep Mountain Table in the Stronghold Unit. Check locally for condition of the road.
How long does it take to drive the badlands loop?
The “Badlands Loop Road” is perhaps misnamed, as it is not a loop road within the park. It can be considered a loop road in many ways if you include portions of Interstate 90, or Highway 44. To take just the portion of the road within the park, plan on spending at least three hours.
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