An hour east of Rapid City, the plains give way to the strange and wonderful geology of Badlands National Park. Multi-colored rock formations rise from the ground, hiding one of the world’s largest fossil deposits. The park is home to bountiful wildlife including bison, bighorn sheep, coyotes and prairie dogs. Here are our top ten favorite things to do in the park.
Watch the Sunrise
Watching the first rays of light illuminate the multi-colored rock formations is an unforgettable Badlands experience. Head to Big Badlands Overlook, a short and easy drive from Interstate 90, 30 minutes before dawn to catch the moment the sun crests the horizon.
Another great spot to catch sunrise is the Panorama Overlook, which faces southeast and provides sweeping views.
Go on a Scenic Drive
One of the best ways to take in Badlands’ scenery is by driving the paved, 38-mile Badlands Loop Road, also known as Hwy. 240. It’s the main road through the park. With scenic overlooks, trailheads and picnic areas along the way, you can make it as long or as short of an adventure as you like.
From the Interstate 90, access the road via Exit 110 at Wall, or via Exit 131. Head south from either exit. From Hwy. 44 and the town of Interior, take Hwy. 377 north for 2.5 miles.
There are tons of incredible overlooks for you to stop at along the way and no matter which one you choose, you’ll be immersed in stunning views. A few noteworthy stops are White River Valley Overlook for gorgeous views of the Castle Formation rising above the badlands in the foreground, Panorama Point where the the prairie grasses sneak in between the formations, Yellow Mounds Pullout (west of the Yellow Mounds Overlook and east of the Ancient Hunters overlook on the south side of the road) for views of the peculiar yellow bands of rock and finally, Pinnacles Overlook. Perhaps the most striking of them all, this is a great place for watching the sunset and looking for bighorn sheep.
See Fossils Being Unearthed at the Fossil Preparation Lab
This park, which was once an ancient sea and home to saber-toothed cats and rhinos, is now one of the world’s richest deposits of fossils. From 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. mid-June through late September, stop by the working paleontology lab at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to watch scientists at work on the wide range of fossils that have been found in the park.
Stay for the 10:30 a.m. or 1:30 p.m. daily Fossil Talk in front of the visitor center.
Go Wildlife Watching
Badlands’ rock formations and prairies are home to a wide array of wildlife from lumbering bison to coiled rattlesnakes. You’re likely to see animals as you drive or hike through the park, but for your best chance of spotting wildlife, there’s certain spots you won’t want to miss.
Approximately 1,200 bison live in the Badlands Wilderness Area, which can be seen from Sage Creek Rim Road. Be sure to stay at least 100 feet away from these creatures as they can be dangerous.
To look for bighorn sheep, head to Pinnacles Overlook where the rocky slopes provide these herbivores with ideal habitat. This is a regular spot for raising lambs as well, so look for baby sheep in late April and early May. Cedar Pass is another good spotting location, especially Castle Trail and the Big Badlands Overlook.
Prairie dogs are the easiest animal to consistently spot in the park. Their vast network of tunnels, called “towns” are where the rodents live. View them from the Burns Basin Overlook, the Sage Creek Campground or the Roberts Prairie Dog Town. While they may look cute and harmless, they are carriers of the plague so keep your distance. Be respectful and don’t throw anything down their holes.
Go on a Hike
If you’re a frequent park visitor, Badlands hiking rules are going to take some getting used to. While most national parks require you to stay on trail, Badlands allows guests to hike wherever they wish. This means you can scramble up the rock formations, wander through the prairies and go wherever you’d like. Use caution while hiking and remember that cell service is spotty throughout the park and rattlesnakes are prevalent. Download GAIA GPS (www.gaiagps.com) before you get to the park so you have access to topographical maps without cell service. It’s also a good idea to use an emergency alert device like a Garmin when hiking off-trail.
If you’d rather stick to a predetermined route, the park does have several maintained hiking trails. For an easy hike, take the Door Trail along an accessible boardwalk to a window in the Badlands Wall where you can see out to other formations. It’s 0.75-miles roundtrip. Those looking for a short-but-moderate hike should try the Notch Trail which leads through a canyon to a ladder where you can climb to a dramatic view of the White River Valley.
Hikers who want a full-day excursion can tackle the 10-mile, moderate Castle Trail which is fairly level and has beautiful prairie and badland views.
See the Badlands with Your Dog
Dogs aren’t allowed on trails in the park, but they are allowed on the scenic dirt roads that ramble through the prairie. Old Northeast Road, just north of Cedar Pass, is a great place to get out and enjoy the scenery with your furry friend on leash. You can walk for more than two miles before reaching the park boundary. Be mindful that the road is open to vehicle traffic, so keep an eye out for cars.
Fall, winter and spring are the best times to visit the park with your dog, before temperatures get too hot and rattlesnakes come out.
See the Park by Bike
Traveling at the more leisurely pace of a bike allows you to really soak in the beautiful scenery. While mountain biking isn’t allowed on park trails, Badlands has several dirt roads that allow you to get dirt under your tires, or you can road bike the main paved routes.
Sage Creek Loop is a 23-mile ride in the northern unit of the park that includes seven miles of unpaved riding. The 27-mile Northeast-Big Foot Loop includes one big climb up Cedar Pass before mellowing out into a beautiful ride that takes you along Badlands Loop Road. Be aware, the park is known for its goathead burrs in late summer so be sure to bring spare inner tubes in case you get a flat.
Learn About the Oglala Lakota
Most of the national park visitors see is located in the North Unit, but the South Unit of Badlands National Park is located entirely within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home of the Oglala Lakota. During WWII, the U.S. War Department took more than 300,000 acres from the tribe to establish a bombing range, forcing many residents from their homes. In 1968, the lands were swapped with the Department of the Interior and turned into Badlands’ southern unit, under a forced agreement with the tribe.
Today, you can visit the White River Visitor Center to learn more about the South Unit.
Sleep Under the Stars
Two maintained campgrounds in Badlands give you the opportunity to sleep under the stars and be conveniently located for exploring. Cedar Pass Campground has 96 campsites, accommodating both tents and RVs. There are electrical hookups for RVers, pay-showers, bathrooms with flush toilets and the nearby Cedar Pass Restaurant. The campground is managed by the Cedar Pass Lodge and can be reserved at www.cedarpasslodge.com/campground/.
Sage Creek Campground, located along the dirt and gravel Sage Creek Rim Road, is free and first-come, first served. The 22 sites each have covered picnic tables and pit-toilets are available. There is no potable water at the campground and campfires aren’t allowed. While the road is passable under normal conditions, it can be rough or outright closed after a rain or snow storm. This area isn’t suitable for RVs or other pull-behind trailers, but horse trailers are permitted.
See the Stars
Once the sun sets, thousands of stars begin to appear in Badlands’ dark night skies. Head to the Cedar Pass Amphitheater at the Cedar Pass Campground every night throughout the summer. Park rangers and astronomy volunteers will be on-site with telescopes to help you get a better look at the constellations and to interpret what you’re seeing. The sky viewings start after the evening ranger program. Check the schedule for topics and start times at one of the park visitor centers.
The Perseid Meteor Shower, which peaks in early August each year, is a great time to visit the park and stargaze.
Want to make it a road trip? Continue on to Yellowstone.