Badlands National Park was never really on our bucket list. When you think of what national parks you really want to see the Badlands doesn’t usually come to mind. But a few years ago very unexpectedly we took a trip from New York to Wyoming because we brought an RV travel trailer and we decided instead of having it shipped we would make an adventure of picking it up.
Wow, it turned out to be a journey that we will always remember. As we started planning our route, we realized that a short detour would bring us past the Badlands National Park and decided it was a good opportunity for a visit.
Being from the east coast, South Dakota was never really a place we felt we needed to visit. Besides Mount Rushmore what was really in South Dakota? Well, we were surprised to the many places South Dakota has to offer and we already plan on going back in the future.
We didn’t plan a lot of time in South Dakota but we did explore Badlands National Park, in addition to Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park. We allowed a day for the Badlands and it was enough to see everything we wanted.
Badlands National Park Information
Badlands National Park consists of 244,000 acres and was originally established as a national monument in 1939 and later became a national park in 1978. The 27-mile main road going through the park is the Badlands Loop Road (Hwy 240). There is a $20, 7-day national park fee to enter. All national park passes are accepted here.
The park is divided into two main sections, the North Unit, which is the area where most people visit, and the Stronghold unit located in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The Badlands Wilderness Area, located within the North Unit, covers 64,250 acres and is the home to the bison. This herd of 50 bison was moved from Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the 1960s and in the1980s additional 20 were moved from the Colorado National Monument. Today’s herd averages 1200 bison in this area.
Discover the breathtaking landscape of rocks formations and native grasslands along your drive. There are many places to stop along the way to get a close up look of these formations with the stunning colors they offer. Below we detail some of the overlooks but we stopped at all of them to take in the view.
Big Badlands Overlook
We entered from the northeast entrance which is right off Route 90. The first thing you see is Big Badlands Overlook and wow what a view. Since we don’t get a chance to travel out west that offered, we were amazed at all the rock structures with all the different colors in them. We’re used to the east coast with mostly forest and green woods.
Ben Reifel Visitor Center
Our next stop was the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to get our map of the park and speak to a ranger on where we really should go explore. Its something we always do when visiting a national park for the first time. The rangers are super helpful telling you about all the highlights within the park. They also offer ranger-led programs through the summer months. You can learn so much from them. Its open year round and has many exhibits of the park.
Be prepared for rapidly changing weather. Summer temperatures get extremely hot in the 100’s with winter bringing below freezing temperature. We visited over Labor Day weekend and temperatures reached 103 degrees and the park was hazy because of wildfires in distance states.
Big Foot Pass Overlook
Wounded Knee is where Lakota Chief Big Foot journeyed with his tribe. The area is mostly flat rock formations. There is a parking area leading to two short level walkways to separate vistas of the colorful canyons below. There are several picnic tables and restrooms at this overlook.
Panorama Point is one of the many overlooks along the park’s scenic drive, Each of the overlooks has a little different perspective of the Badlands and this one offers a 180-degree panoramic view that is full of color. Its a combination of the rock formations and the grasslands. When we were there all the grasslands were brown in color due to the lack of rain. We were told during spring there is some green in the Badlands.
Burns Basin Overlook
This is a spot where you want to stop if you are skipping some overlooks. The view is great and there are trails that lead from the overlook so that you can get a better perspective of this area.
Yellow Mounds Overlook
These mounds have colors of soft yellow, red and purples in contrast to most of the Badlands browns and gray.
Probably the best stop along the route through the Badlands. It’s great to see pinnacles as far as the eye can see.
There are many other overlooks which you should definitely stop at including:
- White River Valley Overlook
- Prairie Wind overlook
- Homestead Overlook
- Conata Basin Overlook
- Ancient Hunters Overlook
- Hay Butte Overlook
Badlands Wilderness Overlook
After you reach the Pinnacle Entrance to the park, Badlands Loop Road turns into an unpaved dirt road called Sage Creek Rim Road. This is where you enter the Badlands Wilderness area and where you will see bison, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep and pronghorn. Be sure to look for these animals that call this park home.
Please note: The area gets very dry and hot and the dirt road can become unpassable due to the dust that comes off the road when driving. We only stayed on this road for a short time because of this.
Roberts Prairie Dog Town
On Sage Creek Road west of the Pinnacle Entrance of the park is an area where you can see prairie dogs. There are hundred on mounds where they live and you can see them running all around the mounds. As you can see from the above picture, they really fade into the environment so you will have to look closely. We’ve never seen these cute, adorable animals before so it was a treat for us to experience them. There is a gift store there where you can buy peanuts to feed the prairie dogs. Kids will love doing this and you can even hear them bark.
Stronghold Unit & Pine Creek Sections of the Park
The lesser visited part of the park is the Stronghold Unit and Palmer Creek Unit. The White River Visitor Center is open only during the summer. Its a small center with restrooms and picnic tables and has Indian exhibits. Located in the Stronghold Unit, you can get there from Route 27. This section of the park has few roads and is within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The Palmer Creek section has no roads going through it. We didn’t visit this section of the park
Badlands National Park Hiking Trails
Castle Trail is the longest trail in the park at 10 miles and the first trail you came across when entering from the northeast. This trail begins at the Door and Window parking lots and leads to the Fossil Exhibit Trail. Its a flat easy trail through the Badlands rock formations.
Fossil Exhibit Trail
Fossil Trail is an easy .25 mile trail on a boardwalk with exhibits and fossils of creations that once were on this earth.
You hike to a break in the Badlands Wall to a view of the Badlands. This easy .75 mile trail is part boardwalk and part level dirt trail. It’s open after that and you can continue at your own risk.
You easy .25 mile hike goes to a “natural window” in the Badlands Wall and has a view of the canyon.
This trail is moderate to strenuous and goes through the canyon where you climb a ladder to “the notch” to a view of the White River Valley. This hike is not for you if you are afraid of heights.
This .25 mile difficult hike that climbs up the Badlands Wall for a view of White River Valley.
Medicine Root Loop
This moderate 4-mile round trip hike gives you the opportunity to explore the mixed-grass prairie with the rock formations of the Badlands in the distance. You can see cactus on this trail. You can get to this trail at the end of the Saddle Pass Trail or in the opposite direction from Old Northeast Road.
Cliff Shelf Nature
You walk the boardwalks along this .5 moderate trail then you climb stairs to reach the juniper forest by the Badlands Wall. You can sometimes view Big Horn Sheep here.
For more information on the Badlands visit the national park services website at https://www.nps.gov/badl/index.htm.
Lodging in the Area
Cedar Pass Lodge
Cedar Pass Lodge is the only lodging in the park. Opened from late April to late October. There is a full-service restaurant and a gift store within the lodge.
In 2013, the lodge got all new eco-friendly cabins made from all local materials and are energy efficient buildings. They all have bathrooms, mini refrigerators, microwave, coffee makers and TVs. Cabins do not allow pets.
Cedar Pass Campground
Cedar Pass Campground is in walking distance to the lodge. Opened the beginning of April to the end of October, they offer dry tent camping and RV campsites with electric only. All sites have a covered picnic table and restrooms and showers are available for your convenience. The Badlands don’t allow fires. Cooking with propane only.
Wall, South Dakota
Near the Pinnacle Entrance of the park is the town of Wall South Dakota. Wall Drugs is a tourist attraction with shopping, souvenirs, restaurants and crazy exhibits. It’s a famous landmark off Route 90 in Wall. There are several hotels and restaurants for your convenience. We stayed in Wall as where most people stay when visiting the Badlands.
Although not on our bucket list, Badlands National Park shouldn’t be missed when visiting South Dakota. We did enjoy our time there and were glad to experience these beautiful rock formations that make up this natural beauty.