Badlands National Park, South Dakota is one of the most distinct parks in the US. Located in the middle of the Northern Great Plains, the Badlands’ 244,000 acres of landscapes include interesting rock formations and grasslands, wildlife, fossils and storied human history.
Frank Lloyd Wright described Badlands as an “inescapable sense of mysterious elsewhere,” and after seeing the pictures, I think you’ll see why!
Badlands National Park
Badlands gets its name from some of the first visitors to the lands. The Lakota called it “Mako Sica,” which translates to “bad lands.” It started formation about 75 million years ago when it was a shallow sea, which is why the park is considered to be one of the world’s richest fossil beds.
Badlands is home to the largest mixed-grass prairie in the park system and an incredible array of wildlife, including coyotes, butterflies, vultures, snakes, bison, ferrets and prairie dogs.
It was initially established as a National Monument in 1939 and in 1978 was redesignated as a National Park. The park sees about one million visitors annually, from all over the world. Badlands is very easily connected to other parks – there are 12 units of the national park system in half a day’s drive of Badlands.
The park is not to be confused with the TV show Into the Badlands (set in a post-apocalyptic world).
Basic info. about visiting Badlands National Park
The fee is $25/vehicle for a 7-day park pass, or entrance is included with an annual pass. All fee information is available here.
There are a few important things to keep in mind, regardless of where in the park you plan to visit:
- Keep distance from wildlife (100 yards).
- Dogs are not allowed on trails or in wilderness areas.
- Drones are prohibited in all National Parks.
- Cell service is limited and rare in the park; be prepared to complete your visit without service and be sure to communicate your plans with someone who can follow up.
- Formations can be fragile; be careful near edges, especially when wet. Falls are the most common injury in the park.
- Collecting fossils, plants, flowers, rocks or animals is illegal – leave things where they are.
- Keep vehicles on roads and do not park on the grass. The underside of vehicles can start prairie fires.
- The park is extremely susceptible to wildfires and prairie fires – campfires are never permitted, including in backcountry and campgrounds.
What is a prairie?
A prairie is a large, open area of grassland. Badlands National Park (and the adjacent Buffalo Gap National Grassland Wall District) is home to the largest mixed-grass prairie in the park system. The prairie has about 60 different species of grass. Prairie used to cover about a third of the land in North America, but is now restricted to certain areas.
The animals you can be on the lookout for in the prairie are black-tailed prairie dogs, mule deer, pronghorn (antelope), bison, coyotes and bighorn sheep.
Fossils and geology of the Dakota Badlands
The Badlands are known for the colorful hills and cliffs, with red, white and tan stripes. They are primarily sedimentary rock and the layers show the development over the years, each stripe with different sediment deposits. It is eroding at a rate of about an inch per year (from the Cheyenne, White and Bad Rivers). This erosion is the source of the pinnacles, spires and jagged edging.
The area is considered one of the most bountiful fossil beds in the world. It was a former sea bed and has fossils from marine life (such as snails and turtles) and from many now-extinct animals (including prehistoric camels and rhinos), dating back as far as the Oligocene Era about 30 million years ago.
Since 1899, scientists and workers from the South Dakota School of Mines have come to the park annually to search for fossils. Do not pick up or touch any fossils; you can take pictures and should report a location to rangers.
You can learn more about the paleontological history of the park here.
Where is Badlands National Park?
Badlands National Park is near the middle of South Dakota, in the middle of the Great Plains. It is easily accessed from nearby cities and attractions (with 12 national park system elements in less than a half day’s driving distance). Jump ahead for more to do near the park.
- Rapid City to Badlands National Park: 88 miles
- Sioux Falls to Badlands National Park: 280 miles
- Black Hills/Mount Rushmore to Badlands National Park: 75/99 miles
- Yellowstone to Badlands National Park: 574 miles
Badlands National Park weather
The weather in Badlands National Park can be very extreme. Thunderstorms see lightning, hail, high winds and tornadoes. During lightning storms, return to your car when possible and avoid lone trees and high spots. The summer is very hot and dry, so it is important to have plenty of water (note, water is only available in limited facilities).
Winter weather is especially unpredictable, with sudden and dramatic changes being very common.
Best time to visit Badlands National Park?
Summer gets heat, lightning and wildlife. Wildflowers bloom. In winter, it’s cold and has harsh winds, but is a sight to be seen covered in snow. The shoulder season between summer and fall still has warm weather, but smaller crowds.
“Fancy yourself on the hottest day in summer in the hottest spot of such a place without water — without an animal and scarce an insect astir — without a single flower to speak pleasant things to you and you will have some idea of the utter loneliness of the Bad Lands.” Thaddeus A. Culbertson
Things to do in Badlands National Park
- Drive the Highway 240 Loop Road (Badlands Loop Road): There are scenic overlooks dotted all along the two-way, approximately 40-mile loop road. You can spend half a day driving and stopping, with each viewpoint presenting a different look at the landscape.
- Hikes (no dogs): There are 8 different hikes in the park (though some are short, boardwalk trails. See more detail on the hikes below.
- Check out one of the ranger programs offered, like the Night Sky Program.
- Learn about Native American heritage.
- Visit Wounded Knee.
- Spend some time at Ben Reifel Visitor Center (and watch the award-winning park video).
Badlands National Park visitor centers and facilities
There are two visitor centers in Badlands National Park, Ben Reifel in the North Unit and White River in the South Unit.
Ben Reifel Visitor Center
The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is open year-round in the North Unit. It is located at the park headquarters near the eastern end of Badlands Loop Road.
It offers interactive exhibits and shows the park film Land of Stone and Light, and has restrooms and picnic tables. In partnership with Badlands Natural History Association, they offer souvenirs and educational materials.
White River Visitor Center
White River Visitor Center is in the South Unit and is only open seasonally. It has exhibits, restrooms and picnic tables. It is located on the Pine Ridge Reservation, at Highway 27 and BIA 2. Contact 605-455-2878 for more information.
Other picnic areas
In addition to the visitor centers, there are two picnic areas with tables and water available: Bigfoot Pass and Conata Picnic Area.
Badlands National Park accessibility information
- Both visitor centers are wheelchair accessible.
- Fossil Exhibit Trail, Window Trail and Door Trail are wheelchair accessible.
- Cedar Pass Campground has two accessible campsites and one group accessible campsite. All campground restrooms are accessible.
- The Cedar Pass Lodge meets accessibility standards in the dining room and gift shop.
- The Ben Reifel Visitor Center has listening devices to aid in hearing the park film.
- Ranger programs are marked to indicate their accessibility; you can reference the materials you get when entering the park or check with the visitor center.
- Full park accessibility information is available here.
Hikes in Badlands National Park
There are plenty of trails and backcountry options in the park. Watch for rattlesnakes and holes (there are a lot of burrowing animals in the park). Pets are not permitted on trails.
There is little to no water available in the backcountry – always carry more than you need (keep in mind the heat of the area). All refuse must be carried out; pack out your waste or use a cat hole method (though animals often dig up cat holes).
|Trail||Round trip distance||Approx. Time||Difficulty|
|Door Trail||.75 miles
|30 min||Easy and accessible by boardwalk. You can continue beyond the trail, but watch for drop-offs.|
|Window Trail||.25 miles
|20 min||Easy. Short trail leading to a natural window with a view of the canyon.|
|Notch Trail||1.5 miles
|1.5-2 hrs||Moderate/strenuous. The trail includes a log ladder and goes along a ledge to “the Notch,” where there’s a view of the White River Valley. Be careful near edges and after rains; it’s not a good option for anyone with a fear of heights.|
|Castle Trail||10 miles
|5 hrs||Moderate. This out and back is the longest trail in the park and mostly level. You can connect to the Fossil Exhibit Trail at its end.|
|Cliff Shelf||.5 miles
|30 min||Moderate loop trail with boardwalks and trails along the Badlands Wall, gaining 200 feet in elevation. Sometimes the water forms a pond and the trail is a good spot for wildlife.|
|Saddle Pass||.25 miles
|30-60 min||Strenuous. Short, but difficult trail up the Badlands Wall. It connects with Castle and Medicine Root Loop trails.|
|Medicine Root Loop||4 miles
|2 hrs||Moderate. A good, rolling trail to see the prairie, with views of the Badlands.|
|Fossil Exhibit Trail||.25 miles
|20 min||Easy and fully accessible. This trail is a great place to see fossil replicas of now-extinct animals.|
Wildlife in Badlands National Park
There is an array of wildlife to see in Badlands National Park. As with all wildlife, give them their distance and never feed animals. Wildlife in the park includes coyotes, bobcats, bison, bighorn sheep, porcupines, foxes, rattlesnakes, black-tailed prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets. The park also has a variety of birds, including the black-billed magpie and vultures.
Watch your footing throughout the park as there are rattlesnakes and several burrowing animals.
Black-footed ferrets were thought to be extinct, but spotted again in the park in 1981. They are one of the rarest mammals in the world. Badlands National Park and the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands are the most successful reintroduction sites for the black-footed ferrets.
Black-tailed prairie dogs
Prairie dogs are in the squirrel family and known for their colonies, marked by the prairie dogs popping up into the air together and looking around. Their existence increases habitat diversity (both by serving as prey and servicing the land by burrowing and foraging). Their colonies cover about 2799 acres in the park, occupying only about 2% of their original range (from Canada to Mexico).
Though they look cute, be careful to keep them from pets and food and, as always, keep your distance.
Bison (aka American buffalo)
Bison (often called buffalo) are the icons of the American West and are the National Mammal. They were brought close to extinction, but through concerted efforts and protections, herds are thriving from Yellowstone to the Badlands. They can be very dangerous.
Here is some basic info. about bison:
- Males weigh up to 2,000 pounds and grow up to 6.5’ tall at their shoulder.
- Females weigh up to 1,200 pounds and grow up to 5.5’ tall at their shoulder.
- They can jump up to 6’ high and are the fastest land mammal in North America, reaching up to 35 mph.
- Bison wallow (roll in the dirt), which creates a scent for mating, regulates body temperature and protects them from insects.
- Their hair is denser than cattle hair, which is why they can handle extreme temperatures (they don’t feel a chill until the temperatures drop below -20f!).
Bison safety practices
Bison are generally not aggressive, but become so when they feel threatened (especially during rutting/mating season or protecting a calf); they are large, fast and very dangerous, so it’s important to exercise caution around them
- Stay at least 100 feet away
- Do not startle bison (stay aware of your surroundings)
- If you find yourself too close, don’t run; slowly back away
- If in your vehicle, do not honk your horn; be patient
- They do not like dogs, so keep them in your vehicle (and dogs aren’t allowed in wilderness areas of the park anyway)
- They do not like fast-moving objects, like runners or bikers; go slow and move to the other side of the road from them, while keeping your distance
- Signs that a bison may charge: turning its face to you, head swinging back and forth, pawing the ground or hooking the ground with its horns, loud snorts, short bluff charges or moving towards you, raised tail.
Where to stay in Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park lodging/cabins
Cedar Pass Lodge is the only lodging and restaurant in the park. The cabins are built to gold-level LEEDs environmental standards and they have used sustainably harvested beetle kill pine from the nearby Black Hills for the furniture and construction, giving it a local feel and impact. Rooms have AC and heat, on-demand water heater for showers and standard facilities.
Hotels near Badlands National Park
While Cedar Pass Lodge is the only accommodation in the park itself, there are options nearby. Minute Man RV Park & Lodging is on the east end of the park, near the Minuteman National Monument. There are also a lot of hotel options in Wall, South Dakota (click here check prices and availability), which is just minutes from the park.
Badlands National Park camping/campgrounds
There are two campgrounds in the park. Backcountry camping is permitted, however, you must get permission if you will be crossing privately-held land (and should have a backup plan if you are not granted permission).
Cedar Pass Campground
Cedar Pass Campground is the main campground, located in the North Unit near Ben Reifel Visitor Center.
- 96 sites
- Open year-round
- No open campfires
- Reservations can be made over 72 hours in advance; less than 72 hours is first come, first served. Make reservations here.
Facilities: Electric hookups at some campsites; cold running water, flush toilets, covered picnic tables*, coin-operated showers, trash containers*, dump station (fee).
*Available during the winter
Sage Creek Primitive Campground
Sage Creek is remote and access may be limited in winter and spring rainy season because of conditions. Sage Creek Rim Road is unpaved.
- Open year-round
- Free, 14-day limit.
- RVs length limit of 18 feet
Facilities: pit toilets and picnic tables. There is no water available.
Interesting facts about Badlands National Park
- It was home to the Ghost Dance, the last of which was at Stronghold Table in 1890.
- A portion of the park (over 300,000 acres in the Pine Ridge Reservation) was taken over by the US government and made into a gunnery range. Artillery was tested in 1942-1945 and though decommissioned in 1968, the area remains dangerous with unexploded ordinance.
- The park is eroding at a rate of about 1 inch per year.
- Badlands was the site of the reintroduction of the black-footed ferret (previously thought to be extinct).
- Dances with Wolves, Armageddon and Starship Troopers were all filmed in Badlands National Park.
The incredible landscape of the Badlands tells the story of nearly 100 million years, through deposits and erosion. An area that was once a seabed became home lush, subtropical forest, and to large mammals. Now, the huge, deep canyons are dotted with spires and mesas.
The formations in the park are actively eroding, eroding about 1/3 of an inch per year. It’s estimated that the Badlands will have eroded away in 500,000 years.
Layers of Badlands geology
These are the distinct layers seen in the Badlands, listed from the bottom, up.
- Pierre Shale: The Pierre Shale is the oldest of the exposed formations in the park. The black layers come from deposits dating 69-75 million years old (during the Cretaceous Period), when the area was a seabed. The fossils in the rock confirm the sea environment.
- Yellow Mounds: The bright yellow layers come from paleosol (fossil soil), weathered when the black ocean mud was exposed to air.
- Chadron Formation: Chadron Formations are greyish in color, above the yellow mounds below and date back 34-37 million years. Fossils in this layer include alligators and large mammals.
- Brule Formation: The Brule Formation developed 30-34 million years ago (during the Oligocene Epoch); this layer has sandstone and red fossil soils intermixed.
- Rockyford Ash: This layer comes from volcanic ash that was deposited across the area in the Oligocene Epoch.
- Sharps Formation: The youngest in the formations are the Sharps Formation, developed 28-30 million years ago, as the climate got dryer and cooler.
Scientists have been studying the Badlands National Park for over 150 years and, as the park erodes, new discoveries are continually being made. In just 2010, a junior ranger spotted a fossil. She reported it, and an over 30-million-year-old, fully preserved sabertooth cat was the result!
There is a Paleontology Lab in the Visitor Center, open to the public in the summer. The Pig Dig Quarry inside the park is included in scientific publications and books about the badlands. Many fossils from the area are on display at the Conata Picnic Area.
If you find a fossil, it is important that you report your find (and never disturb it).
Quotes about Badlands National Park
The landscapes of the Badlands have caught the attention of visitors for a long time, lay and more famous. Quotes about the park trace back to its “original” exploration (not including the native people of the land).
“What I saw gave me an indescribable sense of mysterious otherwhere — a distant architecture, ethereal, touched, only touched with a sense of Egyptian, Mayan drift and silhouette. As we rode, or seemed to be floating upon a splendid winding road that seemed to understand it all and just where to go, we rose and fell between its delicate parallels of rose and cream and sublime shapes, chalk white, fretted against a blue sky with high floating clouds; the sky itself seemed only there to cleanse and light the vast harmonious building scheme.”
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright
“Fancy yourself on the hottest day in summer in the hottest spot of such a place without water — without an animal and scarce an insect astir — without a single flower to speak pleasant things to you and you will have some idea of the utter loneliness of the Bad Lands.”
Paleontologist Thaddeus A. Culbertson 1850
“It looks a bit like the inside of a cave that has been turned inside out and warmed by the sun.”
Stefanie Payne, A Year in the National Parks: The Greatest American Road Trip
“The Badlands National Monument is part of the greatest badland-eroded section in North America; I can think of no other geographic area of like-size that has the unusual natural beauty, the undisturbed land and animal life and the wealth of scientific information to offer the public.”
Dr. James D. Bump, director of the Museum of Geology, S.D. School of Mines and Technology, 1954
“…the summer sun pours its rays on the bare white walls, which only are reflected on the wary traveler with double intensity, not oppressing him with the heat, but so dazzling his eyes that he is affected with temporary blindness. I have spent many days exploring this region when the thermometer was 112, and there was no water within fifteen miles. It is only to the geologist that this place can have any permanent attractions. He can wind his way through the wonderful canyons among some of the grandest ruins in the world, at the foot of [which] the curious fossil treasures are found.”
Ferdinand Hayden, 1866
What to see near Badlands National Park
Minuteman Missile National Monument (closest)
Hundred of minuteman missiles were hidden underground throughout the Great Plains during the Cold War. These missiles were on constant alert from the 1960s-1990s. Minuteman missiles could destroy civilization, but were meant as a deterrent to war (with the concept of mutually assured destruction).
Each facility controlled 10 missiles, 3 miles apart. There were a total of 1000 Minuteman Missiles (six wings of three squadrons and 150 missiles; each “flight” had 10 missiles). The name even has roots in conflict/defense.
- Minute Man: 1770s colonial militia trained to respond on one minute’s notice.
- Minuteman: Nuclear missile that a missileer could launch within a minute’s notice.
There are three sites of the national monument:
- Visitor center: Off the main highway, open daily; exhibits and video
- Delta-01: Can only be accessed via guided tours
- Delta-09: Missile silo open daily
Wall Drug and Wall, South Dakota
Wall is a small town near the park (on the west side, where the 90 and 240 meet). The infamous Wall Drug is a roadside attraction that sees about two million visitors a year. It’s not just a drug store, but shopping and souvenirs, games and a general place to take a break from the road.
National Grasslands Visitor Center
This visitor center is the only one for all of the US’s 20 National Grasslands. You can learn more about the grasslands with a film and they offer ranger-led activities, along with outdoor living landscape areas. The visitor center is located in Wall.
Black Hills National Forest
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Mount Rushmore is one of the most iconic memorials in the country, with carvings of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln in the rocks of the Black Hills. There is no entry fee to the memorial, but you do have to pay for parking.
Crazy Horse Memorial
The Crazy Horse Memorial is an ongoing project and well worth a visit. In addition to seeing the state of the memorial itself, the visitor center is incredibly informative and worth the visit alone. They have a movie explaining the history of the memorial as well as art exhibits, a bison exhibit and in-house artists.
Jewel Cave National Monument
Jewel Cave is the third-longest in the world. There are over 195 miles of mapped and surveyed passages, which is a fraction of its total system. The cave can only be explored on ranger-guided tours (currently unavailable as of fall 2019). Above ground there are over 30 miles of trails on 11 scenic trails and hikes.
Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave is one of the longest and most complex caves in the world, and its national park one of the oldest in the country. The cave can be explored on ranger-guided tours (currently unavailable as of fall 2019) and the prairie and hills above ground can be explored by car or hikes. The park is home to bison, elk and other wildlife.
Devil’s Tower National Park
Devil’s Tower is an area sacred to the Northern Plains Indians and indigenous people. The main formation has hundreds of vertical cracks, making it one of the most popular crack-climbing areas in North America.
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