Badlands National Park Overview

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I’ve heard many people say Badlands National Park reminds them of southern Utah and I have to disagree. Utah feels vibrant and alive. Badlands looks like it’ll drain the life out of you. Harsh, I know, but this place is desolate, rugged, and unforgiving. To imagine people crossing this land throughout history makes you realize how easy you have it. The landscape is dominated by the famous multicolored buttes to create a menacing horizon as you approach. Don’t be discouraged though, this park is incredible and worthy of the “national park” label. That’s why we gave it a 34/50 overall score.

Quick Reference Guide

Location: Western South Dakota

Closest Town: Wall, SD

Visitor Count (2022): 1,006,809 visitors

Size: 244,000 acres

Year Established: January 25, 1939 (as a national monument). November 10, 1978 (reclassified as a national park)

Founding President: Franklin D. Roosevelt (1939)

Highlights: Very Family Friendly, Big Badlands Overlook, Notch Trail

Landwinder Park Rating:

Overall Rating: 34/50

Accessibility: 7/10

Badlands National Park is kind of in no man’s land. There’s not much around. That said, it’s pretty easy to plan into a cross country trip or a week long South Dakota visit.

When flying, Rapid City is only an hour drive. You won’t find many direct flights but there’s pretty consistent arrivals from around the U.S.

The park itself is very accessible. Several entrances, with a solid paved road that’ll take you through the whole park. It’s very easy to get around once you’re in the park.

Scenery: 7/10

Badlands National Park offers some of the more intimidating scenery that we’ve seen. The rock buttes are one of a kind, displaying layers of different colors that really pop when the sun is low on the horizon. This place has some of the best sunrise/sunset views in the country.

As you make your way through the park, you’ll feel like you’re in a western movie. We also really enjoyed some of the stark differences in scenery. For example, one overlook has you viewing rock pinnacles while the next is grassland prairies.

We docked a few points because it didn’t have the wow factor like some of the other parks we’ve visited. Many of the views will feel the same as you go through the park. Still beautiful, dramatic landscape worth seeing.

Crowds: 9/10

We were very pleased with the crowds on both visits so far. It was a pleasant surprise to have limited encounters with crowds. We were able to hike and take photos without being impacted by large groups.

There was always an open spot in the parking lots and many times we had the overlooks to ourselves.

Note: We went end of June and beginning of July on our two visits.

Amenities: 7/10

Badlands offers all of the necessary amenities. The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is small but nice with restrooms. There are multiple restrooms along Badlands Loop Road as well. The boardwalks are well kept and the overlook platforms well maintained.

Running water can also be found at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.

Things To Do: 4/10

Badlands National Park is great, it’s one of my favorites. However, our biggest gripe is the lack of things to do outside of hiking and overlooks. It’s why we feel that one full day is enough time here.

The park also offers some camping and diverse wildlife viewing (American bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs) but that’s really it. The upside is that the park is close to so many other great things to do in the Black Hills.

Things to do in Badlands National Park

Like we’ve said before, at Badlands National Park you’re most likely to do: 1) the overlooks, 2) hiking, or 3) camping. There’s enough to fill a whole day and even stretch it to two if you want. Here’s our complete list of best things to do in Badlands National Park to help you plan your day there.

Our Favorites

Best Hike: Notch Trail

Section of the Notch Trail

Best View: Pinnacles Overlook

Pinnacles Overlook during the day

The Single Must Do: Drive Badlands Loop Road to see the overlooks

Rock buttes along Badlands Loop Road

Why visit here?

You come to Badlands National Park to see some of the best rock formations in the world. The multicolored buttes scattered with the mixed grass prairie is straight out of western novel. It’s a very family friendly park that caters to a short visit. The overlooks make it easy to see every area of the park and most of the hikes take less than an hour.

For the real adventure seekers, you can head to the wilderness areas for some backcountry camping.

How to get here

The closest airport to Badlands National Park is Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP). You can get direct flights out of the following cities:

  • Minneapolis (MSP)- about 2 hr flight
  • Chicago O’Hare (ORD)- 2 hr flight
  • Dallas Fort Worth (DFW)- 2 hr 30 min flight
  • Denver (DEN)- 1 hr 15 min flight (shortest flight)
  • Phoenix Mesa Gateway (AZA)- 2 hr 15 min flight
  • Charlotte (CLT)- 3 hr 40 min flight

Rapid City Regional Airport is serviced by Allegiant, American, Delta, Sun Country and United.

If you’re driving, here’s some of the times to look at:

  • Wall, SD- 8 miles, 14 min drive to Pinnacles Entrance
  • Rapid City, SD- 62 miles, 57 min drive to Pinnacles Entrance
  • Custer, SD- 102 miles, 1 hr 42 min drive to Pinnacles Entrance
  • Wind Cave National Park- 113 miles, 2 hr drive
  • Mount Rushmore- 97 miles, 1 hr 45 min drive
  • Sioux Falls- 280 miles, 4 hr drive
  • Denver- 404 miles, 6 hr 30 min drive

How much time here

You can visit Badlands National Park with one full day. We have a full article on how long to spend at Badlands National Park that goes into more detail, but one day is plenty of time.

If you’re really committed, you could do 2 or 3 days, but all that’s left is to spend a night camping in the wilderness areas or take a trip down to the south unit.

Best time to visit

The best time to visit the Badlands is in the Spring or Fall. You’ll deal with milder temperatures and weather. It’s also the most popular time for people to visit so the park with be busier.

Summer can bring extreme temperatures. We took one visit in June and one in July (the middle of summer, I know) but we were lucky enough to get very mild weather. It was sunny and 70s throughout both visits. Make sure to keep an eye on the weather though, they get some crazy pop-up thunderstorms. Overall, summer was enjoyable so I wouldn’t say to avoid going during this time.

A section of the mixed grass prairie that Badlands National Park is known for

South Dakota can get some pretty bad winters. They get a sizable amount of snow but Badlands National Park is open year round. Personally, I think it’d be really cool to see the snow covered buttes and grasslands. You’ll also encounter the fewest amount of people during these months.

Where To Stay

Your closest option is Wall. It’s only about a 15 minute drive to the Pinnacles Entrance. They’ve got several hotels to pick from, the best but most expensive option being the Best Western. There’s also a few mediocre choices: Days Inn, Super 8, and Americas Best Value Inn.

We did this on our second visit coming from the east.

On our first visit we actually stayed in Custer because we liked how close it was to everything else. It made for a long day when we did Badlands National Park, but was worth it (the Black Hills are one of our favorite spots). We’ll go into more detail about this option in a separate post.

Herd of American Bison at Badlands National Park

You’re next best stay is Rapid City. It’s an hour drive to the closest entrance but you have a lot more hotel options and still central to everything near the Black Hills.

Where to eat

There’s only one place to eat in the park, Cedar Pass Lodge so if you don’t plan to go there you’ll either need to pack food or head to Wall. In Wall, we’ve ate at the Red Rock and Badlands Saloon and Grille. Both traditional American food, but the Saloon and Grille was better in our opinion. There’s a few others places from Mexican to pizza in town as well.

Tips for your visit

Keep an eye on the weather: we had nice weather on both visits but their thunderstorms are no joke. They come in quick and powerful so just be aware of the daily forecasts.

Read the info boards at the overlooks: Badlands is full of significant history and archaeological finds so take the 5 minutes to read why each of the overlooks are significant.

One of the many overlooks within Badlands National Park

Pack lunch in or plan to head to Wall for food: there’s not a lot of food options around so pack your lunch in a cooler or take a break and go to Wall for lunch. It’s easy to get in and out of the park with the America the Beautiful Pass if you have one.

Cell coverage can be spotty: The major carriers work in most of the main areas of the park. There are notices around the park that tell you GPS isn’t all that reliable in the park so make sure to have the necessary gear to keep track of where you are, especially if hiking or going into the wilderness areas. Overall, we had pretty good coverage for most of the visit.

Plan your visit

Park Entrance Fee: $30 per car

Operating Hours: Open 24/7, 365 days a year (exception of weather closures)

Ben Reifel Visitor Center: Open 8am-5pm, 7 days a week

Things To Do Near Badlands National Park

Ghost town of Scenic: The town of Scenic is an abandoned town about 30 mins from the Badlands visitor center. Take the short detour to see it, you’ll only be here 10 minutes.

Wind Cave National Park: Wind Cave is as it sounds, one of the few national parks that’s mostly underground. Come here for the cave tours and wildlife, then venture over to the Black Hills.

The Black Hills: Our favorite place in South Dakota. There’s so much to do in this national forest. It offers great hiking, lakes, camping, caves, and a lot more.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial: See one of the best national monuments in the U.S. located very close to Custer as well. It’s pretty busy here, but we really enjoyed it. Do the Presidential Trail, no question!

Custer State Park: Come here to see large, wandering herds of American Bison. Located about 2 hours west of Badlands National Park. The town of Custer is a cool little western town to visit too. We stayed nearby on our first trip to South Dakota.

Deadwood: A wild west town an hour north of Custer that offers you the chance to see where Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane ran around back in the day. It has a very touristy feel to it, but if you like western history, it’s worth the time. Combine it with a visit to Spearfish Canyon.

Spearfish Canyon: Just north of Deadwood, this area offers a lot of outdoor activities. Here you’ll find rock climbing, hiking, biking and fishing. See different wildlife from mountain goats to porcupines. You’ll also get to visit some of the most beautiful waterfalls in South Dakota.

Badlands National Park Wrap Up

Badlands National Park sign at the Pinnacles Entrance.

There you have it, a 10,000 ft overview of Badlands National Park! It’s an above average national park (34/50 overall in our book) that offers one of the craziest landscapes in the country. You don’t need a lot of time here to experience it with the family. Just be sure to combine it with a visit to the Black Hills to get more activities on your journey. For more in-depth guides on the Badlands topics above, check out our upcoming posts to help you plan your next visit to South Dakota!