10 Best Things To Do In Badlands National Park

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Badlands National Park doesn’t have as many activities as some national parks, but makes up for it with unforgettable views and unique hiking. Our list covers everything in the Badlands to do, with some of our personal recommendations so you can get the most out of your visit. If you had to choose one thing though, we recommend stopping at each overlook along Badlands Loop Road. If you’re looking to do one hike, make it the Notch Trail as it’ll be one of the most memorable hikes you ever do.

1. Drive Badlands Loop Road

Badlands Loop Road (Highway 240) is the most popular thing to do in the park. Everyone drives this road that splits the north and south prairies. It gives you access to pretty much everything in the north unit. You’ll find a number of popular overlooks, boardwalks, multiple trailheads, and access to the wilderness areas.

This paved road runs about 27 miles from the Pinnacles Entrance to the Northeast Entrance station. If you were to drive it straight through without stops it’d take about an hour without much traffic. Add in the overlook stops and other cars and you’ll spend a few hours driving the route.

We’ve done the loop two ways. The first time we came through the Ben Reifel entrance, went right to Big Badlands Overlook then continued on to the west. The second time we came through the Pinnacles Entrance and worked east, ending at Big Badlands.

All in all, you have to do this when you go to the Badlands. The scenery is amazing and you’ll use this road to navigate the entire North Unit. Take your time on the drive and stop at everything along the way.

2. Stop At The Overlooks

Along the scenic Badlands Loop Road drive, you’ll come across multiple overlooks that give incredible views of the park. You get giant rock buttes, yellow mounds, sprawling grasslands, and so much more.

Here’s the overlooks in order starting at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center:

Big Badlands Overlook (go right at the visitor center)

Considered the best overlook in the park to see the sunrise, Big Badlands is a must see for every visitor. The view you’ll see here is exactly what you think the Badlands would look like. It’s a sprawling view of the famous multi-layered rock buttes.

White River Valley Overlook

This is the first overlook you come across heading west from the visitor center. There’s a small parking lot and viewing platform that overlook the White River Group. There are some small trails that take you further into the rock formations, but be careful as there are some serious drop offs.

Bigfoot Pass Overlook

This is a historically significant area within the Badlands. Chief Spotted Elk of the Lakota used this area to evade the U.S. Army before being captured and massacred at Wounded Knee.

Panorama Point Overlook

Panorama Point gives you a wide view of the landscape down toward the White River Valley. It’s a great spot for photography and offers a few different views. This is one of our favorite stops.

Prairie Wind Overlook

At this overlook, you’ll get a very different view than the previous couple. Instead of towering rock formations, you’ll see an expansive prairie of mixed grass. In fact, Badlands National Park is home to the largest mixed grass prairie in the U.S.

Overall, this stop was a so-so view. We spent enough time here to read the sign and take a few quick photos. However, if you’re looking for a quiet place with no crowd, this is a perfect spot.

Burns Basin Overlook

Burns Basin was one of the least busy spots we visited on the drive of Badlands Loop Road, but it offers another great view of the Badlands. At this overlook, you’ll see the basin off in the distance beyond the banded formations. There’s a short boardwalk that leads to the viewing platform with a bench.

Homestead Overlook

This overlook not only provides a nice view of rock formations with open prairies mixed in, but also has some historical significance as well.

This was my least favorite overlook. It’s an expansive view but doesn’t come close to the rest of them.

Conata Basin Overlook

Conata Basin Overlook gives you a higher view of the Yellow Mounds as well as the rock formations. There’s a lot of colors in this area so it’s a great spot for some landscape photos.

Yellow Mounds Overlook

This overlook gives you a view of the yellow mounds of the Badlands. The mounds are a vibrant yellow with red and brown layering. You’ll get up close to these formations at this stop.

Ancient Hunters Overlook

Here, you’ll get another expansive view of the Badlands with a cluster of trees in the foreground. This area is able to retain water better so more trees are able to grow within this small area.

There’s also been some incredible archaeological finds in this area that suggest it was a butchering site for paleo-Indians in the region. The view is decent but I highly recommend stopping here for the quick read if you’re interested in the history of the Badlands.

Pinnacles Overlook

The Pinnacles Overlook is one of the most popular viewpoints in Badlands National Park. There’s a pretty large parking lot and a small stairway down to the multiple overlooks. It’s probably our favorite view in the park and considered one of the best for the sunset.

The overlooks are the most popular thing to do in the park. Each of them offers a different view so at least one is sure to peak your interest. For us, Pinnacles Overlook, Big Badlands, and Panorama Point were our favorites.

3. Hike Some Short, Very Cool Trails (Under 1 Mile)

Badlands National Park is a great place for hiking. There’s not a ton of designated trails, but it makes up for it with some really fun short hikes and is one of the few national parks where visitors are permitted to hike off trail.

Here’s some of the trails under a mile you can do in Badlands National Park:

Door Trail

The Door Trail is an easy trail that’s only 0.75 miles round trip. It’s relatively flat and takes you up close to the Badlands formations. If you’re not looking for something strenuous, this is a great option for the whole family.

Window Trail

This is a very easy, short trail. It’s only 0.25 miles long and is entirely on a boardwalk. The walkway takes you to a break in “The Wall” that you can look through like a window into the Badlands.

Cliff Shelf Nature Trail

This trail is a very easy trail that is more like a walk. It’s also accessed via the Castle Trail and takes you along a boardwalk through some prairie and rock formations. It’s a good trail to see wildlife and get a glimpse of the different terrain the Badlands offers.

Saddle Pass Trail

Saddle Pass Trail is a short, strenuous hike connected to the Castle Trail. It’s a steep hike that takes you into the heart of the Badlands. This trail is really enjoyable because it’s one of the best ways to get up close to the formations within the Badlands.

Fossil Exhibit Trail

In short, the Badlands have been home to some amazing archaeological discoveries. A lot of this is displayed and discussed at the exhibit in the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, but you can also see it firsthand on the Fossil Exhibit Trail.

This trail is a 0.25 mile boardwalk trail that takes you through the history of the animals that have inhabited this land for millions of years. It’s an easy walk and you’ll learn a lot about the area.

4. Hike The Notch Trail

The Notch Trail is the most popular trail in the park and is also one of the most fun things to do in Badlands National Park. At 1.5 miles out and back, it’s possible to hike this trail and still have plenty of time to do other things on this list.

The trail isn’t difficult, but there are some steep drop-offs and don’t expect any shade. You’ll be completely exposed the entire hike so be sure to have lots of water for this hike. You’ll experience a fun, unique hike with a ladder climb and a beautiful view of the Badlands to end the hike.

Notch Trail is incredibly popular so expect to wait at the ladder climb and some other trail congestion unless you go early in the morning or late in the evening. Try to make this one of the first things you do to avoid any crowds; however, even if you’re getting to it a little later in the day it’s still worth the time.

5. Hike The Castle Trail

The Castle Trail is the longest designated trail in Badlands National Park. This trail is interesting because there are a number of ways to hike it. It can be a 5 mile one way if you have multiple cars or a 10 mile out and back. You’ll also be able to access some of the other trails from this one including the Saddle Pass Trail, Medicine Root Trail and Cliff Shelf Nature Trail.

Because of the intertwined trails, you’re able to mix and match how you hike it. You could string together all of them for an all day hike or cut it into a small loop.

6. Hike Off Trail In The Wilderness Areas

Badlands National Park is one of the few national parks where you are allowed to hike off trail. Hit the backcountry and explore your own trail in the two wilderness areas within the Badlands.

I won’t spend too much time on these as they are very large areas that require their own dedicated posts, but I’ll give a quick rundown of each.

Deer Haven Wilderness Area

Deer Haven is an area of un-maintained trails where backpackers can explore the more remote parts of the park. This area has one of the highest concentration of vegetation within the park. You’re able to see this oasis of greenery from a long way off, but don’t hike directly at it through the badlands. That’s an easy way to get lost.

Begin your hike to this area at the Conata Picnic Area. It’s about a 3 mile hike to reach Deer Haven where you’ll set up camp for the night and explore the secluded areas. No permit is required here, just be sure to have all the necessary gear for backcountry hiking. A GPS or navigational tool is highly recommended.

Despite being an un-maintained area, it’s pretty easy to stay with many of the trails as they’ve been traveled pretty frequently.

Sage Creek Wilderness Area

The other backcountry wilderness area is known as Sage Creek. In this area, you’ll encounter less greenery and spend most of your time in the grassland. This area is less scenic than most of the park, but this is the place to go if you’re looking for seclusion. You won’t encounter many people and have a pretty good shot at seeing bison and bighorn sheep.

Note: Be sure to do some trail research before setting out to these areas to make sure the conditions are doable. In early June, there were several reports from backpackers of washed out trails and extremely muddy conditions.

7. Check Out The Ben Reifel Visitor Center

The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is the larger entrance on the east end of the north unit. It has all the usual amenities like a gift shop, restrooms, info desk, and includes the only restaurant in the park, Cedar Pass Lodge.

There’s also a small museum for those that are interested in the history of the park and rock formations. There’s exhibits detailing the wildlife that roamed the land and fossils that have been found in the Badlands.

It also houses several exhibits that detail the rock formations. One thing you’ll notice in the Badlands is the formations are very unique to everything else around the country. I found it interesting to read about the different rock layers and how the landscape was formed.

8. Photograph The Wildlife

There’s a lot of wildlife in Badlands National Park. Make sure to bring a good camera/lense to capture photos and a good pair of binoculars for long distance viewing.

Bison

As soon as we entered the park we came across a large herd of bison lounging in the sun. These animals seem very docile but do not approach them. They’re massive and can cause serious harm to you if you invade their space. Admire from a distance and make sure to get a ton of photos.

Bighorn Sheep

These animals also wander the park. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the chance to see any but we were told the wilderness areas are the best spots to see them.

Prairie Dogs

There are prairie dogs everywhere in Badlands National Park, but Roberts Prairie Dog Town is by far the best spot to see them. Just park your car and take a trail into the town to get closer to the prairie dogs. You might be tempted, but don’t feed the wildlife.

Rattlesnakes

Be aware of your surroundings when you’re out hiking in the Badlands. You’re going to see a rattlesnake sign at pretty much every overlook and trail. No need to be paranoid about it, just stay vigilant and keep your eyes and ears open!

We didn’t come across any during our visit to Badlands National Park.

9. Check Out The South Unit Of The Park

The south unit of the Badlands sits in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Access to this section of the park is more difficult as most of your drive will be on dirt roads.

We didn’t have the time to venture to this section but Sheep Mountain Overlook and Red Shirt Table Overlook are both supposed to be great views of the southern Badlands. There’s plenty else to do in Badlands National Park, but if you have a couple days there, the south unit may be worth the stop.

10. Spend A Night Camping Under The Badlands Sky

We didn’t have the time to do any camping here, but it would be incredible to sleep under the Badlands sky. The lack of light pollution allows for an insane view of the stars. You have two campgrounds within Badlands National Park and two wilderness areas to pick from.

First is the Cedar Pass Campground which is located next to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. It has 96 units and a max stay of 14 days. It’s definitely the most popular spot for camping within the park.

Next is the Sage Creek Campground located on Sage Creek Rim Road. It is free to stay in one of the 22 campsites but offers less amenities than Cedar Pass. Potable water and restrooms are only at the visitor center.

The Badlands also offers camping within the wilderness areas, Deer Haven and Sage Creek. Here, you’re welcome to set up camp wherever you deem fit. Just remember, you’re on your own out here so pack all the necessary supplies.

Badlands National Park FAQ

Where to stay?

The closest town to Badlands is Wall. The famous Wall Drug is located here so there’s a few options to stay. If you’re doing 2 days in the Badlands, it’s a good place close to the park.

There’s a handful of hotels in Wall such as the Best Western or Days Inn. There’s also the Badlands Frontier Cabins just outside of town. They’re a little more expensive but allow you to stay in your own cabin and offer free breakfast.

How long do you need at Badlands National Park?

You can accomplish the majority of stuff in one full day. If you want to explore the south unit or backpack in the wilderness areas at all, add a second day.

We’ve made two trips to the Badlands and done one full day each time. We’ll detail each visit in a separate post, but never felt like we needed more than a day.

Where to eat?

There’s only one restaurant in the park, Cedar Pass Lodge. Your other option is to eat in town. Here’s a couple choices with good reviews:

  • Red Rock Restaurant
  • The Salty Steer
  • Badlands Saloon & Grille

How to get to Badlands National Park?

Flight: the closest airport to Badlands National Park is Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP). From there it’s a little over an hour drive to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.

Driving: coming from the east, you’re about a 3 hour drive from Sioux City straight across I-90. From the west, Rapid City is a little over an hour.

When is the best time to visit Badlands National Park?

Spring and fall are going to be the best time. It’ll be the least crowded and the weather should be moderate. They can experience some pretty harsh, snowy winters. Summers can be extremely hot with intense thunderstorms.

Both of our trips were in the summer and we had pretty mild weather. However, there were several pop-up thunderstorms on perfectly nice days. Keep an eye on the forecast!

What’s the best trail?

The Notch Trail. It’s the obvious pick and will likely be kind of busy but it’s worth it. This trail offers some unique challenges and allows you to see the Badlands up close. It’s a family friendly trail that gets your sense of adventure going.

What’s the best overlook?

Pinnacles Overlook. It’s a perfect view of the multicolored buttes that Badlands is famous for and offers a lot of room to explore. It wasn’t crowded and this is where we got some of our best photos. Pinnacles also has the best view for the sunset.

Other Things To Do Near Badlands National Park

Scenic Ghost Town

The deserted town of Scenic sits just outside of Badlands National Park. It’s a very short detour on your way to the park so it’s worth spending the extra 15 minutes to check it out. There’s not much to see, just a few abandoned western buildings but it’s a fun little experience.

Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave is the other national park in South Dakota. It’s located in the southwest portion of the state and receives far less visitors than Badlands National Park.

It’s worth it to hit these two parks in the same visit because of their close proximity. Wind cave has some really cool tours of the cave but not too much else. It’s a beautiful area with a ton of bison and prairie dogs.

Custer State Park

Located about 20 minutes from the town of Custer, this state park is one of our favorites I’ve been to. It’s mostly just a scenic drive but you’ll see huge herds of American Bison as you drive the park.

Make sure to stop by the visitor center to check the map of where the herds are currently located!

Black Hills National Forest

The Black Hills National Forest is probably our favorite area in the state of South Dakota. Also located in the southwest part of the state, it offers some of the best hiking in this part of the country.

You’ll experience some extremely scenic hikes with the thick forests and dark rock formations. You’ll also find Jewel Cave National Monument which is a fun excursions along with lots of wildlife. If you’re in South Dakota don’t sleep on this area. Spend several days exploring and hiking the hills.

Deadwood

Getting a little further away from the Badlands is the town of Deadwood. It’s a pretty touristy town but it’s a fun experience. There’s a ton of cowboy/western history within the town and they do a daily shootout skit in the town square.

If you’re into this part of the country’s history, you should plan a visit here. It’s about an hour northwest of Rapid City so if you have the time for a day trip it’s good to pair with Spearfish Canyon.

Spearfish Canyon

Spearfish Canyon is another point of interest that’s a little further away from the Badlands, but it’s well worth the drive. The town of Spearfish sits just northwest of Deadwood and the canyon is a 19 mile drive through the northern Black Hills. The drive is about 45 minutes through the whole canyon, but we recommend taking time to stop along the way. There are some great, easy hikes that lead to beautiful waterfalls.

We recommend combining Deadwood and Spearfish into one day before moving elsewhere in South Dakota.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

So far, to date, Mount Rushmore is our favorite national monument. First off, it’s located in a beautiful area of the Black Hills. Second, it’s an impressive example of human ingenuity.

We spent several hours here doing pretty much everything in the area. The must do’s are the overlook above the amphitheater and the Presidential Trail (make sure to check out the Sculptors building on the trial to see the original plan of the monument).

If you just want to get a closer look at the monument, make sure to start the trail by going left at the overlook. It’s a short, flat walk to the closest deck from there. Going right will take you the long way, up about 300 steps.

Absolutely worth the time, just remember to go left if you want the short route!

Conclusion

The western portion of South Dakota is a quiet contender for best areas east of the Rockies. I thoroughly underestimated how fun this place would be. Badlands National Park was one of our first stops in the area and it delivered in every way. We’ve already been here twice and accomplished almost everything on this list.

We hope this gave you some ideas for your Badlands visit. Stay tuned for our 5 day South Dakota itinerary as we’ll show you how we made our South Dakota trips. For other info on Badlands National Park, check out our Badlands National Park overview. Till next time!