Driving into Badlands National Park in South Dakota is a bit like being transported to the surface of Tatooine, as it definitely feels out-of-this-world. This unique park is known for its striking landscapes, featuring an otherworldly combination of jagged and layered rock formations and expansive prairies. It’s a place where visitors can witness the power of erosion in action, as millions of years of wind and water have sculpted the landscape into a breathtaking array of colorful canyons, spires, and pinnacles.
Anyone seeking an unforgettable adventure in the great outdoors should plan to visit Badlands National Park, with its abundant wildlife, unique hiking trails, and stunning dark skies. Whether it is part of a South Dakota road trip, paired with a North Dakota road trip to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, or an extension of a trip to the Black Hills — make sure to put the Badlands on your bucket list.
Just keep in mind that visiting such an unusual landscape comes with a few challenges. In this post, I’ll outline some tips for visiting Badlands National Park and include my recommendation on where to stay to be close to the park.
About Badlands National Park
But first, let’s talk a little about Badlands National Park in South Dakota (which is very different from the Badlands in North Dakota), and what makes this area so special. Located in southwestern South Dakota, Badlands National Park is a geological wonderland that covers over 244,000 acres of breathtaking terrain. You will probably want one to two full days to explore Badlands NP.
The park was established in 1978 and is home to one of the world’s richest fossil beds, dating back millions of years. Visitors can explore the park’s stunning landscapes, including deep canyons, towering spires, and colorful rock formations that have been shaped by millions of years of erosion.
Getting to Badlands National Park is relatively easy, as it is situated along Interstate 90. The park is roughly 75 miles east of Rapid City and 60 miles west of Wall (home to the famous Wall Drug tourist attraction — one of my many suggested things to do in the Black Hills). The closest airport is the Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP), located approximately 75 miles to the west of the park. From the airport, visitors can rent a car or take a shuttle service to reach the park.
The park is also known for its unique ecology, with a variety of wildlife that includes bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, coyotes, and (ick) rattlesnakes. In addition, the park has been designated an International Dark Sky Park, making it an excellent destination for stargazers. The park’s remote location and limited light pollution provide a spectacular view of the night sky, with countless stars visible to the naked eye.
It is important to recognize that Badlands National Park is located within the traditional homelands of several Indigenous peoples, including the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ (Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota) and the Cheyenne. These peoples have lived and continue to live in this region since time immemorial, and their cultural and spiritual connections to the land are deeply rooted.
The Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, also known as the Sioux, have a particularly strong connection to this area, as it was a key location for their nomadic way of life. They hunted bison, antelope, and other game, and gathered wild plants and berries, using the land’s resources in a sustainable manner. The Cheyenne also frequented the area and relied on the resources of the land to sustain their way of life.
I acknowledge and honor the Indigenous peoples who have lived on this land since time immemorial, and recognize the ongoing impact of colonization and displacement on these communities. Today, many Indigenous peoples continue to fight for their rights and sovereignty, working to protect and preserve their cultural heritage and relationship to the land. We acknowledge the ongoing work of these communities and pledge to support their efforts in any way we can.
Tips for Visiting Badlands National Park
There are three main entrances to Badlands National Park. If you are coming from the East, from Sioux Falls, it is best to use the Northeast Entrance, which is off Exit 131 on Interstate 90. For those coming from the West, from Rapid City and the Black Hills, take Exit 110 in Wall and use the Pinnacles Entrance (be sure to stop by the famous Wall Drug first, a must on a South Dakota road trip!)
You can also enter at the Interior Entrance, in the southeast corner of the park, although that isn’t off any major highways. If you follow this guide, I’m going to recommend that you exit from the Interior Entrance and stay overnight nearby, as this will provide the easiest access to evening star gazing programs, as driving in this area at night isn’t fun.
There are three park units: the Palmer Creek Unit, the Stronghold Unit, and the North Unit. Most visitors will concentrate their time in the North Unit and use one of the three entrances mentioned above.
My recommended itinerary if you are coming from the Black Hills or the Rapid City area would be to enter at the Pinnacles Entrance (be sure to pick up a park map!) When you come to a fork in the main road after passing through the tollbooth, make a right onto Sage Creek Rim Road. Note that this is a gravel and dirt road, so you will want to take it slow and it will be more challenging for campers or motorcycles.
The Sage Creek Rim Road provides beautiful views of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland and the Badlands Wilderness Area. We debated whether or not to take this road, but we are so glad that we did as it was a wildlife boon.
In the distance across the grasslands, we saw herds of either bison or cattle. But along the side of the road, both in the grasslands and overlooking the Wilderness Area we found so many small groups of big horn sheep.
Make sure you follow the Sage Creek Rim Road as far as Roberts Prairie Dog Town. We sat and enjoyed a picnic lunch while watching these adorable little critters frolicking in and out of their holes. I could honestly watch prairie dogs work and play all day and sitting by the prairie dog town was one of my favorite things to do in the park.
Tip: bring a boxed lunch or pick up something in Wall Drug before you enter the park as the only food you will find is at the Cedar Pass Lodge near the Interior Entrance in the south of the park.
At that point, I would recommend turning around to head back toward the Pinnacles Entrance. This time, when you get to the split in the road, make a right onto Badlands Loop Road. Along the Badlands Loop Road, there are many scenic overlooks with short hikes to viewpoints. Be sure to stop at the Pinnacles Overlook, Yellow Mounds Overlook, and Panorama Point, at a minimum.
Depending on how much time you spend at the various overlooks, it will take you two to three hours to make your way from the Pinnacles Entrance to the Cedar Pass Area. In the Cedar Pass Area, you will find the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and the Cedar Pass Lodge.
Be sure to stop into the Bed Reifel Visitor Center. Here you will be able to watch a movie about the Badlands, as well as explore a fossil lab. The Visitor Center is also the place to find out about Ranger-led walks and the topics for the evening Ranger Talks. I always find it helpful to ask the Ranger for advice on the best hikes for what I’m looking to do that day.
In the Cedar Pass area, you will also find some hiking trails including the self-guided Fossil Exhibit Trail, the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail, and the Door Trail.
The evening Ranger Talks take place at the amphitheater next to the Cedar Pass Campground. If you are staying nearby, like at the Circle View Guest Ranch (see my review below), I highly recommend attending one of these sessions.
The park offers ranger-led night sky programs during the summer months, which provide an opportunity to learn more about the stars and constellations visible in the park’s night sky. Visitors are encouraged to bring binoculars or a telescope for an even more immersive experience.
Badlands National Park is a great place to stargaze, with its remote location and low light pollution making it a prime spot for viewing the night sky. The park is designated as an International Dark Sky Park, which means that it has taken measures to preserve the darkness of the night sky and reduce light pollution. Many times you can see an abundance of stars, as well as the Milky Way galaxy and other celestial objects.
The Ranger Talk we attended talked all about the role of water in the Badlands and how animals and settlers have had to adapt to the lack of drinkable water. It was entertaining and fascinating. Of course, we were disappointed when we saw lightning in the distance, which caused the night sky gazing program to get canceled — which was one of the most anticipated nights of our entire trip. We never seem to have good luck with star-gazing weather!
If you are staying near Interior, you can finish off the rest of the park on your second day by taking the Interior Entrance and driving north on Route 240 to the Northeast Entrance. Make sure to stop at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center on your way out before you travel on to Sioux Falls or over to Custer State Park and Mount Rushmore.
Other tips for visiting Badlands National Park:
- Stay hydrated: The park is located in a semi-arid climate and temperatures can get hot, so it’s important to drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. There are limited options for refilling water bottles in the park and it is recommended to bring one gallon of water per person.
- Wear sunscreen and a hat: The sun can be intense, so be sure to protect yourself with sunscreen and a hat. Temperatures in the summer can exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Wear closed-toe shoes: Good footwear will protect you against rocks, dust, cacti, and rattlesnakes.
- Stay on designated trails: The park is home to delicate ecosystems, so it’s important to stay on designated trails to protect the plants and wildlife.
- Don’t climb on the rock formations: While they look solid, they are actually quite fragile. The Badlands erode at a rate of one inch per year and the rock is very soft and crumbly. It can actually be easier to get up than to get back down on a slippery path of loose rock and delicate handholds
- Keep a safe distance from wildlife: While it can be tempting to get close to the park’s wildlife while hiking in Badlands National Park, it’s important to keep a safe distance for your own safety and the safety of the animals.
- Watch for rattlesnakes: The park is home to rattlesnakes, so keep an eye out for them on trails and be sure to give them plenty of space.
- Bring binoculars and a camera: The park is home to stunning landscapes and wildlife, so be sure to bring binoculars and a camera to capture the beauty of the park.
- Visit in the early morning or late afternoon: The park can get crowded during peak hours, so consider visiting early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid crowds and the highest temperatures.
- Plan for the weather: The weather in the park can be unpredictable, so be sure to check the forecast and come prepared with appropriate clothing and gear. If you visit in June, keep in mind that it is the rainiest month of the year in the Badlands.
- Attend a night sky program: Ask the Park Ranger at the Visitor Center what night sky programs are taking place during your stay. For the best night skies, avoid visiting on or near when it is a full moon.
- Respect the land and its history: Badlands National Park is a sacred and important place for many Native American peoples, so be sure to respect the land and its history while visiting.
- Take advantage of ranger-led activities: The park offers a variety of ranger-led activities, including hikes, talks, and tours, which can provide a deeper understanding of the park’s history and ecology.
- Purchase a National Parks Pass from the National Park Service to save on entrance fees if you will be visiting a couple of parks within a year.
- Avoid visiting during Sturgis: The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is an annual event that takes place in Sturgis, South Dakota, typically in the first full week of August, but really extends to the week before and the week after also. It is one of the largest motorcycle rallies in the world, with over 500,000 attendees in recent years. Ideally, the best time to visit Badlands National Park is in the spring or fall when the weather is pleasant, crowds are lower, and the scenery is stunning.
Where to Stay Near Badlands National Park
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Finding lodging options around the National Parks is challenging. Usually, any in-park options book up at least a year in advance. Campgrounds are a bit more flexible and there are usually some vacation rental options in the area, but finding a decent hotel nearby takes some work. The Badlands National Park lodging options are even more limited than other parks. There is one lodge, the Cedar Pass Lodge, and a campground. However, the closest city, Rapid City, is over an hour away.
When I was searching for where to stay near Badlands National Park six months before we visited, I ran across an interesting option at the Circle View Guest Ranch for a farm stay that was just what I was looking for.
Circle View Guest Ranch Review
The Circle View Guest Ranch is a family-run bed and breakfast just six miles outside of the southern Interior Entrance to Badlands National Park. It is situated on 3,000 acres of a working ranch and is run by Philip and Amy Kruse, along with their three children. Philip grew up on the ranch as the youngest of eight siblings and opened the guest house in 2000.
The family atmosphere is evident from the moment you arrive. A whiteboard warmly welcomes the guests of the day. After checking in, you can make yourself at home in the comfortable living room, play ping pong or foosball in the game room, or explore the extensive grounds.
There are eight guest rooms, all with locking doors and private bathrooms. There is a mix of room configurations to suit couples, singles, and families including two queens, one king, one queen, a queen with bunk beds, and a suite featuring two queens, a pull-out couch, and a kitchenette.
There are also three cabins on the ranch that are available to rent. Even those staying in the lodge have use of a guest kitchen in the main house. The rates include a full ranch breakfast, served daily downstairs at 7:30 am. Breakfast is a delicious affair and not to be missed.
In addition to fresh eggs from the farm, we filled our bellies with sausage, hash browns, homemade biscuits, fruit, yogurt, juice, smoothies, and freshly-brewed coffee. Breakfast is a time for guests to get to know one another and socialize, as well as partake in tasty food.
After breakfast, the kids are invited to go out to the barn and feed the breakfast scraps to the chickens and collect eggs from the hen house. While we were staying, the family was also fostering a calf that needed to be bottle-fed.
You can tell that many of the kids staying on the ranch had never experienced farm life before and getting to help with the chores was actually a bonus. The kids all had fun climbing into the hayloft, picking up the chickens, and checking the hen house for eggs. It was really cute to listen to some of the kids exclaiming with wonder when they connected the dots between the eggs being collected and the eggs we ate for breakfast.
The ranch also has a dog, cats and kittens, peacocks, and even burros. The team at the farm can arrange for burro rides as well as set up horseback riding. So as much as you want to spend all of your time in Badlands National Park, be sure to leave some time to enjoy the ranch. Just remember to apply the bug spray whenever you step outside, especially when you are helping with the chores.
It was so convenient to stay so close to the Interior Entrance to the park. It made it possible to return to the park for dinner at the Cedar Pass Lodge (try the fry bread Indian taco) and stay for the evening Ranger Talk at the amphitheater.
If you get lucky, the rangers run a Night Sky viewing program after the Ranger Talk. Unfortunately, it was cloudy during our stay and that part was canceled. It was a major disappointment since Badlands National Park is one of the best places for dark sky viewing. It was still a relief to only drive a few miles in that dark versus making the trek all the way back to Rapid City or the Black Hills area.
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Tamara Gruber is the Founder and Publisher of We3Travel. A former marketing executive and travel advisor, Tamara is an award-winning travel writer and recognized expert in family travel. She is also the publisher of YourTimetoFly and the co-host of the Vacation Mavens travel podcast.