The Ultimate Guide to Badlands National Park

Amber walls and prairie grass make for impressive landscapes in western SoDak

Striped in yellow, amber, and purple, the colorful eroded formations of Badlands National Park dip and rise amid the prairie grasslands.

More than half the North American continent was once grassland like that which exists in the Badlands. Today, only two percent of that grassland remains—it has since been replaced by farm fields, ranches, and cities. Nearly 600,000 acres of prairie grassland border the national park in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, as well as the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Buffalo Gap National Grassland meets Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands is a geologic term for a type of dry terrain where soft sedimentary rocks are extensively eroded by wind and water. The title is also derived from the Native American Lakota name “mako sica” meaning “land bad” for its extreme weather, lack of water, and rugged exposed landscape. French-Canadian fur trappers seconded that notion dubbing it les mauvais terres pour traverse, or “bad lands to travel through.”

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To Native Americans, the area was a seasonal hunting ground for bison, animals that again inhabit the park. Sharing the prairie landscape are pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and coyotes. In prairie dog “towns,” black-tailed prairie dogs in large numbers pop out of their holes alerting pals when outsiders are coming. Overhead, birdlife watches over the landscape—magpie, hawks, bald and golden eagles, peregrine falcons, and as many as 211 other bird species have been identified.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is divided into two sections: the main North Unit and the largely roadless and inaccessible Stronghold Unit located within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the park’s southern section. Driving is one of the most popular ways to see the park and routes such as the Badlands Loop Road (Highway 240) are well marked. Park entry costs $30 per car ($15 if you enter by foot or by bike).

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Think of the Badlands National Park as remote and prepare accordingly. Cedar Pass Lodge serves as the park’s only commercial hub with a restaurant, gift shop, and snacks for sale. Restrooms are available here as well as in the parks two visitor centers, campgrounds, and picnic area.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Come prepared with ample supplies of water. This is especially important if you go hiking; the Park Service recommends two quarts per person for every two hours of hiking. Also bring your own snacks, sunscreen, wide-brimmed hat (we recommend a Tilley), and sunglasses. Sturdy hiking boots will help with footing on some of the looser trails and also protect you from cactus spines.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That said, you don’t have to be an outdoors expert or hiking ninja to enjoy the park. In addition to scenic drives and turnouts, there are easy short hikes of less than one mile and one fully accessible boardwalk trail as well as wooden boardwalks at most scenic overlooks.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You ARE allowed to walk onto the badland formations throughout the park. Naturally occurring erosion makes it so that footprints don’t have a great effect on the landscape. Watch where you step and place your hands though—there are prairie rattlesnakes throughout the park. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You just might have heard of tiny Wall (population less than 1,000), the park’s chief northern gateway and named for the rock-wall formation that runs across the park. Billboards on Interstate 90 touting “free ice water” have been pulling in traffic to Wall Drug since 1936. Originally a drugstore, it’s now a tourist attraction—thronged in summer by up to 20,000 visitors a day—with a splash park, Western art gallery-cum-restaurant, and a mall selling everything from cowboy boots to mounted Jackalope (a fictional animal). It’s a kitschy but must-visit experience complete with homemade donuts and five-cent cups of coffee.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At a glimpse

Total acres: 244,000

Date established: November 10, 1978 (established as a National Monument: January 29, 1939)

Highest peak: Sheep Mountain Table, 3,300 feet

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Miles and numbers of trails: 17.5 miles among eight trails

Main attraction: Striated rock formations

Cost: Entry $30 per vehicle

Best way to see it: Driving the Badlands Loop Road

When to go to avoid the crowds: Spring or fall

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

You don’t escape sky and sun, but wear them in your eyeballs and on your back. You become acutely aware of yourself. The world is very large, the sky even larger and you are very small…

—Wallace Stegner, Wolf Willow