The Complete Guide to Badlands National Park

Amber walls and prairie grass make for impressive landscapes in South Datoka

Striped in yellow, amber, and purple the painted walls and serrated peaks of Badlands National Park dip and rise amid the prairie grasslands making for a stunning surprise in remote western South Dakota. They are both badlands—a geologic term for soft sedimentary rocks that erode easily—and Badlands, a title derived from the Native American Lakota name mako sica or bad lands referring to the scarcity of water, the difficulty of navigating peaks and valleys, and weather extremes that bake the ground in summer and freeze it in winter.

As badlands, the 244,000-acre national park preserves a naturally excavated landscape revealing Earth’s history. Rock layers that stacked up over about 75 million years began eroding a half-million years ago sculpted into channels and canyons by the Cheyenne and White rivers. Sod-covered buttes represent the Ice Age-era prairie where ancient hunters left behind bison bones and arrowheads up to 12,000 years old.

Paleontologists—often seen working in an active lab at the park’s main visitors center—continue to sift through the striated rocks for ancient seashells, ancestors to the modern horse and 50-foot-long marine mammals known as mosasaurs.

To Native Americans, the area was a seasonal hunting ground for buffalo, animals that again inhabit the park a deceivingly still preserve that teems with life provided you slow down to see it. Bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and pronghorn are just a few of the endemic prairie species that star in the uniquely American safari that visitors can self-guide on foot or by car.

At sunset and sunrise the vivid hues of mineral deposits in the rocks radiate warmth. Overnight, countless stars pierce the dark night sky. Whether because of time of day or eons past change is a motif central to the Badlands still eroding under nature’s forces by about an inch a year.

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Plan your trip to Badlands

The beauty—and the challenge—of Badlands National Park is its remote location. The park lies only about 60 miles southeast of Rapid City, South Dakota but about 375 miles north of Denver and 500 west of Minneapolis. The drive from either is fairly rural with farm fields or prairie which only emphasizes the drama of Badland’s colorful eroded hills.

Just shy of a million visitors come to Badlands National Park annually most of those in June, July, and August when the weather is quite hot (highs average above 90 degrees) and prone to thunderstorms. But visitor numbers dip by half in September when the weather moderates and even more in cooler May when you won’t have to time your hikes to avoid the heat or the crowds.

Migrating birds are another reason to visit in spring or fall. In spring, you’re also more likely to see prairie animals such as bison with their young and in fall the golden color of turning leaves fill the canyons and ravines. During the cold and biting winter months wind whips across the largely treeless landscape.

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).

Think of Badlands National Park as remote and prepare accordingly. You can access free public Wi-Fi in the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, the main visitors center about eight miles into the park from the Northeast Entrance—one of three main entrances all in the North Unit—but expect spotty cellular service elsewhere.

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Neighboring Cedar Pass Lodge serves as Badlands National Park’s only commercial hub with a restaurant, gift shop, and snacks for sale. Restrooms are available here as well as in the park’s two visitor’s centers, campgrounds, and picnic area. The lodge, visitor’s centers, and restrooms are fully wheelchair accessible.

Come prepared with ample supplies of water; you’ll find few places to refill water bottles. 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 food, sunscreen, hat and sunglasses. Sturdy hiking boots will help with footing on some of the looser trails and also protect you from cactus spines and, possibly, snake bites.

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 which makes them accessible to all visitors.

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Where to stay and eat

The Badlands has no iconic hotel or even many services but with little commercial fanfare to get in the way it is easy to appreciate its ancient geological, Native American, and homesteading past.

For the closest experience to nature, try camping. In addition to backcountry camping for the super experienced Badlands National Park offers two campgrounds. The primitive, first-come-first-served Sage Creek Campground in the park’s northwest has 22 sites (free), vault toilets, picnic benches, and bison trails.

For running water and electricity opt for the Cedar Pass Campground adjacent to Cedar Pass Lodge where you’ll find RV and tent camping sites with shaded picnic tables. Two sites are fully wheelchair accessible but most of the terrain around the campsites is accommodating. The lodge also rents 26 pine-paneled cabins with minirefrigerators, microwaves, and deck chairs perfect for gazing at the night sky.

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Just south of the park at Circle View Ranch check into cozy B&B accommodations on a 2,800-acre working cattle ranch. For more adventure book the property’s Hamm Homestead Cabin built in 1880. It’s still without running water and electricity and you’ll have to bring your own bedding, water, and camp supplies but the experience on the edge of the White River is 19th-century authentic.

You’ll also find motels and chain hotels including Econo Lodge and Best Western properties in the gateway town of Wall on the park’s far north side.

Cedar Pass Lodge operates the park’s only restaurant specializing in must-try Sioux Indian Tacos featuring fry bread topped with refried beans, buffalo meat, and cheese. For other dining options you’ll need to either bring picnic food or leave the park and head to Wall or the gateway town of Interior in the southeast for casual roadhouses and taverns including the Badlands Saloon & Grille, best for hamburgers, in Wall.

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Things to do

Hike

While breathtaking at a distance the Badlands are geologically fascinating up close, best explored by hiking. Its eight official hiking trails all in the North Unit are not extensive—the longest, the moderate Castle Trail in the park’s northeast is 10 miles round trip but they introduce the rock formations, canyons, ledges, cliffs, and passes interspersed with prairie grasslands. A few trails are strenuous but most are moderate and some including the quarter-mile Fossil Exhibit Trail also in the northeast follow a fully accessible boardwalk.

The park’s Open Hike Policy means visitors may go off trail and many do especially to climb the buttes. But this is often harder than it looks and rangers warn inexperienced hikers against it as coming down can be more challenging than going up.

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Drive

Even if you go hiking you’ll also want to take a drive or two in the park to take in its full scope. The 40-mile Badlands Loop Road connecting the Northeast Entrance with the Pinnacles Entrance near Wall winds up and down the contours of the Badlands threading steep passes with about a dozen opportunities to stop at overlooks and trailheads as well as less formal pullouts for photo ops (most overlooks on the road have wheelchair-accessible boardwalks).

Instead of following the loop road out of the park continue west via the Sage Creek Rim Road. It’s a dirt road but hard-packed and offers a chance to see across the park’s largely roadless wilderness area and to look for wildlife.

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Watch wildlife

The Badlands appear still but the more time you spend contemplating the scenery the more life you’ll see in it. Buffalo and pronghorn graze the grasslands, prairie dogs scamper around their towns, and bighorn sheep deftly pick their way across rock ledges.

The Pinnacles Overlook off the Badlands Loop Road is a good place to look for bighorn sheep. Off Sage Creek Rim Road, Roberts Prairie Dog Town teems with the burrowing mammals and bison often graze nearby. Cliff swallows come and go from mud nests built on Badlands formations.

Caution: If you encounter a wild animal on a trail, stay at least 100 feet away.

Hunt for fossils

The thousands of years of geologic history revealed in the eroding Badlands have upturned fossils such as the mosasaur, a marine lizard living about 75 million to 69 million years ago when sea covered the area during the Cretaceous Age of the dinosaurs. Prehistoric crocodiles and horses attest to the subtropical climate between 37 million and 34 million years ago and the drier conditions that followed, between 34 million and 29 million years ago supported early ancestors to camels, pigs, rabbits, and rhinos.

The Fossil Exhibit Trail displays fossil replicas and reconstructions of the extinct animals who once roamed here. At the Ben Reifel Visitor Center you can view park paleontologists working on nearby specimens at the Fossil Preparation Lab. Hunting for fossils on your own—to photograph, not take, of course—is best pursued after a rainstorm when these remains tend to stand out on the wet ground.

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Learn history

Human history in the Badlands goes back roughly 12,000 years beginning with ancient hunter-gatherers; later, the Native American Lakota people followed migrating buffalo to the area for seasonal hunting.

In 1887, the Dawes Act stripped more than 90 million acres of tribal land nationally from indigenous people to be given out in free 160-acre plots as authorized by the Homestead Act of 1862. Because of the poor soil for farming, however, the government didn’t distribute plots until the early 20th century.

At the Homestead Overlook on Badlands Loop Road view a former homesteading region where prairie grass meets rock walls. Homesteaders would try to bale hay growing atop buttes such as Hay Butte visible from Sage Creek Rim Road.

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Plus, for an in-depth experience

Visit the remote southern Stronghold Unit located within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation established in 1889 and owned by the Oglala Lakota Tribe. During World War II, the U.S. government took more than 340,000 acres from the reservation to establish the Aerial Gunnery Range which the military used for bombing training.

Most of the unit lies within the former bombing range. Here, about a 20-mile drive from the North Unit visit the seasonal White River Visitors Center open only in summer for exhibits on the history and culture of the Lakota people.

You’ll find few paved roads in Stronghold and the park largely restricts access to Sheep Mountain Table on the border with the North Unit. The park’s highest area at 3,300 feet, it’s reached via a backcountry road that requires a high-clearance vehicle or a 14.6-mile round-trip hike.

Gateway towns to Badlands

You just might have heard of tiny Wall (population less than 1,000), Badlands National Park’s chief northern gateway and named for the rock-wall formation that runs across the park before you get there: 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.

For more to do, consider staying in Rapid City, the state’s second-largest city with 75,000 residents, an hour’s drive northwest of the park. It’s also a gateway to the Black Hills region—home to scenic Custer State Park and three more national park areas—providing a convenient perch between Badlands National Park and Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Downtown Rapid City pays homage to Rushmore with a series of life-size sculptures of 43 American presidents. The town nurtures a lively urban core best on display at Art Alley covered in murals by local artists. Visit the Journey Museum to see many of the fossils uncovered in the Badlands.

From excellent Indian/Nepalese food at Everest Cuisine to Italian at Botticelli, Rapid City offers a global dining scene. Don’t miss Tally’s Silver Spoon, a diner with a gourmet heart specializing in dishes featuring local ingredients from breakfast (think buffalo hanger steak and eggs) to lunch (shaved ham and foie gras sandwiches) and through dinner (grilled quail).

While chain hotels abound the city’s Hotel Alex Johnson vintage 1928 will appeal to history and style buffs. Built by namesake Alex Carlton Johnson, former vice president of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad the 143-room hotel showcases his love of Native American culture in sculpture and iconography in a grand Germanic Tudor building updated with modern amenities such as a rooftop bar and accessible rooms.

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En route to Badlands National Park

Just north of the park, Prairie Homestead preserves the 1909 sod home of the homesteading Brown family complete with barking prairie dogs in the yard.

If you’re driving north from Denver (or even driving around) on Highway 18 stop in Hot Springs, South Dakota, for a soak in its naturally warmed waters. Bathing options range from pools as hot as 102 degrees at Moccasin Springs Natural Mineral Spa to the water-park-like Evans Plunge Mineral Springs. Or wade into the warm waters of Fall River at Brookside and Chautauqua parks.

Dry off to check out the Mammoth Site, an active dig site with more than 1,200 fossils of mammoths as well as prehistoric prairie dogs and giant short-faced bear.

About 10 miles north of Hot Springs lies Wind Cave National Park. Below its more than 33,800 acres of prairie and forest lies a vast cave system with rare boxwork formations that resemble honeycombs made of calcite.

From there, it’s a scenic half-hour drive north to biodiverse Custer State Park, a 71,000-acre home to pine forests, granite spires and prairie grassland. Its 18-mile Wildlife Loop drive offers a DIY American safari where you’re likely to see buffalo (about 1,500 roam in the park), elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and prairie dogs.

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In the town of Custer just west of the park refuel at Black Hills Burger & Bun where the kitchen staff prepares everything in house from grinding the meat to baking the buns.

You can’t visit the Black Hills region without taking in the 60-foot-high faces of presidents Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lincoln carved into granite at Mount Rushmore National Memorial a little more than 20 miles southwest of Rapid City.

Don’t miss its Native American counterpart less than 20 miles west of the memorial at Crazy Horse Memorial the still-under-construction mountainside sculpture of the eponymous Oglala Lakota leader.

Badlands National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

Here are a few more articles to help you do just that:

Cedar Pass Campground, Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact box

  • Where the park is: Western South Dakota
  • Size: 244,000 acres
  • Highest peak: Sheep Mountain Table, 3,300 feet
  • Miles and numbers of trails: 17.5 miles among eight trails
  • Main attraction: Striated rock formations
  • Cost: Entry $30 per vehicle for 7-day permit; $20 per year or $80 for a lifetime America the Beautiful Pass for people age 62-plus
  • Best way to see it: Driving the Badlands Loop Road
  • When to go to avoid the crowds: Spring and fall

Worth Pondering…

This is one of the few places I have ever seen where the night was friendlier than the day. And I can easily see how people are driven back to the Badlands. In the night the Badlands had become the Good Lands. I can’t explain it. That’s how it was.

—John Steinbeck

Doorway to Forever: Badlands National Park

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

Badlands National Park doesn’t sound like the best place to go. After all, it’s called Badlands! For centuries humans have viewed South Dakota’s celebrated Badlands with a mix of dread and fascination. But these 244,000 acres of the otherworldly landscape are gorgeous with deep canyons, towering pinnacles and spires, buttes, and banded red-and-gray rock formations.

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According to the National Park Service, Badlands National Park was named by the Lakota people who called it “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.” The term “Badlands” also has a geologic definition referring to sedimentary rock that is extensively eroded over time by wind and lack of water. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rock layers that stacked up over about 75 million years began eroding a half-million years ago, sculpted into channels and canyons by the Cheyenne and White rivers. Sod-covered buttes represent the Ice Age-era prairie where ancient hunters left behind bison bones and arrowheads up to 12,000 years old.

Paleontologists continue to sift through the striated rocks for ancient seashells, ancestors to the modern horse, and 50-foot-long marine mammals known as mosasaurs.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Human history in the Badlands goes back roughly 12,000 years beginning with ancient hunter-gatherers. Later, the Native American Lakota people followed migrating buffalo to the area for seasonal hunting.

Just shy of a million visitors come to Badlands National Park annually, most of those in June, July, and August when the weather is quite hot (highs average above 90 degrees) and prone to thunderstorms. But visitor numbers dip by half in September when the weather moderates and even more in cooler May.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Migrating birds are another reason to visit in spring or fall. In spring, you’re also more likely to see prairie animals such as bison with their young and in fall the golden color of turning leaves fill the canyons and ravines. During the cold and biting winter months, wind whips across the largely treeless landscape.

While breathtaking at a distance, the Badlands are geologically fascinating up close, best explored by hiking. They introduce the rock formations, canyons, ledges, cliffs, and passes interspersed with prairie grasslands. Its eight official hiking trails all in the North Unit are not extensive— the longest, the moderate Castle Trail in the park’s northeast is 10 miles round trip. A few trails are strenuous but most are moderate and some are short including the quarter-mile Fossil Exhibit Trail. The park’s Open Hike Policy means visitors may go off-trail.

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, a wide-brimmed hat (we recommend a Tilley), and sunglasses.

Even if you go hiking, you’ll also want to take a drive or two in the park to take in its full scope. The 40-mile Badlands Loop Road connects the Northeast Entrance with the Pinnacles Entrance near Wall. This scenic route winds up and down the contours of the Badlands with about a dozen opportunities to stop at overlooks and trailheads as well as less formal pullouts for photo ops.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is nothing more iconic in this park than the badland formations that inspired its protection, and there is no better place to take in its supernatural views than on Badlands Loop Road. Also known as South Dakota Highway 240, this 31-mile loop scenic byway travels through the eastern side of the park between the towns of Cactus Flat and Wall, through prairie grasslands and ancient geologic formations with stops along the way at nearly 30 lookout points. One not-to-miss feature—you probably couldn’t miss it if you tried—is what is called “The Wall,” 60-mile long, many miles-wide escarpments of pinnacles, buttes, fins, and mounds that separate the upper and lower prairies.

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For the closest experience to nature, try camping. In addition to backcountry camping, Badlands offers two campgrounds. The primitive, first-come-first-served Sage Creek Campground in the park’s northwest has 22 sites (free), vault toilets, picnic benches, and bison trails. For running water and electricity opt for the Cedar Pass Campground adjacent to Cedar Pass Lodge where you’ll find RV and tent camping sites with shaded picnic tables. The lodge also rents 26 pine-paneled cabins with deck chairs perfect for gazing at the night sky.

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Cedar Pass Lodge operates the park’s only restaurant specializing in Sioux Indian Tacos featuring fry bread topped with refried beans, buffalo meat, and cheese. For other dining options, you’ll need to either bring picnic food or leave the park and head to Wall Drug where ice water is still free.

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Fact Box

Size: 244,300 acres

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

Location: Southwest South Dakota, 63 miles from Rapid City

Park Elevation: 2,460 feet-3,282 feet

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How the park got its name: Badlands National Park was named by the Lakota people who called it “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.” The term “Badlands” also has a geologic definition, referring to sedimentary rock that is extensively eroded over time by wind and lack of water. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iconic site in the park: There is nothing more iconic in this park than the badland formations that inspired its protection, and there is no better place to take in its supernatural views than on Badlands Loop Road. Also known as South Dakota Highway 240, this 31-mile loop scenic byway travels through the eastern side of the park between the towns of Cactus Flat and Wall, through prairie grasslands and ancient geologic formations with stops along the way at nearly 30 lookout points.

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2020 Recreation Visits: 916,932

Worth Pondering…

The Bad Lands grade all the way from those that are almost rolling in character to those that are so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth.

—Teddy Roosevelt

Badlands National Park: Place of Otherworldly Beauty

Badlands National Park is one of America’s top destinations for outdoor recreation with camping sites, miles of hiking trails, and striking scenery

Roughly an hour east of Rapid City, Badlands National Park is accessible by Interstate 90 or South Dakota Highway 44, for travelers who prefer two-lane travel.

State Route 44 cuts through Buffalo Gap National Grassland, which covers a huge chunk of South Dakota’s southwestern corner. You’ll see prairie grass whether you’re officially within the National Grassland area or not.

Buffalo Gap National Grassland © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At first blush, Badlands National Park doesn’t sound like the best place to go. After all, it’s called Badlands! For centuries humans have viewed South Dakota’s celebrated Badlands with a mix of dread and fascination.

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But these 244,000 acres of otherworldly landscape are gorgeous, with deep canyons, towering pinnacles and spires, buttes, and banded red-and-gray rock formations that transform into a veritable rainbow at the magic hour shortly after sunrise or before sunset. Some describe it as otherworldly, lunar-like, some say desert, the Lakota (Sioux) were the first to call it “bad lands,” or “mako sica.”

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The park also protects an expanse of mixed-grass prairie—the largest in the U.S.—where bison, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, mule deer, coyotes, and whole towns of adorable prairie dogs roam. Black-footed ferrets, the most endangered land mammal in North America and a predator of prairie dogs, were reintroduced to the Badlands late in the 20th Century.

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Badlands is really a story of ongoing erosion. Every time it rains, more sediment is washed from the buttes. On average, Badlands buttes erode one-third inch each year. Erosion rates suggest they will erode completely in another 500,000 years, giving them a lifetime of one million years.

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An array of extinct animals, from enormous to very small, once roamed this area. Some lived in the subtropical forests; others lived in the grasslands that came in the years afterwards. Skeletons of three-toed horses and saber-toothed cats are among the many fossilized species found here.

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There is much to see and do at Badlands National Park, but if you have only a short time to spend, begin your visit at the very cool Ben Reifel Visitor Center at the southeastern tip of the Badlands scenic loop, next to Cedar Pass Lodge. While there, pick up a park map, watch the award-winning park video, and tour the exhibits. Visitors can interact with paleontologists that are preparing mammal fossils they’ve found in the park. Ranger-guided programs and hikes are offered.

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Next, drive the Badlands Loop Scenic Byway. It would take about one hour to drive the 39-mile loop of South Dakota Highway 240 between the towns of Cactus Flat and Wall without stopping, but almost no one does that.

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Breathtaking rock formations and native grasslands filled with numerous species of plants and animals guarantee you’ll want to pause along the route to enjoy the view. There are 16 designated scenic overlooks that make for outstanding photo opportunities.

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Stretch your legs along one of the many hiking trails and remember to keep your eyes peeled for wildlife. Buffalo can most often be found along the Sage Creek Rim Road, a gravel spur off the western end of the Badlands Loop Road. Twisting curves climb through passes in the Badlands wall of rugged rock pinnacles, buttes, and mounds.

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Experience Badlands National Park overnight and enjoy its breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, colorful flowers, bountiful wildlife, and rugged scenery from one of two campgrounds available in the park: Cedar Pass Campground and Sage Creek Campground. Both campgrounds are open year-round, and camping is limited to 14 days.

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Located near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, the Cedar Pass Campground has 96 level sites with scenic views of the badlands formations. Cedar Pass Campground offers tent camping and spacious RV sites with electric only service. 

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Bison often wander through Sage Creek, a primitive campground, located on the west side of the park’s North Unit, near the Badlands Wilderness Area. Access is located off of the Sage Creek Rim Road, an unpaved road that may temporarily close after winter storms and spring rains. The road provides limited turnarounds for large recreational vehicles. 

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The Badlands became a national monument in 1939. Congress declared it a national park in 1978. Nearly 1 million people visit Badlands National Park each year (996,223 in 2016.

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Worth Pondering…

Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.

—Rachel Carson