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 Today, only two percent of that grassland remains—it has since been replaced by farm fields, ranches, and cities.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.”

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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).

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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

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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

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.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.”

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. 

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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

—Rachel Carson