With pink cotton candy colored clouds visually melting across the sky above the jagged rock formations and the soft symphony of nature on surround sound, this sunset had me hooked. Why in the world is this place called the “badlands”?

Badlands National Park is a beautiful but unforgiving combination of extremes. Millions of years ago it was part of a shallow sea, which is hard to imagine given the dry conditions there today. Today’s rock formations, primarily made of clay-rich soil, show you this evolution in their colorful layers of sediment.

Aside from the iconic rock formations, Badlands National Park also has expansive grasslands and prairie. Be prepared to be blown away by all this park has to offer.

Here are 11 awe-inspiring things to do in Badlands National Park!

*Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. That means that if you purchase through a link, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. This helps keep This Big Wild World up and running!

Pro Tip: Centuries ago, the Lakota people called this place “mako sica”, which translates to “land bad”. It’s widely believed that this was in reference to the extreme conditions and lack of water in the area. However, in the 2006 book “Home Ground”, which explores the language origins for the names of many places in the US, “mako sica” is translated as “eroded land”. Below I’ve included links to several books about the Lakota people if you want to learn more!

Where is Badlands National Park?

Badlands National Park is located in southwest South Dakota, about 75 miles (120 km) east of Rapid City and 500 miles (800 km) west of Minneapolis. Rapid City is the nearest airport, though being a smaller airport expect limited flight options. 

Map of South Dakota and surrounding states with markers showing Badlands National Park in the southwestern part of the state, Rapid City, and Minneapolis.
Badlands National Park is located in southwestern South Dakota, near Rapid City.

The towns closest to the park are Interior and Wall. Interior is located south of the park’s North Unit, just a couple of miles from the Interior Entrance. Wall is located north of the park’s North Unit, about 10 miles from the Pinnacles Entrance.

To access the town of Interior, exit south off of I-90 (Exit 131) onto Highway 240 towards the Prairie Homestead and the park’s Northeast Entrance. Then, drive through the park and exit through the Interior Entrance.

Pro Tip: Rapid City, South Dakota, is the gateway to the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore if you want to add on some sightseeing to your trip!

Wanna add on another epic national park to your road trip itinerary? Plan your trip to Glacier National Park in Montana!

Getting Around Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park sprawls out over more than 240,000 acres. With no shuttle service operating in the park, the best way to get around is by vehicle (aside from hiking). There’s plenty of parking and pullouts along the park roads to get out and enjoy the view.

Map showing an overview of Badlands National Park and the surrounding area, including Highway 90 to the north and Highway 44 to the south.
The North Unit and Badlands Wilderness Area are the most visited areas of Badlands National Park. For an interactive version of this map and to see the entire park, click here to go to nps.gov.

There are two main roads to navigate inside the park. Badlands Loop Road, also Highway 240, is a paved road that winds from I-90 through the North Unit of the park and back up to I-90. Sage Creek Rim Road, also Highway 590, is a dirt or gravel road that follows the northern edge of the Badlands Wilderness area which is in the western side of the park. The two roads meet just inside the park’s Pinnacles Entrance. 

Just outside the southern border of the park, Highway 44 runs from the town of Interior to Sage Creek Road (different from Sage Creek Rim Road). This is an alternative route to get to Sage Creek Campground without driving through the park. Sage Creek Road is mostly dirt or gravel. 

South of Highway 44 is the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which is home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe (also called the Oglala Lakota Tribe). 

Entry Fee: $30 for a private vehicle, check the Badlands NPS website for more info.

What are the best places to stay near Badlands National Park?

Whether you prefer to camp, RV, or rent a room, there are lots of options in and near Badlands National Park. For campers, it’s important to know that summer temperatures regularly exceed 90F and there are very few trees to offer shade. Some campsites come with picnic tables and a small shade cover. 

Jagged clay and sand rock formations stretch out to the horizon. They have colorful stripes of sediment from centuries ago. In the distance the horizon is pale blue with a pink and yellow haze above it at sunset. A soft light is falling on the rock formations from the right hand side, out of frame. In the foreground is a dirt path leading out onto the rocks.
Stay close to or in the park so you can enjoy the sunset after dinner.

Places to Stay In Badlands National Park

For the safety and preservation of the grasslands within the park, open fires are not allowed at campsites. Campers will need to bring portable grills or stoves to cook at the campsites. 

Cedar Pass Lodge | Website

The only lodge inside the park, Cedar Pass Lodge’s newer cabins fill up quickly. They are conveniently located near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center with several trailheads nearby. 

The cabins accommodate from two to six people, are ADA accessible and include both heat and air conditioning. Pets are not allowed.

Cost: ~$185/night

Cedar Pass Campground | Website

Located very close to Cedar Pass Lodge and the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, Cedar Pass Campground offers 96 sites, some of which offer RV hookups. Two of the RV sites are ADA accessible.

Pro Tip: Reservations for Cedar Pass Campground are made through the Cedar Pass Lodge website.

Cost: $23/night for 2 camper, $38/night for 2 people in an RV (additional per person costs for both)

Sage Creek Campground

A green and white tent is setup on the left hand side on an open dry grassy area. Behind the tent in the distance is a pit toilet building. On the right is a shaded picnic table. In the distance are rolling green hills and white fluffy clouds in a blue sky. A prairie dog is running across the foreground towards the tent.
A curious prairie dog is going to checkout a tent at Sage Creek Campground.

Don’t have a reservation or looking to cut costs on your trip? Sage Creek’s 22 campsites are free and first come first serve. Located in the west part of the park and accessible only by a dirt road, this campground tends to be less crowded. RV’s and other vehicles longer than 18 feet are prohibited so you’ll find more tent campers than other campgrounds. The campground has pit toilets and trash, but no showers.

If you want to see prairie dogs, this is the place to be! Seriously, they are everywhere and will be curiously checking out your tent and other gear. As always practice Leave No Trace and keep your tent zipped unless you want to cuddle with one! Also, bison are commonly found grazing around this area.

This part of the park is beautiful rolling green hills, very different from the iconic rock formations you’ll find in the eastern part of the park but beautiful in its own way.

Cost: $0

Backcountry Camping

If you’re looking for a little more isolation and adventure, backcountry camping is permitted inside the park with some restrictions. Visit the Badlands National Park back-country camping page for more details.

Places to Stay Near Badlands National Park

One of the benefits of staying outside of the park is that you can enjoy sweeping views of the rock formations from just a mile or so from the park entrance. Here are some great alternatives for places to stay that are just outside of Badlands National Park.

Badlands Interior Campground | Website

In the left foreground is a gray and yellow tent setup on grass. Behind it is a wire fence with taller green grass on the other side. In the distance across the frame is dark reddish outline of the rock formations in Badlands National Park. White clouds scattered across a blue sky are overhead. The sun is coming into the frame from the left hand side.
Badlands Interior Campground is just one mile outside the park and offers stunning views of the rock formations.

Located just 1 mile from the south entrance of Badlands National Park, near the Cedar Pass Campground and Ben Reifel Visitor Center, Badlands Interior Campground is a gem. They offer a range of options, including tent sites, teepees, no hookup sites, and RV sites. On the grounds is a small store with all the essentials (including alcohol!), showers, bathrooms, a walking path, and even a pool!

For tent camping, there are sites closest to the road that have some large trees for shade and better access to wifi. These are also very close to the small playground and the pool. If you prefer a little more peace and quiet, the tent sites line the perimeter of the campground and those facing the park and on the side furthest from the road will be a better option.

Pro Tip: I stayed in campsite TNT 11 in the far corner of the campground and loved it. It’s a large corner site, with good space between the adjacent sites, minimal foot traffic and great sunset views. It’s the farthest from the showers, bathrooms and wifi but I was ok with that. 

Cost: Varies, but tent sites start at $21/night for 2 people (additional per person costs for both)

Pro Tip: On the same property, the Badlands Interior Motel offers some rooms to rent. The website also refers to this as the Badlands Budget Host Hotel. I found this confusing but it’s all part of the same property. // Book a room at Badlands Interior Motel now!

Boondocking/ Free Camping

On the right hand side, a gray and yellow tent is setup on dry grass at the edge of a cliff overlooking the sweeping Badlands rock formations below. In the distance are RVs and other tents along the cliff. Below is green grass with bison roaming. The sun is coming into the frame from the left hand side.
Find an empty spot along the ridge and setup camp at this boondocking location just outside of Badlands National Park.

Another budget friendly option is to go boondocking or free camping near Badlands National Park. Just north of the park off of Highway 240 on the way to Wall, South Dakota, is a designated location with incredible views of the park and surrounding area.

From the park’s north entrance, take Sage Creek Rim Road to Highway 240 and go north towards Wall for a mile or two. Whether you’re coming from Wall or the park, look for three cell phone or radio towers, one on the west side of the road and two on the east side of the road. There is a relatively unmarked, gated road right near the two towers on the east side of the road.

This dirt road will lead you to a fork. Go either direction and choose a spot along the ridge to set up camp. Keep in mind that if it’s been raining, this road can be muddy and difficult to navigate.

Pro Tip: If you turn to the left, I think you get better views of the Badlands, but really all of the spots are great. 

Boondocking means there are not clearly identified campsites and there are no services such as toilets, showers, water or trash. Bring everything you need and pack out your garbage.

Pro Tip: This area is known to have frequent storms and high winds. Stake your tent down well with your rain fly and allow some space between your tent and the ridge. 

Cost: $0

Circle View Ranch | Website

Ever wanted to stay on a working cattle ranch? I have! Circle View Ranch is just 10-15 minute drive from the Interior Entrance of Badlands National Park, adjacent to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The ranch is located on a butte and 2800 acres overlooking the Badlands, a river valley, prairie and more. 

There are eight guest rooms in the bed and breakfast style accommodation. Rooms include a private bathroom, air conditioning, wifi and a full ranch breakfast served in the common area.  There’s also the Tree House Cabin on the property, which is located one mile from the main building. 

Pro Tip: The property isn’t easily visible from the highway, but there is a gated entrance for the ranch immediately off the highway.

Cost: Rates vary, starting around $150/ night

// Check availability at Circle View Ranch on AirBNB now!

Booking.com

Essentials to Pack for Badlands National Park

Given that the Badlands are a place of extremes, it’s best to be prepared! Here are some essentials to bring for a day of exploring Badlands National Park.

Plenty of water

Bring at least 2 liters of water with you. // Buy a water bottle or water bladder now!

Sun protection

With very little shade in the park, be sure to bring sun screen, breathable layers, polarized sunglasses, and a hat.

Bug spray

In the evening, the bugs come out so bring along your favorite bug spray. // Buy my favorite mosquito and fly repellent now!

Here’s more on how to avoid getting eaten alive by mosquitoes and ticks!

Rain gear

The weather changes quickly in Badlands National Park. Thunder and lightning storms are common during the summer, so bring a rain jacket and dry bag to protect your electronics. // Buy my favorite ultralight dry bag now!

Coming soon – A detailed summer Badlands National Park packing list!

Awe-Inspiring Things to Do in Badlands National Park

Wondering how to spend your time in the park? Be sure to include these incredible things to do in Badlands National Park on your itinerary!

1 | Enjoy the wildlife.

In the left foreground is a large bison eating grass. In the background, a second bison is on the right hand side of the frame standing in taller dry grass. The grass extends to the horizon where it meets with a clear blue sky.
A herd of bison enjoying a snack along the side of Sage Creek Rim Road in Badlands National Park.

The most iconic wildlife in Badlands National Park are bison and prairie dogs, both commonly seen in the Sage Creek Campground and along the Sage Creek Rim Road. But the park is packed with so much more wildlife, including Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, black-footed ferrets, pronghorn, and coyote.

Bobcats and mountain lions are rare to see and most trails will have warning signs to watch for rattlesnakes. Be particularly cautious and alert while hiking. 

Pro Tip: In my 4 days in the park, I did not see or hear a rattlesnake. I have read that they are known to hide in the shade under the rain fly of tents. Be cautious when opening your rain fly and avoid storing any personal items under there. 

2 | Hike among the rock formations on the Castle Trail.

The lower third of the image shows jagged clay rock formations all the way to the horizon. The upper portion of the image is clear blue sky. On the right hand side, I am standing, looking very small standing on one of the rock formations with my hands raised over my head.
Can you spot me? Feeling so small while hiking among the rock formations on the Castle Trail.

What better way to enjoy the Badlands than to walk among them? This 11 mile out and back trail (or 5.5 mile one way) takes you into the heart of the park’s iconic formations and sweeping prairies. For a great overhead view, take the spur trail towards Saddle Pass and climb up one of two viewpoints.

This was one of my favorite things to do in Badlands National Park! 

Pro Tip: There is almost no shade on this trail. Try to leave early in the morning (before 8am) and pack plenty of water, snacks and sunscreen.

3 | Learn about prehistoric life in the Badlands on the Fossil Exhibit Trail.

Did you know that at one time the Badlands was part of a sea? This accessible trail is just 0.4 miles with interpretive signs sharing all sorts of information about the evolution of the land and wildlife in the Badlands. 

4 | Capture the beauty of the Badlands on the Door Trail.

The lower third of the image has jagged rock formations that are mostly beige but with stripes of sediment in different colors. The upper portion of the image is dark grayish blue sky with creamy looking white clouds. On the right hand side I am sitting with my legs crossed, wearing a backpack looking off into the distance.
The very end of the Door Trail has 360-degree views of rock formations.

At the end of a 0.2 mile long accessible boardwalk the trail transitions onto the rock formations with signposts guiding the way. Go early in the morning to avoid the crowds and capture stunning photos of incredible landscape. The trail is labelled as 0.8 miles total, but I tracked closer to 1.5 miles from wandering around the area.

5 | Spend your evenings stargazing.

The stars and Milky Way pop in the night sky above the silhouette of the Badlands rock formations along the horizon. On the far left edge, just above the rock formations is a pinkish streak, made my comet NEOWISE.
Comet NEOWISE left a streak in the left corner of the night sky over Badlands National Park.

While it’s not an official “dark sky park”, there is very little light pollution in and around Badlands National Park. At night, the sky comes alive! Grab your camp chair and enjoy the show.

During my visit, the Milky Way was visible every night. I also was able to see comet NEOWISE without using a lens or long exposure! 

Want to improve your nighttime photography skills? Check out my guide to nighttime photography and photographing the northern lights for beginners!

6 | Challenge yourself by climbing the Notch Trail.

This 1.3 mile out and back trail culminates with a literal ladder climb. As with nearly any hike, the hard work pays off with an incredible view. Be sure to wear shoes with decent grip for the climbing portion.

This trail can get crowded by mid morning through the afternoon, so consider going first thing in the morning or in the evening.

7 | Be amazed by the sunsets.

As the sun sets just outside the right of the frame, it creates a soft pink glow on the rock formations. The rock formations extend off to the horizon where the sky is pink with a layer of bright yellow light and then above that one large thin cloud. I am standing in the lower right hand corner of the frame on a dirt path on one of the rock formations, looking very tiny.
The sunset created a soft pink glow over the rock formations at the Hay Butte Overlook.

It’s so tempting to relax at the campsite after a good meal and a long day of adventuring, but seriously the sunsets are worth venturing back out for! I was literally speechless every night at the sunsets views in this park. 

I think nearly any overlook in the park will offer a good sunset view, but my favorites were the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail, White River Valley Overlook and the Hay Butte Overlook. 

8 | Get a stamp in your National Parks Passport!

A close up page in my National Parks passport. On the top half of the page is the Rocky Mountain Region sticker, which is purchased at the park visitor center. One the lower half is a date stamped (July 12 2020) Badlands National Park stamp and an artistic sticker purchased in the visitor center.
Get a stamp in your National Parks passport at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and purchase a sticker as a sourvenir!

Don’t forget to stop by the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to get your Badlands National Park stamp in your National Parks Passport. If you don’t have a passport yet, you can buy them online or at the visitor center for $10. It’s a fun way to remember and track your national park adventures!

Cost: $0 for stamp, ~$5 for sticker

9 | Cycle your way through the park.

If you prefer to explore on two wheels, bring your bicycle! Be prepared for steep ascents and descents as you explore the park. The Badlands National Park website has a page with resources for planning your cycling trip!

10 | Drive the Badlands Loop Road.

The left hand side of the photo is a closeup of a rear view mirror on a white vehicle, showing the open road and jagged rock formations in the reflection. The right hand side show the landscape on the road ahead, with colorful rock formations, green grass and a bright blue sky.
Take in the stunning landscape of Badlands National Park while driving the Badlands Loop Road.

During the hot summer afternoons, hop in the car, turn on the air conditioning and enjoy the ever-changing landscape along the Badlands Loop Road. There are all sorts of pullouts and overlooks with interpretative signs along the way. 

11 | Rest and relax between adventures.

On the left side of the frame, my hand is holding a Truly lime hard seltzer can. At the bottom of the image you can see my feet stretched out in the grass with blue Chaco sandals. In the distance is a valley below with rocks formations, grassland and grazing buffalo.
Sit back, relax and enjoy the view from your campsite at Badlands National Park.

With so many things to do and explore in Badlands National Park, save time to enjoy the sounds of nature, the warm breeze and stunning views. Bring a book or just let your mind wander while you soak up the healing power of nature.

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Are you ready to visit Badlands National Park?

The hardest part will be figuring out how to fit in all these incredible things to do in Badlands National Park!

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Text: 11 awe-inspiring things to do + where to stay Badlands National Park.
Image: Dark blue sky with creamy white clouds make up the upper three quarters of the image. The lower part of the image has jagged rock formations with colorful stripes of sediment. In the lower left foreground, I am standing with my left arm up looking off into the distance with a red backpack on.
Text: Best of Badlands National Park South Dakota, where to stay + things to do
Image: A pink glow on the jagged formations gives the image a dreamy feel, as the sun sets off frame to the right of the image. In the lower right foreground, I am standing facing the camera, very small, and looking off to the left. The sky above has a pink haze, then a bright yellow streak and above that a single thing cloud stretching over the sky.

24 Comments

  1. I love the amount of details that you have provided. Saved this for when we make it to South Dakota!

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Thanks, Michele! So happy to hear you found this helpful!

  2. Badlands National Park and South Dakota in general is high on my bucket list. It looks so magical. I also realize I need to get a National Parks Passport! Definitely keeping this article handy. 🙂

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Magical is exactly how I’d describe the Badlands, Taylor! And, yes, be sure to get a National Parks passport. It’s such a fun way to remember and track your adventures.

  3. Wow, this place looks stunning and your photo of the starry night sky is incredible! I imagine the sky is even more beautiful in person. I’d love to plan a trip to Badlands National Park one day!

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Thanks so much, Olivia! I can’t recommend a visit to Badlands National Park enough. It’s a true gem! And, yes, the sky is even more incredible in person 🙂

  4. Wow! You bought me with the beautiful photo of the skies at night! It looks like such an amazing place to see and experience. Thanks for the great tips and information.

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      You’re welcome, Shany! Seriously, the night sky was stunning!

  5. Wow I didn’t realize how beautiful Badlands National Park is. You inspired me to visit and go camping there. Such an amazing post, thanks for sharing.

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      I had the same reaction, Chrissy! I had no idea South Dakota was this beautiful. Happy to hear I’ve inspired you to consider a visit someday 🙂

  6. Sophia Bawany Reply

    Wow, neither of us are hardcore hikers but you are tempting us to seriously look into making a trip to South Dakota! The landscape looks etherial and the colors are absolutely breathtaking! I can only imgine how stunning the clear nights look. Time to go brush up on our hiking skills 🙂

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Good news! There’s loads of short hikes with stunning views, so I think you’ll enjoy it even if you aren’t up for longer hikers. You’re right, the nighttime was absolutely stunning. Even though I was exhausted every night, I couldn’t help but stay up and gaze at the stars!

  7. What an incredible place. I always thought it was in Canada for reason. Or does Canada have their own version of the Badlands?

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      You’re right, Patti! There are Badlands in Alberta, Canada, also!

  8. First of all Badlands is a bad ass name. What a great guide. I’d love to check this place out.

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Ha ha, isn’t it?! Thank you! Hope you make it there someday. I was blown away by the beauty of this place!

  9. Stunning! I see what you mean, these should be called the pink-rock pretty lands rather than the Bad Lands!

    I really love the look of all the hikes, the amazing places you camped and the possible wildlife viewings (although, I have to admit, I’d prefer not to meet a snake in my tent vestibule!) I really like the photos of you looking teeny against the epic landscape…as well as the comet photo- swoon!

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Ha ha yes, that’s a much more descriptive name! I agree about the snakes. Fortunately I didn’t run into any during my visit but there are signs everywhere. So glad you enjoyed the photos 🙂

  10. I went to Badlands National Park for the first time last summer and it was such a beautiful park! I’d love to go back there to camp someday (especially to go stargazing again–the skies were so, so gorgeous)!

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Yes! The stargazing was incredible! Definitely worth a return trip just for more of that 🙂

  11. The Badlands is really an otherworldly kind of place. I agree that it’s easy to fall for such a unique area. I like the links to the Lakota resources.

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Thanks, Karen! Glad you enjoyed the links to Lakota resources!

  12. I love how otherworldly the landscape is here! Last year we stayed a few nights in Sage Creek Campground. It was so awesome. We didn’t get in as much hiking as you because the temps topped 110 every day. We loved the Notch Trail, though!

    • This Big Wild World Reply

      Oh yes I understand about the heat! It was 110F one of the days we were there and it makes it hard to explore in the afternoon. Sounds like you enjoyed it as much as I did!

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