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