As we drove along the prairie lined interstate that crosses South Dakota, my eldest daughter asked, “What are the Badlands like?” Doug and I looked at each other, both of us at a loss to describe this area that is neither prairie nor desert canyon, but an interesting mix of both. The best we could do was, “The Badlands are difficult to describe. You’ll just have to wait and see.”
Even after our visit to Badlands National Park, I am still at a loss to describe the area well. As I tried to imagine westward settlers viewing this area for the first time, all I could think was that to many it would seem that the flat, grassy prairie gave way to an other-worldly landscape of buttes and bluffs filled with animals they had never seen before.
Visiting Badlands National Park
There are a few entrances into Badlands National Park, though most visitors enter at the Northeast and Pinnacles entrances, both just south of I-90. Running between these two entrances is the Cedar Loop Road, the best maintained road through the park and the road that was recommended to us as we were pulling a camper.
Very few roads run through the Badlands, with a single main road running through the North Unit and no marked roads through the Stronghold and Palmer Creek Units (both located within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation), the Badlands seem practically untouched by humans.
Driving through the Badlands
Along the Sage Creek Rim Road and the Badlands Loop Road in the North Unit of the park there are plenty of overlooks with spacious parking. You will only find two public rest rooms along the route- at the Fossil Exhibit Trail and the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. (So if you enter from the west, be sure to take a bathroom break before entering the park!)
Even at these busy spots, you’ll want to watch where you walk.
Hiking in the Badlands
Once off the main road, the Badlands stretch wide in front of you, miles of barren landscape with short grasses, dry and hot, desolate and a bit eerie. Once off road, your only transportation is by foot. Eight hiking paths are well marked and great for families.
We made time to hike the short Fossil Exhibit Trail. This completely boardwalked pathway features enclosed fossil exhibits that have been found in the parkland. But the real draw is the easy- and not so easy- climbs on the smaller surrounding buttes.
The Badlands maintain an open background policy and the entire park is open for exploration. While you aren’t required to register, off-trail hikers are advised to stop at the visitor center for planning assistance and safety tips before heading out.
Make a Stop at the Ben Reifel Visitor’s Center
As you enter -or exit- the park, be sure to stop at the visitor’s center. All special ranger programs and tours leave from the visitors center.
The exhibits inside are informative and nicely presented. Be sure to visit the Fossil Prep Lab. Fossils are still found regularly throughout Badlands National Park and they all come to the prep lab where visitors can watch and learn about the animals that used to roam this land. (Note: most finds happen off of marked paths. All fossil finds must be reported to the National Park.)
Badlands National Park also operates the free Junior Ranger Program for kids.
Staying in Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park has two camping areas, both in the North Unit.
- Sage Creek Campground, located at the west end of the park, offers more rustic camping with pit toilets but no water or electricity. Bison often roam through the campground and limited turn around is available for large recreational vehicles. Sites are free on a first come, first served basis. This site rarely fills to capicity.
- Cedar Pass Campground is located near the eastern end of the park, near the visitor center. Campsites are $16 per night, or $28 for a site with electrical hookups. Cold running water and flush toilets are available here.
Near the Cedar Pass Campground is Cedar Pass Lodge. Open from April to October, these comfortable cabins offer small kitchen areas, bathrooms and comfortable beds.
The nearest town is Wall (home of Wall Drug), about 9 miles north of the Pinnacle entrance. View hotel options in Wall.
Learn More About the Badlands
- Your Guide to Badlands National Park
- Badlands of the High Plains
- Badlands: The Story Behind the Scenery
- Badlands National Park (Trails Illustrated Map #239) (National Geographic Maps: Trails Illustrated)
Thank you to TravelSD.com for their assistance with our visit to the Badlands.