Otherworldly: Badlands National Park in South Dakota
Last Updated on August 7, 2019 by Jody Halsted
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 multiple visits 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 otherworldly landscape of buttes and bluffs filled with animals they had never seen before.
Visiting Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park has 3 main entrances: Pinnacles Entrance south of I-90 at exit 110/ Wall (home to famed Wall Drug), Northeast Entrance south of I-90 at exit 131, and the Interior Entrance just north of South Dakota Highway 44 which skirts along the southern edge of the main portion of the Badlands.
At these entrances you will pay your entrance fee which provides access to the park for 7 days.
If you enter via Sage Creek Rim Road your fee will be charged as you leave the park.
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.
Running between the east and went entrances is Badlands Loop Road, the best maintained road through the park. (If you are pulling a camper or driving an RV this is the road you want to stick to.)
Activities in Badlands National Park
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!)
Traveling out Sage Creek Rim Road you are sure to see plenty of wildlife. But be aware the road is unpaved gravel, and very rough. Not recommended for RVs or campers unless absolutely everything is secure.
Even in a car or truck I only recommend driving as far as Prairie Dog Village before turning around and heading back to Badlands Loop Road.
If you do decide to drive the entire road and loop back to one of the park entrances via Hwy 44 be prepared for rough roads and not much to see once you pass the large prairie where bison congregate.
Hiking and Cycling 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.
When off road, your only transportation is by foot or bike. Eight hiking paths and three cycling paths are well marked as you drive along Badlands Loop Road.
Door Trail and Fossil Exhibit Trail are both accessible boardwalks, short, and perfect for a quick hop out to explore.
We made time to hike the short Fossil Exhibit Trail with the girls when they were young. 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.
Even at these busy spots, you'll want to watch where you walk.
For a more difficult hike Notch Trail is my favorite as it includes a log ladder to a narrow ledge. It's not a long trail, but does have some drop offs and can be strenuous.
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.
Visit 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: If you are hoping to discover your own fossils, 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.
Get Camping Tips for Badlands National Park
The nearest town is Wall (home of Wall Drug), about 9 miles north of the Pinnacle entrance.
Handy Tips for Your Visit to Badlands National Park
- Entry to the Badlands National Park is paid per vehicle and is valid for 7 days. Visit the Badlands National Park website for current fees.
- For the best wildlife views, travel the Sage Creek Rim Road out to Prairie Dog Town.
- Bring binoculars. It’s the only way you’ll find a mountain goat perched on top of one of the peaks, or spot a pronghorn across the prairie.
- If you plan to hike, wear hiking boots. Hiking sandals are not advised.
- Always carry plenty of water and a compass.
- Cellular service is spotty (or completely non-existent) in the park.
- Weather can change rapidly and some roads may become impassable with heavy rain or snow.
Badlands National Park sounds like an amazing destination. I would love to wander in those stunning landscapes and a pleasant walk would be relaxing. Great comprehensive post.
Thanks for sharing! My family returned from the smoky mountains this week. Your post popped up on my screen saver for world travel and I thought it was very insightful. I have watched the badlands series on cable; however, I did not know that a place existed in the US. We will definitely make our way to South Dakota someday to see this amazing place.