Longtime readers will know that I worked at Badlands National Park in the summer of 2013. Boondocking out here the past two weeks has been fun and I’ve gone into the park a couple times. Rather than write a travelogue about where I went and what I did, which would be repeating stuff from four years ago, I’m going to share some tips on how to make the most of a visit here.
Badlands National Park lies just off of I90 in western South Dakota. The entrance fee is $20 for a 7 day pass, unless you have one of the inter-agency passes (Golden Age, America the Beautiful, etc.).
The Loop Road refers to 240, which is the main road through the park and loops around on both ends to connect to I90. From the interstate you can take exit 131 at Cactus Flat to enter the park from the east side, or from exit 110 at the town of Wall to enter the park from the west. There’s also an entrance to the south of the park off of 44 near the town of Interior.
When to visit
The busy season runs from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend, but Badlands is not a high visitation park and you won’t see the crowds here that you would in more popular places.
The one exception to this is the week of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which occurs in the first half of August. This is the busiest week of the year for the Badlands and finding camping and places to park at the overlooks can be challenging. If you don’t like crowds you’ll want to avoid that week.
May and June are the prettiest months here, that’s when this area gets the majority of its rainfall, and the prairie is likely to be a vibrant green that time of year which contrasts well with the buff and red rocks. Later in the summer the grassland usually dries out and turns yellow, but in 2013 the park received an unusually high amount of rainfall and the grass stayed green through August which was quite unusual.
The park and visitor center are open year-round, but food and lodging are not available in winter. Cedar Pass Campground has limited camping options in the off-season (see camping section below). If you plan on driving through early or late in the season (or in winter), keep an eye on weather conditions.
How much time
This is an excellent driving park, by which I mean you can see much of what there is to see from the road with very little walking. The Loop road from end to end is 39 miles, about 30 miles of which is located inside the park. If you don’t want to do any hiking or hanging out, it’s quite easy to do Badlands in a half-day, that’s including quick stops at at the visitor center, lodge, and several (but probably not all) of the overlooks.
If you want to do some hiking AND stop at visit several of the overlooks (or plan on eating a meal at the lodge), a full day will allow you to see most of what Badlands has to offer.
What to see
The main attraction is painted buttes, spires, and fins sculpted from soft rock which have a unique almost melting appearance from rapid erosion. The rock is compressed layers of fossilized soil laid down over millions of years. These layers vary in composition and thus color, which gives the Badlands their banded appearance. Right after a rainfall is a good time to drive through the park, because the bands are most distinct when wet and the red layers really stands out from the buff colored layers.
Fossils are very common here, and there are exhibits and trails showcasing the various kinds of fossils found in the park: from tiny marine invertebrates that lived when this region was under an ancient inland sea to a massive rhinoceros that roamed through the subtropical forest that covered this area after the sea drained. It’s very possible you’ll see some fossils yourself if you get out and explore as more are being exposed all the time from rainfall and snowmelt. As with all National Parks though, all fossils, rocks, plants, and animals are protected and must remain where you find them.
Badlands NP also features an extensive mixed-grass prairie that is home to several iconic species of wildlife. The resident bison herd can usually be found down Sage Creek Rim Road, a dirt road at the western part of the park not far from the Pinnacles entrance. At the overlooks, watch for Bighorn Sheep which like to hang out on the badlands, I saw them along the Loop road in the western half of the park both times I drove through this year. In the prairies keep an eye out for Pronghorn and Mule deer, they’re typically more shy than the Bighorns and are easiest to find early or late in the day when traffic along the Loop road is less. There are also several Prairie Dog towns along the Loop Road, with pullouts where you can stop for photos. Just please, keep a safe distance from the wildlife.
If you want to watch a sunrise at one of the overlooks, Big Badlands and Panorama Point both face east and are good choices. If you want to watch a sunset, Conata Basin, Big Foot Pass, and Pinnacles face west (Pinnacles is my favorite of these three).
All overlooks and trails are labeled on the map you’ll get when you enter Badlands, and the signage along the road is pretty good.
Most of the hikes in Badlands National Park are quite short. The largest trailhead is on the east end of the park between Cedar Pass and the Cactus Flat entrance. Door Trail and Window Trail are two small trails that lead to scenic overlooks and are quite easy. Notch Trail also leads to an overlook, but is a little longer and involves a ladder climb. Castle Trail also starts here on the other side of the Loop road. This is the park’s one long hike and if you do the whole thing it’s over seven miles one way.
Also near Cedar Pass is the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail, which is a small loop through a juniper/cedar forest on the side of the pass. I like this one because it’s quite different from the other trails. There are a quite a few steps (stairs) on this one, it’s rated moderate.
Saddle Pass trail is a short but strenuous climb from the bottom to the top of the badlands wall. It’s very pretty to hike near sunset as it faces west and the wall turns orange.
The Fossil Exhibit Trail is a short easy paved loop with fossil exhibits.
Dogs are not allowed on the trails at Badlands, but they are allowed at the overlooks and in the campground so long as they’re on a 6 foot or shorter leash.
As a note, the Badlands tends towards arid most of the year and gets hot in the summer, so bring water and wear a hat when hiking. You’ll see signs to watch out for rattlesnakes at the trailheads, but in the over six months I’ve spent here I’ve never seen one.
There is one developed campground inside the park, Cedar Pass Camground located next to Cedar Pass Lodge and near Ben Reifel Visitor Center. It’s open seasonally from mid-April until late October aside from four group camping sites which are available year-round (weather permitting).
RV sites cost $37 a night as of this writing for two adults (children 15 and under stay free) and $4 for each additional adult. Sites are electric only, there’s a water and dump station near the entrance to the campground for an additional $1. Tent camping sites are $22 a night for 2 adults (same rules as for the RV spots), and $3 for each additional adult.
The campground has flush toilets and pay showers that take quarters, the water is hot. I stayed at this campground the summer I worked here until the employee campground opened up. You get a good view of the Badlands wall, and it’s within walking distance of the amphitheater, lodge, and visitor center. AT&T signal is pretty strong, Verizon signal was quite spotty in 2013 but better this year when I drove through the area although still probably not good enough to stream video. (AT&T had an exclusive contract with the reservation, I’m not sure if that’s still in effect or not). Before the peak season Mule deer like to hang out in and around the campground which is pretty cool.
There’s also a free primitive campground ten miles down Sage Creek Rim Road, which is only open when the road is open (it’s a dirt road and in heavy rain and during the winter is closed). Sites are not marked, it’s just a loop that you pull off alongside. Cell signal is non-existent out here, but you’ll probably get close encounters with bison which is a highlight for most visitors. If they do go through the campground don’t get too close, they may seem placid but are not tame.
If you want full-hookups, the town of Wall near I90 outside the west entrance has two options, the town of Interior out the south entrance has one option, and out the east entrance near the interstate is Circle 10. I know little about the campgrounds in Wall and Interior, but know a lot about Circle 10 as it’s also the employee campground where I stayed in 2013. To be honest, it’s nothing special. But if you just need a place to park for the night it’ll do. It is quite close to the Minuteman Missile site (more on that below).
Lastly, the park is surrounded by Buffalo Gap National Grassland, which allows free dispersed camping for up to 14 days (see my last post for details). The visitor center for the Grassland is located in Wall and if you call or stop in you can get more details on where camping is allowed.
Gas, food, gifts
There are no gas stations within the park boundaries, both Cactus Flat and Wall have gas stations (Wall tends to be cheaper).
Cedar Pass Lodge located at the east end has the only restaurant inside the park. It serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner and is rated two stars. My favorite thing there is the Indian Taco (not authentic by any stretch of the imagination, but tasty and big enough for two). As with most tourist areas, service depends on who was hired that year and how much they enjoy what they’re doing. The view is great.
The visitor center has a small gift shop inside it, specializing in educational gifts. Cedar Pass Lodge has the larger gift shop (this is where I worked in 2013), and covers the usual fare along with authentic Native American crafts.
Wall has the largest gift shop in the area (more about that below) along with several more dining options and a small if expensive grocery store if you need to stock up on supplies.
Badlands NP Stronghold unit (southwest of the main north unit) – There’s actually another good chunk of Badlands NP located in Pine Ridge Indian Reservation which gets a lot less visitors. The White River Visitor Center on 27 is open seasonally and managed by the reservation. I enjoyed the more cultural focus of this visitor center, it’s quite different from the Ben Reifel one.
Wall Drug (In Wall, SD) – You’ll see signs for this coming into the Badlands along I90 long before you arrive. It’s a old tourist trap, a sprawling network of stores selling all sorts of things, there’s also dining options. If you enjoy such places it’s worth a stop.
Scenic, SD (on 44 southwest of the north unit) – This is a ghost town near Badlands NP. It’s not an attraction, there are no shops, but if you want to see a real western ghost town, here you go.
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site (Cactus Flat, SD) – Established in 1999 to illustrate the history and significance of the Cold War, the arms race, and intercontinental ballistic missile development. Pretty neat and doesn’t take long.
The Black Hills (west of Badlands) – About an hour and a half west of Badlands NP lies the Black Hills, which has Custer State Park, Mt Rushmore, Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, and more. Most people stopping at Badlands also stop here, either before or after the Badlands.
For more articles and photos of the Badlands, you can search the IO post archives for 2013 from April to October. A few articles that are helpful for visiting:
- Arriving at Badlands National Park – Photos of Cedar Pass Campground and Wall Drug
- The Best Learning Experiences – A visit to the southern half of Badlands NP (and a tour of the reservation)
- Buffalo and Bad Weather – Pics of Badland’s bison herd and the ghost town of Scenic
- Circle 10 Campground
- Blizzard Weekend – Not as helpful, but an interesting weekend in the park for sure