Tips for Visiting Badlands National Park

A rabbit munching on new grass along a trail in Badlands NP

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.

General info

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.

May is green here

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.

View from an overlook

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.

Red rock layers when dry, they’re more vibrant when wet

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.

Bighorn sheep along the Loop road

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.

Hiking

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.

Window Trail is a boardwalk

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.

Cliff Shelf Nature Trail. If you look closely you can see the stairs and boardwalk in the background partway up.

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.

Camping

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.

Flowers along Saddle Pass Trail

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).

Indian Taco at the restaurant in Cedar Pass Lodge

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.

View at Cedar Pass Lodge

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.

Nearby attractions

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.

Related Links:

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:

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17 Responses to Tips for Visiting Badlands National Park

  1. JoanneG June 2, 2017 at 10:30 am #

    Very helpful, thank you!

    • Becky June 3, 2017 at 6:30 pm #

      You’re welcome!

  2. Jeff June 2, 2017 at 12:29 pm #

    Awesome tips Becky! We’ll be there in a few weeks, so your tips are timed perfect. These insider tips will indeed be useful as we’ll not have as much time in the park as it deserves. But looking forward to taking advantage of every moment. – Thanks!

    • Becky June 3, 2017 at 6:31 pm #

      You’re welcome Jeff, have fun! If you’re able to drive the whole Loop Road you’ll get to see most of the good stuff.

  3. Gerri & Mike June 2, 2017 at 9:55 pm #

    Great review of the area!! Lots of very helpful information….thanks!!
    Gerri & Mike recently posted..Remember that Glitch???My Profile

    • Becky June 3, 2017 at 6:31 pm #

      Glad you enjoyed this Gerri and Mike, you’re welcome!

  4. Jodee Gravel June 2, 2017 at 10:16 pm #

    We’re looking forward to getting back to that area and this is a great guide for the Badlands – thanks for all the work! Wall Drug is a nightmare we never need to repeat, but it was one of those spots we had to stop at – just because 🙂
    Jodee Gravel recently posted..Moving to the CoastMy Profile

    • Becky June 3, 2017 at 6:33 pm #

      Wall Drug is Roadside America at it’s finest. Not my cup of tea either but I agree that everyone should go once. You’re welcome and have fun when you go back!

  5. 2 Hearts & 2 Wheels June 3, 2017 at 5:47 am #

    Awesome info! Thanks for sharing!

    • Becky June 3, 2017 at 6:37 pm #

      You’re welcome!

  6. Susan jessup June 3, 2017 at 8:00 am #

    Thanks Becky sounds like a place to put on my list. Are dogs allowed on the trails on leash?
    Susan jessup recently posted..Mazatlan, thanks for 8 great years.My Profile

    • Becky June 3, 2017 at 6:40 pm #

      Like many National Parks, Badlands does not allow dogs on the trails. They’re allowed in the campground and at overlooks though. They are allowed in the Grassland as long as they’re on a leash.

  7. Jimmy June 3, 2017 at 4:58 pm #

    The Dakotas are two states I have never visited….have hit the rest, apart from a few in the southeast, Alaska, and Vermont. Never made it to Vermont. (The state is so far out of the way you have to TRY to get to Vermont….No one ever just wakes up one day and HAPPENS TO FIND THEMSELVES in Vermont………..LOL)

    Tomorrow I visit the Giant RV Show, about 30 minutes away in Pomona, sans-traffic. Most inventory far exceeds needs and budget ($450,000…….NEARLY HALF A MILLION DOLLARS……on a motor home???!!! WTH????) But it should be worth it for educational purposes at the very least.

    Still leaning towards something like our gracious host’s casita, from a size and weight standpoint. That’s plenty of space for one person (and especially when considering the concept that one does not live “IN” a trailer but “OUT OF” a trailer!)

    That said, I can see where “B”s offer advantages if spending time in more urban areas (I.e. most places that are not Boondock-Land.) More stealthy. Easier to navigate and park.

    • Becky June 3, 2017 at 6:43 pm #

      I haven’t seen much of North Dakota so I can’t say there, but SD should be on your list for someday.

      Have fun at the RV show!

      • Jimmy June 4, 2017 at 8:53 pm #

        Yeah…I def need to get to SD…..I lived in Denver for year and a half, several locals there said they loved Rapid City & Black Hills, even just for long weekends (DEN to R.C. = 390 miles)….Alas, I dithered….LOL…..

        Anyway….Quick report.

        This was a “single-dealer” show (tho that dealer is largest in So Cal.) Enough on hand for me to get a better sense of what’s out there and at least walk in the darn things and check ’em out…..LOL

        90% or more was WAY too big (and I didn’t even bother looking at Class A’s) Some gigantic Class C’s. Even 90% of the TT’s were >22 feet. I did find a Rockwood “Mini” Despite being 22 feet they call it a “mini”…LOL)……I must admit I liked the single slide-out. Really opened the place up. But I don’t think it’s a deal-maker or deal-breaker. I’m looking for something I can SOLO in, not drag a Boy Scout troop around in.

  8. CHARLIE MEEKS June 22, 2017 at 3:56 am #

    Hey, Becky! I have fond memories of that 2013 season at Badlands National Park. Glad to see you made a return trip, something I’ve been considering, just to see how things might have changed, especially at Circle 10. Also glad to know you are still rolling around in your RV.

    • Becky June 24, 2017 at 8:13 pm #

      Looks like the employees have new cabins at Circle 10, didn’t go in to look closely though. Otherwise it was much as I remembered. 🙂

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