Planning a Trip to the Badlands National Park

Mary Gormandy White

No trip to South Dakota is complete without a visit to Badlands National Park. As the state's Department of Tourism points out, the spectacularly beautiful 244,000 acre park "boasts a maze of buttes, canyons, pinnacles and spires" and provides opportunities to view beautiful prairie land, impressive fossil remains and abundant wildlife.

Getting to Badlands National Park

Due to the park's location in a remote area of South Dakota, there is no public transportation to the park. Even if you fly to the state, you will need to rent a vehicle to drive to the park. According to USA Today, Rapid City is the nearest city, and it is 88 miles away. If you are traveling from far away, you can fly or take a bus to Rapid City, but from there you are on your own. The trip, though, is sure to be worth it, as you'll see sights in this lovely and unique park that you can't glimpse anywhere else.

Things to Do in Badlands

Nature lovers, history buffs and geology enthusiasts alike will be able to find plenty to see and do when visiting this park.

Explore the Visitor Center

The park's Ben Reifel Visitor Center is open every day the park is open. Its features include "an indoor theater, interactive exhibits, orientation film and bookstore," as well as clean restroom facilities. Ranger programs are also available during the summer months. The vast majority of TripAdvisor reviewers rank the visitor's center as "very good" or "excellent." Reviewers describe the center as a great place to get information about all the park has to offer.

Discover Fossils

If you have an interest in fossils (and who doesn't?), you're sure to be captivated by this park. According to SouthDakota.com, the park is "one of the world's richest mammal fossil beds." Its fossils are from the Eocene-Oligocene epoch, which is described as the "Golden Age of Mammals." The park is home to the site of an active archaeological excavation, from which more than 13,000 bones have been removed since its 1993 discovery.

Backpacker.com points out that "fossil remains unearthed in the national park include ancient camels, rhinoceroses, land turtles and birds," just to name a few. Be sure to stop by the park's fossil preparation lab (near the visitor center). TripBucket.com describes the lab as "a working paleontological laboratory that gives visitors the chance to watch paleontologists at work and learn more about the scientific discoveries being made in the park."

Observe Wildlife

According to ParkCamper.com, "Badlands National Park makes for a unique and interesting place to observe and photograph wildlife." This is true both because of the "striking landscape" and the great variety of animals you can have an opportunity to observe within their natural habitat. Perhaps most notably, the park is one of the places where black-footed ferrets (at one time believed to be extinct) have been re-introduced to the wild. Additional wildlife at home in the park include (but are not limited to):

Bighorn sheep in Badlands
  • Badger
  • Bighorn sheep
  • Bison
  • Bobcat
  • Coyote
  • Mountain lion
  • Mule deer
  • Porcupines
  • Prairie dogs
  • Pronghorn
  • Raptors
  • Silver-haired bat
  • Swift fox
  • Whitetail deer

Go Hiking

There are many hiking options in the park, including eight designated trails and off-trail backcountry hiking for those who prefer to traipse more off the beaten path. All provide spectacular views of the park's impressive scenery

According to BigRoads.com, there are four easy hiking trails in the park, ranging from one-quarter to three-quarters of a mile each. They are:

  • Cliff Shelf Trail: Half-mile scenic boardwalk trail
  • Door Trail: Three-quarters of a mile trail that begins with 300 feet of boardwalk
  • Fossil Exhibit Trail: Quarter of a mile boardwalk trail where you can view exhibits of fossils
  • Window Trail:- Quarter of a mile hike on dirt trail

BigRoads.com indicates that there are also four moderately difficult trails in the park, ranging from three-quarters of a mile to ten miles. They are:

  • Castle Trail: Ten mile round-trip hike (five miles out and five miles back) with excellent wildlife viewing opportunities
  • Medicine Route Loop: Four-mile hike that also offers excellent opportunities to view wildlife
  • Notch Trail: Mile and a half trail that requires climbing a steep ladder (Avoid this one if you are afraid of heights or have trouble climbing!)
  • Saddle Pass: Quarter-mile trail that requires walking up a very steep incline

Beyond the established trails, you can also go backpacking in the park. However, there are no developed backcountry trails, so you are pretty much on your own. Permits are not required for backpacking and there really aren't any restrictions with regards to where you hike off-trail.

Scenic Drive

Driving along the 32-mile Scenic Loop Byway on Highway 240 is an ideal way to take in the rich and varied scenery within the park. LonelyPlanet describes it as "one of South Dakota's best scenic drives," and with good reason. The scenery is spectacular. You can drive the loop in an hour, but you shouldn't.

Instead, take the time to pause at most (or even all) of the 14 scenic overlooks along the route so you can take in the full beauty of the unique terrain. You'll be able to peer out over various pinnacles, be taken in by the beauty of prairie lands and see interesting homesteads from the overlooks, most of which can be accessed by wheelchair.

Stargazing

According to the National Parks Conservation Association, Badlands is one of the ten best national parks for "spectacular stargazing." The park boasts a particularly impressive view of the Milky Way, and it's generally possible to see around 7,500 stars in the night sky above the park.

During the summer, visitors can participate in hour-long park-hosted astronomy programs, during which they will have an opportunity to view the skyscape through telescopes. A private company, Dakotalapse, even hosts night sky photography workshops in the park on occasion. Each July, the Badlands Astronomy Festival is held at the park.

Park Schedule

With the exception of Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day, this park is open all year. Operating hours vary by season:

  • Winter (November - early April): 8 a.m. - 4 p.m.
  • Spring (mid-April - mid-May): 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.
  • Summer (late May - Labor Day): 9 a.m. - 7 p.m.
  • Fall (early September - October): 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.

Fees

Entrance fees are charged all year. Passes are valid for seven days.

  • Private vehicle (other than motorcycle): $20 (covers everyone in the vehicle)
  • Motorcycle: $10 (covers one or two passengers)
  • Individual hikers/bicyclists: $10 each

If you plan to visit the park frequently, you may want to invest in an annual pass for $40.

These prices are valid through 2018; there will be a rate increase as of January 2, 2019.

Accommodations in the Park

Badlands National Park has an inn, cabins, one improved campground, one primitive campground and a few group campsites. Fee-based accommodations are all handled via Cedar Park Lodge. Submit the online form or call 605-433-5460 for details on reservation policies and availability.

Badlands Inn

Badlands Inn has 20 guestrooms and is open May through September. Rates start at $130 per night, with an additional $20 per night for each additional guest and each pet. Rooms are climate controlled (with air conditioning and heat), and each room has a small refrigerator and microwave oven. Guests can enjoy a complimentary continental breakfast each night of their stay. Reservations are highly recommended.

Cedar Park Lodge (Cabins at Cedar Pass)

If you prefer cabin accommodations, you will be delighted by the 26 cabins at Cedar Pass. Each cabin was built by local craftsmen to Gold Level LEED standards and was placed in service in 2013. Cabins are outfitted with a small refrigerator and microwave, as well as a 32" flat screen television set.

As with the inn, each cabin has air conditioning and heat, and the cabins are also outfitted with ceiling fans. Cabin rentals are $176 per night (double occupancy). The fee for additional guests is $20 per night. Pets are not allowed. Reservations are encouraged.

Cedar Pass Campground

Cedar Pass Campground is the park's improved campground. It features just under 100 campsites, all of which are level. A portion of this campground remains open during the winter, so camping is available year-round. Sites that have electricity cost $37 per night; others are $22. This covers up to two people per site. There is a $4 charge for each additional person. The campground has running water (cold only) and flush toilets, as well as some picnic tables. It is a good idea to book ahead.

Sage Creek Campground

Sage Creek Campground is the park's primitive campground. The price is right, as it is free. It is open to tent campers and RV travelers with small units (25 feet or less). There is no water or electricity in the campground. There are pit toilets and some picnic tables. A TripAdvisor reviewer cautions that there is no cell service in the campground.

The dirt road to the campground sometimes has to be closed during the winter and spring due to weather conditions. Reservations are not accepted, so camping is on a first-come, first-served basis. A segment of the campground is designated for horses.

Group Campsites

There are four group campsites in the park. Reservations are required, and must be made via Cedar Park Lodge. You can reserve via the website or by calling (link and number above). The cost is $4 per person per night, though there is a minimum fee of $40 per night. Each group must have a designated leader. Reservations are highly recommended, and summer camping tends to book early.

Dining

Cedar Pass Restaurant is the one and only restaurant in the park and it is open from April 15 to October 15. The menu is built around dishes sourced in the local region, and they also serve locally made spirits. One of their specialties is Sioux Indian Tacos made with their own homemade fry bread and buffalo meat. Other options include steak, chicken, fish and more. They have a salad bar and soup bar and offer a nice selection of vegetarian and gluten-free menu items.

Near the Park

There are a number of quaint communities in the areas surrounding the park. Towns like Interior, Murdo, Pine Ridge and Wall provide great places to stay, dine, shop and relax outside the boundaries of the parks. Get details from BlackHillsVacations.com.

A Trip to Remember

According to National Geographic, approximately 900,000 people visit this national park each year. That's a huge number, particularly considering that traveling to the park can be challenging. Once you visit in person, though, you'll understand why so many people make the trek to see this unique portion of the planet for themselves. Your time at Badlands will surely be a trip for the ages.

Planning a Trip to the Badlands National Park