South Dakota National Parks: The Badlands

January 25, 2022

“Badlands” lives in the American consciousness, famous for its extreme temperatures, maze-like arrangement, and notoriety as a bandit hideout. When the television character says, “He wandered into the badlands and was never heard from again,” we think to ourselves, “That was stupid of him.”

Natives and early American settlers steered clear of this parched region for generations, yet today American tourists flock to it. What makes the Badlands of South Dakota so different nowadays?

The short answer is: Air conditioning. Badlands National Park is stunningly beautiful. These grand mountains are unlike any others found across the United States of America. They were equally beautiful hundreds of years ago, they just didn’t have cars.

There are two South Dakota National Parks: Badlands National Park and Wind Cave National Park. If you would like to learn more about Wind Cave, located near Hot Springs, SD, check out our article, Beautiful Things to do at Wind Cave National Park.

And if you would like to learn about all the other things to do in the Black Hills, check out The Black Hills of South Dakota: A Complete Guide.

A 20 Second History of Badlands National Park

The badlands served as home to Native American groups for thousands of years.  The native Lakota tribe called the region “mako sica”, which means “land that is bad.”  The French fur traders called it something similar, “bad lands to traverse”.  

Call us optimistic, but it doesn’t look that bad from our motorhome.  A little irrigation here, a little strip mall there, would turn Badlands National Park into a regular Dubai.

Believe it or not, the entire 244,000-acre area was under water at one time.  Sediment filtered through the seawater and formed a black mud on the sea floor. Over time this mud hardened into shale. As the water receded it revealed the gorgeous, striped peaks and plateaus, and then erosion did its thing.

Mountain in South Dakota National Parks

Badlands National Park was declared a national monument in 1939 by President Franklin Roosevelt. It was then reclassified as a national park in 1978. The park comprises just under 243,000 acres. It sees one million park-goers annually, which ranks it in the middle for National Parks visitors.

Badlands N.P. has a terrific location, a couple of miles from Interstate-90 near Rapid City, SD. Travelers can easily drop in for a quick tour (if said travelers find themselves in the middle of South Dakota). Of the two South Dakota National Parks, the Badlands is much easier to access.

Big Badlands Overlook

What to do at Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park:  South Dakota National Parks

There are four obvious things to do in Badlands National Park: 1. Marvel at the big views. 2. Hike around on the hoodoos and trails. 3. Drive through the the park. 4. See the Visitor Center. It is also fun to spend some time in prairie dog town, and there are a few interesting points of interest within a few miles of the park.

Here is a map of all the major overlooks and hikes.

The Badlands are easily enjoyed in a day or less. A visitor could simply drive through on their way to somewhere else, stop at a few overlooks, and feel like they’ve seen it. However, some views are better than others, and there is the point of satiation where it all starts to look the same.

What follows is what we believe are the six best views, the two best hikes, and other details about the park. We also include a list of eight campgrounds and motels in the area to consider for lodging. We hope you enjoy the article and feel more prepared for your visit to this South Dakota National Park.

1. Viewpoint Overlooks

Cliff Shelf Viewpoint

Big Badlands Overlook

If you enter the park on the NE side, this is the first overlook on your left (see the first two photos in the article). There is some room to walk out onto the hoodoos, but they are very steep here. There are only a handful of viewpoints that demonstrate how far the badlands can sprawl, and this is one of them.

Cliff Shelf — Can’t Miss

This was Ryan’s favorite view in the park (see above). The peaks are jagged and dramatic as they follow the Millard Ridge eastward. There are no additional layers of mountains to distract from the magnificent sawtooth appearance of this range.

White River Valley Overlook — Can’t Miss

Another huge view in the park. Along with Cliff Shelf and the Pinnacles, it was our favorite. This overlook is excellent to get photographs of yourselves walking out onto the hoodoos (see below).

Burns Basin Overlook

Another fantastic opportunity to mingle with the hoodoos. If you have the nerve, walk out onto the well-worn pathways to get a more visceral experience. There is a lot going on in this view, and it isn’t symmetrical like many of the others.

Window Trailhead Overlook

Yellow Mounds Overlook

During the formation of the Badlands, the water level dropped and the sea floor became land. Along with this process the Pierre Shale (the bottommost rock layer of the Badlands) crumbled into soil and created the Yellow Mounds Formation. This interesting formation is near the NW entrance.

Pinnacles Overlook — Can’t Miss

This view struck us as the most expansive in the park. Descend from the parking lot down a long stairway to a panoramic viewing area. We stopped here last, and even though we were satiated with brown mountains, this expansive view had our complete attention.

Badlands National Park:  South Dakota National Parks
Pinnacles Overlook

2. Hike the Trails

South Dakota National Parks

Door/Notch/Window Trailheads

This is the ultimate playground in the South Dakota National Parks. It is also the most crowded with visitors, so arrive early. Located near the NE entrance of the park, just after the Big Badlands Overlook.

The Door Trailhead is an easy boardwalk hike to a free-terrain experience in the badlands. A stairway at the end of the trail empties park-goers in the wild frontier to roam.

The Notch Trailhead winds up into the Milliard Ridge. A 1.2 mile, out-and-back trail allows hikers to get that feeling of being lost amidst the badlands.

The Window Trail is a short boardwalk that leads to a beautiful view.

Our children had a blast running and climbing in this portion of the park. We would consider it a must-do if you have kids.

Cliff shelf Nature Trail

A half-mile path / wooden boardwalk lends an incredible look at the Millard Ridge. This was our favorite hike at Badlands N.P. because you are fully enveloped in a humongous view at all times. It is an easy to moderate jaunt with some staircases and elevation changes.

Other Trails

We saw a small crowd of hikers on the Saddle Pass Trailhead as we drove by. It reviews well.

The Fossil Exhibit Trailhead is a kid friendly boardwalk featuring interpretive panels with fossil replicas.

Here is a map of the trails in Badlands National Park.

Cliff Shelf Nature Trailhead

3. Drive Through the Park

South Dakota National Parks

This is a total no-brainer. You’re going to do it — you have to do it — yet its worth mentioning. Much of what makes Badlands National Park amazing can be seen through the windshield of your car.

Take your time driving through the park. Stop at all the viewpoints, at least until you’ve reached the point of satiation. Take a couple of short hikes. Check out the visitor center and gift shop.

We recommend starting at the NW entrance (near the town of Wall), and driving through the park toward the Minuteman Missile Site Visitor Center. It’s a 35 mile route that hits most of the highlights.

South Dakota National Parks

4. Prairie Dog Town

Is there a more adorable sound than the “Yee-who!” battlecry of the prairie dog? When passing through a prairie dog town we roll down the windows and drive slow just to listen for it.

If you’ve seen a thousand holes in the grass you’ve seen a prairie dog town, and if you’ve seen one prairie dog town, you’ve seen them all. The only difference is the size. The largest prairie dog town we’ve ever seen is here at Badlands National Park.

5. Ben Reifel Visitor Center

The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is the primary facility at Badlands National Park. Here you can talk to NPS Rangers, explore museum exhibits, enjoy the fossil preparation lab, or look around the bookstore. Hours are 9:00-16:00. Closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.

Next door is a larger gift shop with some hot food options. Between the two facilities you can buy a t-shirt, a couple of postcards, some overpriced jewelry, and eat a sub sandwich.

6. Nearby Points of Interest

Minuteman Missile Site Visitor Center

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center

In the 1960’s, in order to prevent a nuclear war, US military personnel buried 1000 Minuteman missiles in the plains of America. Landowners and residents in the Dakotas, Nebraska, Colorado, and nearby states have lived amongst these devastating weapons of war the past sixty years. Today we can relive this fading chapter in US history at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.

If you think you might be interested, feel free to check out our article titled, Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, to learn more. If you’re in the South Dakota National Parks neighborhood, we strongly recommend visiting.

Badlands Ranch Store

Badlands Ranch Store

The Ranch Store is located between the Minuteman Missile Visitor Center and Badlands National Park. For a buck you can rent a small sack of peanuts and cycle them through the marmots. They won’t exactly trust you, but they can fake a relationship long enough to work a legume out of you.

We loved the Badlands Ranch Store, and considered it one of the 9 Best Things to Do in the Black Hills with Kids (after all the national parks, monuments, caves, and whatnot).

Wall Drug

The schmuckiest place on earth. You’ve been warned.

Where to Stay near Badlands National Park

South Dakota National Parks
Door Trail

Badlands Motel and Campground

The closest, full-service Campground and Motel to Badlands National Park. Website.

Badlands White River KOA

Located a few miles SE of the park. We stayed here and would recommend. Website.

Sage Creek Campground

First come, first serve campground with 22 primitive sites. No RV/trailer longer than 18′ feet. Website.

Sleepy Hollow Campground and RV Park

Affordable campground near NW entrance of Badlands National Park. Website.

Minute Man RV Park and Lodging

Located just outside of the north-east entrance. Website.

Cedar Pass Lodge

Pine cabins within the park with views of the Badlands. Website.

Circle View Guest Ranch

If you want to stay on a ranch near the badlands, they have seven private rooms. Website.

Sunshine Inn, town of Wall

Laid-back, value motel with good reviews. Website.

Here is a Map of the Campgrounds and Motels near Badlands National Park.

Concluding Thoughts

South Dakota National Parks
Badlands National Park sign at NE entrance.

There is a stark, powerful beauty in these South Dakota mountains. The unusual shapes and striated patterns are visually stimulating, and walking between or atop the hoodoos is surreal.

Badlands National Park is easy to visit and doesn’t take much effort. We found that the longer we stayed, the more redundant and less impressive it became.

Our best recommendation would be to:

1. Visit the park early in the morning, entering at the NW entrance near Wall, SD.

2. Stop at the six viewpoints we mentioned in the article.

3. Check out the Visitor Center.

4. Hike the Cliff Shelf Trail, and let the kids run at the Door/Notch trailhead free-roam area.

5. Exit at the NE entrance, stop at the Badlands Ranch Store to feed the prairie dogs, then cool off at the Minuteman Missile Site Visitor Center.

This would make for an excellent day.

We hope you enjoyed reading about the South Dakota National Parks, the Badlands. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section.

And for something just as amazing (or perhaps even more so), check out our article, Beautiful Things to do at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota!

South Dakota National Parks
Cliff Shelf Trail

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