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South Dakota: Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park is conveniently located off of I-90. Well only convenient if you are heading that way – it is situated out in the boonies close to the centre of the United States. It is 75 miles east of Rapid City, SD and about 280 miles west of Sioux Falls, SD.

We have been lucky enough to visit this incredible place 3 times during various road trips and it is a place that draws us back. If you are a fan of beautiful desert landscapes this is the place for you.

About the Badlands 

The Lakota gave this land its name, “Mako Sica,” meaning “land bad.” Extreme temperatures, lack of water, and the exposed rugged terrain led to this name. In the early 1900s, French-Canadian fur trappers called it “les mauvais terres pour traverse,” or “bad lands to travel through.”

Located in southwestern South Dakota, Badlands National Park consists of 244,000 acres of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires blended with the largest protected mixed-grass prairie in the United States. It is desolation at its truest, where you can look for miles and see no sign of civilization.

This land has been so ruthlessly ravaged by wind and water that it has become picturesque. The Badlands are a wonderland of bizarre, colourful spires and pinnacles, massive buttes and deep gorges. Erosion of the Badlands reveals sedimentary layers of different colours: purple and yellow (shale), tan and grey (sand and gravel), red and orange (iron oxides) and white (volcanic ash).

The Badlands were formed by sedimentary deposits being laid down when a shallow sea filled the interior of the USA. As this sea retreated and finally disappeared these sedimentary deposits hardened but were eroded over the years by the elements leaving the structures that are now found in the Badlands. We also learn about the wildlife – in particular the endangered black-footed ferret which has been re-introduced back into the Badlands. Despite the barren landscape, there is a surprising amount of biodiversity. The Badlands are home to the largest mixed-grass prairie in the National Park System. Bison, pronghorn, mule and whitetail deer, prairie dogs, coyotes, butterflies, turtles, snakes, bluebirds, vultures, eagles and hawks are just some of the wildlife that can often be seen by visitors.

What to see in Badlands National Park?

Getting to Badlands National Park 

Interstate 90 (I-90) is located directly north of the park and provides access to Hwy 240 Badlands Loop Road. For those travelling west on I-90, take Exit 131 (Interior) and follow the signs directing vehicles south approximately three miles to the Northeast Entrance. For those travelling east on I-90, take Exit 110 at Wall, South Dakota. Follow signs directing vehicles south approximately seven miles to the Pinnacles Entrance. State Highway 44 provides alternate, scenic access to the park and intersects Highway 377 in the town of Interior. Follow 377 two miles north to the Interior Entrance.


The best way to explore Badlands, especially if you are in a rush, is to drive the loop road. The road is over 30 miles long, so you could do it in around 60-minutes you will want to make a lot of stops – in reality, you will take several hours to complete it.Ar

The loop road through Badlands National Park, South Dakota
The loop road through Badlands National Park

The loop road runs from the Pinnacles Entrance in the north to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, you’ll get ample opportunity to stop at trailheads, viewpoints and vista along the way.

Some of the best places to stop include the Pinnacles Overlook and the Bigfoot Pass Overlook to name but a few.

Pinnacles Overlook from Badlands National Park
Pinnacles Overlook from Badlands National Park Loop Road


One of the places to see how the weather has transformed the landscape of Badlands National Park is Yellow Mounds Overlook. These mounds were formed 67 million years ago. After the sea drained away, black ocean mud was exposed to surface weathering which developed into yellow colour that we see today.

Yellows Mounds in Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Yellows Mounds


When visiting a National Park our first stop is usually the visitor centre. The Ben Reifel visitor has recently been refurbished and has an excellent exhibition area where you can learn a lot about the geology of the Badlands as well as the surprisingly large numbers of plants and critters that call this place home. If nothing else watch the short film that has been made about the Park. 

The Ben Reifel visitor center in Badlands National Park, South Dakota
The Ben Reifel visitor center


The Notch Trail is 1.5 mile and is rated as moderately strenuous. It is not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights or children who don’t follow instructions well. Also, be careful if has rained recently as it might get a little slippery.

The beginning of the 1.5-mile hike is a flat easy walk through a canyon. About halfway through the walk, you arrive at a wooden ladder that you need to climb to get up onto the ridge. There will most likely be a wait at the ladder both going up and coming down. Make sure to communicate with the people at the top and take turns so no one gets stuck. It should be noted this is one of those rare occasions when going up is easier than coming down!

The remainder of the hike takes you along the ridge. The trail here is about 6-feet wide but there are some steep drop-offs to one side. Eventually, you reach “The Notch”, a break in the canyon walls that offers incredible views of the White River Valley.

Steep wooden ladder on the Notch Trail, Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Steep wooden ladder on the Notch Trail


Located just up the hill from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail is a short trail with incredible views of a spiky ridge of badlands rock formations and the vast prairie extending to the south of the park. The trail only just over 1/2 a miles long and is very easy.


Located just up the hill from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail is a short trail with incredible views of a spiky ridge of badlands rock formations and the vast prairie extending to the south of the park. The trail only just over 1/2 a miles long and is very easy.


You don’t need glass to have a window. All you need is a large opening like the one found in Badlands Wall at the end of this short trail in Badlands National Park. Window Trail is a quarter-mile round trip with just ten feet of elevation gain – an easy hike that is suitable for all.

Another trail that starts from the same trailhead as the Window and Notch Trail is the Door Trail.

This is another very easy hike that takes you through the Badlands Wall to some amazing view across the valleys beyond.


This short trail climbs up the Badlands Wall to a view over the White River Valley. The trail ends where it connects with the Castle and Medicine Root Loop trails. Despite being one of the shorter trails in the park, Saddle Pass is one of the steepest, with approximately 300 feet of elevation change.


If you are looking for a longer easy-moderate hike you can combine the Medicine Root and Castle trails to create a 4-mile loop. The Castle Trail can be reached a three separate points.  The main trailhead for the Castle trail is at about six miles past the main entrance mentioned above, at a large parking area for the Castle, Door, Window and Notch Trailheads. You will actually have to cross the street from this parking lot to reach the Castle Trail.  You can access the second trailhead from the Old Northeast Road. It turns off the Loop Road about a mile from the main trailhead. This is a dirt road and it only runs north from the Loop Road. You will only need to drive a short distance down this road and on your right will be a wooden bridge. Here you will find a small parking area.  This is where the Castle and Medicine Root trails meet to form their loop. The Castle Trail has a third trailhead found at the Fossil Exhibit Trail parking area on the Loop Road, which sits about halfway along the length of that road.


There is a surprisingly large variety of animals found in Badlands National Park. One of the most popular creatures with adults and children are the Prairie Dogs. The best places to find prairie dogs are in the prairie dog towns which you’ll find all over the mid-Western states. You can litterally spend hours watching the antics of these busy little animals.

On the eastern entrance road to Badlands National Park you’ll find Robert’s Prairie Dog Town. Its hard to miss as there is a Ranch shop and what is purported to be the World’s largest prairie dog – a 12-foot high 6-tonne concrete statue. If you are so inclined you can purchase a bag of nuts to feed the prairie dogs from the Ranch shop.

Planning your visit to Badlands National Park

Location:Near Wall, South Dakota
Hours:24 hours, 7-days a week year around
Fees:Private vehicle $30. Individual (on foot or bicycle) $15. Motorcycle $25.

Best time to visit Badlands National Park

The best time of year to visit Badlands National Park is in the weeks right after Labor day when kids are back in school and the weather is starting to cool off. Summer is the busiest season for Badlands National Park, so visiting in these few weeks will have fewer tourists but also some reprieve from the desert-like summer heat.

Winter in Badlands National Park can be very cold. With temperature highs in the mid-thirties and lows in the single digits, it can make for uncomfortable camping or hiking. The Spring brings warmer weather with the averages reaching into the mid-sixties and lows in the mid-thirties. Spring a very good time to visit Badlands National Park. The weather is milk and the crowds aren’t terrible yet.

Summer, as said before, is the busiest time of year for Badlands and it is also the hottest. The average temperatures reach into the 80s & 90s. While some find that manageable, it’s the lack of trees that make this heat so oppressive. There is nowhere to find reprieve from the beating sun.

Fall brings cooler temperatures and thinner crowds. Fall is the best time to visit Badlands National Park. With warmer temperatures hanging around from summer and smaller crowds due to school being back in session, you may find yourself getting hiking trails to yourself during this time 

Other places close by worth visiting


Custer State Park is famous for its bison herds, other wildlife, scenic drives, historic sites, visitor centres, fishing lakes, resorts, campgrounds and interpretive programs. In fact, it was named as one of the World’s Top Ten Wildlife Destinations for the array of wildlife within the park’s borders and for the unbelievable access visitors have to them.

A large bison crosses the plains in Custer State Park in South Dakota


Mount Rushmore is a relatively recent creation and started as a concept by state historian Doane Robinson in 1923. The choice of artist was Gutzon Borglum, a radical sculptor with a sense of scale and outlandish ambition.


The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, SD is a truly incredible place to visit. We call in every time we are in the area as it is always changing.

Accidently, discovered during a construction project, The dig site is uncommon as the mammoth bones that the excavation has exposed have been left in situ and can be viewed by visitors from raised walkways. It is a most unusual exhibit.

The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota
The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs


Brule Lakota Henry Standing Bear was born near Pierre, South Dakota, along the Missouri River around 1874. In 1933 he heard that there were plans to build a monument to his cousin Crazy Horse at Fort Robinson where he had met his end. Standing Bear and the Lakota Sioux were determined that any such monument should be built in the Black Hill mountains of South Dakota which had a spiritual significance to his Nation.

The monument is being carved out of Thunderhead Mountain, on land considered sacred by some Oglala Lakota, roughly 17 miles (27 km) from Mount Rushmore. When, and if, it gets finished it will dwarf Mount Rushmore.


I still get excited when I get the chance to visit a new museum dedicated to air and space, so when I discovered on our journey through South Dakota the South Dakota Air & Space Museum at Ellsworth Airforce Base I jumped at the chance to visit. Like many such aerospace museums, there was plenty of interesting aircraft on display. There are over 30 vintage military aircraft ranging from World War II bombers to the modern-day B-1.

South Dakota Air & Space Museum on Ellsworth Airforce Base


If you are looking for another opportunity to catch up on cold-war history and nuclear proliferation then check out the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.

The Minuteman Missile field covered the far western portion of South Dakota from 1963 through the early 1990s. There were 15 Launch Control Facilities that commanded and controlled 150 Launch Facilities (Missile Silos) holding Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. The missile field was operational, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, for thirty years.

You can visit the new visitor centre and take tours of the sites themselves.

Minuteman National Historic Site - South Dakota


As you travel around America, especially the mid-west you’ll come across billboards advertising the Wall Drug Store. These billboards are located, in some cases, hundreds of miles from the store itself mostly along a 650 mile stretch of I-90. Apparently, there are more than 300 paid for billboards, some located internationally, and a whole load more unofficial billboards.

The store itself has become a popular stop-off point for people travelling through South Dakota or visiting the local attractions such as Badlands National Park or en route to Mount Rushmore.

Wall Drug Store, Wall, South Dakota


Regarded as sacred by American Indians, exploration of the the area known a Wind Cave did not begin until 1881, when the entrance was noticed by two brothers, Jesse and Tom Bingham. They heard a loud whistling noise, which led them to a small hole in the ground, the cave’s only natural opening.

Today, you can visit the caves and the beautiful plains on the surface above.

Where to stay?


Twenty minutes northeast of the majestic Badlands National Park (of National Geographic Traveler’s Drives of a Lifetime fame) experience the “peace of the prairies” on our multi- generation ranch. Triangle Ranch, named for its horse and cattle brand, was homesteaded in 1904 by Lyndy’s great grandparents. After living in a sod dugout then a log house, they ordered and built the beautiful Sears & Roebuck “Alhambra” Catalog Home in 1923, now known asTriangle Ranch Bed & Breakfast.


Cedar Pass Lodge first opened for business in 1928, predating the establishment of Badlands National Monument by eleven years. Mr. Ben Millard, a local businessman and close friend of Senator Peter Norbeck, started with a dance hall that brought people from a hundred-mile radius to listen to Lawrence Welk and similar bands.

Millard expanded Cedar Pass Lodge to include the dining room, the Historic Cabins, and a counter for curios. He enjoyed giving nightly geology talks to Lodge guests and was awarded the honor and title of the first “interpreter” in Badlands National Park


Seasonal outdoor and indoor pools, both heated, are featured at this motel in Wall. The Minuteman Missile Historic Site is 9 minutes’ drive away. Free WiFi is available.

The Wall Best Western Plains Motel has a games room for entertainment. Guests can relax in the hot tub or take advantage of the on-site fitness center. Vending machines are provided for snacks and refreshments..

Badlands National Park is 7.5 mi from the motel. Shopping at the historic Wall Drug Store is 7 minutes’ walk away.


For those interested in front-country camping, the park offers two official campgrounds. The Cedar Pass Campground is a paid campground with 96 sites total, some designated for RV camping with electric hookups. Reservations for the Cedar Pass Campground can be made through contacting the Cedar Pass Lodge online or by phone at 877-386-4383. Sage Creek Campground is a free, first-come first-serve campground with 22 sites. Motor homes, pull behind trailers, and other recreational vehicles greater than 18 feet in length are prohibited. To learn more about these campgrounds, visit the front-country camping page.

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