Badlands National Park has many fun things to do for visitors, including hiking picturesque trails, watching beautiful sunrises and sunsets, spotting wildlife like bighorn sheep and photographing the unique Badlands landscape from easy to access scenic overlooks. The best part is that the top Badlands highlights are easy to visit, and you can see it all in as little as half a day.
In this guide we show you the 12 best things you can do in Badlands National Park, based on our experiences.
Our Badlands Experience
We’ve explored the best of Badlands National Park on two different trips to South Dakota. First at the very end of September in 2019 and again in April 2021. Visiting in spring and fall gave us completely different perspectives and experiences (mostly weather related). We had perfect weather in fall but it snowed heavily in spring. Surprisingly, the animals were more active in the snow!
Over 4 days we’ve hiked all the trails, seen every overlook, spotted a lot of wildlife, slept in our tent at the primitive campground and stayed at two hotels in the nearby town of Wall. We think Badlands is a hugely underrated national park because it’s fun, photogenic and incredibly easy to visit. Read more about us.
Key Park Information
- Park: Badlands
- State: South Dakota
- Website: NPS
- Address: 25216 Ben Reifel Road, Interior, SD 57750
- Telephone: (605) 433-5361
- Accommodation: Cedar Pass Lodge
- Campgrounds: Cedar Pass + Sage Creek
- Backcountry camping: Allowed, permit not required
- Activities: Hiking, camping, wildlife, stargazing
- Visitors: 1 million visitors per year
- Hours: Open daily year round
- Best time: May, June, September and October
Badlands is split into two sections called the north unit and south unit. The north unit is where you’ll find the top hikes, overlooks and other attractions, so you should plan to only visit the north unit if it’s your first visit to Badlands.
The south unit is very remote and completely undeveloped, so it has incredible scenery but there’s no official hiking trails or designated places to pull over. We’ve been to Badlands twice and we haven’t visited the south unit yet.
Click or tap the map below to activate. Zoom in and out, move around and find the locations of the attractions you’ll find listed below in our guide.
- Red – Overlooks
- Orange – Hikes
- Green – Other activities
- Blue – Hotels
Now, let’s get started with what you can do on your visit to Badlands!
1. Badlands Loop Road
Badlands Loop Road is a 27-mile scenic byway between the two most commonly used entrances into the park called northeast entrance and pinnacles entrance. It’s a smooth two-lane road suitable for all vehicles and it has varying speed limits throughout. The loop road passes by most major hiking trailheads and overlooks, so you have instant access to the park’s highlights.
Without stopping you could drive the loop road in around 50 minutes, but of course we highly recommend you do stop at the scenic overlooks and trailheads. We’ve driven it both ways several times and we personally prefer driving clockwise from east to west (northeast entrance to pinnacles entrance) because the best hikes are on the east side and we like to tick them off early in the morning.
More information: Driving the loop road
2. Sagecreek Rim Road
Sagecreek Rim Road is a 25-mile gravel road running between the Badlands Loop Road (near pinnacles entrance) and Scenic, which is located on SD-44. The road passes by 4 scenic overlook pull-offs and it leads to Sage Creek Campground, which is the park’s only primitive camping area.
Be aware that Sagecreek Rim Road is not smooth or paved like the Badlands Loop Road. It’s a narrow gravel road for its entire length, but it’s not too bad to drive because there aren’t any pot holes or drop-offs to deal with. We drove to Sage Creek campground and didn’t have any issues with our car. Plus, you’re almost guaranteed to see wildlife along the road.
3. Scenic Overlooks
There are 12 scenic overlooks located along the Badlands Loop Road and a further 4 scenic overlooks located on Sagecreek Rim Road, for a total of 16 overlooks in the north unit. Stopping at the viewpoints is the easiest way for you to appreciate what makes this such a great place to visit.
Here are the 16 Badlands overlooks from east to west:
- Big Badlands Overlook
- White River Valley Overlook
- Bigfoot Pass Overlook
- Panorama Point
- Prairie Wind Overlook
- Burns Basin Overlook
- Homestead Overlook
- Conata Basin Overlook
- Yellow Mounds Overlook
- Conata Picnic Area
- Ancient Hunters Overlook
- Pinnacles Overlook
- Hay Butte Overlook
- Badlands Wilderness Overlook
- Roberts Prairie Dog Town
- Sage Creek Basin Overlook
We recommend you stop at every single overlook to enjoy different perspectives of the unique Badlands landscape. You’ll see dramatic canyons and ravines, rugged butted and spires, and beautiful red fossil soil layers within the eroded formations.
Our favorite overlooks include Big Badlands, White River Valley, Panorama Point, Burns Basin and Yellow Mounds because they’re exceptionally photogenic.
4. Hiking Trails
You can hike a total of 10 trails when you visit Badlands National Park. That’s it, just the ten. And two of those are backcountry wilderness hikes that you’re unlikely to take on anyway. Most of the remaining 8 trails are short and easy, so ticking off all the best hikes in half a day is very much achievable.
Here are the 10 hiking trailheads from east to west:
- Door Trail
- Window Trail
- Notch Trail
- Medicine Root Loop Trail
- Cliff Shelf Nature Trail
- Saddle Pass Trail
- Fossil Exhibit Trail
- Castle Trail
- Deer Haven Wilderness
- Sage Creek Wilderness
We’ve completed all the non-wilderness trails in the park and we highly recommend you hike Door Trail and Notch Trail at a minimum if it’s your first visit to Badlands. Door is easy, short and flat and it opens up stunning views from behind the Badlands Wall. Notch Trail is by far the most adventurous hike in the park, with a ladder climb and narrow cliffs to navigate.
Along with Door and Notch, we like the longer Castle Trail because it has varied terrain including picturesque eroded rock formations and wide open prairie. Be aware that wilderness trails should only be attempted if you’re a strong and experienced hiker.
Further Reading: The 10 Badlands hiking trails explained
5. Fossil Exhibit Trail
The Fossil Exhibit Trail is a Badlands hike with a difference. It’s a very short and easy self-guided boardwalk trail featuring fossil replicas and exhibits about extinct creatures that once roamed the region, which much to our surprise included rhinos, camels and turtles.
Are you visiting the park with your family? The Fossil Exhibit area is a great place to unleash the kids and let them run around the low rock formations, or have them join you on a ranger-led fossil talk beginning at 10.30am every morning between Memorial Day and September 1st. We found it very interesting to learn about the surprising collection of animals that used to live here!
More information: Ranger led programs
6. Wildlife Spotting
Wildlife spotting opportunities come thick and fast at Badlands. During our first visit we saw countless bison, bighorn sheep and prairie dogs in various areas throughout the park. The second time we had the park almost entirely to ourselves because it was snowing and we still saw lots of bison and bighorn sheep enduring the harsh weather. Thankfully, we haven’t seen a rattlesnake in two visits!
Our tips for spotting animals:
- You have a better chance of seeing wildlife at dusk and dawn.
- Stick to hiking during the day and look for wildlife in the morning or evening.
- Sage Creek campground is a great place to see wildlife including bison, bighorn sheep and prairie dogs.
- Bison are commonly seen along Sage Creek Rim Road because this region overlooks the Badlands Wilderness Area where they live.
- Take binoculars so you can get closer views.
- Be alert when driving the loop road because wildlife can be found throughout the park.
- If you want to pull over to see wildlife, make sure the road is clear and you have given the animal enough space.
7. Sunrises And Sunsets
Sunrise and sunset are the two best times of day to photograph the Badlands landscape because you’ll have soft light and potential for clouds to glow with orange, red, pink and purple colors. We recommend Big Badlands Overlook or Door Trail for sunrise, and Pinnacles Overlook or Conata Basin Overlook for sunset. Check sunrise and sunset times for the park and hope for good weather.
So far across two visits to Badlands we haven’t been able to enjoy a single sunrise or sunset because either our timings didn’t work out on the itinerary, or the weather hasn’t played nicely. It’s frustrating because photographing sunrises and sunsets is what we love to do when we travel. We hope you get better conditions for your visit!
8. Ben Reifel Visitor Center
Badlands main visitor center in the north unit is called the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. It’s located near the Interior Entrance and Cedar Pass Lodge, not far from the popular hikes Door, Window and Notch. We always stop in at visitor centers when touring national parks to learn about live conditions, exhibits and talk to park rangers to see if there’s anything we can learn that isn’t on the website.
At Ben Reifel Visitor Center, you can watch a short park film called The Land of Stone and Light which runs on a 25 minute loop in an air conditioned theater. If you’re interested in the paleontology of Badlands, you might like to visit the Fossil Preparation Lab where paleontologists work to remove rocks from specimens found within the park.
Further Reading: Is it worth getting a National Parks Passport?
Badlands is one of the best national parks for stargazing because it has almost no light pollution. You can go beyond seeing the stars, moon and airplanes if you head out into the park at night. It’s so dark in this remote area of South Dakota that you can see planets, the Milky Way and even the International Space Station.
If you’re planning to spend a night inside or near the park, we highly recommend you join both the evening program and the night sky viewings program led by rangers. They point out constellations and planets, so it’s great if you’re visiting Badlands with your family. We tried astrophotography at Sage Creek campground but it was far too windy for tripod stability. Our tent even blew down at 4:00am!
More information: Night sky viewings
10. Badlands South Unit
The South Unit of Badlands National Park consists of two very large undeveloped and remote sections of land. This region of the park is located within Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and you have the chance to learn about the history and culture of the Lakota people at White River Visitor Center in the south unit.
If you have extra time in the park or you’ve been to Badlands before, we recommend spending a few hours exploring sweeping scenery, deep canyons and mixed grass prairies in the south unit. Top highlights in this area include two great scenic overlooks called Sheep Mountain Table Overlook and Red Shirt Table Overlook.
More information: South unit of the park
11. Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
Did you know that 1,000 nuclear missiles were hidden underground in the Great Plains of America during the Cold War? Well, a few hundred decommissioned missiles remain today and you can tour one of the sites at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, which is located on I-90 near the northeast entrance to Badlands.
You can even book a ranger-guided tour of Delta-01 launch control facility or Delta-09 nuclear missile silo to learn more about their role in the Cold War era. We had no idea this place existed, but we’re so glad we went in to look around the museum. It has excellent educational exhibits and we highly recommend you plan to visit either before or after exploring Badlands.
More information: Minuteman Historic Site
12. Wall Drug
Wall Drug was once a tiny drugstore that became famous for providing free ice water for passing travelers. Today, it’s the major attraction in Wall, South Dakota. Wall Drug offers dining, shopping, souvenirs and tourist information for visitors to Badlands National Park. And if you’ve traveled west on I-90, you’ll be glad to see the back of those Wall Drug billboards!
What you’ll find is a series of buildings with colorful wooden facades resembling the Wild West. We stopped into Wall Drug to grab breakfast and a coffee, and to take a quick look around the shops. It’s definitely a bit tacky and the food is both overpriced and not great, but it’s well worth checking out if you’ll be staying at a hotel in Wall.
Badlands Entry Fees
Entry fees for Badlands range from $15-30 for a 7-day pass:
- $30 private vehicle + passengers
- $25 per motorcycle + passenger
- $15 per person with no car
If you’re planning a longer road trip with more national parks or national monuments in your itinerary, we recommend you buy an America The Beautiful Annual National Parks Pass, also known as an Interagency Pass. It costs $80 and gives you free entry to all US national parks for 365 days.
Further Reading: Is it worth buying an America the Beautiful Pass?
Best Time To Visit Badlands
The best times to visit Badlands National Park are on weekdays in May, June, September and October to benefit from fewer crowds, comfortable weather conditions and cheaper hotels.
July and August are the two busiest months in the park, so you can expect hiking to be challenging with heat, trails to be busy and hotels to be more expensive or maybe even full. We recommend avoiding weekends, and especially holiday weekends.
Our two trips to Badlands were in April and as September turned into October:
- April – Cold and snowy but had the park to ourselves, so trails were empty and animals were active.
- Sept/Oct – Perfect hiking weather and still quiet on the trails, but the loop road was a little busier.
Where To Stay
After visiting most popular US national parks, we can tell you that Badlands doesn’t have the best lodging options. We’ve stayed in two hotels in Wall, two hotels in Keystone and our tent at Sage Creek Campground. Your only lodging option inside the park is Cedar Pass Lodge which costs $220/night.
Wall is arguably the best place to stay for visiting the park because it has 10 or so motels and hotels, a few restaurants and essential amenities. And it’s only 7 miles from pinnacles entrance. Your alternative is one hotel option in Interior, which is closer to the park but is very remote. Otherwise, you’re looking at Rapid City, Keystone or Custer and day tripping into the park.
Further Reading: Where to stay near Badlands National Park
The Morgan Conclusion
Badlands is an underrated national park with a photogenic landscape and lots of family friendly things to do. Driving the Badlands Loop Road, hiking Door and Notch Trail, stopping at overlooks and spotting wildlife are the unmissable highlights for your visit to the park.
We thoroughly enjoyed our two trips to Badlands, despite the weather not playing ball, and we’d go back in a heartbeat for more hiking and photography opportunities. If you’re planning to visit South Dakota’s Black Hills, you should include at least half a day in the Badlands to your itinerary.
More From Badlands
- The best Badlands hiking trails
- How to hike the fun Notch Trail
- Best hotels near the Badlands
- Top Badlands photos spots
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Want more South Dakota content? Head over to our South Dakota Travel Guides to explore Mount Rushmore, Badlands, the Black Hills and beyond.
We hope our best things to do in Badlands guide helps with planning your visit to South Dakota!
Please let us know if you have any questions in the comments below.
Mark and Kristen
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Mark and Kristen Morgan are travel, hiking and photography experts. Over the last 6 years traveling full time, they have explored more than 40 countries and 30 US states.
Where Are Those Morgans has been featured in USA Today, Gestalten, Get Your Guide, CityPASS and Condé Nast Traveler along with various other publications. Read more about us.