The 12 Best Things To Do In Badlands National Park


Hiker admiring the view over Badlands national park in South Dakota

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

Two people posing with the Badlands National Park sign
Here we are posing with the entrance sign on a snowy day in April

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
  • WebsiteNPS
  • 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 Map

Map of Badlands National Park in South Dakota
Source: USGS

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.

Attractions Map

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.

Map key:

  • 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

Woman sitting in a blue SUV along highway 240 in Badlands National Park
Our Ford SUV on the loop road
Photo of a road with yellow lines running straight ahead and disappearing into rock formations with heavy clouds in the sky
Photo we took of the picturesque loop road when we had the park to ourselves in April

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

Many holes and a wooden sign at Roberts Prairie Dog Town
Roberts Prairie Dog Town is located on Sagecreek Rim Road
Gorgeous view of the Sage Creek Basin Overlook
Views over Sage Creek Basin from Sagecreek Rim Road
Bench on a wide open grassy plain with tents in the distance
Photo we took of Sage Creek Campground from our site

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

Stunning formations and a grey overcast sky at Badlands National Park
Looking at stunning formations from Big Badlands Overlook
A grey sky at Panorama Point in Badlands national park
A wide view of the unique Badlands formations at Panorama Point
Color red and yellow mounds in Badlands National Park
Hills from the gorgeous Yellow Mounds Overlook

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

An elevated boardwalk leading to the popular door trail in Badlands
The elevated boardwalk at the beginning of the Door Trail
Hiker standing on a wooden ladder on the Notch trail
Mark hiking up the ladder of the Notch Trail in Badlands
Trailhead for the Castle at Badlands National Park
The west trailhead access point for Castle Trail

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:

  1. Door Trail
  2. Window Trail
  3. Notch Trail
  4. Medicine Root Loop Trail
  5. Cliff Shelf Nature Trail
  6. Saddle Pass Trail
  7. Fossil Exhibit Trail
  8. Castle Trail
  9. Deer Haven Wilderness
  10. 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

Visitors learning about fossils during a ranger led presentation
Here we are listening to a ranger-led talk about fossils with other visitors
Information board lit up by the sun on a clear day explaining ancient fossils discovered in South Dakota
Information board at 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

Two bighorn sheep walking on the side of the road in South Dakota
Bighorn sheep walking next to the loop road
A close up view of an American bison in South Dakota
We used our telephoto lens to photograph this bison in Sage Creek
Two prairie dogs interacting with one another at Sage Creek Campground
These prairie dogs were running riot in Sage Creek Campground
Beware of rattlesnakes sign in South Dakota
You’ll see a lot of these beware of rattlesnakes signs around the park

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

A sunrise over the Hay Butte Overlook near Sage Creek Campground
Hay Butte Overlook not long after sunrise

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

Sign for the Ben Reifel Visitor Center at Badlands at Badlands National Park
Welcome sign at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center
Exterior photo of a visitor center building with a sign and steps leading to the door
Entrance to the 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?

9. Stargazing

Photo of a rocky landscape taken at night with a smooth deep blue sky
Formations inside the park under a deep blue sky after twilight

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

Many big horn sheep at the ancient hunters overlook in Badlands
Bighorn sheep climbing the formations at Badlands

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

Exterior view of the Minutemen Missle National Historical Site
Photo we took on our approach to Minuteman Missile historic site
Tourist standing alone and looking up at exhibits inside a museum
Mark completely lost in the exhibits and information
Information board showing the inside of a missile silo in front of the actual location of the silo with fencing on a clear day
You can take a tour of a missile silo just minutes from Badlands

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 Store in South Dakota with many car parked in front during the day
Exterior view of the Wall Drug
Polystyrene coffee cup at Wall Drug in South Dakota
One of our coffee cups at breakfast in 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

Northeast entrance visitor station at Badlands
Driving towards northeast entrance station to show our Interagency Pass

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

Woman taking in the views in Badlands National Park
Kristen enjoying the view from the summit of Notch Trail

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

Cabins in a row at Cedar Pass Lodge in Badlands National Park
Cabins at Cedar Pass Lodge inside the park

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

Two hikers crouched next to each other in a rocky landscape pointing to a sign stating end of trail
Here we are at the end of Door Trail

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

More From South Dakota

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.

Happy Travels,

Mark and Kristen

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6 thoughts on “The 12 Best Things To Do In Badlands National Park”

  1. Thanks for this site! Awesome how you put everything together and not to forget the incredible photos. My husband, me and our 3year old plan to visit Badlands soon ( this week) and found great tips here!

  2. I’m thrilled to have recently found your page. My husband and I have a trip booked for Custer State Park in September of this year and your wealth of information is very much appreciated. Looking forward to planning next year’s vacation with your help. Thank you so much!!

    • Thank you very much Corinne and excellent choice – Custer State Park is a fantastic place to visit. Please let us know if you have any questions at all about planning your trip to South Dakota or next year’s vacation, we’d be happy to help!

    • Yes! Badlands is awesome, very unique among the US National Park system. Do you plan to stay a night? The night sky is so clear – perfect for stargazing, and wildlife spotting is better earlier and later in the day, just watch out for those rattle snakes! We really hope your trip works out in August, Charlene!


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