The term “badlands” conjures up images of a harsh and brutal desert environment. While that can be true they can also be stunningly beautiful places.
“Badland” simply refers to an area of land where heavy erosion and soil quality combine to make them bad for farming. You can find them all over the world but the South Dakota badlands are the largest.
Badlands National Park is a massive, magical place full of colorful, eroded terrain carved into amazing formations. The park is also home to unique native wildlife, and amazing wilderness. The Badlands encompass 244,000 acres of protected land. We’ve got the top 7 activities not to be missed on your visit to the best of Badlands National Park.
Three Units to the Park
The park is broken into three units: North Unit, Stronghold Unit, and Palmer Creek Unit. The latter two are found on a Native American reservation and there aren’t actually any roads that lead into the Palmer Creek Unit. Most visitors to the park do not venture west of the Pinnacles Entrance in the North Unit. While this is where the best formations can be found the entire park is beautiful and should be fully explored if you have time.
The Badlands Loop Road is the main thoroughfare through the North Unit of the park. The “loop” moniker is a misnomer as it does not loop back on itself. Rather, it runs from east to west following the main erosion shelf. It is an amazing 27-mile journey on a paved road that runs from the Northeast Entrance to the Pinnacles Entrance. The engineers placed the road so that it weaves in and out of the formations. It artfully hugs the flow of the very colorful terrain, climbing up and down several times along its journey from one gate to the other. The Badlands Loop Road is the best way to easily experience the best of Badlands National Park.
No visit to the Badlands is complete without seeing some amazing wildlife. Most of the creatures seem to reside in the prairie grass above the Badlands formation. This includes herds of the ever-popular bison and pronghorns. They graze amongst the seemingly ever-present prairie dogs. The best area for spotting these prairie creatures is along the long stretch of prairie found between Big Foot Pass and the Contra Basin. The prairie grass that runs from the Pinnacles Entrance to the Sage Creek area of the park is also a favorite hang out for these creatures.
Another favorite in the park is the bighorn sheep, which can be seen climbing precariously on the jagged, erosive Badland cliffs. There are several herds in the park, but most seem to favor the area west of the Ancient Hunters Overlook. We had a lot of luck spotting the daredevils climbing the cliffs near the Hay Butte Overlook on the Sage Creek Rim Road.
During your visit make sure to keep an eye out for the extremely endangered black-footed ferret. It was re-introduced to the park in 1994, but they are still rare. There is hope that the population might recover under the protections found in the National Park.
3) Hiking the Best of Badlands National Park
The only thing better than driving through the Badlands formations is getting up and close to them while on a hike. Badlands National Park has a surprisingly scant number of established trails. In fact, every established trail’s trailhead can be found in a 7.5-mile stretch of the Badlands Loop Road. Collectively there are only 11 miles of these trails in the entire 244,000-acre park. However, when there are so few trails every one of them is amazing and worth the time to get out and stretch your legs. The downside? Nearly all of them are short and crowded.
If you want to escape the crowds and strike out on your own, Badlands National Park allows hikers to go off-trail and make their own paths. While this can sound overwhelming to some there are typically well-worn paths throughout the park. In general, they are relatively easy to follow but have no signage. However, you should have a good sense of direction and know-how to use a map or GPS for wilderness exploration. These areas are used by day hikers and backpackers alike. As of 2021, no permits are needed to hike or camp. It’s recommended to check with the rangers at the visitor center for current conditions. There are some stipulations that must be followed especially when planning to camp in the backcountry. Check out the park’s website for details.
Popular Wilderness Hiking Areas
Some of the most popular wilderness hiking areas start from the Conata Picnic Area, Sage Creek Basin Overlook, and the Sage Creek Campground. There’s also the Medicine/Castle Trail Loop and Saddle Pass Trailhead. The latter are established trails but you can also explore off trail and camp in the area. All of these areas have backcountry registers located at the trailheads. It is of course best to let a friend or family member know of your itinerary so if you go missing they can let rangers know where to look.
5) Explore Ancient History at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center
Stop by the visitor center to tour the exhibits and learn about the geologic history found in the Badlands. The erosive nature of the park’s colorful layers tell stories of the Earth’s past. It is theorized that the park was once the bottom of a shallow section of ocean known as the Western Interior Seaway. Mosasaurs and Ammonites (similar to Nautilus) lived here during the age of the dinosaurs. Later the landscape transformed into a lush forested bog similar to Florida. Massive 16′ long creatures known as Brontothere (similar to a rhino), Hyracodon (similar to a small horse), and Nimravids (resembles a small sabertooth tiger) roamed the forests. Today, you can see the actual bones of these ancient creatures in the fossil preparation lab at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.
Along with wilderness trail information, the rangers at the visitor center will have reports on the current road conditions. You will need this information if you intend to drive the Sage Creek Rim Road and the Sheep Mountain Table Road. Both are gravel roads and the latter requires a high clearance vehicle. A 4×4 is highly recommended for traveling the last few miles of Sheep Mountain Table Road. If you come in winter some sections of the paved Badlands Loop Road may also be closed.
The visitor center has freshwater dispensers to re-up before exploring the dry landscape.
6) Camping Under Dark Skies
No visit to Badlands National Park is complete without experiencing this unique environment at night. As the sun fades and the crowds disperse the Badlands grows eerily quiet. The sound of the wind blowing through the prairie grass is often the only sound that can be heard. Coyotes will occasionally break the quiet and sing out to one another as they begin their nightly hunts. While Badlands National Park isn’t an official international dark sky park, it is a relatively remote area that provides great views of the night sky.
The best option to experience the stillness of the Badlands at night is by backpacking into the wilderness. If backpacking isn’t in your comfort zone there are some great camping options in and near the park. See our camping section below for details.
7) Visit a Minuteman Missile Silo
“Speak softly and carry a big stick” is an old African proverb that was made famous in the western world by Theodore Roosevelt. It means that diplomacy is a great way to interact in the world but you need military leverage to maintain peace and deter aggression. For Roosevelt, the “big stick” was a powerful navy but for 30-years during the Cold War, the United States developed and maintained over 1,000 intercontinental nuclear ballistic missiles. They are known as the Minuteman Missiles and they were deployed across the heartland of the country buried in silos beneath the prairie.
Although not technically a part of Badlands National Park the Delta-09 Missile Silo is a must-see place when exploring this area of South Dakota. Located a few miles to the north of the Pinnacles Entrance, the decommissioned Delta-09 Missile Silo has been dedicated as a national historic site. Visitors can peer into the 80′ deep silo, looking down on the business end of an enormous rocket. Don’t worry, the warhead and propellant have been removed. Visitors can explore the small site, read a few signs, and use a self-guided cell phone tour to learn about how these devices worked and what it took to maintain them in this harsh environment. There is also a Minuteman Visitor Center located closer to the Northeast entrance of the park. Tours of the Delta-01 rocket launch facility available by reservation.
Logistics for Visiting the Best of Badlands National Park
The springtime has some very mild temperatures but it is also the “rainy season” in the Badlands. It is a dry climate so the precipitation is minimal. Although any rain that does fall creates mud and the potential for flooding. April starts off cool. By the end of June, it can be very warm.
July and August are hot and in an exposed landscape like the Badlands, there is little shade to be found. Summer is also one of the busiest seasons making it a less than ideal time to visit.
By September things are starting to cool down and the chances of rain are minimal. October is equally nice and likely cold at night. This makes autumn one of the best times to visit the park.
Running from late October through February, the winters in the Badlands are long and cold. The average low in January is 11ºF. Although the winters are the dry season any snow that falls can close down the roads in the park. The white snow does add a level of beauty to an already gorgeous terrain.
1 – 2 days
Most people spend less than a day exploring the park. To experience the best of Badlands National Park we recommend adding at least one night, along with a colorful sunset. These must be on the itinerary.
Cedar Pass Campground – The Cedar Pass Campground is one of two official park campgrounds. It is located near the visitor center putting it in the heart of the park near all the best hiking trails. It is a fairly busy area throughout the day and night making it less than ideal for a quiet getaway.
Sage Creek Campground – The second park campground is found on the western side of the North Unit of the park. Not only is it remote, making it a great place to experience a quiet dark sky, but it’s free. While the gravel road can be a little bumpy it’s fairly well maintained.
Nomad View Dispersed – The Nomad View Dispersed Area is located north of the Pinnacles Entrance.While it is located on the outside of the park, the Badland formation stretches north through the area allowing campers to overnight right on the edge of the eroded shelf. It is one of our favorite boondocking sites in the country.
Badlands Interior Campground – Finally, for those who really can’t live without full hookups and showers, you want to book a spot at the Badlands Interior Campground. While you won’t get the seclusion found in the other camping areas you will have power. If you have air conditioning, that will come in handy on hot summer days.
There are pretty slim pickings for those who prefer a bed to a tent near the Badlands. The best option is to stay in a cabin inside the park at the Cedar Pass Lodge. There are also a few more traditional hotels in Wall, South Dakota including an Econo Lodge.
Food & Souvenirs – Wall Drug
Wall Drug is almost worthy of being a part of the best of Badlands National Park list. It is a unique shopping and entertainment experience. Half of the downtown area of Wall, South Dakota is one enormous sprawling store known as Wall Drug. It is a one-stop shop for every souvenir you could ever hope to take home. There are several eateries (the donuts are popular) and entertaining decor and interactive displays like a T-rex, a jackalope, a fountain splash pad for those who are looking to cool off on a hot summer’s day, and much more. If you didn’t know about this quirky place prior to visiting the area you would by the time you returned. There are literally thousands of billboards for miles around. It is a truly unique place that is almost as well known as the park itself. (Note: The 5-cent coffee is outdated advertising.)
The Best of Badlands National Park
Landscapes known as badlands can be found all over the world. None are equal in size and grandeur to those found in South Dakota. The 244,000-acre national park is home to amazing scenic landscapes and unique wildlife. The dark skies reveal our place in the universe and the eroding soil gives us a glimpse at the history of our planet. An amazing journey through this picturesque place awaits and these top 7 activities help you discover the best of Badlands National Park for yourself.
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