While I was in South Dakota, I decided that I had to visit Badlands National Park. I ended up falling in love with the US National Parks on this trip and ended up seeing 10 and changing my plans. They are well set up, with such helpful staff to advise you the best things to see and do in the time you have there.
I had just visited Sioux Falls and got the greyhound bus across to Rapid City. I had wanted to rent a car and drive but it was going to cost an extra $900 to pick the car up in Sioux Falls and drop it off in Rapid City!! To rent it in Rapid City for 2 days was less than $100.
Where is Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park is in the state of South Dakota and is around 60 miles east of Rapid City towards Sioux Falls. It takes about an hour to drive to the Pinnacles entrance which is the closest entrance to the park from Rapid City.
Badlands National Park Hours
Badlands SD is open 24 hours a day all year. The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is open 8am – 4pm in winter, 8am – 5pm April, May, early September to late October and 8am – 7pm in summer and here the National park service guides can show you all the hiking trails there are from simple ones to long multi day hikes.
Badlands National Park Entrance Fee
It costs $30 per vehicle to enter the park, though if you are planning to visit a few of the parks it might be worth buying the annual pass for $80 which is what I did. Visiting 10 parks on this trip I certainly saved a lot of money!!
Badlands National Park Tour
If you don’t have access to a car, then there are a couple of private tours that you can do to Badlands National Park or if you do have a car then try the Badlands National park self guided driving audio tour, which will tell you all about the places you are stopping at and the history of the park at your own pace.
History of the Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park South Dakota was originally declared a National Monument on 4 March 1929, before becoming the 39th National Park in November 1978. It covers an area of 242,756 acres with a large grass prairie with rocks eroded over time to create pinnacles and spires.
For 11,000 years this area was used by the native americans to hunt. The prairie’s were home to many animals with the views from the higher rocks making it an ideal hunting ground. It now has the largest protected prairie in the USA.
The area is also popular with fossil hunters, with fossils from 77 species being found in the White River which flows through the park.
Things to do in the Badlands National Park
Sage Creek Rim Road Badlands
I decided first to drive part of the Sage Creek loop badlands to see the views, it is a gravel track so you are unable to drive fast along it (around 15 to 20 mph maximum), but it’s worth doing part of it to see your first views of the park. The road is 25.5 miles but I only did the first 4 miles to see these views. If you carry on going along the road you will eventually get to Highway 44 which takes you back to Rapid City.
The scenery from this road is spectacular and it’s a great place to look out and see the pinnacles and spires that form this part of the park.
There are no designated hikes on this road, but there is a campsite at sage creek, though there is no freshwater here and you will need to use the water from the creek. If you are using water from the creek then it would be a good idea to use a filtered water bottle.
Badlands Loop Road
I then decided to drive along the Badlands Loop Road towards the Ben Reifel Visitors Center, it is 22 miles long and winds through the park and takes you to the Northeast entrance. It would take around 30 minutes to drive this part of the loop road if you didn’t stop but there are some amazing viewpoints that you will want to stop at.
The views along this road are amazing and there are quite a few overlooks and viewpoints to stop at to admire the views through the valley.
The colouring of the different layers of rock is stunning to see as you drive through the valley.
Along this road you can see the prairie stretching for miles and if you are lucky then you may be able to see Bison moving across it, you will though need to be a little closer if you want to see the prairie dogs.
The first hiking trail on this road is the Fossil Exhibit Trail Badlands, it is 0.25 miles roundtrip and is a boardwalk, so nice and easy to walk around and has fossil replicas and exhibits of the creatures that used to roam this area.
From this same point you can also start the Castle Trail Badlands National Park, it is a 10 mile roundtrip, though you could hike it and get picked up at Highway 377. If you do decide to park up then on your return you could combine with the Medicine Root Trail so that you are not hiking the same path all the time. The Castle trail is the longest hike in Badlands National Park.
Further along the Badlands Loop road is the Saddle Pass Trail Badlands, this is a short but strenuous hike as you climb the badlands wall to get a view of the White River valley. It is only 0.25 miles roundtrip but you can also join onto the Medicine Root loop and Castle trail to make a 4 mile loop.
Next you will get to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.
From the visitors center to the park entrance, there are more short hikes. The first is the Cliff Shelf Trail Badlands, it is 0.5 miles round trip. You walk through a juniper forest along the Badlands wall and to a small pond where you can occasionally see deer or bighorn sheep.
The next hike further along the road is Notch Trail, it is a 1.5 mile strenuous roundtrip, that starts by walking through a canyon then up a log ladder and you follow the ledge to see a view of the White River Valley. You can do this from the window parking area.
The Window Trail Badlands is close to the notch trail and is a short 0.25 miles loop, you walk to a natural window in the badlands wall where you have a great view of the canyon.
The last hike on this road is the Door Trail which is 0.75 miles roundtrip and another break in the Badlands Wall called the “Door”. It is an easy hike and gives a great view of Badlands National Park.
If you want to do a longer hike then it is possible to hike in Badlands National Park, though there are no actual paths, you can also camp and permits are not required. Please note though in many areas there are no water sources and you will need to carry any water you need into the park with you.
To read more on visiting Badlands, check out the Lonely Planet’s guide to USA’s National Parks. Paperback here.
What to Pack for Badlands National Park
- Daypack – A good day pack is needed to carry everything you need with you
- Water – Make sure you have plenty of water with you. It’s always a good idea too to carry a filtered water bottle in case you need to fill up in a river or stream.
- Hiking Poles – You never know when you may come across snakes while you are travelling and it helps to alert animals there is someone there so you don’t sneak up on them.
- Sun Hat – The sun is very strong especially in summer and you can easily get burnt and dehydrated in the summer sun.
Where to stay near Badlands National Park
If you decide not to stay in Badlands National Park, then the closest place to stay is in Wall, which is around 7 miles from the Pinnacles entrance.
The options you have here are:
If you are planning to travel around South Dakota then check out my other guides:
- Best places to visit in South Dakota
- Crazy Horse Memorial
- Sioux Falls Park
- Custer State Park
- Mount Rushmore
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