One of South Dakota’s Great 8 landmarks, Badlands National Park is a masterpiece 75 million years in the making. Discover a maze of layered rock canyons, spires and hoodoos, and mixed-grass prairies teeming with wildlife under wide open skies. From scenic hikes to fossil findings, this travel guide will help you plan the perfect visit to Badlands National Park.
How to Get to Badlands National Park
Set out on an adventure-filled road trip or fly into Rapid City Airport (RAP). From Rapid City, South Dakota, a.k.a. The Gateway to the Black Hills, Under Canvas Mount Rushmore is just a 30-minute drive. Located in Keystone, Under Canvas is conveniently located just 4-miles from Mount Rushmore, less than an hour from the Crazy Horse Memorial and Custer State Park, and less than two hours from the entrance of Badlands National Park!
When to Visit Badlands National Park
With hot summers and snowy winters, Badlands National Park is a land of extremes. The best time to visit Badlands National Park is between May and October. Summer sees an uptick in park-goers. For a more serene experience, we recommend visiting during the shoulder seasons of spring (April through June) and fall (September through October). If you find yourself in Badlands during peak summer, hit the trails early to beat the heat and avoid the crowds.
Things to Do in Badlands National Park
The Badlands offers something for everyone. Hikers will love the maze-like rock formations and expansive views. Dinosaur lovers will delight in fossils and tales of the past. Stargazers will be awed by a night sky filled with celestial wonders.
Start your journey at the main hub of the park, the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. Here, you’ll find an introductory movie, ranger talk schedules, a gift shop, a Badlands map, and during the summer, a paleontology lab where you can see scientists studying fossils found in the park and even ask questions about their findings.
The crooks, crannies, and spires, create a challenging and incredibly scenic course for cyclists. We recommend riding the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway (38-miles) to enjoy scenic passes and overlooks, or for those bikes suitable for gravel, take Sage Creek Rim Road to reach some of the oldest park areas and more abundant wildlife. Bicycles are allowed on designated paved, gravel, and dirt roads within Badlands National Park.
Take a Scenic Drive
Driving the Badlands Loop Road is a spectacular way to see the park. There are 16 designated overlooks with pull-offs where you can pause and snap pictures. Plan to spend at least three hours driving and stopping along the way. Pinnacles Overlook is a popular stop for sweeping views of jagged rock formations. It’s common to find bighorn sheep here too. The colorful Yellow Mounds Overlook tells the story of the land and how it changed over millions of years with bands of yellow, orange, and beige rock layers. Don’t miss a stop at the largest prairie dog town in Badlands National Park, Roberts Prairie Dog Town, where hundreds of wild prairie dogs pop out of their burrows and scamper across the dirt.
Badlands is teeming with wildlife. Its mixed-grass prairies on its 244,000 acres of land support life for bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, golden eagles, black-footed ferrets, and more. There are more than 1,200 American bison who call the Badlands home and they can be seen in just about every area of the park except for around the visitor center. Remember to follow the rule of thumb: if you can cover the entire animal with your thumb, you’re at a safe distance. Binoculars or a camera with zoom are your safest bet for getting a closer look at Badlands wildlife.
With almost no light pollution, the Badlands is an incredible place to gaze up at the cosmos and see thousands of stars, planets, moons, star clusters, and even satellites. From Memorial Day through Labor Day, the National Park Service offers an evening ranger program where you can look through a large telescope and find different constellations, stars, and planets. Badlands stargazing starts around 9:45 p.m. in May, June, and July and around 9:15 p.m. in August and September.
Hiking in Badlands National Park
From 0.25-miles to 10-miles long, there are trails to match every ability and interest. Most of the designated trails in the Badlands are within a few miles of the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. Unlike most other national parks, Badlands has an Open Hike Policy, which means you can hike wherever you’d like!
Fossil Exhibit Trail
This short, 0.25-mile trail is a favorite among families for its fossil replicas and exhibits of the animals that once lived in the area and for being fully accessible.
Take a boardwalk adventure along an easy, 0.75-mile round trip hike through a break in the Badlands Wall, also known as “The Door.” From here, you can see a spectacular view of the Badlands.
Follow the 1.5-mile round-trip trail through a canyon, up a wooden ladder, and along a ledge known as “The Notch” for impressive views of White River Valley. Hikers can expect a challenging but rewarding hike.
At 10-miles round trip, this is the longest trail in the park. It begins at the Door and Window parking lot and stretches 5-miles one-way to the Fossil Exhibit Trail. The path is relatively flat and passes by plenty of unique rock formations.
Where to Eat in and Around Badlands
Inside the Park
Cedar Pass Lodge Restaurant is next to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and is open from May through mid-September. The restaurant serves up local favorites for breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day. The Sioux Taco, made with fresh fry bread and topped with buffalo meat, refried beans, shredded lettuce, tomato, cheese, and black olives, is a crowd-pleaser.
Under Canvas offers nutritious Grab N Go options so you can eat on the move or enjoy a picnic with a view. Choose from a selection of wholesome breakfast options, healthy sandwiches, fresh salads, tasty wraps, drinks, and more to fuel your day in the park and make the most of every moment. Just remember to leave no trace.
Outside the Park
Badlands Saloon & Grill is located in Interior, South Dakota, just a few miles outside the national park. This Western-style restaurant caters to every type of taste bud with a variety of family-recipe comfort foods to choose from.
Cowboy Corner is a one-of-a-kind convenience store in the town of Interior. Not only do they carry all of the essentials, but their food is a well-kept secret among locals. Though, they were recently featured on the Food Network for delicious eats!
Wagon Wheel Bar & Grill is a no-frills local bar and eatery in the town of Interior where you get your fill with a yummy pizza and a cold drink after a day of exploring the Badlands.
Your Badlands Glamping Vacation
Under Canvas Mount Rushmore is a one-of-a-kind home base for exploring Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills of South Dakota. Guests enjoy upscale accommodations at the heart of it all just 4-miles from Mount Rushmore National Monument and less than two hours from Badlands National Park. Explore all the Old West has to offer and return to the comforts of a private, safari-style tent complete with a king-size bed, ensuite bathroom, wood-burning stoves, and more.