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Badlands National Park: A First Timer’s Guide

Wander through a prehistoric wonderland of colorful rock formations, fossils and prairies in southwestern South Dakota.

The surreal landscapes of South Dakota’s Badlands National Park have been created over millions of years. Rivers raged and winds gushed, depositing layer upon layer of rock until the buttes and spiers pointed skyward. Each layer has a different shade, as if stripes of yellow, orange, purple, gray and brown have been painted on. It’s the kind of place that makes you gasp out loud. Then comes the silence as you take it all in.

The Lakota called this region “mako sica”, meaning “evil lands”. It’s a fitting name for such an intimidating place. Winters were cold and stormy, summers were dry and hot, and canyons and buttes formed an unforgiving maze. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Lakota hunted here seasonally without creating a permanent habitat.

The Badlands were approved as a national monument in 1929 and officially designated a national park in 1978, which would preserve and protect 244,000 acres of otherworldly rock formations, prairies, wildlife, and one of the world’s most abundant fossil beds. Here’s how to plan a trip to Badlands National Park so you can see it for yourself.

Sunset over Badlands National Park
Admire the many different shades of color as the sun sets over the Badlands © Tamara Gane / Lonely Planet

When should I go to Badlands National Park?

Badlands National Park is open 24 hours, 365 days a year. In summer, temperatures rise up to 45℃ (114℉). This is the time of year when the park is at its busiest (although at 244,000 acres, it rarely feels crowded). If you plan to participate in outdoor recreation, bring plenty of water and head out in the morning before it gets too hot. Keep an eye on the weather and plan activities such as scenic drives and trips to visitor centers during the hottest parts of the day so you have air conditioning to cool off.

In winter, Badlands National Park receives up to 60cm of snow and temperatures can drop below 4℃ (40℉). Prepare for extreme cold and check the NPS website for up-to-date information on road closures and driving conditions before your visit.

The shoulder seasons of April/May or September/October are the best times to visit Badlands National Park. Temperatures are mild and the park is generally quiet. September is especially worth it with temperatures reaching the mid-70s (23℃) and relatively few visitors after Labor Day.

How much time should I spend in Badlands National Park?

Plan to spend two to three days on your trip to Badlands National Park. That said, even day trips are worth it. If you only have a few hours, focus on scenic drives with stops at viewpoints to enjoy the views.

If you’re lucky enough to spend a few days in Badlands National Park, spend your time hiking, viewing wildlife, and exploring the visitor centers.

Is it easy to travel in and around Badlands National Park?

Despite looking like another planet, the Badlands are easy to get to. The park is about an hour’s drive from Rapid City Regional Airport, which serves several major airlines.

If you’re traveling by car or RV, Badlands National Park is 60 miles from Rapid City, 276 miles from Sioux Falls, 370 miles from Denver, and 450 miles from Omaha. If you’re on a road trip, check out these roadside attractions, including Wall Drug Store, about 11 minutes from the Visitor Center in Badlands National Park.

There is no shuttle system or public transportation in the park, so you’ll need a personal vehicle to explore the Badlands. Cell service is spotty and GPS may not be available, so download your maps in advance or bring paper copies.

Accessible course in Badlands National Park
Wheelchair-friendly boardwalks make Badlands National Park accessible to more people © Tamara Gane / Lonely Planet

Getting There in Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park strives to create an accessible environment for all visitors. Wheelchair-accessible boardwalks wind through grasslands and stunningly beautiful stone formations to provide views of the entire park. Additionally, the Fossil Exhibit Trail features tactile exhibits and braille on the interpretive signs.

Both visitor centers are wheelchair accessible. Open captioned versions and audio descriptions of the park’s introductory film are available upon request. At the Ben Relief Visitor Center, museum exhibits include tactile and audio/visual elements to assist guests who are blind or visually impaired.

Cedar Pass Campground offers two wheelchair-accessible campsites, plus an accessible site in the group loop area.

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Top things to do in Badlands National Park

Tour a world of prairie and stone

Part of the appeal of Badlands National Park is the dramatic way the landscape changes from one part to the next. You only have to turn a corner to catch a glimpse of big horn sheep grazing along the side of the road or an ocean of stone waves disappearing into endless stretches of grass.

For wildlife spotting, try the Sage Creek Rim Road, a dirt road in the North Unit where you have the best chance of spotting bison. Other wildlife in Badlands National Park includes elk, mountain lion, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, rattlesnakes and dozens of bird species.

The most popular drive in the park is Hwy 240 Badlands Loop Road, the park’s main thoroughfare. This drive takes you through spectacular scenery, winding past prairies, pyramid-shaped rock formations, viewpoints and visitor centers.

Look for fossils

We know that ancient horses, rhinos, camels, tigers, and oreodonts once roamed the Badlands thanks to a wealth of fossils. New evidence of prehistoric life is constantly being discovered in the park, often by visitors who alert park rangers so that the find can be meticulously discovered and preserved. The fascinating ¼-mile wheelchair-accessible Fossil Exhibit Trail offers fossil replicas and exhibits of the ancient animals that once called the Badlands home.

The Ben Relief Visitors Center is home to the Fossil Preparation Lab, where you can watch paleontologists at work and ask questions about ancient life and projects in the park. The laboratory is generally open every day of the week from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm.

Family at Cedar Pass Campground in Badlands National Park.
Book a spot at the Cedar Pass Campground to stay overnight and see the starry sky at night © Mark Read / Lonely Planet

Celebrate the stars

A lack of light pollution turns the night sky in Badlands National Park into millions of diamonds that flicker in the wilderness. Stargazing is incredible year-round, but if you’re there from Memorial Day to Labor Day, rangers set up telescopes and give astronomy lectures after sunset at the Cedar Pass Campground Amplitheater.

Take a walk

In addition to the wheelchair-accessible boardwalks throughout the park, there are also longer, more challenging trails such as the 10-mile Castle Trail, which begins at the Door and Window Parking Area and winds through grasslands and rock formations before ending at the Fossil Exihit Trail.

Off-trail hiking is allowed in Badlands National Park. If you venture off-trail, bring plenty of water, stay at least 100 feet away from wildlife, and wear boots or sturdy shoes for protection from snakes and cacti.

Give the visitor centers a call

Stop by the Ben Relief Visitors Center in Badlands National Park to view museum exhibits and fossils, and chat with park rangers and paleontologists. The White River Visitor Center is dedicated to Badland’s cultural heritage. Rangers are on hand to give lectures and present exhibits about the park’s significance to the Lakota people.

If you are a collector, any visitor center can stamp your national park passport.

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My favorite thing to do in Badlands National Park

I can’t get enough sunsets in Badlands National Park. In the evening the sun melts against the horizon like a ball of fiery wax, casting color over the buttes, pinnacles and spires. The entire park seems to hum and glow as it absorbs the fading light. The sunrises are just as beautiful, especially if you are visiting in the summer and want to start your day before it gets too hot.

The best places to watch the sunset are Pinnacles Overlook, Conata Basin Overlook and the Bigfoot Pass Picnic Area. Panorama Point, Door Trail and Big Badlands Overlook are the best places to witness the sunrise.

How much money do I need for Badlands National Park?

  • Basic hotel room for two in Rapid City: $99-$175
  • Badlands National Park room or cabin at Cedar Pass Lodge: From $220 per night
  • Camping in Badlands National Park at Sage Creek Campground: Free
  • Camping in Badlands National Park at Cedar Pass Campground: From $28 per night
  • Meal for two at Cedar Pass Lodge Restaurant: $40
  • Souvenir T-shirt from Ben Relief Visitor Center: From $25
  • Park admission: general admission $15-$30; annual admission $55; America The Beautiful Pass Free $80
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