Badlands National Park Travel Guide

Saturday, October 23, 2021

I visited Badlands National Park briefly in early September 2021, en route to Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park. Driving through South Dakota, we welcomed a break to see something other than the prairie and stretch our legs. We still needed to get from Sioux Falls, SD to Gardiner, MT so we drove the scenic loop and stopped just a couple times. In my initial planning, we were going to skip this part of the trip. I didn't want to stop for such a short period of time and I didn't want to lose time at Yellowstone by staying at Badlands (and Wind Cave National Park). However, when checking the route, we realized we were driving right by the park and it seemed silly to miss it.


The 38th National Park was established in 1978. Before this, it was designated as a National Monument in 1939. The park is open all year-round, 24 hours a day unless severe weather causes a closure. Visitors Centers are closed on public holidays.  Summers are hot and dry, while winters see 1-2 feet of snow. Unpredictable hailstorms and tornadoes can show up very quickly. It costs $30 per vehicle to enter Badlands National Park - the fee varies for motorcycles and passenger vans or buses.

The formations in and around Badlands National Park were formed over millions of years through deposition and erosion. Layers of rocks built up over time and were eroded by rivers, wind and other natural elements. Badlands is actually a geographic term used to describe formations of sedimentary rocks. There are badlands found in Wyoming, Utah, North Dakota, Colorado and Nebraska. 

Badlands National Park Visitors Centers


Whether you have 3 hours or several days to spend at Badlands, there are plenty of things to do. There are activities suitable for families with young children or experienced backcountry hikers. 

Drive Badlands Loop Road

If you are visiting for an afternoon, I think this is the best way to experience the park. You'll get to see several different rock formations and wildlife. The road also connects two different entrances to the park. It's a really convenient way to visit if you are continuing west on Highway 90. There are a dozen overlooks marked on the park map with safe pullout areas to snap photos and enjoy the views.

Enjoy the Night Sky

The Badlands are located in a unique area where light pollution does not inhibit stargazing. Throughout the summer (Memorial Day – Labor Day), professional telescopes are provided for guests to view the night sky at Cedar Pass Campground Amphitheater. The National Park Service estimates you can see more than 7,500 stars, including the Milky Way Galaxy. A three-day Astronomy Festival is even hosted in July. 

Photograph a Sunrise or Sunset

Dawn or dusk are gorgeous times to photograph any landscape but the way light is cast on various shapes and sizes of rock formations creates a dramatic golden hour. We visited during the afternoon, but from a quick google search of sunrise at Badlands, the way the shadows and lights hit each pinnacle is extra special. 



Spotting wildlife is an exciting element of any National Park trip and Badlands is no exception. Praire dog towns are all over the park and surrounding areas. Bighorn sheep, mule deer, bison and pronghorn are also common in different parts of Badlands. Black-footed ferrets were once thought to be extinct around the world but there are now at least 50 ferrets residing in Badland's prairie dog town. If you're lucky, you may also spot a coyote.


Short Trails

  • Door Trail: 0.75 mile round trip
  • Window Trail: 0.25 mile round trip
  • Notch Trail: 1.5 mile round trip
  • Cliff Shelf: 0.5 mile round trip
  • Saddle Pass: 0.25 mile round trip

Long Trails

  • Castle Trail: 10 mile round trip
  • Medicine Root Loop: 4 mile round trip

Other Hiking Tips

  • Badlands National Park has an Open Hike policy - meaning you can explore the off-trail wilderness and climb rock formations as long as it is safe.
  • Carry water on every hike. Hats and sunglasses will also be your best friend in this environment.
  • Maintain a 100-foot distance from all wildlife in the park. If animals react to you, that is a good sign you are too close. 100 feet is equal to three school buses. 
  • Follow Leave No Trace. In Badlands, this especially means leaving fossils, plants, animals, artifacts and rocks as you found them. 

Have you ever visited Badlands National Park? Share your experience in the comments below.

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