Badlands National Park is like another world. The change in topography is especially drastic after driving through the flatness of the Great Plains for a majority of eastern South Dakota. After stopping at Fallingwater in Pennsylvania and visiting family in Indianapolis, Badlands National Park was the third stop on our Midwest road trip. And it didn’t disappoint! Here’s everything you need to know about visiting Badlands National Park.
Getting to Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park is located in southwestern South Dakota about four hours west of Sioux Falls. The nearest airport is Rapid City Regional Airport which is convenient to the Badlands and Mount Rushmore. Whether you fly or drive, you’ll need a car for visiting the park.
Where to Stay When Visiting Badlands National Park
Wall, South Dakota is the closest town to Badlands National Park and makes for the perfect home base for your stay. There are lots of limited-service hotel options in Wall though due to their proximity to the park, prices are more than you would expect. Unfortunately, there are no good points options. We booked our hotel late and ended up staying at the Days Inn for a whopping $170. I have to say this was the grossest hotel I’ve stayed at in while. Had I booked earlier, I would have chosen the Best Western.
When visiting Wall, make sure to stop at Wall Drug. You’ll see the billboards for this restaurant, gift shop, roadside attraction megastore for miles to come.
What to Do in Badlands National Park
There are three units to the park: the North Unit, the South Unit, and the Palmer Creek Unit. Most people stick to the North Unit with its many trails, overlooks, and scenic drives. The South and Palmer Creek Units are located inside the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and have fewer access points. These are currently closed due to COVID-19. You’ll need a car to visit the park, but you can see a majority of the North Unit in a day or even a half-day.
I recommend starting at the Pinnacles Entrance since it is the closest entrance to Wall.
Sage Creek Rim Road
Once inside the park, head to the Sage Creek Rim Road to the left. This unpaved road will bring you to the following stops: Hay Butte Overlook, Badlands Wilderness Overlook, Sage Creek Basin Overlook, and Roberts Prairie Dog Town.
After checking out the prairie dogs, head back the way you came in to get to Badlands Loop Road.
Badlands Loop Road
Badlands Loop Scenic Byway is a 38-mile paved road that brings you past the highlights of the North Unit.
All overlooks and trails are accessible from this road. Here are some of our favorite lookouts from this drive:
- Pinnacles Overlook
- Yellow Mounds Overlook
- Conata Basin Overlook
- Panorama Point
- Big Badlands Overlook
Yellow Mounds Overlook is a little disappointing since you’re so close to the yellow mounds. A better viewpoint is from Conata Basin.
Hiking in Badlands National Park
There are a handful of hiking trails in Badlands National Park many of which are quite short so it’s possible to do more than one in a day. We started with the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail which is a 0.5 mile loop located shortly after the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.
Next we drove to the parking lot for Notch Trail and Door Trail. Notch Trail is a 1.3 mile out and back hike. It involves climbing up a steep wooden ladder so it’s not the best option for some.
We finished with Door Trail, a 0.5 mile out and back hike.
If you have more time, you could hike Castle Trail. It’s about 5 miles one way or a 10.5 mile loop. Castle Trail can be difficult in the summer due to the heat, so it’s better suited for spring or fall.
After completing your hikes, head out through the Northeast Entrance which will bring you back to I-90.
Tips for Visiting Badlands National Park
- Time your hikes right: We visited in the summer and by noon, it was absolutely sweltering. Due to poor planning, this was when we started our first hike of the day. While the hikes were short, they felt a lot longer in the hot sun. I recommend doing any hikes either early in the morning or in the late afternoon.
- Bring all the food and water you’ll need: Resources in the park are extremely limited. Make sure to bring in everything you’ll need.
- Restrooms are available: While there are no bathrooms on Sage Creek Rim Road, we were pleasantly surprised by the number of portable restrooms available on the Badlands Loop drive.
- Come back for sunset: Your park pass is good for a week so you can come back after dinner to see the sunset at Pinnacles Overlook.
Badlands National Park is a welcome change of scenery after driving through the flattest parts of South Dakota. As one of the smaller national parks, we found it extremely manageable to visit in about five hours. The park provided a good mix of wildlife, scenic overlooks, and short hikes. If you plan on visiting Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park is an easy extra stop located only one and a half hours away.