Badlands National Park is one of my favorite places in the Midwest U.S. The Badlands’ name comes from the Lakota, who named the area “mako sica” (land bad). European settlers and fur trappers later described the area as “bad lands to travel through.”
But despite its name, this park is full of life and beauty. Badlands has the largest protected area of mixed-grass prairies in the United States, meaning it’s home to a thriving ecosystem. Bison, prairie dogs, mountain goats, deer, and eagles are common sights around every turn in this park.
So here’s the complete Badlands National Park Guide!
When To Go
This national park is open all year. However, in winter, driving and hiking advisories are common because of ice. November – March has nighttime temperatures well below freezing, and daytime temperatures will only reach the high-40s. Winds are extremely high in these months, the park usually gets 12-24 inches of snow, and the Ben Reifel Visitor Center will be on the only center open. But during these months, you could practically have the park to yourself, and lodging prices outside the park will be cheap.
April – May and September – October are the shoulder seasons. The weather is pleasant, with daytime temperatures in the 60s – 80s and nighttime temperatures in the 40s – 50s. More of the park’s entrances will be open, accommodation prices will still be relatively low, and there won’t be as many people here as in the summer months. April and May are some of the wettest months, so bring your rain gear.
June – August can have daytime temperatures in the 100s, so come prepared for the heat. The Badlands isn’t one of the most-visited national parks, so even in these peak months, tourists can be few and far between, especially if you venture off the Badlands Loop Road. The few accommodations inside and right outside the park book up fast, so reserve ahead of time or stay in the nearby town of Wall. Lightning strikes are common in the summer, so take cover during storms.
What To Do
Scenic Drives: Badlands Loop Road. This paved road is suitable for all vehicles, RVs, and Motorhomes. My favorite viewpoint is the White River Valley Overlook, and you have to see the sunset from Pinnacles Overlook.
Sage Creek Rim Road for a high likelihood of seeing bison (bighorn sheep are also commonly seen near Hay Butte Overlook on this road). This road has no vehicle restrictions, but be aware that it’s a dirt and gravel road.
Hikes: Fossil Exhibit Trail (easy), Door Trail (easy), Castle Trail (moderate-difficult), Cliff Shelf Nature Trail (moderate), Medicine Root Trail (moderate), Saddle pass (strenuous).
See the prairie dogs at Prairie Homestead right outside the Northeast Entrance to the park.
Stargaze: In the summer, there are nightly ranger-led programs with telescopes.
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Know Before You Go
Bring binoculars with you. You can see for miles across the plains.
The sunlight is direct and strong all year (you’re at a higher elevation than you realize, and shade is scarce), so bring a hat or bandana to protect your scalp, sunscreen, and lots of water.
Badlands rock is soft, and rockfalls are coming, so don’t climb on the rock formations.
As tempting as it may be, you have to leave any fossils you find in the park.
Rattlesnakes are common, so bring a walking stick and your sturdiest shoes.
There are no gas stations inside the park, and Cedar Pass Lodge (open seasonally) has the only restaurant.
Bathrooms and water fountains are only located at the visitor centers.
If you can only spend part of a day in the park as you drive through this part of South Dakota, give yourself at least four hours to drive the Badlands Loop Road and hike a couple of the easy trails.
The rock formations’ colors and patterns are best seen in the morning and evening. The colors and gradient lines can be difficult to see during the day in direct sunlight.
Where To Stay
When you visit a national park, I always recommend you stay inside the park to save time on driving and to be able to start your day earlier and end later. However, accommodation is extremely limited in Badlands National Park. The Cedar Pass Lodge and its cabin rentals and the Cedar Pass Campground for tents and RVs usually book a year in advance.
You’ve also got the Sage Creek Campground, a free first-come, first-serve rustic campground inside the park, and you can backcountry camp.
So, the chances are good that you’ll need to stay outside the park. The Badlands Inn, Badlands Interior Motel and Campground, and the Badlands/White River KOA are near the park’s Interior Entrance. The town of Wall, South Dakota, is only about a fifteen-minute drive from the Pinnacles Entrance to the park, and Wall has lots of accommodation options.
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