Article Overview: Best Things to Do in Badlands National Park
I’ve been to this park enough to confidently say that there are an incredible amount of amazing things to do in Badlands National Park. Encompassing 244,000 acres of otherworldly landscapes, Badlands National Park is home to massive towering spires, deep canyons, oceans of undisturbed mixed grass prairie, ancient fossil remains, and one of the last refuges for the largest mammal in North America – the American Bison.
Badlands National Park is a true national park-lovers national park, if you follow. Here amidst the wide open spaces of South Dakota you can truly get away from it all and experience nature on a grand scale.
We recently had the opportunity to work with our great friends at the South Dakota Department of Tourism and make this breathtaking film on Badlands National Park.
Table of Contents: Things to Do Badlands National Park
About Our Travels to Badlands National Park
Things to Know Before You Visit Badlands National Park
Best Things to Do in Badlands National Park
Things to Do Near Badlands National Park
The Badlands Video
Getting to the Badlands
Best Badlands Roads
Tips for Visiting Badlands National Park
Photos of Badlands National Park
About Our Travels to Badlands National Park
I visited the Badlands for the first time back in 2016 with my brother as we attempted to capture the essence of the park for our film (see below) and have been back many, many times since.
Its vast, seemingly unending landscapes and magnificent formations left an indelible mark on me. The broad quiet of the prairie here envelopes you in a way that only a national park can.
Gazing into the unending maze of badlands twisting into the distance like wrinkles in the palm of your hand and hearing nothing but the lonesome prairie wind is bound to leave you breathless.
Over the course of several weeks my brother and I explored nearly all that Badlands National Park has to offer, and it’s quite a lot more than meets the eye.
This vast and beautiful park is like no other so read on and I’ll share some of the best things to do there with you.
Things to Know Before You Visit Badlands National Park
$30 per vehicle OR if you plan to visit more National Parks within the next 12 months we suggest you go ahead and purchase the America the Beautiful Pass (which you can purchase here). This pass gets you into all National Parks, Forests, Monuments, and more including 2,000 sites for free after a one time $79 fee.
Sunscreen: Depending on the park and the time of year you’re likely to be exposed to plenty of sun. Seriously, some of these parks can zap you if you don’t wear sunscreen. We happen to like this one because it works AND it’s not full of a bunch of chemicals.
Be sure to fuel up in Wall right outside of the park’s Pinnacles entrance as there aren’t many options around the park.
Cell Service is actually quite good in the park until you get into the Sage Creek area.
Best Badlands Map
I like this map best for Badlands National Park.
Best Badlands Guide Book
I like this guide book the best for Badlands.
Best Time to Visit Badlands National Park
The Best Time to Visit Badlands National Park is during the spring and early summer before the park gets too hot.
Food in Badlands National Park
Food options are quite limited in and around Badlands National Park so I recommend getting something in Wall prior to entering! There is a convenience store at the Ben Reifel visitor center and a restaurant with limited options if you find yourself in a “hangry” state.
Getting to Badlands National Park
The most popular way to get to the Badlands (other than a great American road trip) is flying into Rapid City Airport.
Best Things to Do in Badlands National Park
20. Watch the prairie dogs endlessly at Roberts Prairie Dog Town
No trip to the Badlands is complete without getting acquainted with these cute, quarrelsome, ground-dwelling animals. This national park is home to countless prairie dogs and many different prairie dog settlements, which are called prairie dog towns.
These cute critters are also very intelligent and extremely adept communicators. You can spend hours watching the prairie dogs yip and yelp at one another as they scurry about seemingly causing mischief with their friends.
Be sure to keep a respectful distance as you view them going about their business.
19. Ride the grassy waves of Prairie Wind Overlook
Prairie Wind is a great overlook to get a true sense of the Northern Great Plains. Here, a boardwalk takes you to a spot where you can look out at the ocean of grass stretching into the horizon and listen to the wind rustling in its blades.
This tall prairie grass is some of the last remaining that has never seen a farmers plow or a contractors backhoe. It appears today much as it did thousands of years ago and it’s a beautiful spot to take it all in.
18. Explore the Badlands Backcountry
Seems a bit vague right? Badlands National Park is an open hike park, meaning you can hike off-trail anywhere inside the park and camp freely in the backcountry as long as you follow backcountry camping rules.
Imagine picking a point in the unending distance and setting off and hiking to it and then picking another and hiking to it, it’s a pretty freeing thought and even more fun in reality.
To backcountry camp you must camp a half mile away from any roads or trails and stay out of sight of the trails & roads.
To learn more about exploring the Badlands backcountry check out our Badlands Guide.
17. It wouldn’t be a trip to the Badlands without a visit to Wall Drug
For more visit the official Wall Drug website.
16. Drive Conata Basin Road
Conata Basin Road is a great area to escape the crowds at this national park and get off the beaten path (or in this case the paved ones).
The road itself takes you from the park to Scenic, South Dakota (aptly named with park views like this one!)
On the other end of the road lies Buffalo Gap National Grassland, a great place to visit for those looking to escape the crowds.
15. Gaze upon America’s majestic national mammal, the bison
Ah, the bison. Noble beast of the plains. There’s a reason you’re our national mammal. Truly, is there anything quite like seeing this emblem of the American West ambling along amidst vast open spaces?
Badlands National Park is home to some of the finest herds of bison found anywhere in the world. There are about 1200 resident bison in the Badlands and they mostly reside on the Sage Creek side of the park.
You’re pretty well guaranteed to see them on any given trip to the Badlands.
14. Discover the Fossil Trail (great for kids!)
The Fossil Trail is another great attraction in Badlands. This is a short trail in Badlands National Park with fascinating fossil exhibits for kids (and adults) to explore alike.
Fossils like the Brontothere discovered at Badlands National Park date back tens of millions of years.
- Distance: .4 miles
- Elevation Gain: Minimal
- Time Required: 15-30 minutes
- Difficulty: Easy
The trail itself is short and sweet at just under a half mile long. On one side of the road the trail features a boardwalk with exhibits while on the other hikers venture out into more interesting terrain.
13. Camping at Sage Creek Campground
Of the two campgrounds at Badlands National Park, my favorite by far is Sage Creek Campground located on the western side of the park. Each time we visit this is the campground we choose if there’s availability. Its remote location makes it preferable (for me) to the more popular Badlands Campground which is situated next to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.
My brother and I joke that the camp host here is a bison as there always seems to be at least one in and around the campground.
Relaxing and camping here is one of my favorite things to do at Badlands National Park.
NOTE: Sage Creek Campground is located down an unpaved road. 2WD vehicle shouldn’t have a problem as the road is well-maintained but after or during a rainstorm visitors should think twice about driving here.
12. Hike the Window & Door Trails
The Window Trail & Door Trail are some of the more popular and easy trails in the park located next to the Notch, Window, and Castle Trails. These hikes are short, sweet, and kid-friendly activities offering interactive views of the Badlands. Tall grasses flank the trail on either side with towering badlands formations all around. I’ve seen bighorn sheep on these trails before so be on the lookout.
For these reasons, the Door & Window Trails are an easy add-on to your list of things to do in Badlands National Park.
NOTE: Be careful for rattlesnakes and don’t wander into the grass as they are present throughout the park. If you can’t see where your foot will hit the ground then don’t step there.
11. Soak in the views (& history) from Hay Butte Overlook
The last time I visited Badlands I watched an epic storm roll through the landscape from Hay Butte Overlook – it was amazing. On a clear day the overlook is pretty cool too. According to the NPS, farmers once harvested the grasses on top of sod tables like Hay Butte.
How they did this is pretty fascinating as getting plows and equipment up onto these buttes would be extremely difficult. To get the equipment up farmers would first disassemble it at the base, carry it up, and piece it back together on the top. Pretty savvy!
Getting to Hay Butte Overlook is easy as it’s located just past Pinnacles Overlook on the main park road and is just steps away from the parking area.
10. Watch the Bighorn Sheep
Some of Badlands National Park’s most celebrated residents are the regal bighorn sheep. Watching these majestic animals scale the parks cliffs is especially impressive as they do it with such grace and ease. Even the youngest bighorn sheep seem to have no problem at all traversing the rugged landscape.
A couple of the best places to spot the bighorn sheep in Badlands National Park are Pinnacles Overlook and Panorama Point. With that being said, if you drive the main park road from the Wall entrance to the northeast entrance you are all but guaranteed to see some.
9. See the epic views from Panorama Point
Panorama Point is one of the best viewpoints in Badlands National Park with iconic views in all directions. In my opinion the view is best during stormy conditions as you can see the clouds rolling in from quite a distance.
Getting to this viewpoint is really easy as its located just off of the main park road and has accessible boardwalks. From the parking lot to the views is a matter of steps.
8. Explore Sheep Mountain Overlook
Some people make the case that Sheep Mountain Overlook is the best in Badlands National Park. Personally I’m not one of them but regardless of where it ranks, the views are indeed spectacular.
Most folks who visit Badlands National Park never make it out to Sheep Mountain Overlook because it is separated from the rest of the park by quite a distance. Getting to Sheep Mountain Overlook from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center takes about an hour (almost entirely outside of the park) and involves driving down some fairly rough dirt roads.
On a clear day they say you can see for miles and miles from Sheep Mountain Overlook. When we last visited it was extremely windy with grass and debris from the ground flying all around making for hazy conditions.
The upside is that visiting Sheep Mountain Overlook falls squarely within the underrated and less crowded categories of things to do in Badlands National Park
7. Discover Yellow Mounds
One of my favorite things to do in Badlands National Park is visiting the otherworldly Yellow Mounds. These strangely colored mounds are the result of an ancient sea draining away and the chemicals from decaying plants turning the soil yellow. They also make for a great photo opportunity.
This spot can be easy to miss as you drive through the park, but you’ll want to be sure to check it out.
Driving from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, the yellow mounds are located just after Conata Basin Overlook but before the Conata Basin Road and Pinnacles Overlook.
I recommend not hiking out onto these after or during rain as the dirt cakes thickly onto your shoes and makes for a less than enjoyable experience.
6. Soak in the view at Pinnacles Overlook
Just after the Pinnacles entrance station you’ll come upon this awe-inspiring overlook. Here you can gaze out from a cliff at the vast maze of badlands stretching endlessly into the distance.
You’re likely to see bighorn sheep effortlessly ambling the ridge lines and solitary bison grazing in the distance.
5. Go on an unexpected hike at Cliff Shelf Nature Trail
An oasis of juniper trees in the middle of the Badlands. Cliff Shelf Nature Trail is a spectacular spot to watch the sunset from a high vantage. You can also get out of the sun and cool off under the shade of old juniper trees.
This trail was an unexpected gem for us that we return to each time we visit the park. It is unlike any other trail in Badlands complete with modern boardwalks, beautiful juniper groves, and epic views.
- Distance: 0.5 miles roundtrip
- Elevation Gain: Minimal
- Time Required: 30 minutes
- Accessible: Yes
In the peak summer months this is a popular area to visit but in the off-season you’ll likely have it to yourself.
4. Hike the Scenic Castle Trail
The Castle Trail is one of the more popular and favorite trails of visitors in Badlands National Park, especially for those who enjoy a gentle long hike. It is the longest maintained trail in the park and is frequently used as an entry point to the backcountry.
- Distance: 5.4 miles (point to point)
- Elevation Gain: 500 feet
- Time Required: 2-3 hours
- Difficulty: Easy – Moderate
Along the way hikers get to see the landscape and scenery change from prairie grass to dramatic badlands formations.
NOTE: This trail is a point to point trail meaning that it is 5.4 miles each way. The termini for the trail are the Fossil Trail & the Notch Trail parking lot.
RELATED: Read our full guide on hiking the Castle Trail.
3. Hike the Saddle Pass Trail
If you’re looking for things to do in Badlands National Park that involve hiking up to epic views, Saddle Pass Trail is for you. Easily one of the best and most rewarding trails in the park, Saddle Pass Trail is not to be missed.
The trail starts from the Saddle Pass Trailhead on the main park road just two miles down the road (highway 240) on the right from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. It’s a bit of a steep ascent but the trail is short at .7 miles.
The Saddle Pass Trail connects with the Castle Trail at the top if you’re interested in extending your hike.
From the top the views are grand with sweeping panoramas to the south toward the town of Interior.
2. Catch a sunrise at Big Badlands Overlook
I’ll go ahead and say of all the sunrise spots in Badlands National Park, Big Badlands Overlook is the best. Big Badlands overlook provides the quintessential view of what makes the Badlands the Badlands.
It’s also very close to the eastern park entrance making it easier on the morning wake up.
Here you’ll find a panoramic view of perfectly striped red and white hills extending into the distance.
1. Hike the Notch Trail
The Notch Trail is one of the coolest and most unique trails in the Badlands featuring an epic log ladder climb. It is also one of the most popular and heavily trafficked trails in the park.
- Distance: 1.5 miles
- Elevation Gain: feet
- Time Required: 30 – 60 minutes
- Difficulty: Moderate
The first part of this 1.5 mile trail winds through a beautiful canyon leading to a seeming dead end but alas!
A log ladder leads hikers up the side of the badlands formations to the rest of the trail which has nice views of the surrounding area.
Check out our full guide on hiking the Notch Trail.
5 Fun Things to Do Near Badlands National Park
1. Drive the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway
The Black Hills of South Dakota are one of the most magical places in all of America and this scenic drive winds right through the heart of them.
- Location: South Dakota, USA
- Distance: 70 miles (112 km)
- Suggested Time: 3 days
- Minimum Time: 1 day
- Best Time of Year: June & October
This is truly one of the great All-American Road Trips.
Several tunnels perfectly frame Mount Rushmore in the distance (by design). This is a great area to escape the Rushmore crowds and soak in the beauty of the forest.
I recommend taking your time, driving slow, stopping at all the viewpoints, and enjoying the incredible scenic beauty.
If you like scenic byways then check out our article: 15 BEST USA Road Trips of a Lifetime (+ Photos)
2. Go Back in Time at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site is a rare glimpse into the world of nuclear arsenals.
This decommissioned nuclear site is consists of a few different visitor experiences including the a cold war era silo with nuclear missile (no longer armed).
Visiting this site is fascinating and somewhat eerie as it feels like a time capsule from the cold war era.
Its location next to Badlands National Park makes for a great side excursion on your next trip to South Dakota.
To learn more about Minuteman Missile visit the NPS site.
3. Explore Jewel Cave National Monument
Jewel Cave is the third longest cave in the world with over 200 miles of mapped passageways (and counting). Visiting the national monument is a great thing to do near the Badlands.
Along with the nearby Wind Cave, these monuments make South Dakota a world class destination for cave enthusiasts.
At Jewel Cave you can tour the caves themselves and also explore the surface which is also beautiful complete with hiking trails and wildlife.
4. Explore Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park is a world-class destination home to not only what could be the longest cave in the world but also beautiful natural scenery.
Its proximity to Badlands National Park (90 minutes away) makes it a great addition to a Badlands trip.
Here you’ll discover a land where the Black Hills meet the plains complete with bison, elk, pronghorn antelope, and prairie dogs.
NOTE: If you want to do one of the really cool cave tours I recommend showing up at least 30 minutes before the visitor center opens (at 8am). Lines form fast even in the off season!
Planning a trip to Wind Cave? Check out our article: 10 Epic Things to Do at Wind Cave National Park
5. Visit Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Mount Rushmore is world famous and home to America’s grand monument to some of its most important leaders
Visiting Mount Rushmore was a long time bucket list item for me having seen this iconic location in photos, movies, and on TV growing up.
The carving of Mount Rushmore National Memorial took 14 years to complete from 1927 to 1941. The original plan called for carving each figure from the waist up but funding ran short amidst a depression and a looming world war and that plan was abandoned.
For more on Mount Rushmore check out our article: 15 Helpful Tips for Visiting Mount Rushmore (Things to Do + Photos)
Map of Best Things to Do in Badlands National Park
Summary of the Top 10 Best Things To Do in Badlands National Park
- Notch Trail
- Saddle Pass Trail
- Big Badlands Overlook
- Castle Trail
- Cliff Shelf Nature Trail
- Pinnacles Overlook
- Yellow Mounds
- Fossil Trail
- See the Bison
- Sheep Mountain Overlook
- Door Trail
- Sage Creek Campground
- Watch the Bighorn Sheep
- Norbeck Pass
- Hay Butte Overlook
- Prairie Wind Overlook
- Wall Drug
- Panorama Point
- Explore the Backcountry
- Roberts Prairie Dog Town
Planning a trip to Badlands National Park? Learn how to do it right with our comprehensive Badlands National Park Guide that covers what to see, campgrounds, lodging, dining, seasons & weather, and so much more.
> Read the Guide <
Watch Our Award-Winning Badlands Video
Description: BADLANDS 8K is the culmination of several weeks spent filming in the rugged Badlands of South Dakota. Situated in the heart of the Northern Great Plains, Badlands National Park spans 244,000 acres of spectacular landscapes, diverse wildlife, and the largest undisturbed mixed grass prairie in the United States.
Journey with More Than Just Parks to discover the land where bison still roam and towers rise from the prairie in dazzling formations. This is the Badlands. Filmed in stunning UHD 8K.
Why I Continue to Come Back to Badlands
I’ve heard it said that the Badlands is “an interstate park”, meaning a good park to pop into off of the interstate, but not necessarily one to plan a trip around. I’m hear to tell you that Badlands National Park is well worth planning a trip around.
I’ve returned to the Badlands probably five or six times since my initial visit and every time I’m simply blown away.
Taking in a sunset somewhere near the Sage Creek turn off as the golden light transforms the landscape all around you is something you can never be prepared for and an event that’s sure to leave a lasting memory.
What Makes Badlands National Park So Special
Watching the amber light sweep across the formations in the distance as the sun puts on its final dazzling show is truly something to behold.
Hearing the distant grunts of the bison from miles away, the yips of the coyotes, and the evening song of the meadowlark will make you feel transported, as if the cars, cities, and buildings that brought here never existed.
Yes the Badlands is a special place that stands in affirmation of everything America’s National Parks represent. It’s a place I’ll continue to revisit to revel in its quiet and spacious beauty.
Getting to Badlands National Park – Directions & Location
Badlands National Park is located in southwestern South Dakota near the town of Wall (home of the famous Wall Drug roadside attraction).
Closest Airport: RAP – Rapid City Regional Airport (Rapid City)
The fastest way to get to Badlands National Park is almost certainly by flying into Rapid City. From Rapid City (or just Rapid, as the locals call it) you can rent a car and be in the Badlands in under an hour. Rapid City is a terrific gateway city to Badlands National Park, Mount Rushmore, Wind Cave National Park, and the Black Hills National Forest.
Navigating Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park is conveniently located off of Interstate 90 in southwestern South Dakota. You can fly in to nearby Rapid City Regional Airport or travel by car via I-90.
The nearby town of Wall offers lodging and food options making for a great base camp for your Badlands adventures – the 5 cent coffee at Wall Drug isn’t bad either!
From I-90 you’ll exit for Badlands National Park and arrive at one of two northerly entrance stations, Pinnacles Entrance Station or Interior Entrance Station.
With a park map in hand you’ll find that navigating the park is very easy as there are only three possible roads you can take.
Popular Roads in Badlands National Park
Badlands Loop Road (Hwy 240) is the main park road and will take you to most of the destinations on your park map.
Sage Creek Rim Road is a dirt road that will take you along the north rim of the Badlands Wilderness Area and allows you to access Sage Creek Campground.
Sheep Mountain Table Road is a 4WD recommended dirt road taking you into the wild heart of the park. The road can be inaccessible at various times throughout the year as a result of storms. It’s recommended to check with the Visitor Center before going.
Tips for Visiting Badlands
Badlands is an open hike park. This means that you can hike off-trail anywhere inside the park and camp freely in the backcountry as long as you follow backcountry camping rules. You must camp a half mile away from any roads or trails and stay out of sight of the trails & roads.
Badlands is only an hour from Wind Cave National Park, Mount Rushmore, and Black Hills National Forest. So plan a trip to this corner of South Dakota and see them all!
The South Unit of the park is remote and relatively inaccessible. This area is sacred to the Oglala Sioux Tribe so if you visit please be respectful and leave any items you find where they are.
Best Time to Visit Badlands National Park
The best time of year to visit Badlands National Park is May or September in the shoulder seasons when the park is spectacularly empty and the weather is mild.
Summers can be hot and you’ll have to share the park with lots of motorcycles if you plan on visiting in the month leading up to the nearby motorcycle rally in Sturgis. Winter in the park is quite cold and sees the area blanketed in snow.
Where to Eat – Restaurants
The nearby town of Wall, South Dakota is home to the world famous tourist attraction Wall Drug, which is a must see. You will no doubt become familiarized with this famous interstate destination on your way to the park as it is cleverly advertised for hundreds of miles.
We really enjoy the breakfast at Wall Drug which includes the world famous 5¢ coffee.
Apart from Wall Drug, there is a restaurant at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center which has limited, basic menu options.
There are a number of other places to grab a bite to eat close to the park, I’ve linked the most popular ones below:
- Wall Drug (Wall)
- Red Rock Restaurant (Wall)
- Badlands Bar (Wall)
- Cedar Pass Lodge & Cafe (The only restaurant within the park)
- Subway (Wall)
- Horseshoe Bar & Grill (Interior)
Photos of Badlands National Park
More Helpful Articles
Hiking the Castle Trail: Castle Trail: Epic Hikes in Badlands National Park (Photos + Guide)
Hiking the Notch Trail: Hiking the Notch Trail in Badlands National Park (Photos + Guide)
Badlands NP Guide: Helpful Guide to Badlands National Park
Things to Do in Badlands: 20 Incredible Things to Do in Badlands National Park
Badlands Facts: 10 Amazing Facts About Badlands National Park
Things to Do Wind Cave: 10 Epic Things to Do at Wind Cave National Park
Visiting Mount Rushmore: 15 Helpful Tips for Visiting Mount Rushmore
Things to Do Near Rushmore: 25 Epic Things to Do Near Mount Rushmore
Black Hills National Forest: Comprehensive Guide to the Black Hills National Forest
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