National Park Guides

Badlands National Park: A Journey Through Time and Terrain

POSTED ON April 15, 2022 BY Ralph S.


Introduction to Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park is one of the most unique and enchanting places in the United States. Nestled in the prairies of Western South Dakota, this park is a wonderland of rugged terrain, unique geological formations, diverse wildlife, and an impressive array of plant life. Its jagged terrain tells a story that spans millions of years.

From towering buttes and pinnacles to deep gorges, Badlands National Park is a glimpse into the past and a reminder of nature’s power.

Visitors can hike along the park’s numerous trails, explore ancient fossil beds or take a road trip through the natural beauty of the park.

Badlands National Park History

Badlands National Park has a rich and fascinating history that dates back millions of years.

The Lakota people were the first recorded inhabitants of the area, moving into the late 1700s. They referred to the region as “mako sica” which translates to “land bad” or “Bad Lands”. This name eventually evolved into what we know today as Badlands National Park.

The Lakota found large fossilized bones, fossilized seashells, and turtle shells. Later, Paleontological interest began and fossils were occasionally collected for study.

The park was first established as a monument in 1939 before being declared a national park in 1978. It is home to the richest deposits of Oligocene epoch fossils, making it an important paleontological site for scientists and researchers around the world. Evidence suggests that humans have used this region since prehistoric times, with artifacts indicating primitive human presence as far back as 8500 BCE.

The area also has a strong military history, as the Oglala Lakota used the region to stage battles against US Cavalry in 1876 during the Great Sioux War. After this conflict ended, many of the native tribes were removed from their ancestral lands and relocated to reservation land further west.

Badlands National Park is constantly evolving due to weathering and erosion caused by wind and rain. Over time, this has carved out deep ravines and immense rock formations that are inspiring and humbling. Watching the vibrant colors fade into one another as the sun sets over this landscape is an experience that will stay with you forever.

Badlands-National-Park-Road-Sign

Key Facts about Badlands National Park

Size: 242,756 acres (379.3 sq mi; 982.4 km2)

Visitors: 311,985,998 (2022)

Established: March 4, 1929 Badlands National Monument and November 10, 1978 (Badlands National Park)

Hiking Trails: 8 hiking trails, ranging from 0.25 miles to 10 miles.

Total Length of Hiking Trails: 35 miles (56 km).

Lowest Point: Sage Creek Basin at 2,365 feet (721 meters) above sea level.

Highest Point: Brown Mountain at 3,374 feet (1,028 meters) above sea level.

Other interesting facts:

  • Badlands National Park is home to a wide range of wildlife, including bison, pronghorns, mule deer, black-footed ferrets and prairie dogs. The endangered black-footed ferret can only be found in this region of America.
  • There are over 1,000 species of plants that grow in the park’s diverse ecosystems, including grasslands and ponderosa pine forests.
  • Badlands National Park is an important geological site with unique rock formations caused by millions of years of erosion from wind and water over time.
  • The White River Valley has been declared an International Dark Sky Park due to the lack of light pollution which allows tourists to experience beautiful star-filled skies.
  • The area is designated to be one of the best fossil sites in the world, as it is home to many ancient dinosaur species, sea turtle shells, and other Oligocene epoch fossil replicas. Fossil digging is allowed in certain areas of the national park with a permit from the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management office, South Dakota Department.
  • Badlands National Park has programs throughout the year, such as night sky viewing sessions, astronomy lectures and guided hikes, allowing tourists to learn about the fascinating geology of the region.
  • Badlands National Park is a great place for bird watching, with over 300 species of birds, including hawks, turkeys and pelicans.
  • Badlands National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978 due to its unique geological formations, fossil resources, and cultural heritage.

Climate and Weather

Badlands National Park has a semi-arid climate. The park’s location in the Great Plains region means that temperatures can be extreme with dry, hot summers and cold winter hours.

Rainfall is sparse throughout the year, but it does increase during the spring and fall months. Snowfall typically begins in late October and ends in mid April or May. Due to its arid climate and lack of rainfall, you should be prepared for strong winds throughout your visit. But check the local weather forecast before heading out on a drive or hike.

Here’s what you can expect in terms of climate and weather in each season when you explore Badlands National Park:

Spring  (March to May)

Spring is a time of renewal, with wildflowers blooming and newborn wildlife exploring the park. Temperatures begin to warm up, with highs in the 50s-60s°F (10-16°C) during the day and lows in the 20s-30s°F (-6 to 0°C) at night.  It’s also a great time for bird watching as many species come to nest in the area. But you should be prepared for sudden weather changes, including strong winds and thunderstorms.

wildlife-exploring-badlands-national-park

Summer (June to August)

Summer hours can be hot and dry, making it an ideal time for hiking and exploration. It is also the busiest time, with warm temperatures averaging in the mid 80s°F (29-31°C) during the day and cooler temperatures in the 50s°F (10-15°C) at night.

Thunderstorms are common in July & August, so you should be prepared for sudden changes in weather.

Fall (Early September to November)

Fall brings cooler temperatures, with highs in the 60s-70s°F (16-26°C) during the day and lows of 30s-40s°F (0-10°C) at night.  The park’s foliage takes on beautiful hues of orange, yellow, and red, making it a popular time for photography. This season has some of the best opportunities for wildlife viewing since animals become more active in preparation for winter. But temperatures can drop quickly after sunset between late October and November.

buffalo-grazing-in-badlands-national-park

Winter (December to February)

Winter hours in Badlands National Park can be harsh, with average temperatures in the 20s-30s°F (-6 to 0°C) during the day and dropping below (zero°F) ˷ -20-30°F (-7 -1 °C) on average at night. Strong winds, snow and ice are common.

Although the park is open year-round, some roads and facilities may be closed. So, it’s best to check the weather forecast before planning a visit. Nonetheless, the park’s stark beauty takes on a unique quality in the winter, making it an ideal time for photography and wildlife watching.

Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are popular winter activities in the area. Snowmobiling is also allowed on certain trails with a permit from the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management office in the South Dakota department.

Best Time to Visit Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park is open year-round, but the best time to go depends on your interests and preferences.

Weather: If you’re looking for pleasant weather and fewer crowds, the shoulder seasons of spring (March to mid May) and fall (early September to November) are the best times. The temperatures are mild, and the park’s stunning landscape takes on a unique quality. July and August are the busiest months.

Wildlife: If you’re interested in seeing wildlife, the best time is in the early morning or late afternoon, when animals are most active. Bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorns, and coyotes are commonly spotted in the park.

Photography: The best time for photography is during the golden hours of sunrise and sunset when the light is soft and warm. Late spring and early fall are ideal times for photography.

Activities: If you’re interested in hiking and other outdoor activities, the summer months (June to August) are the best times to visit. The park’s hiking trails are open, and the weather is warm and sunny. However, this is also the busiest time of year, and the park can get crowded.

For indoor fun activities, the Ben Reifel Visitor Center is an ideal spot in the North Unit to check out museum exhibits.

Recommended Gear

When visiting Badlands National Park, it’s important to bring the right gear.

A hat and sunscreen are necessary for protection against harmful UV  rays, especially during summer hours.

If you plan to do some hiking, wear sturdy shoes or boots that provide good traction on rocky surfaces and slippery mud. Also, pack plenty of water in a refillable water bottle and high-energy snacks such as nuts and granola bars.

Depending on the time of year, a flashlight may be necessary if returning after dark. If spending the night, include a tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad.

The weather in Badlands National Park can be unpredictable, with sudden changes in temperature and weather conditions. So, pack layers, including a warm jacket or fleece, to stay comfortable throughout your visit.

A backpack is also necessary for carrying all of your gear on the trails. Look for a lightweight and comfortable backpack that will fit all of your essentials.

Finally, bring binoculars and a camera so you can capture the park’s stunning scenery and wildlife. When photographing wildlife, make sure to keep your distance and respect their space.

What to Do in Badlands National Park

Badlands Park has something for everyone. From scenic drives to backcountry hikes, wildlife viewing to stargazing, you will enjoy the park. In this section, we’ll explore some of the top things to do and see during your visit. But you must also understand the safety guidelines in the park before embarking on your journey.

Hiking and Backpacking

Badlands is a hiker’s paradise. With over 244,000 acres of rugged terrain and breathtaking vistas to explore, the park offers a range of hiking and backpacking options to suit your interests and abilities.

Day Hiking in Badlands National Park

There are several short hikes and nature trails, perfect for day hikers.

For those looking for an easy hike, popular day hikes include the Saddle Pass Trailhead near Ben Reifel Visitor Center, Notch Trail, Castle Trail, and the Door Trail. You can pick up a trail map at any of the park’s visitor centers or ranger stations.

For more adventurous hikers, Big Foot Pass Trail, Yellow Mounds Overlook Trail, and Saddle Pass Viewpoint are ideal options.

nature-trail

Backpacking in Badlands National Park

Backpacking is an incredible experience in the park. The Cedar Pass and Sage Creek offer primitive opportunities for backpackers. Hikers can choose from a variety of designated trails ranging from 1 to 22 miles, providing access to some of the park’s most remote and beautiful landscapes.

Permits for backcountry stays are required for all overnight stays in the park and can be obtained at the park’s visitor centers. Backpackers should also be prepared for extreme temperatures, limited water sources, and the potential for encountering wild animals like prairie dogs, pronghorn antelope, and coyotes.

Best Hiking Trails in Badlands National Park

Badlands offers a wide variety of hiking trails, ranging from short nature walks to strenuous backcountry hikes.

Here are some of the best hikes in the park:

Notch Trail (1.5-mile/2.4 km round trip, moderate difficulty): This easy and popular hike takes you through the rugged canyon. Along the way, visitors can spot prairie dogs, mountain goats, and mule deer. The trail also features a steep ladder climb with stunning views of the Badlands Wall and surrounding formations.

Castle Trail (10 miles/16 km roundtrip, moderate difficulty): This loop is the longest in the park. It offers views of the surrounding Badlands formations as well as some interesting geologic features like “The Castles” – spectacular erosion structures made up of brightly colored soft rocks. The trail passes through a deep canyon and other geological features along the way.

Window Trail: This short 0.25-mile (0.8 km) loop trail is perfect for families, offering some of the best views in the park. The trail takes you to a viewing area at the top of the Badlands Wall where you can marvel at the vast expanse of rolling terrain below.

Medicine Root Loop (4-mile/6.4 km round trip, easy): This loop hike winds through the prairies, canyons, and different ecosystems in the Park.

Saddle Pass Trail (0.7-mile/1.1 km roundtrip, moderately challenging): This trail features a steep climb up a rocky pass that leads hikers to an amazing viewpoint of prairies, canyons, and striking badlands formations.

Fossil Exhibit Trail (0.6-mile/1.1 km roundtrip, easy): This easy trail takes you around a boardwalk of interpretive exhibits showcasing the park’s unique geology of dinosaur fossils that have been preserved in the Badlands rocks for millions of years.

Cliff Shelf Nature Trail: This 0.75-mile (1.2 km) loop trail leads hikers along a boardwalk with interpretive signs explaining the diverse ecology of the Park. The trail winds along a cliff shelf and offers spectacular views of the surrounding landscape like the Roberts Prairie Dog Town stopover.

Door Trail (2.7-mile (4.3 km) roundtrip, easy): Door Trail is a short hike that takes you through a unique formation known as a “door.”  It brings you up close and personal to some of the most spectacular badlands formations while taking you through the beautiful canyon. Be sure to bring a camera as it’s one of the best trails for photography in the park! Also, it is wheelchair accessible.

Big Foot Pass Trail: This 8-mile (about 13 km) round-trip trek offers breathtaking views and takes you to the highest point in the park. Along the way, you’ll pass through a narrow canyon, cross several creeks, and climb to the top of Big Foot Pass for views of the surrounding area.

Sage Creek Rim Road: This 6.5-mile (10 km) round trip dirt road drive is one of the most scenic routes in Badlands National Park, offering spectacular views of rolling hills and rugged canyons. Be sure to look out for wildlife along the available scenic drives!

Yellow Mounds Overlook Trail: This short 2-mile (3.2 km) trail is great for families. It leads hikers to an overlook where they can marvel at the vibrant yellow mounds that are a hallmark of Badland’s rugged terrain.

Saddle Pass Viewpoint Trail: This 0.7-mile (1.1 km) round trip hike takes you to a wonderful viewpoint overlooking some of the landscape formations in the park. The trail winds along a ridge line with views of the surrounding area.

Cedar Pass Nature Trail: This 0.5-mile (800 m) loop trail takes visitors along a boardwalk, providing an up-close look at some of the most spectacular badlands formations. Along the way, be sure to look out for native coyotes and prairie dogs.

Camping

Badlands National Park offers primitive backcountry and RV camping with full hookups. But, you need a permit before camping at any campsite in the park.

The Cedar Pass Campground is the only campground inside Badlands National Park. It has 96 campsites, with views of the surrounding landscape. Additionally, the campground has all the amenities you’ll need for a comfortable stay. These include modern restrooms and showers, electricity hook-ups, and potable water. Pets are also allowed but must be on a leash at all times. Reservations are highly recommended and can be made up to six months in advance. Find the reservations by contacting the Cedar Pass Lodge.

Sage Creek Campground is a primitive campground along the Sage Creek Rim Road. However, there are no water points or electrical hookups. Furthermore, the campground is the only site in the park allowing free backcountry camping for those looking to venture deeper into the wilderness. Backcountry permits are also required for all overnight stays and can be obtained at Ben Reifel Visitor Center.

It is important to note that there are no reservations required for this campground and it operates on a first-come, first-served basis.

Juniper Campground is a group campground with four campsites accommodating up to 25 people each. It is near the park’s Pinnacles Entrance and offers picnic tables, fire rings, and vault toilets. Reservations are required and can be made up to six months in advance.

You can find more information about camping in the park on the front-country camping page.

For those looking to explore beyond the boundaries of Badlands National Park, opportunities can be found at adjacent Buffalo Gap National Grassland (permits required) and White River Visitor Center (no permit needed).

In addition to a valid permit, you must have an entrance pass to the park. Entrance passes can be purchased online or at any of the national park service visitor centers.

Rock Climbing

Badlands National Park offers excellent opportunities for rock climbing. Climbers come from all around to challenge themselves on the park’s sheer cliffs and sandstone towers. In addition, the majority of routes in the stronghold Unit, north of Wall Drug Store in South Dakota offer climbing lessons and guided tours.

Fishing

Badlands National Park is a popular destination for anglers looking to try their luck at catfish, smallmouth bass, walleye, and other varieties of fish in the White River and surrounding lakes. However, all fishing regulations must be followed when visiting the park.

Scenic Drives

The Badlands Loop Road is a 31-mile scenic drive that winds through the park, offering visitors some incredible views of the mixed grass prairie that bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorns, and prairie dogs. There are also several other scenic north unit overlooks and pull outs along the way.

Note that Badlands loop road is open year-round, but is subject to closures during periods of inclement weather.

scenic-drive-in-badlands-national-park

Horseback Riding

The park offers guided horseback rides through the scenic backcountry, providing a unique perspective on the landscape. Visitors can choose from a range of rides, including short one-hour excursions to multi-day trips on their own horses. There are no commercial horse rentals in the park.

Stargazing

Badlands National Park is a designated Dark Sky Park, which means it has minimal light pollution and offers exceptional opportunities for stargazing. The park hosts astronomy programs and events throughout the year, including night sky walks and telescope viewings. Night sky viewing starts around 9:45 p.m. in mid May, June, and July; and 9:15 p.m. in August and September. Check out the Festival page for more info.

The park’s night sky is full of stars and planets that can be admired from various overlooks. Dark skies are best enjoyed during the winter months when there is less light pollution.

milky way-in-badlands-national-park

Birdwatching

Birdwatching is another popular activity in Badlands National Park. With over 200 species of birds having been recorded in the area, visitors can find raptors like hawks, eagles and vultures.

If you prefer indoor activities, you can head to the White River Visitor Center or Ben Reifel Visitor Center at the park’s north unit, and a few miles from Mount Rushmore National Memorial to explore museum exhibits or talk to rangers.

Where to Stay

The park is divided into three units: the North Unit, South Unit, and Palmer Creek Units, within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. All of which offer multiple options for accommodations.

The park itself has two campgrounds and a backcountry option for those who want to explore the wilderness. However, you must check with the National Park Service before planning your visit.

Cedar Pass Campground, found in the heart of the park and Sage Creek Campground, offer primitive campgrounds in the park’s north unit.

For those looking for more luxurious lodging options, there are many hotels and resorts in the nearby towns of Wall, Interior, and Rapid City.

  1. Wall: Located just outside the park’s Pinnacles entrance, the town offers a range of hotels, motels, and vacation rentals, as well as restaurants and shops.
  2. Interior: This small town is just a few miles northeast of the park’s entrance. It offers several lodging options, including hotels and modern cabins.
  3. Rapid City: While a bit farther from the park, it offers a wide range of accommodations, from budget motels to luxury resorts. It’s a great base for exploring other nearby attractions like Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial in Black Hills, Custer State Park.

For visitors who want to stay in a more secluded location, there are ranches and lodges in the surrounding Black Hills area. These accommodations provide a more rustic experience and are often situated within scenic views. The Cedar Pass Lodge is one ideal location to check out. For more information and booking, visit their website.

How to Get There and Getting Around

Badlands National Park is located in southwestern South Dakota, near the town of Interior and a short drive from Rapid City. The closest airport to the park is Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP), which is approximately 60 miles away (about an hour’s drive from the park). The airport offers several rental car companies to rent a car and drive to Badlands or other nearby parks like the Custer State Park.

The best way to get around is by car. There are several roads like Badlands Loop Road and Sage Creek Rim Road offering access to different visitor centers and the national park service. The road also makes it easy for a road trip at your own pace. But some roads might be closed in winter.

For those who don’t have their own vehicle, there are shuttle services from nearby towns such as Wall and Rapid City. These shuttles can drop off visitors and pick them up at various points within the park.

There is also a public bus service company that travels between Rapid City and Wall. The bus stops at various points along the way, including Badlands National Park.

Another option for exploring the park is via a guided tour. The park offers several guided tours, including ranger-led hikes and guided horseback rides.

Conclusion

Badlands National Park is a truly unique and breathtaking destination with some of the most stunning natural landscapes in the United States. From its colorful rock formations to its abundant wildlife, the park has something for everyone.

If you enjoyed this guide, there are plenty more national parks to explore in our other national park guides.


RALPH S.

Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

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