Plan the Perfect Trip to Badlands National Park (Everything you need to know!)

Girl stands overlooking Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Badlands National Park is hands down the most amazing place in the entire state of South Dakota (at least in our opinions). When you think of South Dakota you probably think of flat prairies as far as the eye can see. At least that’s all I knew of it before visiting. Thankfully one of my (Sara’s) best friends lives just minutes from Badlands National Park giving us the perfect excuse to stop in and finally see what all this place has to offer. To our surprise, this park is incredible and completely underrated.

The best part about Badlands being underrated is how light the crowds are. We visited towards the end of summer (late August) and I believe we saw 10 people the entire morning we were there. Granted, we did see a couple of tour buses pulling into the visitor center as we were leaving, but most of those visitors will stay on the roads and at overlooks, likely leaving the trails empty for your enjoyment (if hiking is your thing).

The second time we visited Badlands National Park we spent a couple of days and there were certainly more people, but very few people ever ventured off the roadways. If you're looking for a less popular park, this is it!

Badlands National Park could easily be covered in a single day, but if you’re looking for some solitude camping and hiking, you could stretch out the trip for a few days and have plenty to see. We’ll talk more about the best way to see the park later in this post so keep reading if you’re interested in that.

This travel guide covers everything from basic stats about the national park as well as giving you ideas of where to go, what to see, where to stay, and what to do in the park. Let’s go!

Car driving on road through Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Driving through Badlands National Park, South Dakota

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Fast facts about Badlands National Park, SD

What state is Badlands in? South Dakota

How big is Badlands National Park? 242,756 acres

Established: January 29, 1939

Numbers of visitors annually: ~1 million visitors per year

Nearest city: Rapid City, South Dakota

Peak season: Memorial Day to Labor Day (May to September)

Time zone: Mountain Time Zone

When to visit Badlands National Park

Due to South Dakota’s harsh winters, most tourists visit during the peak summer months of June, July, and August. Because of the short tourism season, you’ll want to make any reservations (campsites, car rentals, hotels, etc.) as early as possible for the best rates and to ensure availability. Keep in mind that not all tourists are visiting the Badlands though. Many are in the area to visit Mount Rushmore and/or the Black Hills, which we highly recommend visiting as well if you have the time.

NOTE: Fourth of July weekend tends to be the busiest season in this area due to the annual fireworks display at Mount Rushmore. Unless you’re hoping to attend this event, we’d recommend not visiting during the holiday.

If you’re visiting during the peak summer months, be prepared for hot weather. Due to the nature of the climate, Badlands has little by way of tree coverage so bring the appropriate gear (more information about gear in the next section below). If you’re traveling with children or pets, never leave them alone in vehicles.

The prairies of South Dakota tend to have frequent strong storms that bring gusty winds, lightning, hail, and tornados. If you’re camping and/or hiking, be prepared to seek shelter if need be.

Visiting on the cusp of peak season (spring or fall) will bring milder temperatures but still the risk of storms. South Dakota famously has major weather changes over the course of a single day, so go knowing that visiting outside of peak season could mean drastic weather changes. Always check the weather forecast and pack for a variety of conditions.

What to pack for Badlands National Park

Like any national park, you’re more likely to enjoy the experience if you visit prepared. That doesn’t mean you need hundreds of dollars of top notch equipment to have fun though! It means being prepared with basic necessities that are required for keeping you safe.

America the Beautiful Pass (National parks pass) - Every year we purchase the America the Beautiful Pass because it ends up saving us so much money. The pass is $79.99 for unlimited access to any public lands managed by the Forest Service, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation. Badlands alone cost $30 per vehicle! If you have any intention of visiting any of the other national parks in the lower 48, get this pass!

Binoculars - We purchased binoculars right before we visited Alaska and have loved taking them with us to all the national parks since. If you haven’t already, we recommend investing in binoculars.

Water Bottle - Nalgene is your best option for durability and because it's lightweight. If you want to be fully handsfree, consider a hydration pack if you’re planning on trail running or hiking. No matter your preferred method of hydration, bring LOTS of it because it gets very hot in Badlands.

Bug spray - This is a MUST. Trust me, the mosquitos can be terrible, especially during the first half of the summer. You’ll need a good bug spray just about every time you step outside.

Sunscreen - I never leave home without my favorite sunscreen by ThinkSport which is reef safe and natural!

Lots of layers - The best way to travel especially to places like South Dakota where you’ll encounter all sorts of weather is by wearing layers. This way you can easily add or subtract clothing as the temperature rises or falls.
Here are a few of our favorite clothings items we always bring with us on adventures:

Sunny day in Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Badlands National Park at sunrise

Where is Badlands National Park?

Badlands National Park is located in southwestern South Dakota, USA. It's about 75 miles east of Rapid City, the largest city in the region. The park can be accessed via Interstate 90, with exit 131 leading directly to the Northeast Entrance and the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, the park's primary visitor center. The town of Wall, located just a few minutes from the Pinnacles Entrance to the park, serves as a convenient gateway with basic amenities like dining and accommodation.

How to get to Badlands National Park

Due to its remote location, most people will drive to reach Badlands National Park. Flying is possible, but driving is more likely since there isn’t a major city nearby making flying much more expensive.

Flying

Rapid City Regional Airport is located ~53 minutes (54 miles) from the nearest point of the park. While the airport is small, it does host major airlines including Delta, American Airlines, United, and Allegiant. Once you land you’ll want to rent a car to get around due to the proximity of the airport to the park. The airport has six different rental car companies onsite including Enterprise, Avis, Hertz, Budget, Alamo, and National.

Driving

Most people visit Badlands National Park on a cross-country roadtrip. Badlands National Park is located 7.5 miles directly south of I-90. Exit in Wall, SD and head directly south on State Route 240. This road will take you straight into the park’s gate.

Rapid City, SD = 57 minutes / 62 miles

Sioux Falls, SD = 3 hours, 51 minutes / 275 miles

Denver, CO = 6 hours / 374 miles

Minneapolis, MN = 7 hours, 20 minutes / 502 miles

Note: If you're arriving in Badlands National Park coming from the west, be sure to stock up on groceries and any camping, hiking, or other gear you might need while in the park.

Cost of Admission

We always recommend purchasing the America the Beautiful annual pass since it’ll end up saving you money if you visit at least 3 three national parks in a single year. Chances are if you’re driving across South Dakota and stopping in at Badlands National Park, you’re probably en route to somewhere like Yellowstone or Glacier National Park anyway, so go ahead ahead and purchase your America the Beautiful pass online before you even leave home.

If you do decide to bypass the annual pass, your admission cost is good for 7 days, just be sure to save your receipt for reentry.

Private vehicle - $30

Single Entry (hiking in, bicycling in, etc.) - $15 (ages 16 and over)

Motorcycle - $25

Where to stay near Badlands National Park

There are various accommodations available when visiting Badlands National Park, allowing you to immerse yourself in the natural beauty of the park. For the real outdoor experience, there are two campgrounds within the park: Cedar Pass Campground and Sage Creek Campground. If you prefer more comfort and amenities, the Cedar Pass Lodge offers modern cabins with beautiful views of the Badlands formations, and the adjacent town of Wall, SD provides additional lodging options such as hotels, motels, and bed & breakfasts.

In my opinion, when visiting a national park the best place to stay is in the park if possible. Camping is always our first choice because it gets you up close and personal with the great outdoors. But, we know that camping isn’t always an option for everyone so we’re giving a few different options so you can choose what best suits your needs.

Girl sitting on top of Sprinter van in camping in South Dakota
Camping for free near Badlands

Camping

There are three main camping options near and in Badlands National Park: front country campgrounds, backcountry camping, and free camping (boondocking) on public lands. All there are easily accessible nearby.

Front country campgrounds in Badlands

Badlands National Park has two front country campgrounds: Cedar Pass and Sage Creek. Cedar Pass is at the southeast end of the park and Sage Creek is at the northwest end of the park (closest to Rapid City). Group camping is available only at Cedar Pass Campground.

Sage Creek is a primitive campground with only pit toilets. If you are traveling in an RV or with a trailer, it’s important to note that vehicles (plus whatever they’re pulling) cannot exceed 18 feet in total length at this campground. If you are traveling in an RV it is recommended that you stay at Cedar Pass Campground.

Cedar Pass Campground is maintained and operated by Forever Resorts. Tent camping, RV, and groups sites are all available at this campground. The RV campsites are electric only with $1 septic dump available on property. Pay showers, flush toilets, and fresh water are all available at the campground.

Backcountry camping in Badlands

Backcountry is available and easily accessible. According to the official National Park website, “Backpackers may camp anywhere in the park that is at least one-half mile from any road or trail and not visible from park roads.” If you do decide to camp in the backcountry, be sure you head off prepared. A topographical map is highly encouraged.

Free camping near Badlands National Park

We always recommend checking the app iOverlander for free camping spots. This is a user generated app where other campers can upload photos and reviews of places to camp. It's important to note that because iOverlander is user generated content, sometimes people place illegal camping spots on the map. Always doublecheck your federal lands maps to be sure that where you're camping is legal and safe.

Our favorite spots to camp near Badlands is just a couple of miles from the Pinnacles Entrance of the park and offers absolutely amazing views. You won't believe this place is free! I don't usually give away specific camping spots that are on public lands because I don't want to exploit a place, but this one is certainly not a secret. It's even geotagged on Google now.

https://goo.gl/maps/baJW9i125PhVvPNN7

*Please do not geotag remote locations. Doing so encourages an influx of tourism that remote places often can't handle. Remember to keep the wild places wild.

If you're going to boondock on public lands near Badlands National Park, please practice Leave No Trace and pack everything out. Leave your camping spot better than you found it.

Note: Remember that boondocking means there aren't any amenities like toilets, water, or electricity. You should be fully selfcontained if you plan to boondock.

Free camping near Badlands National Park
View from our free camping spot near Badlands National Park

National park cabins at Badlands

Forever Resorts also operates rental cabins on the property of Badlands National Park (Cedar Pass Lodge), allowing guests who don’t prefer camping to enjoy accommodations with the park's wilderness right in their backyard.

Keep in mind that the Cedar Pass Lodge cabins do not allow pets.

Hotels near Badlands National Park

When considering hotels and Airbnbs near Badlands National Park, you really have two options: The small town of Wall, South Dakota which is only 7 miles (8 minutes) from the Pinnacles Entrance at Badlands National Park, or you can go a bit further west to Rapid City, South Dakota which is about 63 miles (56 minutes) from the Pinnacles Entrance.

Hotels in Wall, South Dakota

This town is famous for its drugstore/frontier themed tourist trap called Wall Drug. Trust me, you'll see signs across the entire state of South Dakota advertising this spot. While lots of people have made Youtube videos on this place, personally we think it's not worth stopping at. Even finding the bathrooms at this place was difficult since they like to hide them so visitors have to walk through their endless gift shops.

All that being said, there are a couple of basic hotels in town which are worth mentioning. In Wall, South Dakota you can find a Best Western, Days Inn, Super 8, and a couple of other familiar budget hotel brands. Aside from the famous drugstore and budget hotels, there's not much to do in Wall, but they do have a small grocery store if you need to resupply for your roadtrip.

Hotels in Rapid City, South Dakota

Rapid City, SD is the nearest city to Badlands National Park. Rapid City is much larger than Wall and offers more amenities including restaurants, Walmart, Target, Cabela's, and other stores you might need before heading out into the national park a few days. Rapid City has familiar hotel names including Courtyard by Marriott, Fairfield Inn and Suites by Marriott, and Hilton Garden Inn by Hilton. While none of these are luxurious, are newer and more comfortable than the budget hotels in Wall.

Airbnbs

If you're traveling with a group, as a family, or if you just want the feel of a home with laundry and a kitchen to cook, an Airbnb is probably the way to go. The best Airbnb options near Badlands National Park will be found in Rapid City.

#1: Badlands NP - Comfortable + Convenient (sleeps 4, located in Wall, SD)

#2: Modern Farmhouse Stay (sleeps 4, located in Rapid City, SD)

#3: Beautiful & Cozy 3 BR Home (sleeps 6, located in Rapid City, SD)

#4: 5 Bed/3 Bath w/ Fire Place & Large Outdoor Space (sleeps 12, located in Rapid City, SD)

#5: Historic Rapid City Home (1 mi to downtown!) (sleeps 11, located in Rapid City, SD)

What to see and do in Badlands National Park

There are so many incredible things to do in Badlands National Park! You'll be amazed by all the opportunities this underrated national park has to offer. Its unique landscape and remote setting offers a different kind of beauty not found anywhere else in the United States.

Sunset near Badlands National Park
Sunset from our free camping spot just outside Badlands National Park

Enjoy Sunrise and/or Sunset in the park

When visiting Badlands, we recommend getting there by sunrise to take in the gorgeous light across the land formations. If you’re unable to make it for sunrise, try and stay for sunset. The way the golden hour plays with the color of the Badlands formations is breathtaking! Wildlife (deer and pronghorn especially) are most active during these hours so bring your binoculars and sit quietly and enjoy the peaceful beauty of South Dakota. Don’t forget to bring warm clothing as mornings in the Badlands can be chilly.

Best spots to enjoy sunrise in Badlands National Park

Watching the sunrise in Badlands National Park is a magical experience, with the first light of day gently illuminating the park's dramatic landscape. There are several locations within the park that are particularly well-suited for this.

  1. Door Trail: Easily accessible from the parking area, Door Trail offers dramatic views of the Badlands. The sunrise from here is simply magical as the first rays of light cast a warm glow on the spectacular rock formations.
  2. Big Badlands Overlook: Located near the park's Northeast Entrance, Big Badlands Overlook provides a panoramic view of the Badlands. The rising sun floods the landscape with light, painting the rugged cliffs and ravines in a stunning array of colors.
  3. Pinnacles Overlook: Offering expansive views of the Badlands' south unit, Pinnacles Overlook is a favorite spot among photographers. The sunrise from here is spectacular, with the light creating beautiful shadows and highlights on the formations.

Best spots to enjoy sunset in Badlands National Park

Experiencing the sunset in Badlands National Park is a must-do activity, creating an unforgettable spectacle as the setting sun paints the sky in vibrant hues. Here are the best spots within the park for you to catch this mesmerizing event.

  1. Conata Basin Overlook: Located on the Sage Creek Rim Road, this overlook offers expansive views of the Conata Basin. The setting sun provides a dramatic backdrop for the bison that frequently graze in this area.
  2. Hay Butte Overlook: Tucked away on the eastern side of the park, Hay Butte Overlook offers a less crowded spot to watch the sunset. With panoramic views of the Badlands formations, it's an ideal spot for photographers.

Hiking

Hiking in Badlands National Park is an adventure that encapsulates the raw beauty and ruggedness of the American West. The park offers a variety of trails ranging from easy, flat boardwalk paths to rugged, challenging scrambles up the Badlands formations.

We like to use the Alltrails app for hike suggestions. For Badlands specific hikes you can visit the Alltrails website.

  1. Notch Trail: A moderate 1.5-mile round trip that offers ladder access to a notch in the Badlands Wall, providing a stunning view of the White River Valley. Be prepared for a steep, log ladder climb and some exposed cliffs.
  2. Castle Trail: The longest trail in the park stretching 10 miles round trip. This trail takes you through some of the most vast and beautiful parts of the badlands formations, making it perfect for photography enthusiasts.
  3. Window Trail: An easy 0.25-mile boardwalk trail that offers an up-close view of the Badlands Wall. This short trail leads to a natural window in the Badlands Wall with a view of an intricately eroded canyon.
  4. Door Trail: A 0.75-mile trail that begins on a boardwalk but gives hikers the option to drop into the rugged terrain of the Badlands. The trail provides an exceptional perspective of the surreal, moon-like landscape.
  5. Saddle Pass Trail: A strenuous 0.7-mile trail that climbs up the Badlands Wall offering breathtaking views of the White River Valley. Recommended for experienced hikers only due to its steep and slippery trail.

Remember, no matter which trail you choose, always bring plenty of water, wear appropriate footwear, and respect the delicate ecosystem of the badlands.

Girl and guy cycling in Badlands National Park
Cycling in Badlands National Park

Cycling

A wonderful way to see Badlands is from the seat of a bike. Many of Badlands best views are visible from the main roads making cycling a wonderful, slower alternative to driving a car. Like always when cycling, bring plenty of water as there is none available throughout the park with the exception of the visitor center. Wear bright colors and be aware of traffic. The roads can get busy Memorial Day to Labor Day so be aware.

NOTE: A bicycle repair station is located on the west side of the Ben Reifel Visitor Center at the southeast point of the park.

There are three main cycling route options through the park that are highly recommended: Sage Creek Loop (21 miles), Northeast-Big Foot Loop (27 miles), and Northeast Loop (17 miles). More information about each route can be found on the official Badlands National Park website.

Driving

Curious if you can drive through Badlands National Park? Well, you can! And it's a great way to experience the park. If you’re crunched for time or are physically limited, driving is a great way to see and experience the park!

The Badlands Loop Road (Highway 240) offers an exceptional 31-mile drive through the heart of the park's remarkable landscapes. This scenic drive takes you past several overlooks with jaw-dropping views of the Badlands' other-worldly formations. Don't miss the opportunity to park at the designated spots and take short walks to get a closer look at the park’s geological wonders. The drive presents frequent wildlife sightings too, so keep your eyes peeled for bison, deer, and prairie dogs. Do remember that the road winds through some challenging terrain, so ensure your vehicle is in good condition before you embark on this unforgettable journey.

Dog looks at bison from car window in Badlands National Park
Our dog Kramer observing a bison from the car window

Are dogs allowed in Badlands National Park?

Yes, dogs are indeed allowed in Badlands National Park, but there are certain restrictions to ensure the safety and comfort of all visitors, as well as the protection of the park's wildlife and environment. Dogs must always be kept on a leash no longer than six feet and are not permitted on the park trails, in the wilderness areas, or inside public buildings. However, dogs are allowed in the campgrounds and picnic areas, and may also accompany you in your vehicle along park roads. Always remember to pick up after your pet and dispose of waste in provided containers. If you plan on bringing your furry friend, make sure to follow these regulations to maintain a harmonious coexistence with nature and other park visitors.

Note: It gets very hot in Badlands National Park. Never leave your pet in alone in a vehicle! This could quickly result in death as temperatures rise and fall quickly in South Dakota. Also make sure that you're regularly giving your pet food and water to keep them safe and comfortable.

How far is Badlands National Park from Mount Rushmore?

Badlands National Park is approximately 97 miles from Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The drive takes about 1.5 to 2 hours, depending on traffic and the route you choose. The journey between these two iconic South Dakota landmarks takes you through some beautiful scenery along the South Dakota plains, making the trip as much a part of your adventure as the destinations themselves.

Many people who visit Badlands National Park are on the "great American road-trip" meaning that Mount Rushmore is likely on your list. If you're driving east to west you'll visit Badlands first, but if you're driving west to east you'll want to stop at Mount Rushmore first.

"Beware of Bison" sign in Badlands National Park
"Beware of Bison" sign in Badlands

What kind of animals are in Badlands?

Badlands National Park is a thriving hub of biodiversity, home to a vast array of wildlife species. Among the mammals, you can spot the American bison roaming in herds, pronghorn (often misidentified as antelopes), and nocturnal critters like the black-tailed prairie dogs and swift foxes. The park also hosts a large population of mule and whitetail deer. If you're really lucky, you might even glimpse a coyote or the elusive black-footed ferret, one of the most endangered mammals in North America. Birdwatchers will delight in the sight of golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, and the state bird of South Dakota, the ring-necked pheasant. Badlands teems with life, reminding us of the importance of preserving these natural habitats.

Bison in Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Bison in Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Final thoughts

Visiting Badlands National Park feels like you’re stumbling upon one of America’s greatest secrets. Who knew South Dakota held so much?! We didn’t and we so enjoyed our time there! I’m already counting the days until we get to return to the park again.

If you’ve been to Badlands, what was your favorite part? We’d love to hear suggestions in the comments below! If you have any questions while planning your own trip, be sure to drop those in the comments. Happy traveling!

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Hi! We're Chris and Sara a husband and wife video making, storytelling, travel loving duo with a passion for sharing travel tips, tricks, and inspiration with others.
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