Badlands National Park: What to know before you go
Planning a trip to Badlands National Park? We've got your complete guide of what to see, do, and where to stay while visiting this incredible gem of South Dakota. Keep reading for the inside scoop....
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).
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.
Today we’re covering some basic facts and stats about Badlands 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!
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State: South Dakota Size: 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)
WHEN TO VISIT SOUTH DAKOTA
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 Blackhills, 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.
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. Denali alone costs $15 per person. If you have any intention of visiting any of the other national parks in the lower 48, get this pass!
We purchased these binoculars at REI right before we visited Alaska and have loved taking them with us to all the national parks since. If you haven’t already, invest in binoculars! Obviously they’re not required and they’re a bit expensive, but if you have the money and/or want to invest in a pair to watch wildlife, we highly recommend these.
I used to be all about that Nalgene water bottle, but when I’m not trying to save a little weight in a backpack I bring my Hydro Flask because of the way it keeps my water cold (or coffee hot) for hours. Nalgene is also a great option, and so are hydration packs 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.
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:
Synthetic down jacket that packs small (his // hers)
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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!
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 Campgroundis 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 on site.
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.
HOTELS AND CABINS
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. Rates are $179 night + tax for double occupancy, with each additional $20 per guest over the age of 15.
Rapid City, SD is the nearest city to the park. There you can find familiar hotel chains including Holiday Inn, Marriott, and Hilton.
Rapid City has a few really cute Airbnb options. If that’s your preferred place to stay when traveling, you’re in luck!
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 antelope especially) are most active during these hours so bring your binoculars and sit quietly and enjoy the peaceful beauty of South Dakota.
Hiking is a great way to see Badlands National Park. While there aren’t a ton of options given the nature of the park, whatever trail you choose is likely to be relatively quiet due to Badlands being a much less popular park than nearby Glacier or Yellowstone. That being said, it’s definitely worth the trip!
We like to use the Alltrails app for hike suggestions. For Badlands specific hikes you can visit their web page HERE.
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 visitor centers. 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 (23 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 HERE.
If you’re crunched for time or are physically limited, driving is a great way to see and experience the park! Driving State Route 240 through the park is a beautiful route with multiple pull offs to take in the views. State Route 240 turns into Rim Road as it extends west from the point it initially enters the park from the north.
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 that in the comments as well and we’ll get that answered ASAP. Happy trails, y’all! :)
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We're Chris and Sara
A creative husband and wife duo from a small-town in Tennessee with passion for all things travel. Checkout the links below to join us on our past, present, and future adventures!