Visiting Badlands National Park
Located in beautiful South Dakota, Badlands National Park is an amazing cross between being on the surface of Mars and being surrounded by sand castles! Everyone will love this National Park, but kids in particular really seem in awe of its colors and shapes.
We visited Badlands National Park as part of a fun National Park road trip. If you’re looking for an amazing family road trip, click HERE to get the full itinerary.
Badlands National Park History
First established as a National Monument, Badlands was re-designated a National Park in 1978 and encompasses over 240,000 acres. But long before that, prehistoric animals roamed and ruled the area. Thousands of fossils have been discovered from long extinct animals such as the Hyracodon, Subhyracodon and Metamynodon (say those names 5 times fast ). Since Badlands was once under water, even alligator fossils have been found! As one of the world’s richest fossil locations, you know this National Park has to be good!
From the Lakota for “land bad”, the name stuck due to the arid, dry landscape. Even today, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation ( governed by the Oglala Sioux Tribe) is next to and within Badlands park boundaries.
You can see Badlands featured in several films, such as, Dances With Wolves and Thunderheart. Its landscape was even used as the surface of an asteroid in the film Armageddon.
Visiting Badlands National Park Basics
Badlands National Park is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
Private Vehicle: $30 – Valid for 7 days
Motorcycle: $25 – Valid for 7 days
Badlands National Park Annual Pass: $55
The Visitor’s Center is Open:
8 a.m. – 4 p.m. ( Winter Hours)
8 a.m. – 5 p.m. ( April & May)
7 a.m. – 7 p.m. ( Summer Hours)
8 a.m. – 5 p.m. ( Early September to late October)
TIP: If you have a fourth grader, make sure to get his/her Every Kid In a Park Pass. The entire family will get in free to most National Parks – including Badlands National Park
Overlooks & Trails
Badlands has a ton of beautiful overlook stops and places to explore. Driving along the 31 mile Scenic Loop Byway, you’ll be to see all the wonders Badlands National Park has to offer.
This is one of our favorites! It’s a short walk to an opening that allows you to climb and touch the remarkable landscapes.
TIP: There are drops and sharp edges at Door Trail. If you have young children, be cautious if choosing to stop here. Also, rattlesnakes inhabit Badlands National Park so be aware of your surroundings. Additionally, it can be very hot in the summer – don’t forget sunscreen and water!
Fossil Exhibit Trail
This is one that kids will love! It’s an easy 1/4 mile trail that features fossil replicas and exhibits of now extinct creatures that once roamed The Badlands.
Yellow Mounds Overlook
One of the most stunning overlooks in the park! It’s amazing to come across this rather lush area within The Badlands and the shades of color will awe you.
One of the most popular spots for pictures. Panorama Point is the perfect location to catch the amazing sunsets in the Badlands.
There are indeed rattlesnakes in the Badlands! Be aware of your surroundings.
While there are many trails in Badlands National Park, these are some of the most popular:
Distance: 1.5 miles (round trip)
Duration: 1 – 1.5 hours
Difficulty: Moderate – This trail includes a ladder that goes along the notch. The ladder can be slippery when its raining and could be tricky for anyone with a fear of heights. Also, could be challenging for younger children.
Distance: .25 mile ( round trip)
Duration: less than an hour
Difficulty: Strenuous – This trail follows up the Badlands Wall
Medicine Root Loop
Distance: 4 miles (round trip)
Duration: approx. 2 hours
Difficulty: Moderate – Trail users are are able to explore the mixed used Prairie
Cliff Shelf Nature Trail
Distance: .5 (round trip)
Duration: 30-45 minutes
Difficulty: Moderate – The trail follows boardwalks and climbs stairs through a juniper forest along the Badlands Wall. You may see deer and/or bighorn sheep.
Wildlife In The Badlands
Badlands National Park is home to many different animals. One of our favorites was the Pronghorn which we learned is the fastest land mammal in the Western Hemisphere! How cool is that?! They are really beautiful and unique animals.
If you love a prairie dog ( like we do), definitely make time to go to Prairie Dog Town within the park to see all the adorable prairie dogs pop out of the ground.
Badlands National Park is also home to a colony of Black-Footed Ferrets which came very close to extinction in the 20th century. Thankfully, there are now hundreds of Black-Footed Ferrets in the park!
Similarly, the American Bison also nearly faced extinction. Due to efforts by conservation groups and the NPS, the American Bison is now thriving. Today, there are over 1,200 American Bison that roam the park!
Ben Reifel Visitor's Center
Take time to stop at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and make sure to check out the Fossil Lab area (kids will love it). There are restrooms, a great gift shop and there’s an exhibit on how the park was created that is definitely worth checking out. Also, don’t forget to bring your child’s Park Passport so that you can stamp it.
Head To Wall Drug After Visiting Badlands
No doubt that on your way to Badlands you saw a ton of signs for Wall Drug. After visiting Badlands National Park, a stop at Wall Drug is a must! If you stay on the 240 Loop through the park, you’ll go right into the city of Wall and you can’t miss this South Dakota landmark.
Wall was affectionally known as “the geographical center of nowhere” and the owners of Wall Drug decided to offer free ice-water to all the travelers coming through the area. With that, Wall Drug became a must stop. Now, if Wall Drug doesn’t have it, you probably don’t need it (Ha!). Wall Drug is a great place to stop to refresh, get a drink and pick up souvenirs. Also, you must take a picture on the Jackalope. What?! Yes, Wall Drug has a large Jackalope that your kids can get on while you take a picture. Wall Drug is a such a fun, kitschy place to stop and they still offer free ice-water.
Nearby Things To See
- Minutemen Missile Visitor’s Center – 3.8 miles
- Mount Rushmore – 75 miles
- Devils Tower National Monument – 165 miles
- Wind Cave National Park – 58 miles
- Deadwood, South Dakota – 100 miles
- Custer State Park – 66 miles
We’ve been lucky enough to have visited Badlands National Park a few times now and each time it’s been a wonderful experience. Due to erosion, Badlands National Park is constantly changing. With an erosion rate of 1 inch per year, geologists believe it will be completely eroded in 500,000 years!
Between the beautiful overlooks and fun hikes, there is no shortage of things to do in Badlands National Park! Our boys still talk about the Badlands and that they will definitely take their kids someday. It makes my heart happy when I hear them say things like this.
A visit to any of America’s National Parks is always a fun learning experience and Badlands is no exception. I hope this guide has been helpful and that a trip to Badlands National Park is in your future!