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The best itineraries for a trip to South Dakota include a stop at the Badlands National Park. But with so much to do in the area, you might be trying to figure out how to fit it all in. Our trip through the park captured all the best things to do at Badlands National Park – all in 4 hours.
We built our plan for the day by researching Google reviews and getting advice from friends and family who have visited the park. Read on to see what we did and more recommendations for your visit to the Badlands.
About the Badlands National Park
Badlands Quick Facts
“Bad lands” was originally used by the Lakota people that refers to the difficulty of the terrain for travel (the rocky landscape, heat, and lack of water).
Badlands is now a geological term for the soft rock that erodes easily, and the park is named for the geological formations found in the area.
The 250,000-acre park became a national park in 1978.
Tips for Visiting Badlands National Park
- The sun is strong in the badlands, with little opportunity for shade. Pack sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, and plenty of water.
- The restaurant at Cedar Pass Lodge is the only place to get food in the park, but there are a lot of areas to stop along the way for a picnic.
- Plan your visit for early in the morning or in the evening to catch the sunrise or sunset – and to avoid the crowds.
- Wildlife is everywhere – keep a lookout for bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, pronghorns, and many other critters.
- They are amazing to watch, but always stay at least 100 feet away.
- Spotting wildlife tempts us all to pull off to the side of the road to get a closer look, but it’s best to find a parking area so you don’t stop traffic.
- In addition to the cute, furry wildlife, there are also rattlesnakes in the area. Make sure to watch and listen for them.
- More than 200 species of birds makes the Badlands great for bird watching.
Visit the Badlands National Park website to learn more about the park, like events, the geology of the area, and the history of the park.
Things to Do at Badlands National Park in Just 4 Hours
The route is a drive along the Badlands Loop Road (Highway 240) taking in the views at overlooks, hiking along short and easy trails, and keeping a lookout for wildlife over a 39-mile stretch of road.
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Visiting the Badlands National Park with kids? The easy trails, natural playgrounds, and fun wildlife make this park great for kids.
We entered the park at the Northeast Entrance Station, where we bought a new National Parks Annual Pass since ours had recently expired. If you plan on visiting at least 3 parks in a year, it’s worth getting the annual pass.
Big Badlands Overlook
The first stop is at the overlook to take in the views of Big Badlands. The scenery here is the perfect introduction to the park with the iconic landscape of the rocky formations.
The next stop is at Door Trailhead, and a chance to get out to walk.
The Big Badlands Overlook gives a spectacular view from above the badlands, and the Door Trailhead brings you right into them.
Start on the wide, flat boardwalk for a really easy trail to reach the “Door” – an opening in the wall that leads to views of the Badlands.
If you’re looking for a little more adventure, head down the short stairway through the “Door” to an area where you can climb in and around the rocks. The kids had a blast here. You’ll spend most of your time at the Badlands National Park with kids right here – this was one hike where the complaining was only about having to leave.
At the other end of the parking lot is another short trail. The Notch Trail is popular for the ladder used to access the upper part of the trail.
Get there early on busy days to avoid a long wait at the stairs.
Tip: the descent is easier when facing the ladder – just like a regular ladder.
The trail continues at the top of the ladder and becomes not as kid-friendly. We stopped at the sign warning of dangerous cliffs.
If you’re looking to get in another short hike, pick up the Window Trail, located between Door Trail and Notch Trail.
Ben Rifle Visitor Center
The visitor center is on our recommended list of things to do at Badlands National Park because of what you’ll learn about the park and because of the views. We reached the visitor center around lunchtime, and it was the perfect place for a picnic.
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Stop at the Ben Rifle Visitor Center for souvenirs, refill water, and the restroom (an opportunity for flush toilets instead of the vault toilets found at the parking areas along the drive and trailheads).
Fossil Exhibit Trailhead
This is a must-stop when visiting Badlands National Park with kids. Another boardwalk path is here. The path is a loop, with educational displays of fossils found in the area. Like the Door Trail, there is an area for kids to run, climb, and burn off a little energy.
White River Valley Overlook
Stop at this overlook for more of the impressive views from above. While the scenery here is no less incredible, if pressed for time, this one can be skipped without missing too much.
Bigfoot Pass Overlook
This overlook was closed during our visit (fall 2020) due to road construction. It still gets a spot on our list for the prime location to catch the sunset.
There is a picnic area at Bigfoot Pass if you’re reaching the area around lunchtime.
Prairie Wind Overlook
It may not have the same wow factor, but the landscape at this stop is a fantastic way to take in how vast and impressive the prairie really is. The boardwalk path brings you into the center of it all. Some say there is a peacefulness here unlike any other place in the badlands.
Yellow Mounds Overlook
The scenery changes a bit at the Yellow Mounds. You won’t mistake it once you arrive. The mustard shades of yellow are from a mineral called Goethite.
Climb to the top of the hill from the parking lot for even better views of the Yellow Mounds.
If looking for another picnic opportunity, take a left on to Conata Basin Rd after your stop at the Yellow Mounds. The Conata Picnic Area has picnic tables and is a great area to spot wildlife.
The last stop on the route before heading back to Wall is the Pinnacles Overlook. This view is expansive, with the taller rock formations further off in the distance.
Other Things to Do at Badlands National Park
Additional Scenic Drives
The Badlands Loop Road is just one of the scenic drives in the park. Also, try the Sage Creek Rim Road and along the South Unit of the park have more fabulous views of the badlands.
There are two campgrounds in the park. Cedar Pass Campground is located near Ben Rifle Visitor Center. This campground is open year-round and is open to tents and RVs.
The Sage Creek Campground is a tent-only campground, with 22 first-come, first-served campsites. It is also open year-round but may close with heavy snow or rain.
Go stargazing with the experts. Park rangers and astronomy volunteers hold a Night Sky Viewing event every evening at the Cedar Pass Amphitheater.
Observe Fossil Preparation
The Ben Rifle Visitor Center includes a working paleontology lab where visitors can watch the paleontologists remove rocks from fossils, identify the species, and prepare the fossils for display.
Learn About Associated Tribes of the Park
The Badlands National Park is unique in its extensive history and present-day relationships with the park. Read more about the “trust responsibility” to the tribal nations here.
This whirlwind tour of things to do at Badlands National Park certainly won’t do the park justice – there is much more to see and do. But with limited time in your, this itinerary will definitely capture the essence of the badlands!
Have you visited the park? Let us know your favorite things to do in Badlands National Park in the comments!
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