Things to Do in Badlands National Park

Last Updated on July 7, 2022 by Alice Benny

Things to Do in Badlands National Park – The Badlands National Park is in the southwestern corner of South Dakota. The park is full of sharply eroded pinnacles and buttes covering an area of about 242,756 acres. The North Unit is managed by the National Park Service, while the Oglala Lakota tribe governs the park’s South Unit.

Badlands National Park is highly underrated. Its colorful pinnacles, spires, and buttes come together to create one of the most picturesque landscapes in the nation. Bighorn sheep, mule deer, pronghorn, white-tailed deer, and bison roam the biggest mixed-grass prairie in the county.

It can be overwhelming to decide what to do when visiting this park in South Dakota. If you are stuck, this article lists a few of the best things to do in Badlands National Park. There are many things to do, such as hiking trails, scenic drives and wildlife viewing opportunities.

When is the Best Time to Visit Badlands National Park?

The best time to visit Badlands National Park is during the spring and autumn months. Thanks to the small crowds and cooler temperatures, spring is a great time to visit. May can be an excellent time to go if you don’t mind a little rain. Because the warmer weather increases the amount of rain, June is the wettest month at the park. The winter months can be pretty windy and cold, and Badlands National Park is known for getting 12 to 24 inches of snow each year.

Hiking the Sage Creek Wilderness Area

Hiking the Sage Creek Wilderness Area introduces you to the Badlands backcountry. One attractive feature of this national park for hikers is that they can go off-trail to explore the wilderness on their own. There are no maintained trails in this section of the park, so you can explore on your own.

You can access this wilderness area from various points. One of the most popular is the Sage Creek Campground. To use it, you must drive down the Sage Creek Rim Road. Alternatively, you can also begin your hike at Sage Creek Basin Overlook.

Things to Do in Badlands National Park

Things to Note

You must register your vehicle information and name in the Backcountry Register. Once you do this, you can hike out into the Sage Creek wilderness, taking on faint bison trails and hiking trails that weave through the tall grass. Be careful when taking this route, as you will likely encounter bison as well as other wildlife, like pronghorn and bighorn sheep.

If you are searching for the rugged rocky outcrop scenery the Badlands is known for in this area, you will have to look elsewhere. What it lacks in typical Badlands scenery, it makes up for in remoteness. This area can be a great way to get away from the crowd.

Drive Sage Creek Rim Road

The Sage Creek Rim Road drive is a short one, but it’s worth it to see the less-traveled western parts of the Badlands. It’s a gravel road that’s suitable for any vehicle and takes you through the backcountry and prairie lands where there’s a good chance you’ll see some wildlife. The road is 25 miles long, and it begins on the Badlands Loop and ends near the small town of Scenic, South Dakota.

If you want to see the wilder, more remote part of the Badlands, keep heading west, and the pinnacles and spires give way to rounded hills and pine forests. This part of the Badlands is well-known for its wildlife sightings, so keep your eyes peeled for bighorn and pronghorn sheep, bison, and coyotes.

Hiking the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail

You can find the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail just before the final viewpoint of the Notch Trail. It offers incredible views along with the Notch and the Badlands Wall. This easy trail is a half-mile long and takes about 15 minutes to complete. However, if you are hiking this trail, you should know that it gains about 300 feet in elevation. If you are scared of heights, this might not be the trail for you.

Hiking the Door Trail

Hiking the Door Trail is an excellent activity for those looking to get closer to the incredible rock formations the Badlands NP is known for without taking on a full-on hike. The Door Trail is about three-quarters of a mile long, round trip. It is also flat, making it an excellent option for anyone, regardless of their activity level.

The trail begins as a boardwalk for 110 yards before heading into the Badlands on uneven, rough terrain. The National Park Service listed this trail as strenuous; however, most people should find this trail fun and slightly easy. After about half a mile, the trail descends into a field of fossil beds. You can also see the spires and pinnacles of the Badlands all the way through.

Two people hiking a trail

Hiking the Window Trail

The Window Trail is a short boardwalk trail measuring just a quarter of a mile. Its length makes it an excellent path for those who don’t want to overexert themselves. The trail terminates at the Window, an aptly named area as it provides a viewpoint of the Wall, spires, and pinnacles the Badlands are so famous for.

Hike into the Past with the Fossil Exhibit Trail

If you are a fan of fossils or history, you will love the Badlands. This national park is one of the most concentrated areas of mammal fossils globally. Hiking the Fossil Exhibit Trail lets you learn more about these fossil discoveries. At a quarter of a mile, the Fossil Exhibit Trail is quite short; however, walking on the boardwalk transports you to 75 million years in the past, seeing and learning about the animals that once called the Badlands area home.

Hike the Castle Trail

There are a few ways to hike the Castle Trail. You can start from one end and go to the other, but you would have to have someone drop you off and pick you up when you were finished. Alternatively, you can hike the trail to the end and back, which would be a 10-mile trek, or cover only a section of the trail.

This trail heads deeper into the Badlands and is five miles long from one end to the other, connecting the Window Trail and Door Trail to the Fossil Exhibit Trail.

Many hikers on the Castle Trail prefer the 4.7-mile loop from Saddle Pass to Castle Trail to Medicine Root. This hike takes about two hours to complete. Most of it is easy, but the first climb at Saddle Pass is a little more difficult. The reward for finishing this hike is the amazing views of the rock pinnacles on the prairie land. You might also catch a glimpse of bighorn or pronghorn sheep in the area.

Hiking on the Notch Trail

A good trail for adults and kids is the Notch Trail. Although this is a shorter hike at only 1.5 miles, it includes a lot of stellar views, including a walk through a canyon, a short trek along a cliff trail, and a quick climb up a wooden ladder. At the end of the hike, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most breathtaking views in the Badlands.

One thing to note is that a section of the trail is only five feet wide, but you can skip this part if you are hiking with young children. The wooden ladder appears before the narrow section of the trail, so if you want to skip it, you can follow the trail through the canyon until it rejoins the trail at the top of the cliff.

Watching the Sunrise and Sunset over the Badlands

The Badlands has magical sunrises and sunsets. If you opt for Badlands National Park camping, then you will have the opportunity to experience sunrises each morning you are camping. Some people might like the sunrise since fewer people are willing to get out of bed and drive to the park that early in the morning.

If you are driving in, you can watch it from the Big Badlands Overlook from the viewing platform, which happens to be just a hop, skip, and a step from the parking lot. If you feel energetic after watching the sunrise, you can take a hike into the hills. The view of colorful pinnacles and striped rock formations is certainly worth the short walk.

Alternatively, you could wait to see the sunset. Most people prefer this option since they don’t have to worry about getting up early. It can also be a great way to end your day out in the park. There are a few spots to watch the sunset: Conata Basin, Norbeck Pass, Panorama Point, and the Pinnacles. You should note that the most popular area is Pinnacles, so expect to meet large crowds.

Drive Badlands Loop Road

This drive is ideal for those looking to enjoy a bit of the scenery available at Badlands National Park, the Badlands Loops Road, or Highway 240. The road offers winding turns along the Badlands Wall, a 60 mile stretch of jagged eroded rocks. The Wall separates the lower and upper prairies. The 30-mile route is paved and runs right through the picturesque parts of the park.

Taking a trip on this road brings you close to boardwalk trails, overlooks, and jumping-off points for hikes into the backcountry interior of the Badlands NP. You should know that Badlands Loop Road starts on the Northeast entrance Station to Sage Creek Road. Driving nonstop on the Badlands Loop Road takes about one and a half hours from one end to another. If you choose to add a couple of overlooks and a few short hikes, you can spend up to half a day.

Vehicle driving on the road
Image Credit: Pexels

Things to Do in Badlands National Park

If you take half the day to do things in the Badlands, you could spend the rest of the day driving the Badlands Loop Road and visiting a few overlooks. The sunset or sunrise at the overlooks is magical. Most people spend about a day in the Badlands National Park and enjoy most of the activities covered here. The best place to start is in the east part of the park.

From there, you can head to the Big Badlands Overlook, where you can watch the sunrise. You can then hike the Door, Window, and Notch Trails. Then, take the scenic route on the Badlands Loop Road, stopping by overlooks and the Ben Reifel visitor center as well. After this, head over to the Fossil Exhibit Trail, which will take you westward into the park.

Badlands National Park in the winter

It should be afternoon by now, so you can drive the Sage Creek Rim Road till you get to the Sage Creek Wilderness overlook. You can then head back to the Pinnacles Overlook to catch the sunset.

If you choose to spend two days in the park, you should be able to do every activity highlighted on this list. You could follow the itinerary listed above or hike a portion or all of the Castle Trail rather than driving Sage Creek Road.

On the second day, you can enjoy the sunrise from the Pinnacles Overlook, then head out into the backcountry, hiking Sage Creek Wilderness, or drive the Sage Creek Road to visit a few overlooks.

Things to Do Bear Badlands National Park

There are also a lot of interesting places to see near Badlands National Park. Some of these spots are the Jewel Cave National Monument, the Crazy Horse Memorial, Wind Cave National Park, and Custer State Park.

Things to Do in the Badlands

In addition to hiking, nature and fantastic scenery, if you’re interested in social sciences, history, and environmental conservation, this is an ideal trip for you. The Badlands is a premier spot for visitors with an interest in the history and different regions of the United States. Badlands National Park also preserves some of the most classic prairie land ecosystems such as pothole lakes and badlands.

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