This post focuses on Badlands National Park in South Dakota. If you would like to view a quick summary of my travel and photography recommendations, please scroll down to the end of this post.
Badlands National Park is known for its unique geological formations, prairies, and fossils. There is a good chance you’ll see prairie dogs, bison, bighorn sheep, and pronghorn (bring binoculars and/or telephoto lenses if you have them). Although it’s rare to see predators, I have found bobcat tracks. Also, remember to watch out for rattlesnakes.
It’s possible to explore most of the North Unit of Badlands National Park within a day, but I recommend a couple days to have time for hiking, ranger programs, and changing weather conditions. The entrance fee is valid for 7 days. If you plan on visiting other national parks, national monuments, national forests/grasslands, national wildlife refuges, and/or lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, I recommend purchasing the America the Beautiful Pass, which covers entrance fees and day use fees for these places.
There are two campgrounds and one lodge with cabins in Badlands National Park. Cedar Pass Campground is close to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, the amphitheater, hiking trailheads, scenic drives, and the Cedar Pass Lodge Restaurant & Store. It is located in a prairie near The Wall. Although there is a road next to the campground, I could barely hear the cars. Because the campsites are close together and there are only a few trees in the campground, the campsites are not very private. However, everyone has been quiet and respectful whenever I’ve camped there. The campsites do not have fire pits, but they do have picnic tables with shelters for blocking the hot summer sun and sometimes strong winds. The campground also has running water and flush toilets. Campsites can be reserved online. I recommend sites 41, 43, and 45 for their unobstructed views of The Wall. Sage Creek Campground is a free primitive campground located off the unpaved Sage Creek Rim Road. It has pit toilets and covered picnic tables but no water. It is first-come, first-served and rarely fills to capacity. If you are interested in backcountry camping, contact park staff. Cedar Pass Lodge has cabins made from beetle kill pine. Each cabin has a mini refrigerator/freezer, a microwave, a ceiling fan, heating/air conditioning, and a bathroom with a shower and hot water. Pet-friendly cabins are available upon request.
View from Site 46 in Cedar Pass Campground
Cedar Pass Lodge also has a restaurant and store. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Its specialty is fry bread. The store sells Native American crafts and park memorabilia. There are small convenience stores and gas stations just outside the park.
The Ben Reifel Visitor Center has a bookstore and exhibits focusing on the history, geology, and ecology of the area. Ranger programs are available from the end of May until the beginning of September. They include geology walks, paleontology labs, fossil talks, solar activities, night sky programs, and evening programs at the amphitheater.
Badlands National Park has a few hiking trails. Castle Trail is the longest hiking trail, traveling through a prairie past badlands formations. It is 5 miles one way and relatively flat. The trailhead is at the Door and Window Parking Area. Castle Trail connects to shorter hiking trails, including Medicine Root Trail and Saddle Pass Trail. Door Trail, Window Trail, Cliff Shelf Nature Trail, and Fossil Exhibit Trail are all less than 1 mile one way. Remember to bring plenty of water and sun protection. There is little to no shade on the hiking trails. If you are interested in backcountry hiking, contact park staff.
Cracked ground along Castle Trail
Fossils along Castle Trail
Scenic drives are a popular activity in Badlands National Park. Badlands Loop Road has many breathtaking overlooks. There are two picnic areas along this road, Bigfoot Pass Picnic Area and Conata Picnic Area. The unpaved Sage Creek Rim Road has a few more overlooks along with Roberts Prairie Dog Town.
Prairie dog and bison at Roberts Prairie Dog Town
Badlands National Park is full of unique landscapes to photograph. These landscapes transform depending on the time of day, weather, and season. The soft light at sunrise and sunset brings out the subtle layers of color in the badlands formations. These formations also look beautiful in the blue light just before sunrise and just after sunset. Suggested locations for viewing the sunrise are Big Badlands Overlook, Door Trail, and Panorama Point. Suggested locations for viewing the sunset are Castle Trail, Bigfoot Pass Overlook, and Pinnacles Overlook. Midday is not ideal for photographing these landscapes, because the harsh light drowns out subtle colors and textures. However, this is a good time of day for photographing fossils, animal tracks, cracked ground, wildflowers, etc. Summer storm clouds provide an opportunity for particularly dramatic photos. The layers of color in the badlands formations are most intense after a storm. Erosion from rain also exposes fossils. In the spring and summer, brightly-colored grasses and wildflowers accent the badlands formations. Autumn brings a warm glow to the park. In the winter, snow highlights the textures of the badlands formations and frosted grasses sparkle in the sunlight.
View from the Door and Window Parking Area at sunset and sunrise
View across the road from the Cedar Pass Lodge Restaurant & Store in the morning
View from White River Valley Overlook in the morning
View from Bigfoot Pass Overlook at midday
View from Prairie Wind Overlook at midday
View from Burns Basin Overlook at sunset
View from Yellow Mounds Overlook at midday
View from Sage Creek Rim Road at midday
There are several nearby attractions. Wind Cave National Park is about a 2 hour drive from Badlands National Park. It has cave tours, hiking trails through prairies and ponderosa pine forests, and a campground. Along with a variety of regular cave tours, there is a Candlelight Cave Tour and a Wild Cave Tour. Jewel Cave National Monument is about a 2.5 hour drive from Badlands National Park. It has cave tours and a couple hiking trails through ponderosa pine forests and canyons. Along with the regular Scenic Tour, there is a Historic Lantern Tour and a Wild Cave Tour. Custer State Park is about a 1.75 hour drive from Badlands National Park. It has hiking and mountain biking trails, horseback riding trails, scenic drives, trout fishing, educational programs, campgrounds, cabins, and lodges. At the end of September, cowboys/cowgirls roundup and drive the bison herd during the annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup.
Left: Bison grazing in Wind Cave National Park Right: Wind Cave
- Ben Reifel Visitor Center
- Ranger Programs
- Hiking Trails
- Scenic Drives
- Wildlife Viewing
- Horseback Riding
- Big Badlands Overlook
- Next to the Door and Window Parking Area
- Door Trail
- Across the road from the Cedar Pass Lodge Restaurant & Store
- White River Valley Overlook
- Bigfoot Pass Overlook
- Prairie Wind Overlook
- Burns Basin Overlook
- Yellow Mounds Overlook
- Pinnacles Overlook
- Sage Creek Rim Road
- Roberts Prairie Dog Town