South Dakota is home to some prime examples of Americana – Mount Rushmore, the Corn Palace, Wall Drug, and the event of the year – Sturgis’ motorcycle rally, where chaps are standard but other clothing is optional. It is also home to one of nature’s finest examples of badlands. The badlands or mako sica were named by the Lakota because of their inhospitality with little water and extreme temperatures. In an 1850 journal about a badlands’ expedition, paleontologist Thaddeus Culbertson had this to say, “Fancy yourself on the hottest day in summer in the hottest spot of such a place without water – without an animal and scarce an insect astir – without a single flower to speak pleasant things to you and you will have some idea of the utter loneliness of the Bad Lands.” Despite its trying climate, Badlands National Park is a must-see wilderness. This guide will point out all the non-negotiable stops in the park.
With this guide to Badlands National Park, you too, will experience the extremes this part of South Dakota presents to her visitors – from the grasslands that stretch to distant mountains to otherworldly rock formations and canyons that scar the earth. But if you linger, you’ll see beyond the unimaginable palette of colors painted in bands across the most inhospitable of terrains. You’ll see creatures great and small and the fossils of those who lived here millions of years ago when the area was an inland sea.
The park covers a whopping 240,000 acres, so it is impossible to all of Badlands in one day. The North Unit, though, is easily accessed and can be covered between sunrise and sunset – times when the landscape is most photogenic. If you stay past sunset, you’ll be rewarded with endless night skies untouched by light pollution.
Interested in continuing North? Check out our list of five places you must visit in North Dakota, or explore Devil’s Lake in North Dakota with a photographer.
A DRIVING TOUR
Over the course of 40 miles, the Badlands Loop Road from the Northeast Entrance to the Pinnacles Entrance climbs, dips, and flirts with the canyon edge giving visitors a dozen or so scenic overlooks. The land is 75 million years in the making – made up of deposited layers whittled away to the tune of one inch a year. Scenic pullouts are perched on hillsides offering views of rosy banded pinnacles and a resilient homestead. Pullouts offer a sampling of the unique formations and colors in the park from the yellow mounds to the sod-covered buttes. Even at the park’s busiest time during the summer, the main road is free from bumper-to-bumper traffic. The dozen or so viewing areas invite visitors to soak in the grand scale and handiwork of the Cheyenne and White Rivers that carved their way through the park.
For best views at sunrise, enter the park’s Northeast Entrance and watch the colors warm at dawn at the Big Badlands Overlook. Sunset is best viewed at Pinnacles Overlook near the westernmost entrance of the North Unit.
A HIKE OR TWO
Most trailheads are within a few miles of the Ben Reifel Visitor Center located 4.4 miles south of Big Badlands Overlook. Trails explore unique rock formations throughout the park. Many trails are short and range from easy to moderate. The longest trail is over 10 miles round trip and follows the badland’s wall separating the upper and lower prairies. This trail passes spires, fins, and sod-topped buttes but may be more of a hike than can be tackled if you are only spending one day in the park.
In addition to short walks and walks to sections of the wall called the window and the door, an educational trail through a fossil-rich area is a level, ADA-accessible boardwalk.
For the more adventurous, the entire park is open for exploration. You are not obliged to stay on trails. That said, plan ahead with plenty of water and food, keep an eye on the sky for sudden thunderstorms, and an eye on the ground for rattlesnakes.
VIEWING THE WILDLIFE
Despite the appearance that nothing can survive in such arid conditions and rugged terrain, the park is teeming with life. This is due, in part, to having one of the largest areas of mixed-grass prairies in the U.S.
American bison were wiped out here but reintroduced in the 1960s along with Bighorn sheep. Barely within the park’s border at the Pinnacles Entrance, I came upon a bison jam – just two young bulls that found the highway easier walking than the prairie. Bighorn sheep tend to congregate near the Pinnacles area, too.
Sage Creek Rim Road, a hard-packed gravel road, skirts dramatic cliffs at the edge of the Pinnacles area. On the north side of the road, Bighorn sheep, bison, mule deer, and pronghorns graze on abundant grass completely unaware of human visitors.
About five miles in on Sage Creek Rim Drive, black-tailed prairie dogs are well aware of visitors to Roberts Prairie Dog Town. Although they are ground squirrels, they’re called prairie dogs because of their warning barks that alert colony members of danger. Sentries at each burrow bark as you wander through the colony.
The final animal reintroduced to the park’s prairie ecosystem was the black-footed ferret, thought to be extinct but discovered in Wyoming. After a successful breeding program, biologists released 36 ferrets in the park beginning in 1994. They are still among the most endangered mammals in the U.S., but with prairie dogs as their food source they are making a comeback.
FOOD AND LODGING
Within the park, Cedar Pass Lodge has the only restaurant (currently closed due to Covid) and serves a must-try Indian taco with fry bread and bison meat. Cedar Pass has cabins, including two ADA-accessible ones, and camping/RV sites with electric hookups and shower facilities. Sage Creek campground, west of Roberts Prairie Dog Town, is primitive.
Nearby towns, Interior and Wall, have services, with Wall having more to choose from. And yes, if you’ve driven on any highway in the area, you’ve seen Wall Drug’s billboards advertising everything from free donuts for honeymooners to five-cent coffee. I can’t vouch for the donuts, but the self-serve coffee is a nickel – on your honor.