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The Badlands National Park is a fairly remote national park in southwestern South Dakota that offers majestic rock formations and the opportunity to see incredible wildlife. While the Badlands isn’t the most visited national park in the United States, it is one you should consider putting on your US National Parks Bucket List, and this Badlands National Park Travel Guide will help you make the most of your time there!
About the Badlands National Park
The Badlands became a national park in 1974 and is a total of 244,000 acres. Today it’s most famous of it’s otherworldly rock formations that connect a higher upper prairie plateau and lower prairie.
These rock formations have been formed by millions of years of erosion and contain a huge variety of fossils. The Badlands are one of the best places for scientists and archaeologists to study fossils of extinct animals, like sabertooth tigers, woolly mammoths, and ancient alligators. While you probably won’t find any of these fossils hiking around the Badlands, they are an important part of its history.
There are plenty of other things to do in the Badlands National Park other than finding fossils. They include things for everyone, whether you want to do backcountry camping, just drive through and see gorgeous viewpoints, or something in between.
Where to Stay in the Badlands
When visiting any national park the number one thing to consider when deciding where to stay is what type of accommodation do you want?
If a hotel-type accommodation is what you want, check out the availability of hotels in Wall, South Dakota. This is a small town that is super close to the Badlands National Park and has the famous Wall Drug.
Yes, the same Wall Drug from those bumper stickers you see everywhere.
The Badlands has a small area near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center for camping and RVs. It’s right in the heart of the Badlands and has many amenities, but usually fills up well in advance.
In our opinion, the best campsite in the Badlands is Sage Creek Campground. It is located by the Pinnacles Entrance to the park on the western side near Wall, South Dakota.
The Sage Creek Campground is down a dirt road and is first-come-first-serve. The road to Sage Creek Campground is doable in a car without high clearance and 4-wheel drive. We did it in our Honda Fit camper conversion without any problems.
The campground is remote, and the only amenity is two pit toilets. There is no running water, electricity, or cell service. While this may be overwhelming for some, it’s what makes this campground unique.
You are out there in the wilderness with other campers. Bison often wander by, and there are tons of active prairie dogs right in the campground.
Trust us. If you are camping in the Badlands, you will want to at least spend one night—if not two—at Sage Creek Campground.
What to Do in the Badlands – Hikes & Viewpoints
When planning a trip to the Badlands National Park, you might ask yourself ‘What is there to do in the Badlands?’
Luckily, there are plenty of things to do while visiting the Badlands, no matter your physical abilities. In fact, the Badlands National Park is one of the best national parks to visit if you aren’t interested in hiking or anything too physical.
You can enter Badlands National Park and drive along the Badlands Loop Road stopping at outlooks and viewpoints and see much of what makes the Badlands spectacular.
From these outlooks and viewpoints, there are small hikes or walking paths you can go down, but you will not have to hike very far. The Badlands Loop Road also takes you from viewpoints looking down on the fantastic rock formations of the Badlands to down into them, so you can look up at them.
The Loop Road really gives visitors of the Badlands National Park a chance to see the entire park with hardly having to hike at all. This is much different than other national parks, like Bryce Canyon where the road does not take you down into the canyon and you have to hike if you want to experience that.
Without mostly viewpoint and outlooks, the Badlands does not offer too many day hikes, but one of the best day hikes in the Badlands is Castle Trail. Castle Trail includes the Medicine Root Loop too.
These combine for a 12 mile hike, or 6 miles point to point. It’s technically a backcountry trail, but can easily be done in a day. It’s very flat and relatively easy, but this day hike will get super hot in the summer.
The Castle Trail day hike in the Badlands can be cut short by taking the Saddle Pass Trail from the trailhead located just west of the Visitor Center. It’s a steep hike up, but there are great views!
If you are looking for what to pack on a day hike, check out our Complete Day Hike Packing List to be totally prepared for whatever mother nature has in store for you!
Wildlife in the Badlands National Park
Whether you do a day hike in the Badlands or you drive the Loop Road to the overlook viewpoints, you should be able to spot some of the incredible wildlife that call the Badlands home.
Bison, pronghorn, mule deer, bighorn sheep, coyotes, rattlesnakes, and prairie dogs are just some of the animals that you can see when visiting the Badlands National Park.
Your best chance to see some of these animals are to get away from the overcrowded areas, like the Visitor Center and head west along the Badlands Loop Road. Crowds thin out here, so it’s easier to see wildlife.
When the Badlands Loop Road changes to Sage Creek Rim Road west of the Pinnacles Entrance—exit to Wall, SD 240—there will be a ton more wildlife. There are way fewer cars here and the wildlife venture closer to the road. This might be the best place to spot bison in the Badlands. Keep in mind that the road does change to a dirt road here too, but it’s easily drivable for all cars.
If your trip is not finished with the Badlands, make sure to check out other national and state parks in the area!
Some of the best parks near the Badlands are Custer State Park, the Black Hills National Forest, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Remember to buy a US National Parks Pass if you are going to be visiting multiple national parks. It’s only $80 per year and is good for one calendar year from when you purchase it!
If you are trying to plan a national park road trip or need travel planning help, we offer Travel Planning Services. Please get in touch with us, and we’d be happy to help you plan the trip of your dreams!