Badlands National Park
Guide

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Introduction

Partly because of its rich history, but mostly because of its stunning natural beauty, South Dakota’s Badlands National Park has attracted millions of visitors and researchers since it opened in 1939. Canyon-like buttes and pinnacles dominate the Park’s 65,000-plus acres. Many of the rock formations have prominent horizontal sediment lines, so visitors can clearly mark the passage of time. A thick, mixed grass prairie blankets other parts of the Park. Today’s grasslands are much the same as they were hundreds, thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of years ago. This geological diversity feeds the Park’s biological diversity.

Like most of the South Dakota wilderness, the area is largely undeveloped, so hotel rooms are incredibly scarce. For this reason, Badlands National Park is one of the most RV-friendly National Parks in the entire system.

Archaeologists have found fossilized remains in the Park that date back over 66 million years. Some of these animals include crocodiles, ancient ground squirrels, horses, and camels. Today’s Badlands are still home to a diverse array of wildlife, such as badgers, bison, and the near-extinct black-footed ferret. Paleo-Indians arrived about 11,000 years ago, followed much later by the Lakota Sioux and white homesteaders. The Sioux were relocated to reservations at the end of the Plains Indian Wars in the 1880s, and the homesteaders largely abandoned their sod houses around the time of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. More recently, the Park witnessed the rise of the controversial Native American Ghost Dance movement (the Wounded Knee battleground is nearby) and hosted several Cold War-era military installations.

During the 1990s, filmmakers used the Badlands National Park as a backdrop in a number of movies. Given the Park’s stunning natural beauty and rich assortment of activities, it is easy to see why.

Park Alerts (2)

[Information] Park Entrance Fees

The 7-day vehicle pass is $25. Motorcycles are $15 and Single/per person (bicycle and walk in) are $12. The annual Badlands pass is $50.

[Information] Sage Creek Campground is now open

Road work has been completed. The Sage Creek Campground is open.

RV Rentals in Badlands National Park

Transportation in Badlands National Park

Driving

Badlands National Park is about 75 miles southeast of Rapid City and about a hundred miles west of Sioux Falls, just off of Interstate 90. If you are eastbound on I-90, take the Highway 240 exit in Wall and head south. Or, if you are westbound on I-90, take Big Foote Road south until it intersects Highway 240. State Highway 44, which runs southeast from Rapid City, is a good alternative route. It’s more scenic and also a little more densely populated. When you reach Scenic, head south on Main Street. That turns into Bombing Range Road, which goes into the south part of BNP. Or, go a little east of Scenic and head north on Sage Creek Road to reach the northern part of the Park. Or, you can just stay on 44, as this road heads into the central part of the Park. You can also take Highway 44 all the way to Interior and reach the Park’s eastern reaches.

Here are a few GPS addresses: 25216 Ben Reifel Road, Interior, SD 57750 (park headquarters); 21020 SD Hwy 240, Interior, SD 57750 (northwest entrance);

24240 Hwy 240, Wall, SD 57790 (Pinnacles entrance); and 20640 SD Hwy 377, Interior, SD 57750 (Interior entrance).

Parking

There is considerable parking along the two main paved roads in BNP, Badlands Loop Road and Highway 377. There is unpaved parking available as well on a seasonal and weather-permitting basis. Park rangers will be more than happy to help you find a spot that’s suitable for your RV.

Public Transport

The Rapid City Regional Airport is the closest airport. But because of the Airport’s small size, fares are rather high and flights are limited. So, some people fly into Denver and then take the six-hour drive to the Park.

No public transportation is available inside the Park.

Campgrounds and parking in Badlands National Park

Campsites in Badlands National Park

Reservations camping

Cedar Pass Campground

This 96-site RV campground is conveniently located close to the Reifel Visitors’ Center. Each site has an electrical hookup along with a very nice shaded picnic area. Drinking water, flush toilets, and showers are available nearby. RVers may stay for up to fourteen days; that 14-day limit usually only applies during the summer. The campground is open year-round, although some sites are unavailable during the winter. The Cedar Pass Lodge and Restaurant is located nearby, as is the BNP amphitheater.

First-come first-served

Sage Creek Campground

One of the most popular RV campsites in the region is located on the opposite side of the park. This free site fills up quickly and is partially inaccessible during the winter and spring. The single unpaved road sometimes becomes impassable. Due to overcrowding, there is limited space for RVs over eighteen feet long. This primitive campsite is a great place to “rough it.” There are no RV hookups and the closest potable water is at the nearby Pinnacles Entrance Station. Chemical toilets and lots of covered picnic areas are available. Watch out for bisons. They yield the right-of-way to no one.

Alternate camping

Backcountry Camping

If you’re ready for a little one-on-one time with nature, park your RV and head out for some backcountry camping. As long as you’re a half-mile out from park roads and trails and not within sight, you can camp anywhere in the park. Educating yourself on the topography of your chosen area, including traveling with topo maps, is strongly recommended.

Private Campgrounds

If a slightly more refined stay is in order--or if you’re not able to find a site in the park--you can find full-service campgrounds and RV parks nearby. RV-friendly establishments offer all the amenities, from pull-through spots with 30 or 50 amp hookups to primitive cabins, as well as dog parks, heated swimming pools, laundry facilities, convenience stores, cable TV, and WiFi access.

Seasonal activities in Badlands National Park

Spring

Loop Road

This two-lane road is surprisingly wide, so it should probably be the first stop on any Badlands RV tour. This winding, scenic road gives visitors an excellent view of the surroundings. It’s fun to pass by attractions and look forward to experiencing them up close. Your schedule will be full before you know it. The Loop Road offers good views of the Park’s two signature landscapes: prominent rock formations and flat grasslands. Be ready to stop for herds of mountain goats, deer, and other wildlife. They usually don’t pay attention to the nuances of the Vehicle Code.

Badlands Wall

This rock formation extends through much of the park, but some of the best views are just northeast of the Visitors Center on Highway 377. That may also be one of the best places to park your rig. The Wall is visible from Interstate 90, and the closer you get, the more impressive it becomes. The horizontal lines along the rock remind visitors that the formations have been there for millions of years, dating back to ancient times when most of the area was underwater. Today, the Wall still teems with wildlife and plants. Most visitors consider a trip to the Wall to be an other-worldly experience, and it’s easy to see why.

Big Badlands Overlook

As visitors enter the Park from the east, the Big Badlands Overlook is one of the first sites they see. And what a site it is. The eroded, canyon-like rock faces alternate between shades of sandstone red and beige. Many prominent pinnacles are interspersed among the signature flat top canyon rocks. There’s also a flat bottom, which indicates that water meandered through these rocks for millions of years before finally drying up.

Door Trail

One of the first hiking trails on many agendas, the Door Trail is adjacent to a large RV-friendly parking lot, so it’s easy to get started. The trail is also very well-marked, making it ideal for hikers of all ages and skill levels. The trail itself is flat and easy to hike. A metal boardwalk even covers the first part of the trail. But just off to the side, there are many places to explore. That includes some delightful bottle canyons. In less than a half hour, you’ll get the lay of the land and see what other opportunities await. We reckon that’s why they call this trail “the door.”

Yellow Mounds Overlook

Sandstone yellow is just one of the many colors that visitors can clearly see. These colors are especially pretty during sunrises and sunsets or after a rain. The rock formations aren’t as prominent, but you don’t go to the Yellow Mounds Overlook to see rocks. You go to see different colors, and you will not be disappointed. There are also several signs which explain where the different colors came from, and that knowledge adds to the experience. If you look closely, you’ll even see the ancient remains of a primordial jungle which grew from a long-dry seabed.

Summer

White River Valley Overlook

The White River outlook is an almost labyrinthine group of rock outcroppings that tower over the surrounding flat land. It’s an awe-inspiring site, in summer when the sun is brighter and the days are longer. There’s time to pick out details in the rocks that cannot be seen at other times of year. That combination of rich grasslands and protective rocks helps explain how so many Native American cultures could survive, and even thrive, in what appears to be a barren wasteland that’s prone to extreme temperatures. A number of self-guided trails help you get from one part of the White River Valley to the other. And, there are plenty of scenic overlooks which provide great photo opportunities and RV parking spots.

Big Foot Pass Overlook

Chief Big Foot (Spotted Elk) was one of the last great Lakota Sioux leaders. His band of Minneconjou Indians may have used this Pass right before the controversial battle of Wounded Knee in 1890. Spotted Elk may have selected this path because, even though it’s very rocky, the hills are slightly rounded and easier to navigate. This Pass is also one of the most colorful stops on your Badlands National Park tour. The sagebrush lends a green hue to the golds, reds, and other rock colors.

Prairie Wind Overlook

Talk about a home where the buffalo roam. This area of BNP is one of the most active in terms of wildlife. Bison, mountain goats, longhorn sheep, prairie dogs, and other animals meander over the plains. Many of these animals are not particularly shy, so it may be possible to get up close and personal. That’s a little easier to do at this Overlook, because of the signature metal boardwalk that bridges the sea of grass. Plus, the sweeping view of the seemingly endless prairie gives today’s visitors an idea of what yesterday’s visitors might have seen. Minus the paved road, RV-sized parking area, and digital cameras, of course.

Sheep Mountain Table Road

“Road” may be a bit misleading. It’s really not much more than a wide dirt trail. In fact, the last part of the road is for high-clearance vehicles only. Yet the remainder of the description is quite accurate. SMTR is one of the highest points in the entire Park. This area is also very peaceful. It’s one of the least-visited parts of the Park, probably because getting there requires effort. But that effort is worthwhile. The serene atmosphere offers plenty of opportunities for wildlife viewing, especially in the mornings and evenings. Plus, the high-level, wide-angle view lets you take in much of what the Park has to offer. And when you’re in South Dakota, wide-angle views don’t get much wider.

Notch Trail

One of the most difficult trails in the park is not for everyone. Notch Trail is especially tricky after a rain. After climbing up a steep log ladder, hikers reach a “notch” in the rocks. This position offers an outstanding view of the entire White River valley. But you are not done yet. Most of the trial is very well-marked with posts and reflectors, but some of the back stretches are rather faint. Watch out for a very steep drop off at the end of the trail. We usually recommend that people tackle this trail fairly early in their trips, weather permitting of course. Then, some of the other trails in the Park do not seem nearly as daunting, and you can just enjoy the scenery and history.

Fall

Burns Basin Overlook

In a rugged and desolate park, this area may be the most rugged and most desolate. Talk to a ranger about some RV alternatives, because this part of the Park simply cannot accommodate these vehicles. There are steep ravines in almost all the rocks. These features make for very difficult climbing, even for wildlife. But, they make for outstanding viewing. Rock crevices capture light and shadow in ways that other parts of the Badlands cannot equal. Yet with all these ravines, the tops of the rocks are almost mesa-like. So, it’s easy to see how water flows painstakingly carved these rocks over millions of years. Some of the rock tops are covered with thick green grass, though for the life of us, we cannot understand how that happened.

Sage Creek Rim Road

If you think you’ve seen a wind-swept plain before, trust us, you have not. It’s simply incredible to think of what centuries of wind and water can do to a landscape. The “road” is a dirt trail, but it’s not nearly as challenging as the aforementioned Sheep Mountain Table Road. The Sage Creek Rim Road is just a little dusty. Well, maybe it’s really dusty. The prairie grass in this area attracts more buffalo than in any other part of the Park. Many of these creatures cannot see or hear well, so they meander freely through the grasslands. If you are extremely lucky, you might even get a bison selfie.

Sunrise and Sunset

Truly spectacular. No words can possibly do justice to the sights that occur twice a day in the entire Park. Two-dimensional photographs only tell part of the story as well. When the sun rises and sets over the prairie, it looks like it came from nowhere and is going nowhere. And the dim light dances off the rocks in ways that are impossible to describe. Combine these qualities with the legendary “riding off into the sunset” scenes that are common in this part of the world, and you have an experience that you must simply see to believe.

Prairie Dog Colonies

One word: “fun.” Prairie dogs spend most of the day underground, so you need to go early in the morning or late in the afternoon to spot them. These animals are somewhat used to people, so they don’t immediately run off when cars come around the corner. Some people feed them by hand, but that just seems a little off to us. These animals are just hopelessly cute. They’re chubby and active and they always put a smile on your face. If you go at the right time of day and just plain get lucky, you may see hundreds of these creatures in a place like Roberts Prairie Dog Town. This enclave is a short distance from the RV-friendly Loop Road. Prairie dogs are very well-camouflaged animals, so look closely or you may miss them.

Saddle Pass Trail

This trail is only about a quarter of a mile long, but it’s steep uphill almost all the way. Watch out for slick spots and loose gravel. The view from the top is quite nice, especially when the wildflowers are in bloom. The rock formations are partially rounded and partially craggy. That combination makes for one of the best views in the entire Park.

Winter

Castle Trail

One of the longest trails in the Park is about a ten-mile round trip. It goes through steep rock formations as well as lush grasslands. But the trail itself is fairly flat and easy to navigate. It’s also one of the few trails with bathroom facilities, and that can be a big plus after a long trail hike. There are also several shortcuts for those who want (or need) to abbreviate their time on the Castle Trail. Of course, there are also numerous photo opportunities of the signature tower-like rock formation on this trail.

Wall Drug Store

The “drug store” is actually a rather large mall, especially considering that Wall has fewer than 250 residents. The original drug store opened in 1931. Business was, understandably, quite slow until the owner’s wife came up with a game-changing idea. She said the store should give away free ice water to travelers on their way to and from Mount Rushmore. Things have never been the same since. At about the same time, Wall Drug began serving free coffee and donuts to servicemembers at the area’s Air Force bases. Wall Drug Store still offers free water to all comers and free coffee/donut combos to servicemembers. The location contains a drug store (of course), along with a gift shop, several restaurants, and a rather large art gallery.

The Night Sky

For those of us who will never see the dark side of the Moon, the night sky over the Badlands National Park is perhaps one of the most stunning sites ever. Since there is absolutely no light pollution, the sky is incredibly dark and the stars at night are big and bright, especially during no-moon periods. Clear, cool winter nights are the absolute best. Guides are usually available to point out constellations.

Ben Reifel Visitors’ Center

Winter, spring, summer, or fall, most visitors check in here frequently. This visitors’ center is one of the few that’s open year-round, so it is especially important to come here in winter. Rangers can tell you what areas of the Park are popular at that time, which areas are off-limits altogether, and everything in between. The spacious parking lot has plenty of room for RVs and also offers very nice views of the Park. Inside, there are two water bottle-filling stations. Trust us when we say that you’ll be using these facilities a lot. This Center is also the only place in the Park that offers the highly-sought-after National Park stamp. A 20-minute infotaining video runs on a loop. There are plenty of other resources about the Park as well, from the rangers themselves to the items in the gift shop.

Fossil Exhibit Trailhead

Like the Ben Reifel Visitors’ Center, this attraction is a good spot in any season. It’s especially appreciated by the many families with kids who visit the Park during the winter. The geological history of the Badlands is definitely worth exploring, and kids of all ages like this exhibit. A park ranger gives a talk every morning at about 10:30. Then, kids can explore the outdoor boardwalk. They may or may not find any fossils, but they’ll definitely gain a better perspective on nature.

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