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 its opening 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. 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 its opening 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 that visitors can mark the passage of time, and the thick, mixed-grass prairie creates a juxtaposition of colors from the ground to the rock formations. 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.
Archaeologists have found fossilized remains in the park that date back over 66 million years. Some of these fossils include animals such as crocodiles, ancient ground squirrels, horses, and camels. Today’s Badlands is still home to a diverse array of wildlife, such as badgers, bison, and the near-extinct black-footed ferret. Paleo-Indians arrived in this area of South Dakota about 11,000 years ago, followed much later by the Lakota Sioux and other 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.
Visitors from all over the world come to the Badlands for the stunning natural beauty and riveting history, but they stay for the wide array of outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, and scenic driving. There are events for the entire family at Badlands National Park. A fun way to get kids involved while visiting the Badlands is by purchasing a National Parks Passport Book, and then taking the kids to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to get their first Badlands National Park Passport stamp. While you are spending time in the Visitor Center, ask about family-friendly events such as ranger-led geology walks and fossil talks.
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. If you’re hauling your own rig across the country, or if you plan to rent one nearby, your RVing possibilities are extensive.
Badlands National Park is located about 75 miles southeast of Rapid City, South Dakota and about 100 miles west of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. RVers can reach both the Northeast Entrance and the Pinnacles Entrance from Interstate 90. The Interior Entrance, which is the closest entry point to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, is easy to reach from SD-44, a smaller, two-lane highway. Because Badlands National Park is located in a relatively flat section of terrain, even inexperienced RVers won’t have trouble driving a larger rig or motorhome near the park.
Badlands National Park is an RV-friendly facility. RVers may park along the roadways on either of the park’s main paved roads, Badlands Loop Road and Highway 377. There is unpaved parking available at some trailheads and overlooks, but depending on the season, those parking areas might be crowded and hard to navigate. During the offseason, pay attention to the weather, as inclement weather might impact the areas you’d like to visit, making parking a bit more challenging. If you need help finding a place to park, stop by the Visitor Center and talk to a ranger about finding a spot that’s suitable to park your RV.
The Rapid City Regional Airport is the closest airport to Badlands National Park, but because of the airport’s small size, fares are often high and flight times may be limited. Most people flying to the area fly into Denver, Colorado and then make the six-hour drive north to the park.
No public transportation is available inside the park.
Cedar Pass Campground is a 96-site facility conveniently located close to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. Each site has an electrical hookup along with a shaded picnic structure. Drinking water, flush toilets, and showers are available nearby. RVers may stay for up to 14 days during the peak operating season; the 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 amphitheater where many ranger-led activities take place.
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. Many of the RV-friendly establishments offer all the amenities, from pull-through spots with 30 or 50 amp hookups to primitive cabins. These parks also have dog parks, heated swimming pools, laundry facilities, convenience stores, cable television, and Wi-Fi access. Sometimes it is nice to indulge in the finer things while still staying close to the action at Badlands National Park.
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 the line of sight of buildings or other structures, you can camp anywhere in the park. Educating yourself on the topography of your chosen area, including traveling with topography maps or a GPS are strongly recommended.
If you’re in search of the comfort of everyday life, but craving the action of the Badlands, don’t sweat. You can have your cake and eat it too (if you’re willing to pay the price of course). At the Cedar Pass Lodge Cabins, you will have access to air conditioning and heat, a mini-fridge, microwave, hairdryer, and even a television. You can indulge without the guilt because these cabins are locally built and constructed to the highest eco-standards. You’ll have to leave your four-legged friends at home though, as there are no pets allowed in the cabins.
One of the most popular RV campsites is located on the opposite side of the park from the Cedar Pass Campground. 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 campground 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 covered picnic areas are available.
While you are driving or walking around the camping area, watch out for bison; they yield the right-of-way to no one.
RVers who prefer modern amenities, should consider a stay at the multiple award-winning Badlands/White River KOA, which is located just a few miles from the Badlands National Park Interior Entrance. The campground is heavily shaded and sits in a quiet, rural setting. Sites feature full hookups with cable and Wi-Fi, and some sites have upgraded features like furnished patios and propane grills. RV campers and glampers alike will rejoice at the numerous amenities including restrooms and showers, laundry facilities, a pool, recreational facilities, planned activities, a fenced off-leash dog area, a free pet shower, bike rentals, and a store with convenience foods. Food may also be available at the Cook Shack during certain times of the year. Campfires are allowed, and firewood is available for purchase.
Feel free to haul the bikes on the back of the rig when you visit in the spring because the Badlands are bursting with open roads. Although bicycles are only allowed on the designated paved, gravel, and dirt roads within the park, the bike restrictions won’t hinder the scenic vistas that you are bound to encounter along your ride. The curving roads wind past rugged buttes, tall spires, and open grasslands. For a leisurely ride, check out the Sage Creek Loop, and watch for wildlife along the way!
One of the longest trails in the park is about a ten-mile round trip hike. It goes through steep rock formations as well as lush grasslands. The trail is fairly flat and easy to navigate. It’s also one of the few trails with bathroom facilities along the route, and that can be a big plus after a long 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, so be sure to pack your camera with you.
Wall Drug, located in Wall, South Dakota, is a legendary shopping center that attracts visitors by posting hand-painted signage along South Dakota interstates and highways hundreds of miles from the actual store. One of the most popular signs boasts that Wall Drug has free ice water, a concept developed in the 1930s to help attract travelers who were heading to and from Mount Rushmore. Today, Wall Drug is much more than a drug store; it’s an experience. Visitors to Wall Drug can eat lunch at the cafe, search for the giant animatronic dinosaur, ride a jackalope, buy souvenirs, and yes, even get free ice water. Wall Drug isn’t your average store. There is so much to see and do at Wall Drug that you will need more than an hour or two to see everything.
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 to behold. Whether you’re sleeping under the stars, or just stepping out of the Airstream to take a gander, be sure not to miss our galaxy’s bright display. Since there is absolutely no light pollution near the Badlands, the sky is incredibly dark and the stars are big and bright, especially during no-moon periods. The clear and cold winter nights are the best times to peer into the universe. Guides are usually available to point out constellations, but you can always brush up on your astronomy to help you locate some of your favorite constellations.
The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is one area of the park that’s open year-round, so it’s a go-to resource in winter. Trust us when we say that you’ll be stopping by the Visitor Center more than one time during your trip. Rangers can tell you which areas of the park are popular during the winter, and which areas are off-limits altogether. The spacious parking lot has plenty of room for RVs and also offers views of the Badlands. Inside, there are two water bottle-filling stations. The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is also the only place in the park that offers the highly-sought-after National Park Cancellation Station, the place to get your National Park Passport stamp. While you are meandering around, stop and talk to a ranger, or pick up a postcard or a Badlands National Park pin.
Like the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, this attraction is popular, especially during the coldest months of the year. The geological history of the Badlands is worth learning about, and kids of all ages like this exhibit because it is educational and informational. During your visit, ask about a ranger-led talk about fossils, and after the talk, send the kids to explore the outdoor boardwalk in search of the fossils they learned about. While kids may or may not find any fossils, they’ll gain a better perspective on nature.
If you’re in the area in the summer months, be sure to pop into the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. Park your RV in the Visitor Center parking lot and head inside to check out the working paleontology lab. The lab is open from mid-June through September, and it gives visitors a chance to see paleontologists in action. This presents an excellent opportunity to learn more about fossils found in the park, and you will be surprised to learn that some of the discoveries are not as old as you may think! The paleontology lab is suitable for a wide range of ages, so it’s an activity that families can enjoy.
In an already rugged and desolate park, there are areas even more desolated than others. Burns Basin Overlook is one such area. If you want to visit Burns Basin, talk to a ranger about navigating your RV or the best ways to see this part of the Badlands because this part of the park cannot accommodate oversized vehicles. There are steep ravines among almost all of the rocks. These features make for outstanding sightseeing, but they create difficult walking or climbing surfaces, even for wildlife. The 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 painstakingly carved these rocks over millions of years.
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. Sage Creek Rim Road is a dirt trail, but it’s not nearly as challenging as 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 see bison, make sure you keep a safe distance from the beautiful but unpredictable creatures. Park rules mandate that all visitors stay at least 100 feet away from wildlife.
The prettiest times of the day at Badlands National Park are during sunrise and sunset. The sky is spectacular as the sun wakes up and again when the sun goes to sleep, and no words can describe the colors of the rock formations during the dawn and twilight hours. Two-dimensional photographs only tell part of the story, so instead of relying on photos of the Badlands during sunrise and sunset, sneak out of your motorhome to witness the beauty for yourself. The dim light dances on the rocks and helps to create the iconic images often seen in photos capturing someone riding off into the sunset. Once you watch one sunrise, you will want to watch every sunrise during your RV road trip.
Prairie dogs love the sunshine and warmer weather, and even though they spend most of the day underground, they still love to sun themselves during the warm fall daytime hours. These animals are somewhat used to people, so they don’t immediately run off when cars come around the corner. These animals are 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 get lucky, you may see hundreds of these creatures at one time. The Roberts Prairie Dog Town is one of the best places to catch a glimpse of these adorable creatures. The prairie dog colony is a short distance from the RV-friendly Loop Road. Prairie dogs’ fur blends in with the landscape, so look closely or you may miss them.
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. Those skilled enough to complete the trek will be rewarded with a scenic view from the top. This hike is especially nice in the fall with the accompaniment of the crisp autumn air. The rock formations are partially rounded and partially craggy. That combination makes for one of the best views in the entire park, so don’t forget to pack your camera in the RV to capture the stunning views.
This rock formation extends through much of the park, but some of the best views are just northeast of the Visitor Center on Highway 377. The Visitor Center may also be one of the best places to park your rig. The Wall is visible from I-90, and the closer you get, the more impressive it becomes. The horizontal lines along the rock remind visitors that the formations have been here 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.
As visitors enter the park from the east, Big Badlands Overlook is one of the first sites they will come upon, and what a sight 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. In addition to the flat-tops, there’s also a flat bottom, which indicates that water meandered through these rocks for millions of years before finally drying up.
One of the first hiking trails on many people’s agendas is the Door Trail. The trail begins adjacent to a large, RV-friendly parking lot, so it’s easy to get hiking. The trail is 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 path. Just off to the side of the boardwalk, there are many places to explore. Hiking through delightful bottle canyons is one of the reasons people enjoy Door Trail. 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 the Door Trail because the pathway opens up so many scenic views.
Sandstone yellow is just one of the many colors that visitors can see while observing the rock formations. These colors are exceptionally brilliant during sunrises and sunsets or after rain. The rock formations at this overlook aren’t as prominent as other overlooks, but you don’t go to the Yellow Mounds Overlook to see rocks; you go to see the variation of colors, and once you see the colors, you will not be disappointed. At this overlook, there are several signs which explain where the different colors came from, and the educational information adds to the whole color-viewing experience. While you are at the Yellow Mounds Overlook, look to see the ancient remains of a primordial jungle which grew from a long-dry seabed.
This two-lane road is surprisingly broad, so it should probably be the first stop on any Badlands RV tour. This winding, scenic highway 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 excellent views of the park’s two signature landscapes: prominent rock formations and flat grasslands. Please adhere to the speed limit, and watch for herds of mountain goats, deer, and other wildlife; they usually don’t pay attention to the nuances of the vehicle code.
The White River Outlook is a labyrinth-like 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. During the summer, the light allows you to spend time picking out details in the rocks that cannot be seen at other times of the 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. Several self-guided trails help visitors get from one part of the White River Valley to the other, and there are plenty of scenic overlooks which provide great photo opportunities as well as large RV parking spots.
Chief Big Foot (Spotted Elk) was one of the last great Lakota Sioux leaders. His band of Miniconjou Indians may have crossed the area, now known as Big Foot Pass, right before the controversial battle of Wounded Knee in 1890. Spotted Elk probably selected his route because, even though it’s very rocky, the hills are slightly rounded and easier to navigate. The Big Foot Pass Overlook has a wide view of Spotted’ Elk’s route, and the overlook provides visitors one of the most colorful stops along the Badlands National Park tour. Don’t forget to bring your camera with you so you can capture the green hue of the sagebrush and the golds, reds, and other colors of the rocks.
Talk about a home where the buffalo roam. This area of Badlands National Park is one of the most active in terms of wildlife. Bison, mountain goats, longhorn sheep, prairie dogs, and other animals meander all over the plains. Many of these animals are not particularly shy, so it may be possible to get up close and personal, but please don’t get near any of the animals, no matter how friendly they may seem. Humans are dangerous for wildlife, and wildlife can be dangerous for humans. Aside from the wildlife, the Prairie Wind Overlook is known for its signature metal boardwalk that crosses the sea of prairie grass. The sweeping view of the seemingly endless prairie gives today’s visitors an idea of what yesterday’s visitors might have seen.
The word road may be a bit misleading, especially for those trying to navigate a big rig. The road is not much more than a wide dirt trail. In fact, the last part of the road allows only high-clearance vehicles. Sheep Mountain Table Road is one of the highest points in the entire park. It is very peaceful, and one of the least-visited parts of the park, probably because getting there requires a bit of effort. The serene atmosphere offers plenty of opportunities for wildlife viewing, especially in the mornings and evenings. The high-level, wide-angled view lets you take in much of what the park has to offer, and when you’re in South Dakota, the wide-angled views can’t get much wider.
Notch Trail is one of the most challenging trails in the park, so it is not for everyone. It’s especially tricky after 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 don’t stop at this view because you are not done yet. Most of the trail is well-marked with posts and reflectors, but some of the back stretches may have rather faint trail markings. 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. By tackling the hardest trail first, some of the other trails in the park won’t seem nearly as daunting.