Visiting Badlands National Park in South Dakota… Well, it was worth it!
The Complete Guide to Visiting Badlands National Park and a One-Day Itinerary
Badlands National Park… Where do I start? Well, with its massive buttes towering over deep canyons like guards protecting their crown jewels, the area inevitably reminds you of another grand chasm – the Grand Canyon itself.
A few miles farther down the Badlands Loop Road, and a peculiar pop of color draws your attention. Horizontal stripes of beige, red, and pinkish adorn the shielding spires. The work of the unknown master – call it nature if you wish – is so impeccable, so detailed. The colorful lines “painted” at certain intervals mirror the strokes of the same width on the surrounding rock formations.
In some areas, however, the Badlands’ giants rebel. The harmony of color disappears. Instead, bright hues cover the entire cliff sides. Yellow and red shades emerge, as if the painter accidentally overturned his palette and the gamut of colors spilled over the Badlands.
To your right or left, depending on where you are heading, grasslands spread as far as the eye can see. This vast area inhabited by abundant Badlands wildlife may look sad in fall when seasonal turbulence strips it off vibrant summer colors. The great plain may look wintry festive a couple of months later. But in summer, adorned with the vibrant green tones intermixed with yellow dots of wildflowers, it is a sight to behold.
One Day in Badlands National Park: Is It a Busy Park?
Badlands National Park ended up on our Midwest Road Trip itinerary by default, so to say. We longed to see the world-famous granite heads of Mount Rushmore National Memorial. On our way back to Denver where this long adventure had started, we stopped at Badlands National Park and were awestruck…
The unparalleled beauty of the area was undeniable. On top of that, Badlands National Park felt like a breath of fresh area in the entire national park system (or at least as long as it appeared to us).
Despite the busiest season (summer weather ought to play a big part in it) and almost the weekend, the park felt empty. Not exactly deserted, but compared with frequently-visited national parks in California, Utah, and Arizona, it was a traveler’s dream come true.
All you need is to linger long enough at one overlook, which we often did (Roshan blamed it on me, for taking way too many pictures), and that large coach tour drives away, taking with it the majority of the onlookers… And just like that, within a few minutes you have this small corner of Badlands National Park all to yourself.
BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK: THE BEST THINGS TO DO AND PLACES TO VISIT
Stronghold and Palmer Creek Units
Badlands National Park is divided into three distinctive units. The Stronghold and Palmer Creek regions are located within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The National Park Service and the Oglala Lakota manage these areas under a cooperative agreement.
The majority of the visitors skip these units. There are not many well-trodden routes and paths that you can explore within a few hours. And if you have one day to spend in the Badlands, you most likely won’t have enough time for everything.
For those who have more time on their hands, stop at the White River Visitor Center to learn more about what you can see and do in these areas of the park. The center Is open seasonally, only during the summer months.
North Unit – A Place Where You Want to Spend the Whole Day
North Unit is the star of the park. It houses the famous Badlands Loop Road. But before we venture to this scenic route and see its dramatic overlooks and hike to even more spectacular vistas, we have to see some lesser-known places nearby.
Badlands National Park Guide and One-Day Itinerary: Map
Sage Creek Rim Road
Sage Creek Rim Road is an unpaved road that runs through the Sage Creek Wilderness Area and connects SD 44 and the Badlands Loop Road. The area allures with a few scenic overlooks and abundant wildlife viewing opportunities.
If you are lucky and visit the area in the morning or evening, when the wild animals are most active, you may see bison, bighorn, and prairie dogs right from the comfort of your car.
TIP: Do not approach of feed wildlife, though.
Hay Butte Overlook
We limited our exploration in this part of the Badlands by checking out only Hay Butte Overlook. The vantage point offers a view of a dense group of spires towering over the deep canyon. A few-feet, unofficial trail descends ever so slightly, taking you just a few steps closer to the remarkable arena packed with the pale and orangish buttes.
Far fewer people visit the wilderness even in summer. Mostly driven by curiosity, only a couple of travelers pulled over at the overlook while we were gazing at the pillars. People wanted to know what we found so fascinating about the area. I guess they expected to see some wildlife. But since there was none at the moment, they left a few minutes later.
The Badlands Loop Road
The Badlands Loop Road is the most sought-after area in the park. The 39-mile loop of South Dakota Highway 240 spreads between the towns of Wall and Cactus Flat.
The road passed through dramatic landscapes. On one side, layered rock formations allure with their bizarre shapes and vibrant shades. Endless prairies where Badlands wildlife can be spotted grazing unfold on the opposite side.
Interesting to Know: Hardly any trees grow in the park. The region is unforgiving. Gusty winds and occasional tornadoes uproot any plants that are not quick enough to spread their strong roots deeper into the ground. Grass plants, however, not only survive, but thrive. The Badlands is too dry for the majority of the trees to grow, but too wet for the area to turn into a desert. And this is exactly what the weeds need.
The Badlands Loop Road makes it easy to observe the differences in terrains. Several (16 in the entire park) designated overlooks sit along the scenic drive and display the stunning spires and vast grasslands from different angles. Below are some of the vantage points that stood out to us.
- Pinnacles Overlook
- Yellow Mounds Overlook
- Conata Basin Overlook
- Burns Basin Overlook
- Prairie Wind Overlook
- Panorama Point Overlook
- White River Valley Overlook
- Big Badlands Overlook
Most of the designated hiking trails in Badlands National Park are short. A few span a mile or two. The majority are less than that. Hikers are also welcome to walk a self-guiding trail, set off cross-country. Be sure to bring a map, a compass, and plenty of water. There is no potable water in the Badlands.
The shorter trails congregate along the Badlands Loop Road. Some of the favorite hiking paths, including three self-guiding trails, are located in the Cedar Pass Area. You can hike the majority (if not all) of the trails outlined below in one day.
Fossil Exhibit Trail
The family-friendly Fossil Exhibit Trail does exactly what its name suggests. It presents fossil replicas and exhibits of now extinguished creatures that once lived in the Badlands area. The boardwalk loop trail is short, only 0.25 mile long.
Cliff Shelf Nature Trail
The Cliff Shelf Nature Trail is slightly longer. It stretches for 0.5 miles (round trip) and climbs nearly 200 feet in elevation. The trailhead is located near the town of Interior and is open year-round.
The real hiking starts in the heart of the Badlands. The trails are still relatively short, but they are congregated in one area. So once you park your car, you don’t need to move it for at least a couple of hours or as long as you need to finish the hike or hikes.
The first trail in this series of trails is the Window Trail. Similar to the Fossil Exhibit Trail, the well-trodden path is short. It runs only for 0.25 mile, out and back. The trail stops in front of a natural window in the Badlands Wall from where views of an intricately eroded canyon open up.
The Notch Trail is hands down the most interesting trail in the Badlands. This 1.5-mile, round-trip trail starts at the southern end of the Window, Door, and Notch Trails parking lot and runs through a wide canyon with towering spires guarding it from a distance. The trail later climbs up a log ladder and ends at the edge of the cliff overlooking the White River Valley.
TIP: A part of the ladder is almost vertical. Climbing it with toddlers or infants can be challenging. Alternatively, you can continue hiking through the canyon to your left. Eventually, this side trail merges with the official Notch Trail that takes you to the “Notch” with the astounding views of the valley.
The Castle Trail is one of the longest. It also starts near the Window, Door, and Notch Trails parking lot, across the Badlands Loop Road. The trail spans 5 miles (one way) through badlands, buttes, and prairies before ending in the Fossil Exhibit Trail parking area. If you long for a long hike in the Badlands, this trail should certainly be on your day itinerary.
The 0.75-mile, round-trip Door Trail is famous for a break in the Badlands Walls. Otherwise known as “the Door”, the opening guides you to a spot with expansive views of the canyon.
Wildlife in Badlands National Park
Nearly 60 species of grass have adapted to the harsh conditions of Badlands National Park. Sprawling across hundreds of thousands of acres and adorned with hundreds of species of wildflowers in summer, the grasslands support a complex community of wild animals.
You can spot black-tailed prairie dogs, mule deer, pronghorn, coyotes, bighorn sheep, and bison grazing on the fields. Different species of rodents, turtles, and snakes also thrive in the area.
The Best Time to Visit Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park is open all year long. Due to hazardous weather conditions most of the unpaved roads close for the winter season. You can enjoy serenity and more of the park during the shoulder seasons, April through May and September through early October.
Summer is the busiest time in the Badlands. All roads and hikes are open. The fields are dotted with yellow flowers. And the colors of the buttes stand out against the green prairies. On the flip side, the heat is excruciating.
TIP: Be sure to grab a lot of water and sunscreen and wear hats and shirts with long sleeves.