Badlands National Park is located in the northern part of the central United States. The entirety of the designated land is located in South Dakota. The badlands have a long and interested history. They used to be home to now-extinct American mammals such as the saber-toothed tiger and one species of rhino. Later, its geological formations housed outlaws and fugitives.
Nowadays, it is a beautiful, federally protected national park that’s perfect for the family.
The geology of the badlands is what makes this place so special. It is home to craggy buttes, pinnacles and spires, but it is also hosts the largest mixed-grass prairie in the nation. While the rocks and valleys are harsh, the prairies are abundant with life.
It is the contrasts that make the badlands so notable.
Badlands NP is a great place to learn about natural history, but it is also a great place to simply appreciate nature. The most popular activities in the park pay homage to both of these strengths. Here are a few of the most common activities:
• Scenic driving – usually, I’d encourage you to leave behind your vehicle, but driving the badlands is an incredibly unique experience. The paved Highway 240 Badlands Loop Road and the much longer, unpaved Sage Creek Rim Road are great options for exploring the North Unit of the park. These roads bisect the changing geology perfectly. On one side, you’ll see waves of prairie grass and on the other side you’ll see acres of otherworldy rock formations.
• Stargazing – if you can stay overnight in the park, do it. There is very limited air and light pollution here, which makes the stars really pop. Enjoy a ranger-led star talk or borrow the free telescopes to really take a closer look.
• Hiking – hiking in Badlands NP is generally a short activity. Most of the trails are pretty easy and are a half-mile or less, round trip, though the castle trail goes for five miles each way. The most rewarding trail in the park is probably the Notch Trail. This 1.5 mile strenuous hike offers a striking view of White River Valley, but isn’t good for people who are afraid of heights.
Another popular park activity is wildlife viewing. Bighorn sheep, pronghorn, badgers, bison, prairie dogs and bobcats all call the park home. The real treat, however, is the black-footed ferret, North America’s most endangered land mammal. Can you spot one?
Camping is available for those interested. Badlands NP has two campsites and free, no-permit backcountry camping for visitors able to bring their own supplies.
If you have the opportunity, visit the Stronghold Unit of the park. Largely isolated from the North Unit, the Stronghold Unit has no internal roads and only one, limited trail. Almost entirely backcountry, this southwestern part of the park offers views and solitude that the rest of the park simply does not.
From Rapid City, take State Route 44 southeast through Scenic, SD.
If you’re coming from anywhere in the Black Hills (Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park, etc.), take Indian Highway 2 east to the White River Visitor Center.