“I was totally unprepared for that revelation called the Dakota Badlands. What I saw gave me an indescribable sense of mysterious elsewhere”
– Frank Lloyd Wright upon visiting the Badlands, South Dakota
BADLANDS: AN EXTRAORDINARY BEAUTY
We fell in love with Badlands National Park during our South Dakota road trip.
The Badlands are so rugged, so unique, and so beautiful that I felt like living there and waking up to them every day. I felt, they were more majestic and grander than the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
The Badlands and South Dakota strongly imbibe values of the American Heartland; life here is hard, rustic, and simple.
While the North unit is managed by NPS, the South unit is all Lakota Nation. Managed in conjunction with the Oglala Sioux, this unit has no paved roads, hiking trails, or campsites.
It is untouched, wild, and bare – just as nature intended it to be.
Driving the Badlands Loop Road in the North unit is a rewarding experience.
The road begins surrounded by the beautiful prairies and just as you think they would go on forever; they are swallowed by the dramatic eroded landscape of the Badlands.
However, Badlands is better explored on foot than by car.
We camped and hiked a lot inside the National Park to explore its unique landscapes and were fascinated by what we saw.
This National Park has everything: fossils of prehistoric animals, legends of the Sioux warriors and ghost dances, geological landforms that defy imagination, and solitude so intense that it makes you question your every belief.
One of our favorite national parks, Badlands is a place we really want to return to and explore more.
Hiking in Badlands National Park is one of the best ways to explore its many geological landforms and wildlife.
On the trails, we saw coyotes, mountain goat, prairie dogs, and bison. We also saw the many mounds and layers of soil making up the Badlands and learned stories about the Lakota Indians tribe.
Badlands was once the natural hunting ground of rhinos and saber-toothed cats and still lives up to its reputation of being a difficult land to survive in.
Hiking through the Badlands allowed us to enjoy unique views and get up close with the varied topography. It was honestly one of our favorite things to do inside the National Park.
WHERE IS BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK?
Badlands National Park, located in South Dakota, is one of the most impressive national parks we have visited.
It is located in central South Dakota and about 1 hour 30 minutes away from Mount Rushmore National Memorial. It can be easily reached by car from either Rapid City (1-hour drive) or Sioux Falls (4 hours drive).
Rapid City is the area’s largest airport and is well connected to major US cities.
Badlands is also just a day away from Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton so you can easily see all three national parks on a grand road trip in the area.
HISTORY OF THE BADLANDS
Badlands National Park is huge and covers an area of 244,000 acres (380 square miles) comprised of mixed-grass prairies (the Upper Plains) and the unearthly Badlands (the Lower Plains).
The Lower Plains once resembled the Upper Plains but were continuously eroded over a million years by the water of the White River to create the unusual topography known as the Badlands.
This work of erosion by the water, wind, and sun continues even today.
The Sioux Indians who lived in the Badlands were the first to name them; the native name for the area is ‘mako sica’, which literally translated is ‘land bad’ and stands for the fact that they are dangerous lands to traverse.
The extreme terrain of roughly eroded buttes, spires, and pinnacles made crossing the Badlands very difficult for early travelers.
To know more about the Sioux Indians and their warrior Crazy Horse, read our detailed Visitor’s Guide to Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota.
GEOLOGY OF THE BADLANDS
It is essential to understand the geology of the Badlands and the different geological landforms in the park before your visit.
We encountered almost all the different landforms on the various hiking trails and knowing what we were looking at, helped us appreciate the topography more.
The Badlands are formed by a continuous process of erosion and deposition. Here are the different layers you will see inside Badlands:
Sharps Formation And Brule Formation
Deposited 28 to 34 million years ago, the soil that forms these two formations was supplied by volcanic eruptions.
Today the Sharps and Brule Formation form sharply eroded rugged peaks of the Badlands including the Badlands Wall. The sandstone layers contain rich fossils.
Deposited between 34 to 37 million years ago, this formation was formed by the flooding of the White River and its plains.
Fossils of alligators and other mammals are found in this area.
Yellow Mounds inside Badlands are mostly comprised of fossil soils, known as paleosols.
The fossil soils have weathered from the layers above them and are vibrantly colored, hence the name, yellow mounds.
You are most likely to find fossils preserved in these mounds, however, be sure not to take any fossil out of the park as it is against federal regulations.
Pierre Shale is the bottommost layer of the Badlands topography and was deposited between 69 and 75 million years ago.
During that time a shallow, inland sea occupied this area. Fossils of sea mammals including that of sea reptiles, clams can be found in this layer.
KEY INFORMATION ON VISITING BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK
Badlands National Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It is located in the Mountain Time Zone.
The National Park has 2 visitor centers: Ben Reifel Visitor Center and White River Visitor Center.
Ben Reifel Visitor Center is open throughout the year except on major holidays while White River Visitor Center is open only in summer. For detailed hours, check the official website.
The park accepts America the Beautiful National Parks Pass. For non-pass holders, the entrance fee is $15 weekly per car or $7 weekly per person.
Badland’s climate is extreme. The best time to visit is from May to September.
In winter it snows heavily in the Badlands and the temperature is freezing cold. During peak summer months of July and August day temperatures can reach up to 110F on worst days.
Preparing for the weather is highly recommended. May and June are also the rainiest months at the park, and packing rain gear is highly recommended.
The only restaurant inside the National Park is the Cedar Pass Restaurant which serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
If you don’t plan to stop at the restaurant, you will need to bring in all food and supplies along with you.
The nearest option is to visit the Badlands Wall Drug area for food and supplies.
The best time to photograph Badlands National Park is at sunrise, sunset, and during after rainfall and thunderstorms. (Also Read: The Amateur Photographer’s Guide to Badlands National Park)
WHAT TO PACK FOR HIKING IN BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK
We strongly recommend being prepared for the changing weather conditions when hiking in Badlands National Park.
The smaller day hikes will not require much packing however before camping or backpacking or wilderness camping in the park, we recommend looking at weather forecasts and talking to park rangers to ensure you are thoroughly prepared for the weather.
Daypacks are an essential hiking gear. Choose high-quality day packs that will last you beyond one trip. Make sure that the straps are comfortable and do not dig into your shoulders.
If you are looking for something on a budget but still good quality, then try the Sunhiker daypack.
Pack sunscreen to protect yourself from the summer heat in Badlands National Park. Carry a high SPF, waterproof one like the Neutrogena Non-greasy sunscreen stick.
Add a small portable insect repellant in your daypack to protect from mosquitoes, flies, fleas, ticks, and other insects that might be living in the woods and among the grasses.
Also essential to screen and protect your head from the sun beating down upon you. There is absolutely no cover or shade inside Badlands and you need a hat to shield you.
Pack a good pair to shield yourself from the extreme heat and blinding sun at noon.
Long hiking pants with pockets
I love hiking pants with pockets. They are so useful to carry multiple items on you including Nutri-bars, wallets, carabiners, smartphones, and insect repellants.
Some can even hold a small portable camera for easy access.
I recently bought these pair of active pants online and love how comfortable they are.
Long-sleeved hiking shirt
If you are traveling in winter or spring or want to protect your arms from the sun during summer, then pack in a long-sleeved hiking shirt.
This will also save you from insect bites and scratches from the grasses.
Layers (the weather got cool and windy towards the evening)
Pack layers to shield yourself from climate changes in the park.
While we visited it ranged from extremely hot to rainy to windy and cold at night. My fleece jacket, long-sleeved shirts, and tank tops were very useful while in the park.
Carry along a hiking rain jacket to stay dry in case of rain. I love carrying all-weather jackets that protect from winds, cold, and rain.
My favorite is the Arcadia rain jacket from Columbia. I have had it for several years and it has lasted really well.
My husband loves the Northface Men’s waterproof jacket for its comfort and multiple pockets.
If you do not want to spend money on a jacket, then buy a cheap and basic poncho to stay dry.
Sturdy hiking shoes
The landscape inside Badlands is notorious for its rough gravelly texture, uneven terrain, and extreme dryness. You need a great pair of hiking shoes with amazing grip to hike inside Badlands and scale up to the Badlands Wall.
Protein Bars, food, & snacks
On the hikes, we recommend carrying enough food to last through the day.
The national park and hikes are in remote areas and the only food source is what you carry along with you.
We carried fresh fruits, sandwiches, and protein bars to sustain us throughout the day.
Lots of water
At all times, you need to carry at least 1 gallon per person per day.
If you are not backpacking and going on short day hikes, then carry along a small hiking water bottle or hydration flask.
I love the collapsible water bottles to save space.
Misting Sprays & Cooling Towels
Our kids get extremely cranky when in the heat and hence, we have made a habit of carrying misting sprays / misting fans and cooling towels to keep them cool wherever we go.
And we have found out, that we adults love using them as much as the kids!
Also, cooling towels are a must when hiking in the summer. You just need to wet the towel before use, wring it to remove water, and then snap it – it becomes ice cold and is perfect to wipe yourself with.
WHERE TO STAY FOR HIKING IN BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK
The best place to stay for hiking in Badlands National Park is camping in the park itself.
We camped at Badlands and could wake up around 4 am to experience an amazing sunrise on the Badlands Loop Road before beginning hiking for the day.
We hiked in the early morning and then again in the late afternoon while relaxing at our campsite at noon. We found the campsite super convenient and close to most trailheads.
If you are interested in camping at Badlands National Park, there are two campgrounds.
The Cedar Pass Campground is the largest with 96 sites; some with electrical hookups. All campsites have covered picnic tables and fire grates.
The campground also has potable water, toilets, and dump stations. We camped here and loved the majestic views around the campground.
The Sage Creek Campground is a primitive campground without potable water; it doesn’t take reservations and can be used to secure a last-minute first come first served campsites.
The park also allows backcountry camping; we recommend talking with a park ranger before camping in the wilderness.
If you do not wish to camp, then you can stay in the Cedar Pass Lodge which has beautiful pine cabins.
The Lodge does often get full in peak season and around holidays; alternatively, you can also stay at the hotels located in the Badlands Wall Drug area.
THINGS TO REMEMBER BEFORE HIKING IN BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK
Some portions of the Badlands trails cross the geological formations and are hard to follow.
We recommend taking your time and ensuring you are on the correct path from time to time. Look around for cairns (stone piles created by fellow hikers) to follow the correct route.
Many hiking trails follow the sides of steep ravines and go along the Badlands Wall.
The trails are rocky and uneven in many places and hikers need to maintain balance over precarious stretches and watch for drop-offs, especially on the Notch Trail.
The trails are especially slippery after heavy rainfall and we advise extreme caution when hiking after rains.
If you are not sure about the hiking conditions, talk to a park ranger before you start the hike. Also, check the weather forecast for rain or thunderstorm before you begin hiking.
Badlands prairies have a lot of wildlife as well as incredible flora and fauna. While most of it is not dangerous, you should be on the lookout for rattlesnakes along hiking paths and prickly cacti that can badly scratch you.
Appropriate hiking gear for Badlands includes long pants, long shirts, wide-brimmed hats, and closed-toe sturdy hiking shoes.
We also strongly recommend not feeding wildlife and keeping your distance from all wildlife, especially bison.
The Badlands have many prairie dogs that can appear harmless but can carry the plague.
While summer is a peak season to visit, temperatures are frequently hovering around the 90 F mark and it is crucial to carry plenty of water, keep yourself hydrated, start hiking in the early morning, wear hats, and apply sunscreen to beat the terrible heat.
Days, when the temperature is 100-114 F, can also occur during the summer months.
Badlands National Park wilderness areas do not have filterable water. We recommend packing a gallon of water per person per day for hiking in the Badlands.
All our recommendations are for hiking in good weather; we have no experience of hiking the Badlands during snow / in winter.
We recommend checking with park rangers and wearing snow gear if possible.
9 AWESOME BADLANDS HIKING TRAILS TO EXPLORE THE AREA
One of the major things you should know is that Badlands does not have any kind of shuttle service during any season. You will need to drive to the trailheads by yourself.
Fortunately, this is very easy as all trailheads are accessible either from the Badlands Loop Road (Route 240) or the Door and Window parking area and you can complete several of the short day hikes in one day.
Most of the marked trails have great views of the Badlands rock formations; you are also free to explore off-trail in the wilderness areas at Badlands.
The Door Trail is a short boardwalk (accessible) trail that leads to a break in the Badlands Wall called the Door.
The trail is about a mile long and starts from the Door and Window parking area.
The Door trail was the first trail we hiked in the Badlands and we saw bighorn sheep and mountain goats on this trail.
The Door in the Badlands Wall allows hikers to go beyond the boardwalk and into the rugged landscape for great views; we recommend exercising usual caution.
Just like the Door Trail, the Window Trail is also an accessible short boardwalk trail and leads to a natural window in the Badlands Wall.
The 0.25-mile trail offers views into an eroded canyon and is especially spectacular at sunset.
Unlike the Door, the Window doesn’t allow hikers to pass through.
This trail also starts from Door and Window parking area and can be easily hiked by most visitors of all ages.
This is by far our favorite trail at Badlands.
Even though it is just 1.5 miles long, it is strenuous with an elevation gain of 125 feet and you need to be in decent physical condition to hike this trail.
Starting at the Door and Window parking area, this trail follows a narrow canyon before ascending the Badlands Wall by the means of a long and steep log ladder of over 50 rungs.
This ladder was one of the reasons I loved this trail, climbing up and down the ladder is a fun, adventurous, and exciting experience.
Then the trail continues along a ledge; we recommend hikers to be on the lookout for steep drop-offs and exercise extra caution if visiting after heavy rainfall.
The trail dramatically stops at the Notch and offers amazing views of the White River Valley.
This is by far our ‘must-do’ trails in the Badlands and if you have time for just one trail we strongly recommend this one. However, this hike is not for those with a fear of heights.
Cliff Shelf Nature Trail
This 0.5-mile trail is an easy loop trail along boardwalks and staircases and is unique compared to other trails since it goes through a juniper forest perched along the Badlands Wall and has cedar trees lining the way.
This trail is especially beautiful after heavy rainfall when small ponds form along the route and attract local wildlife including white-tailed deer, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep.
The trail also has good views of the Badlands and trailhead is at the Badlands Loop Road.
Saddle Pass Trail
Saddle Pass Trail is a 0.25 miles (roundtrip) short but strenuous trail that quickly ascends the Badlands Wall and has great views over the White River Valley from the top.
Saddle Pass Trail ends at the junction with the Medicine Root Trail and Castle Trail. Some parts of this trail can be slippery after a rainfall.
Medicine Root Loop Trail
Medicine Root Loop Trail is a 4-mile long trail along gently rolling hills that intersects with the Saddle Pass Trail and Castle Trail at one point.
It can be combined with parts of the Castle Trail for an extended hike.
This hike is popular for its great wildlife viewing opportunities and for the cacti and wildflowers growing in the mixed-grass prairies.
At 5 miles long one way, the Castle Trail is the longest marked trail at Badlands.
While the trail is long and seems difficult, it is a pretty easy trail. The trail is level, smooth and goes over flat land without encountering many obstacles.
The view has grasslands on one side and the Badlands on the other, making for spectacular views while hiking.
The trail also has many different viewpoints of the Badlands Wall and panoramic view of the White River Valley.
We saw bighorn sheep along the trail in many areas. You can park at the Door and Window Trail parking area and cross the street to begin the hike.
Instead of making the round trip route, you can go via the Castle Trail, continue 4 mi to Fossil Exhibit Trail, and return via Medicine Root Trail for a total hike of similar length (~11 miles) and 4 to 5 hours duration.
If you are hiking this trail in summer, we recommend hiking it in the early morning to avoid the blistering heat.
Fossil Exhibit Trail
Another short 0.25 mile long accessible boardwalk trail with the trailhead at the Badlands Loop Road, this is a must if you are traveling with kids.
The interpretative exhibits and fossil replicas along the trail have a lot of information about the prehistoric creatures that once lived in the Badlands.
Sage Creek Wilderness Area Loop Trail
This unmarked trail is about 22 miles long and goes through the Sage Creek Wilderness Area.
This trail is popular with backpackers and wilderness campers and Deer Haven campground is a popular place to camp.
There is no clear trail and the route follows the natural topography and geological features in the Sage Creek area.
Hikers who complete this loop route will experience unique views and utter solitude.
Perfect to complete as a multi-day hike, we recommend informing park rangers before you head out on this trail. We also recommend having a map or compass to orient yourself on this trail.
THINGS TO DO AT BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK BESIDE HIKING
Besides hiking, Badlands offers plenty of things to do in the area for visitors.
Most popular activities in Badlands include driving along the Badlands Loop Road, camping, bird-watching, and wildlife viewing.
The flora and fauna of the area are unique and abundant, providing visitors ample opportunity to get close with nature and enjoy plenty of wildlife interactions.
The park also offers many ranger-led interpretative programs during the summer months including evening walks around the park, night sky viewing activities, and Junior Ranger programs.
These programs offer great information about the geology of Badlands and fossils found in the park. For an entire calendar of events, check the National Park website.
Photographing the Badlands is a beautiful experience; the varied colored rock formations have attracted amateur and professional photographers and artists for decades.
The best time to photograph Badlands is at sunrise and sunset. The landforms also photograph beautifully in the early morning after sunrise and in twilight an hour after sunset.
If you are lucky enough to be in the Badlands during or after a rainfall or thunderstorm you will be able to capture beautiful photos in the extreme weather.
For more tips on capturing beautiful photos at Badlands, read The Amateur Photographer’s Guide to Badlands National Park.
The night sky at Badlands is also excellent for stargazing opportunities. It is one of the darkest and clear night skies we have seen on par with Big Bend and South Texas and Easter Island in the Pacific ocean.
Badlands has an Astronomy Festival with incredible sky viewing opportunities in the first week of July; August provides ample chances to view the Perseid Meteor Shower.
We can assure you, you will have a great time hiking among the buttes, pinnacles, spires, and the prairies even on the short day hikes.
If you venture on the Castle Trail or multi-day Sage Creek Loop, you will experience unforgettable vistas.
Your only company will be the wind blowing through the terrain and the wildlife going about its day.
You will be stepping foot on one of the richest fossil beds in the world and come across remains of the saber-toothed cat and other animals from the Oligocene epoch.
Badlands and South Dakota will be a place you will dream of returning to, time and again.
“The Bad Lands grade all the way from those that are almost rolling in character to those that are so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth”.
– Theodore Roosevelt, the great conservationist President.