Marvel at the rugged beauty of the Badlands in South Dakota. One of the world’s richest fossil beds is found here within these colorful geologic deposits, where once ancient horses and rhinos roamed. Follow in their footsteps to explore strange rock formations, sandstone columns, butts and prairie grassland. Here are the best things to do in Badlands National Park.
Watch for Wildlife
Look for creature big and small throughout Badlands National Park. For bison, drive along the Sage Creek Rim Road, overlooking the Badlands Wilderness Area. Look for bighorn sheep on the rocky precipices of Pinnacles Overlook or at Castle Trail and Big Badlands Overlook in the Cedar Pass area of the park. Spot cute prairie dogs poking their heads above ground just about everywhere in the park, and from the road at Burns Basin Overlook, Roberts Prairie Dog Town and Sage Creek Campground. As you drive or hike, keep an eye out for mule deer, coyotes and snacks as well.
Driving Near the South Unit
For the best views from your car, choose the South Unit. Whether you drive the loop east or west, you’ll be rewarded with spectacular sights. From the east, start by taking SD Highway 44 to the town of Scenic. Go south on SD Highway 27 for 20 miles. At the intersection of SD Highway 27 and BIA Highway 2, go west on BIA Highway 2 for 21 miles to BIA Highway 41. Turn north on BIA Highway 41. Stop at the Red Shirt Table Overlook. The drive takes about one hour. Stay on BIA Highway 31 to complete the loop to the town of Hermosa, then continue on to Rapid City.
Stop at the White River Visitor Center
Visit the White River Visitor Center in the South Unit of the park. You can talk with rangers about the park and the significance of the land and its Lakota heritage, check out museum exhibits and pick up maps.
Drive the Sage Creek Rim Road
For the best views of the Badlands Wilderness Area, drive the Sage Creek Rim Road – keep in mind it’s a dirt road, so it might be rough driving before or after a storm. Along the way, pull over at the Hay Butte Overlook, the Badlands Wilderness Area Overlook, Roberts Prairie Dog Town and the Sage Creek Basin Overlook. Look for bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs and a wide variety of birds.
Drive the Badlands Loop Road
An iconic and scenic drive within Badlands National Park (SD 240), the Badlands Loop Road offers numerous overlooks and pull-offs within the North Unit of the park. If headed from east to west, you’ll come across the Big Badlands, Overlook, the White River Valley Overlook, the Bigfoot Pass Overlook, Panorama Point, the Prairie Wind Overlook, the Burns Basin Overlook, the Homestead Overlook, the Conata Basin Overlook, the Yellow Mounds Overlook, the Conata Picnic Area, the Ancient Hunters Overlook and the Pinnacles Overlook.
Stop at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center for information, exhibits and maps. At the visitor center, you can stop in to the Fossil Preparation Lab, typically open seven days a week from the second week of June to the third week of September. Watch paleontologists at work as they identify fossil species, remove rock from fossils and prepare and catalog specimens.
Access the Loop Road from Interstate 90 via Exit 110 or Exit 131.
Take in the View from Yellow Mounds
Get your bearings and snap some great photos at Yellow Mounds overlook. You’ll see the most colorful Badlands geologic features here, including yellows, purples and reddish rock beds. From bottom to top, the formations are Yellow Mounds, Interior Paleosol, Chadron and Brule.
Watch the Sunrise or Sunset
The light is the most striking at sunrise or sunset within Badlands National Park, so if you can get an early start or stay late, it’s highly recommended. There’s a warm glow on the landscape as the pinnacles and buttes become red, yellow and buff colored, with dramatic shadows – it’s particularly beautiful after a rainstorm.
The best sunrise views are from the Big Badlands Overlook, the Door Trail, the Norbeck Pass area, the Dillon Pass area and Panorama Point, just west of Bigfoot Pass.
The best sunset views are from the Pinnacles Overlook, the Conata Basin Overlook, the Bigfoot Pass Picnic Area and the Norbeck Pass Area.
View the Night Sky
If you’ve stayed in the park long enough for sunset, stick around to marvel at the night sky. With no light pollution to get in the way, the celestial theater comes alive. Join rangers at the Cedar Pass Campground Amphitheater between Memorial Day and Labor Day for a night program with telescopes and guidance viewing the constellations, stars and planets. You’ll be exposed to more than 7,500 stars, the Milky Way Galaxy, star clusters, nebulae, planets ad moon. Plus, there are regularly fly-overs by satellites and the International Space Station.
Hiking in Badlands National Park
Hop out of your car and stretch your legs on a variety of hiking trails throughout Badlands National Park – there’s everything from easy boardwalk trails to challenging longer treks. Among the easiest, most accessible hikes are Door Trail, leading through a break in the Badlands Wall; the Window Trail, leading to a natural window in the Badlands Wall; and the Cliff Shelf loop trail along a boardwalk and up some stairs along the Badlands Wall. The more challenging, 10-mile roundtrip Castle Trail starts at the parking area for the Door and Window trails and leads to the Fossil Exhibit Trail.
Several other trails exist – check in at the visitor centers and pick up maps and chat with rangers about what might be best for you. There’s an open hike policy – allowing you to hike off trail, responsibly – at Badlands National Park.
Visit Sheep Mountain Table
If you are driving a four-wheel-drive vehicle, check out Sheep Mountain Table Road for its incredible views. Find the road on the west side of SD Highway 27, 4.5 miles south of SD Highway 44 in the town of Scenic. Sheep Mountain Table is located at the border of the North and South units. If you’re not driving a four-wheel-drive, but have high clearance, you can park at the overlook at the table and hike along the dirt road for 2.5 miles to the end of the road.
Want more? Consider visiting and/or camping at the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, exploring the Black Hill area and exploring Custer State Park.