Badlands National Park – Trails, Camping, and Pre-Trip Guide

Petr Novák

Badlands National Park in South Dakota resembles a scene from a post-apocalyptic film. This barren landscape of rocks strewn across the largest grass prairie in the USA formed over 80 million years on the site of an ancient sea. However, you won’t find much water here; it’s an exceptionally dry place, with temperatures reaching 104°F in the summer.

Badlands National Park | © Richie Diesterheft

Table of Contents
  1. Information About Badlands National Park
  2. What to See and Do in Badlands National Park
  3. When to Go to Badlands National Park
  4. Entrance Fees for Badlands National Park
  5. Getting to Badlands National Park
  6. Accommodation in Badlands National Park
  7. Tips and Advice Before Visiting Badlands National Park
  8. Photos of Badlands National Park

Information About Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park, located in southwestern South Dakota, spans 379 mi2. It’s moderately visited compared to other national parks. The Badlands was designated as a national park on November 10, 1978, though it has been recognized as a national monument since 1939.

The park’s highest point is Red Shirt Table Mountain at 3,346 ft, and its lowest point is near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, 2,365 ft above sea level.

The Badlands area is rich in fossils. Native Americans, particularly the Lakota tribe, used the local prairies for hunting. Especially abundant deposits are found near the White River. However, you won’t find dinosaur remains in Badlands National Park.

There are 39 mammal species, 9 reptile species, 6 amphibian species, 206 bird species, and 69 butterfly species in the Badlands. Mammalian inhabitants are primarily prairie animals such as bison, bighorn sheep, coyotes, deer, and pronghorn.

The Badlands National Park has also been the setting for a number of films, the most famous being the Oscar-winning Dances With Wolves, Armageddon, and Stormy Heart.

What to See and Do in Badlands National Park

Most visitors to the park drive the Badlands Loop Highway, also known as South Dakota Highway 240. It is 40 mi long, with a top speed limit of 45 mph.

Hiking is a common activity at every national park in the USA. There are less than a dozen trails in the Badlands, ranging from the shortest to a 9.94 mi hike:

Door Trail

At 0.75 mi per round trip, this easy trail offers stunning views of the Badlands. Along the way, you’ll pass through a door – a stone one.

Window Trail

This simple 1,312 ft trail leads to a stone window in the wall that overlooks the canyon.

Notch Trail

This slightly more challenging 1.49 mi round-trip trail offers monumental views of the White River Valley. If you’re afraid of heights, this might not be the trail for you, as it involves climbing down a ladder.

Castle Trail

This moderately challenging 9.94 mi trail is the longest in Badlands National Park. It starts in the parking lot at the aforementioned Door and Window and continues to the Fossil Exhibit Trail. Get your cameras ready; the formations are a sight to behold!

Cliff Shelf

A fairly gentle trail filled with steps and with more elevation gain. The trail itself is 2,625 ft round trip.

Saddle Pass

Though it’s only 1,312 ft long, this trail is quite challenging. Climb up the Badlands Wall and you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful view of the White River Valley. The trail ends at a junction with the Castle Trail and Medicine Root Loop.

Medicine Root Loop

On this round trip, you’ll hike 4.04 mi of trail that offers a mix of grassy prairie and views of distant formations. Be aware of the cacti.

Fossil Exhibit Trail

The easy, 1,312 ft-long wooden boardwalk trail is lined with replica fossils.

Another popular activity in Badlands National Park is star-gazing. Light pollution is minimal in the park, so the stars are easily visible. During the summer, there’s even a ranger-led group stargazing event in the amphitheater late Friday through Monday nights. They’ll even lend you telescopes.

On your way to or from the park, don’t forget to visit the famous Mount Rushmore National Monument, which is about an hour and a half drive from Badlands National Park.

When to Go to Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park is accessible all year, but most visitors come during the summer, when the weather is at its hottest.

Typically, the highest temperatures are in July and August, when they usually range between 61°F and 91°F, although temperatures in the 40s are not uncommon. Summers are dry, with up to 5.00 cm of rainfall per month and occasional thunderstorms. June is considered the rainiest month, with January and December being the driest.

Winter in Badlands National Park begins in November, with temperatures ranging between -0.40°F and 39°F. Strong winds can make temperatures feel much colder. Approximately 86°F–140°F of snow falls throughout the winter.

Average Temperatures and Visitor Numbers in Badlands National Park

The following table provides average temperatures in Badlands National Park, with visitor numbers based on a 2017-2021 average. The data source is the National Park Service.

Max Temp Min Temp Precipitation Days Visitors Popularity
January 34°F 10.40°F 0.9 11 139 🟩
February 39°F 15.80°F 1.4 10 187 🟩
March 48°F 24.80°F 3.1 20 663 🟩
April 63°F 36°F 5.5 27 031 🟩
May 72°F 46°F 8.8 86 201 🟨🟨
June 82°F 55°F 9.8 215 275 🟥🟥🟥🟥
July 91°F 63°F 8.6 263 093 🟥🟥🟥🟥
August 91°F 61°F 6.4 223 114 🟥🟥🟥🟥
September 81°F 52°F 4.3 126 103 🟧🟧🟧
October 68°F 39°F 3.5 41 000 🟩
November 50°F 27°F 2.0 18 020 🟩
December 39°F 17.60°F 1.4 9 124 🟩

Entrance Fees for Badlands National Park

The entrance fee for Badlands National Park is $30, which covers your entire group for a week-long stay. If you arrive at the park by motorcycle, the fee for the entire group is $25. For those traveling by bus or motorcycle, the fee is $15.00 per person per week.

If you plan to visit more than one park in the USA, such as the relatively nearby Yellowstone and Grand Teton, consider purchasing the America the Beautiful pass. It’s valid for one year from the date of first use, and it allows you to visit all national parks and monuments in the USA. The current price is $80.

Getting to Badlands National Park

The most convenient way to reach Badlands National Park is by rental car. As there is no public transportation or shuttles operating within the park itself, visiting without a car can be quite complicated. For your convenience, here are the driving times and routes from nearby towns:

From / To Distance Driving Time Map
Chicago 845 mi 12 hours 30 minutes View Route
Denver 403 mi 7 hours View Route
Salt Lake City 732 mi 11 hours 30 minutes View Route
Rapid City 84 mi 1 hour 20 minutes View Route

Rapid City, mentioned above, can be reached via budget buses like Greyhound. There’s no public transportation from Rapid City to the park, but some local companies offer organized tours.

Accommodation in Badlands National Park

🏨 Hotels

Accommodation options can be found in the town of Wall, located on the main I-90 highway. It’s a short drive from the park, and there are several hotels and motels available. Additional lodging options can be found in Rapid City, 93 mi away.

⛺ Campsites

If you prefer camping, there are two campsites within Badlands National Park.

  • Cedar Pass Campground
    Located near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, this campground has 96 available sites, each offering stunning views of the park’s geological formations. The charge is $23.00 per tent site, or $38 for an RV site.
  • Sage Creek Campground
    Situated in the northwestern part of the park, this campground can be accessed via the unpaved Sage Creek Rim Road. However, be aware that the road can become impassable after heavy rains or snowstorms. This campground has a simpler setup and does not have access to drinkable water, but it is free of charge.

Tips and Advice Before Visiting Badlands National Park

ℹ️ Visitor Centers

We recommend starting your visit at one of the park’s two information centers. The main one is called the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, and the smaller one is the White River Visitor Center.

  • Ben Reifel Visitor Center
    Open daily from 8:00 a.m. until late afternoon year-round, excluding holidays, the visitor center operates on Mountain Time and is located on Badlands Loop Road. It provides basic information and houses a restaurant and a gift shop.
  • White River Visitor Center
    Located 19.88 mi south of Scenic, South Dakota off Highway 27, this visitor center only operates in the summer, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.

👍 Good to Know

Particularly during the summer, the park can be very hot, so make sure to bring plenty of fluids. Additionally, wear sturdy boots to avoid damaging the geological formations and bring insect repellent.

Allocate at least three hours to visit the park so that you have enough time to see the highlights. If you plan on hiking or prefer to take things slowly, we recommend spending a full day in Badlands.

Before your visit, consider downloading podcasts from the National Park Service on your phone. They are free of charge.

Photos of Badlands National Park

NP Badlands in USA | © diosthenese
Badlands National Park | © diosthenese
Badlands National Park | © diosthenese
Badlands National Park | © Esther Lee
Migratory Bison in Badlands National Park | © Lodahln

US National Parks

  1. List of US National Parks
  2. America the Beautiful Annual Pass
  3. Timed-Entry Reservation for US National Parks

Travel Guides to USA National Parks

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