Badlands National Park: Underrated and Awesome

Visiting Badlands National Park
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The year 2016 marked the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in the United States. As part of the centennial celebration, the NPS did a fantastic job of promoting some of America's top national parks to tourists – too good of a job in some cases, it seems. Today, you can't visit parks like Yosemite and Zion and Yellowstone during the summer months without sitting in stand-still traffic, fighting for parking spots, and running into way too many other people on hiking trails and at popular overlooks.

But, as someone who lives near a totally underrated national park, I know that not *all* national parks are suffering from crushing visitor numbers. There are plenty of NPS-managed sites across America that are still beautiful and relaxing and just downright awesome to visit.

And I'm convinced that Badlands National Park in South Dakota is one of them.

Badlands National Park in South Dakota

Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park

Whoever came up with the name for Badlands National Park clearly did not have any sort of degree in marketing or advertising. After all, anything with “bad” in the name will automatically sound a bit unappealing to a lot of people. No one wants to go to a “bad” national park.

But “badlands” actually just describes a type of landscape, so I guess the initial name-giver gets a pass.

Badlands are generally a dry, crumbly terrain where softer sedimentary rocks and soils have been heavily eroded by wind and water, often causing interesting rock formations and patterns.

Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park in South Dakota

You can find badlands in a lot of places (and even in a lot of other places in the US), but Badlands National Park protects a particularly large swath of this unique landscape.

Visiting Badlands National Park

My sister and I visited the Badlands on a road trip through the northern part of the United States. It was the place I was most looking forward to seeing in South Dakota, and it and its crazy rock formations definitely did not disappoint.

Badlands National Park in South Dakota

There are actually two different “units” of Badlands National Park, but it's the north unit that is most often visited since it's right off of I-90 in South Dakota. My sister and I entered this northern part of the park via the northeast entrance and spent a few hours exploring.

Here were my favorite parts:

Short hikes

There's one long hike in Badlands National Park (the 10-mile Castle Trail), but the majority of the hiking opportunities here are on shorter trails that are accessible for most people.

Badlands National Park Window Trail

We hiked the Door Trail first, which is a short trail (.75 miles round trip) that starts out as a boardwalk and deposits you out into the badland rock formations, where you can choose to hike more if you wish. There's a loose “trail” marked by yellow poles, but people tend to just wander all over the place.

Door Trail in Badlands National Park

Door Trail

We had fun posing with the crazy rock formations.

Yoga in Badlands National Park

My sister doing some yoga

Badlands National Park

Next we headed over to the even shorter Window Trail, which leads you up a small hill to a “window” in the rock that gives you a view out over the Badlands.

Window Trail in Badlands National Park

That notch is “The Window.”

Badlands National Park Window Trail

View through the Window

You can check out the other hiking trails in the park here.

Driving the loop road

The most popular thing to do in Badlands National Park is of course to drive the paved loop road that traverses the length of the park's north unit.

Driving in Badlands National Park

Driving in Badlands National Park

There are a bunch of cool overlooks to stop at along the way, including a couple near prairie dog “towns.”

Prairie dogs in Badlands National Park

Prairie dogs!

The Big Badlands Overlook (right after the northeast entrance station to the park) was one of my favorites, and I also loved the Yellow Mounds Overlook since it gives you a glimpse at some different types (and colors!) of rock formations.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Big Badlands Overlook

Colorful rocks in Badlands National Park

The Yellow Mounds

Ben Reifel Visitor Center

The visitor center in this northern part of the park is definitely worth a visit. There are some exhibits that explain the history of the park (these hills were once covered by an ancient inland sea), and you can also visit the fossil prep lab, where they work on the many fossils found in the Badlands. No dinosaurs have been found here since the Badlands would have been underwater during that time, but they've found plenty of other cool fossils.

Picnic spot in Badlands National Park

Picnic spots outside the visitor center

Tips for visiting Badlands National Park

If you're thinking of making a stop in Badlands National Park, here are some tips for you:

Be prepared for heat – During the summer months, it can get HOT here. My sister and I were lucky and had fairly mild weather, but it's not uncommon for temperatures to top 100 degrees F here in the summer. If you're visiting during this time, be sure to have plenty of water on hand even for the shorter hikes (you can re-fill your water bottle at the visitor center), and apply plenty of sunscreen as there's not a lot of shade.

Amanda in Badlands National Park

WATER is necessary

Allow enough time – My sister and I allotted an afternoon for the Badlands, but to be honest we could have easily spent a full day here. When you add up the short hikes and stops at overlooks, you'll definitely want to allow at *least* 4-5 hours minimum to truly appreciate this park.

Badlands National Park in South Dakota

The Cliff Shelf Trail

Watch out for wildlife – Animals like prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, and even bison call this part of South Dakota home, so definitely keep an eye out for them as you drive. But please, DO NOT approach or try to feed these animals if you see them. They're wild and can be dangerous (and you can be dangerous to them, too, if you try to feed them people food).

Bighorn sheep in Badlands National Park

Bighorn sheep alongside the road

After reading this far and seeing all the photos, you might not be surprised to hear that I think the Badlands is one of the more underrated national parks in the United States. It's pretty darn unique as far as parks go, and yet is still a place you can visit without long lines of cars or way too many people.

If you're debating on whether to add South Dakota to your next road trip itinerary, my vote is to do it just so you can visit this oft-overlooked national park!

Badlands National Park

Have you ever been to Badlands National Park? If not, would you like to go?

 

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Visiting Badlands National Park in South Dakota
Visiting Badlands National Park in South Dakota

 

16 Comments

  • April says:

    I completely agree with you! While traveling to take in Devils Tower National Monument (amazing place!), I decided to spend a day checking out the Badlands National Park since I was only an hour away. The park blew me away by its beauty! And when a herd of bison are grazing at the entrance to welcome you, well, you know its going to be a great day! And I ran into bighorn sheep several times during the day, along with deer and the prairie dogs. AND, if you do plan on hiking, beware the Prairie Grass Rattlesnakes. Signs are posted everywhere. I had a very unpleasant encounter with one when I went to hike the Castle Trail. But even with that, my day at the Badlands was one of my favorite in any national park. In a way, I hope it stays underrated so those of us who know of its beauty, can enjoy it in peace!

    • Amanda says:

      Oooo yes, lots of “beware of rattlesnakes” signs there! Glad you also loved the park, though.

      (And I agree that Devil’s Tower is amazing! We went there, too.)

  • Ijana Loss says:

    Badlands NP looks amazing, I’ve wanted to visit there forever! South Dakota has been at/near the top of my states-I-want-to-visit list for awhile, it just seems like such a unique state that not many people ever visit. Most tourists, and even most Americans tend to overlook the Dakotas! XD Technically I haven’t been there yet either lol but I really want to! I love it when you write about overlooked states

    • Amanda says:

      I would definitely say that South Dakota is underrated as a whole – we saw a lot of cool things there! I plan to write a whole post just about South Dakota (and another about Montana, which I think is also overlooked beyond its national parks), so stay tuned!

  • Dominique says:

    Prairie dogs! I have never seen them in the wild and I would love to! The national park looks gorgeous (and the name doesn’t scare me off at all), so I would definitely add it to my itinerary if I would visit South Dakota!
    Dominique recently posted..Biesbosch National Park – Searching for Beavers

  • Nice post. It’s a great park, isn’t it? I actually went in through the south entrance, and the approach is so much nicer than from the north. You’re on a nearly deserted road, and you get to view Badlands for miles before you even enter it. Plus, you pass through a ghost town.
    Stephen Garone recently posted..Day-tripping to Lokrum, Dubrovnik’s Next-door Island Neighbor

    • Amanda says:

      That sounds very cool, too! Our route kind of dictated that we go through the northern part, but if I were to ever plan a trip just to South Dakota, I would leave enough time for both parts of the park!

  • I’ve never heard of Badlands National Park, but I do love the National Parks in America!

    I’ve only been to the US once, and when we visited, we went to 4 National Parks. In January! There was snow everywhere and some roads were actually closed, so that we had to drive the long way around, but we had the absolute best time!
    Victoria @The British Berliner recently posted..Lake Bled – 10 reasons to visit!

  • Renuka says:

    Badlands definitely look beautiful. I love the different shades in the rocky formations. I’m sure you need a lot of time to explore such a place. I guess a sunrise would be just too good. Isn’t it?
    Renuka recently posted..My Favourite ‘Chai’ Experiences In India

  • Rhonda Swan says:

    What a great post about an amazing and breathtaking park. The Badlands are just amazing, thanks for sharing your insight and tips as well. Beautiful pictures. Continue to be an Unstoppable Traveler.

    Rhonda
    Rhonda Swan recently posted..How to Start a Blog That Actually Makes Money

  • Izy Berry says:

    I’ve never been but it looks like an interesting place to walk off some fat lol. That prairie dog looks super cute too!
    Izy Berry recently posted..5 Travel Essentials You Need Before You Go

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