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
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.
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.
Things to do at 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.
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 things to do in the Badlands:
1. Take a short hike
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.
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.
We had fun posing with the crazy rock formations.
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.
You can check out the other hiking trails in the park here.
2. Drive 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.
There are a bunch of cool overlooks to stop at along the way, including a couple near prairie dog “towns” (AKA areas where lots of prairie dogs live).
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.
3. Stop at 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 that you can learn about.
Tips for visiting Badlands National Park
If you're thinking of making a stop in Badlands National Park, here are some tips for you:
1. Be prepared for the 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 in the Badlands 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.
2. 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.
3. 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).
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!
Have you ever been to Badlands National Park? If not, would you like to go?
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