Badlands National Park: What to Do at This Underrated South Dakota 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
Incredible landscapes at Badlands National Park
Amanda at Badlands National Park
Yay Badlands!

Intro to 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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

Driving in Badlands National Park
Road through the Badlands
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” (AKA areas where lots of prairie dogs live).

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

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 at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center 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.

Picnic spot in Badlands National Park
Picnic spots outside the visitor center

RELATED: 6 Reasons You Should Definitely Visit South Dakota

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.

Amanda in Badlands National Park
WATER is necessary

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.

Badlands National Park in South Dakota
The Cliff Shelf Trail

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).

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

READ NEXT: The Perfect 12-Day Northern USA Road Trip Itinerary for Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas

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

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"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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26 Comments on “Badlands National Park: What to Do at This Underrated South Dakota National Park

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  1. I’m 73 and I have visited the badlands at least twice. I consider the Badlands to be my number one favorite place to visit. They are so different from any other place I’ve have visited in the U.S. and I have visited many places around our beautiful country.

    Wondering if the Park is crowded this year…

      I haven’t been this year so I can’t answer that for sure, but from what I’ve seen it doesn’t look any busier than usual – in fact, I think it’s quieter than usual, but who knows how long that will last!

    I really want to visit this park, it has been on my bucket list for ages!
    Any longer hike you would particularly recommend?

      We didn’t have time for any longer hikes, and opted for a few shorter ones instead. We did the Door Trail, Window Trail, and Cliff Shelf trail. But there are only 2 trails in the park that are longer anyway – the Medicine Root Loop (4 miles) and the Castle Trail (10 miles). But I’m afraid I don’t have any personal experience with either one!

    […] best placed to begin your epic journey. However, before heading to the mountains, take the time to visit the Badlands national park, one-hour drive from town. As one of the most underrated parks in the country, the Badlands park […]

    Are you sure that The Yellow Mounds are in the planet Earth? What a great landscape! I haven’t been to many areas in the USA but thanks to you now I know the Badlands National Park is certainly a great place to visit!
    And you’re right. It’s totally underrated.

      Haha I’m positive! Though they definitely do look like they could be on another planet.

    I’ve never been but it looks like an interesting place to walk off some fat lol. That prairie dog looks super cute too!

      In the summer when it’s hot you could definitely burn some calories here!

    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.


      Thank you! This was a really fun one to explore, and I love writing about places that haven’t been “done to death” on other blogs!

    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?

      We didn’t get to see a sunrise there – I’ve actually been told sunset is the best time to be there!

    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!

      The US has such a diverse range of national parks – one thing I really love and appreciate about this country!

    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.

      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!

    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!

      They’re such funny little creatures! We stopped a few times to see their “towns” in the Dakotas!

    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

      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!

    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!

      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.)

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