20 Best Things to Do in Badlands National Park, SD
Badlands National Park in Dakota’s southwest region features rugged beauty and an impressive expanse of more than 200,000 acres of prairie, buttes, and pinnacles.
The area hosts prominent geologic deposits containing one of the world’s most abundant fossil beds and a vast area where wildlife like bison, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, and black-footed ferrets live and roam.
The name Badlands owes to the Lakota people, who called the area mako sica, which means “badlands.”
The early French trappers passing by the area called it “les mauvaises terres a traveser,” which translates to ‘bad lands to travel across.’
The area was known more for seasonal camps for traveling hunters than permanent habitation.
However, the earliest people on the sites included the Native American tribes of Arikara and the Oglala Lakota.
Badlands was first proposed as a national park with a suggested name of Wonderful National Park but was instead named the Badlands National Monument in 1929.
It was only established in 1939 and redesignated as a national park in 1978.
Today, Badlands National Park attracts tourists for its wild terrain and amazing craggy landscapes.
Discover the 20 best things to do at Badlands National Park.
See the Amazing Outback at the Big Badlands Overlook
The Big Badlands Overlook gives you a view of the Badland’s east area and erosional features that span the towns of Kadoka and Wall.
When you visit on a clear day, you’ll catch a glimpse of the Eagle Nest Butte in the southeastern area, the striped red shades of the Brule Formation, and the dark gray beds of the Chadron Formation.
You can take those steps at the fenced boardwalk, but you can also go a bit further to view more of the excellent site.
You can read the information board that tells about the Badlands or even get to catch a bighorn sheep on site.
Visit Badlands Overlook early in the morning and see a fantastic sunrise view.
Marvel at the Colors of Yellow Mounds Overlook
Nestled in the National Park, the Yellow Mounds Overlook is the most colorful portion of the Badlands because of its bright-colored rock layers.
These magnificent nature sculpture beds display the top yellow-hued Yellow Mounds, the purple interior Paleosol, gray-toned Chadron, and the reddish-striped Brule formations at the bottom.
During the prehistoric era, the ancient sea that flowed through the region dried up, leaving decaying plants that gave the mounds their yellow color.
Take some nature photography of this mesmerizing scenery.
You can also take a scenic two-mile out-and-back trail hike on the overlook to capture more of its stunning view.
Learn about the Badlands at Ben Reifel Visitor Center
The main facility at the park’s North Unit, the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, is where you get to learn everything you need to know about the Badlands.
It owes its name to Benjamin Reifel, also called Lone Feather.
Reifel was the first Congressman of the Lakota peoples, belonging to the Brule tribe and representing the 1st congressional district of South Dakota in the 1960s.
You can ask the rangers at the information desk about the park and the region, wildlife, history, earth science, and more.
The park staff regularly gives out maps and materials and conducts an orientation.
Visit the museum exhibits, where you’ll see a showcase of the different periods from the time of the mosasaurs that lived 75 million years ago and discover the Lakota history and people through audio-visual and experiential displays.
See the film feature, The Land of Stone and Light, and visit the Badlands Natural History Association Bookstore to purchase books and souvenirs as mementos of your Badlands trip.
Enjoy the View at the Bigfoot Pass Overlook and Picnic Area
The Bigfoot Pass doesn’t just offer a spectacular mountain view but also captures a historical tragedy.
After the death of Sitting Bull in 1890, a band of 200 Hunkpapa Lakota joined Chief Spotted Elk, famously called Big Foot, with his group of Miniconjou Lakota.
The 7th Cavalry of the US Army met the traveling band and ushered them to Wounded Knee Creek.
Tensions arose, which led to the deaths of over 300 men, women, and children at Wounded Knee at the hands of the cavalry unit.
Despite the tragedy, this scenic location presents a fantastic view of the surrounding mountains.
The location is one of the best areas in Badlands to catch a great sunset view.
You and your family can also have a lunch picnic at the picnic tables available in the area.
Enjoy the Night Sky at Cedar Pass Campground Amphitheater
Watch the dazzling night sky at the Cedar Pass Campground Amphitheater.
The night sky viewing happens every night from Memorial Day to Labor Day in the spring, summer, and fall.
Join an evening ranger program and enjoy the rest of the evening observing the impressive starry night sky.
Area partners Celestron and the Badlands Natural History Association provide the telescopes.
You’ll see the Milky Way, constellations, star clusters, planets, nebulae, and moons.
You can also join the Annual Badlands Astronomy Festival to celebrate the wonders of the dark skies and space exploration.
The three-day celebration occurs at Badlands National Park and features the promotion of resource education programs and activities and offers an evening of presentations and talks from guest speakers.
Learn about History at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
A national historic site built in 1999 near Wall, South Dakota, the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site presents the historical significance of the Cold War, the development of the ballistic missile, and nuclear deterrence.
The last intact and demilitarized Minuteman II ICBM system in the country is inside this facility.
The site preserves the Launch Control Facility Delta-01, its underground Launch Control Center, and the Launch Facility Delta-09.
You can join guided tours of the underground Launch Control Center and view the missile silo from above.
Learn from the exhibits showing technological developments, the lives of servicemen and women, historical highlights, and the facility's role during those times.
Watch Fossil Works at the Fossil Preparation Lab
Learn about paleontology and the various fossils found in the Badlands area at the Fossil Preparation Lab at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.
The laboratory opens daily from the second week of June through the third week of September.
Watch interns and park paleontologists in action as they work on fossil preparation, from identifying species based on their characteristics, stripping rocks from the fossils, to preparing and cataloging them for display.
Take a peek at the fossil collections they have unearthed in the park's rock formations.
You can also interview the rangers and paleontologists and learn more about the science and their work.
Trek the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead
Hike with ease on the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead at Badlands National Park.
This short 0.25-mile trail is family-friendly and handicap-accessible, making it a worthwhile day trip.
Find descriptions of the prehistoric inhabitants with a few actual fossil displays along the trail area.
Just don't remove any of the park’s resources like fossils, plants, artifacts, and rocks.
You can find the typical rugged Badlands rock formation and trailside here.
The best time to capture splendid views is early morning, but the trailhead is equally lovely.
You can venture off to more challenging hikes on pinnacles, ridges, and spires going to the western trails since Badlands National Park has an Open Hike Policy.
Drop by at the White River Visitor Center
Located at Pine Ridge Reservation, the White River Visitor Center welcomes guests who want to know more facts about the Badlands area.
It’s where to go if you want to explore and discover the interesting cultural significance of the National Park.
The rangers and staff would be glad to share the Lakota heritage and their ways of life through cultural talks and programs.
Check out the museum exhibits that reflect the uniqueness of the Badlands and the native people who first settled in the area.
You can also enjoy a picnic at the surrounding scenic views, too.
Camp Out at the Cedar Pass Campground
The Cedar Pass Campground lies near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and offers many level sites with views of the Badlands formation that are worth seeing.
The Cedar Pass Lodge manages the campground.
It’s available all year-round with some limitations during the winter; its busiest time is the summer.
You can camp on the grounds for up to 14 days, but don't forget essential campground rules like the prohibition of campfires.
Experience stunning sunsets, the fantastic night skies, and the breathtaking sunrise.
Experience Backcountry Camping at Deer Haven
You can try backcountry camping in the Deer Haven area to explore the South Unit for a more adventurous campout.
You can start from the Conata Picnic Area and trek the 2.5-mile unmarked trail, though you will notice some worn paths.
You can view the buttes on the northern side and the vast prairie on the southern area.
Set up camp in Deer Haven, where you can see a grove of junipers across the buttes.
Use caution when using game trails and obtain permission when crossing private lands.
See More of the Prairie Area at Pinnacle Overlook
The Pinnacle Overlook offers an easy route but features one of the best sunrise views in Badlands National Park.
You can view the expanse of the Sage Creek Wilderness area and the Black Hills on the horizon.
Catch sight of Bison in the valleys below and upper part of the prairie or spot some Bighorn sheep gathering and roaming on the rocky slopes, especially from April to May.
Walk down the trail path and get an up-close view of the fantastic rock formations.
Over millions of years, nature carved these formations from the rock, when rivers and rains washed through the clay soils and created distinct striped patterns.
View the Prairie Dogs at Roberts Prairie Dog Town
Get to see the largest prairie dog town in Badlands National Park.
See the dirt mounds where the prairie dogs make their homes and catch these creatures running around in high-pitched squeaking voices.
These species are essential to maintain the balance in the Badlands ecosystem by trimming off plants in the area.
You can also catch other wildlife and plant species in the area.
Don't feed the prairie dogs or attempt to pet them while in the area.
Have a Scenic Drive through Sheep Mountain Table
Navigate the dirt road to Sheep Mountain Table, at the borders of the North and South units of the national park.
It is the highest area in the park and measures approximately 3,000 feet above sea level.
The road starts on SD Highway 27’s west side, continuing five miles up to the highest point of the table, stopping at an overlook and continuing further 2.5 miles past the overlook and coming to a dead end.
Enjoy a scenic drive on a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
You will most likely see horses and cattle roam around the area as local ranchers of the Pine Ridge Reservation can access the area, based on an agreement with the National Park Service.
Have a Great Bike Ride on Badlands Loop Road
Explore the rugged views of the Badlands region on Badlands Loop Road on a bike ride.
The Badlands National Park allows bicycles only on designated paved and gravel roads within the parking area.
The scenic road is relatively narrow, so always take caution and look out for traffic, especially during holiday peak seasons starting from Memorial Day.
Obey traffic regulations and wear proper gear like protective clothing and a helmet.
Several steep areas on the loop with an elevation of 250 feet might challenge the less experienced cyclist.
You can also access a bicycle repair station next to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.
For a more adventurous and off-the-beaten-path biking trail, you can try the Sage Creek Loop, the Northeast-Big Foot Loop, or the Northeast Loop.
Use a Compass to Traverse the Trails at Sage Creek Wilderness
Looking for a more natural and adventurous trail at the Badlands National Park?
Then, you might like Sage Creek Wilderness and its game trails.
The charm of this wilderness area is its eroded terrain and brown prairie grasses.
In fact, this area is among the largest ones of its kind that contains mixed-grass prairie in the country!
The trails you'll find zigzagging around this 64,000-acre area are mostly made by bison and not by the park.
Hence, everyone who dares to come by this area is always reminded to be careful of bison and other wildlife sightings.
Get your compass ready as you traverse through Sage Creek Wilderness.
You can find this area near Deer Haven.
View the Breathtaking Juniper Forest at Cliff Shelf Nature Trail
If you prefer a more strenuous hike while in Badlands National Park, you might want to check out Cliff Shelf Nature Trail.
At an elevation of about 200 feet, this trail blends in boardwalks and climbing stairs.
Its route crosses the juniper forest lining the Badlands wall formation.
The trail is also famous for its abundant wildlife and vegetation, which you can come across while making your way up the stairs or zooming past on the boardwalk.
There's also a small pond along your trek.
At its peak, you'll meet scenic vistas of Eagle Butte and other surrounding spires.
Drive along Badlands Loop Road to reach Cliff Shelf Nature Trail and its marked trailhead.
Climb the Log Ladder at the Notch Trail
Badlands National Park has several trails hiked, walked, and biked by tourists from all over the world.
But none is as popular as the Notch Trail.
This 1.5-mile trail leads to an expansive perspective of White River Valley with at least 125 feet of elevation gain.
Unlike other trails though, it doesn't rely on boardwalks.
Instead, it uses log ladders and wooden trails to help guide you along its cliffs' edge.
This is what makes the hike challenging and memorable for visitors.
The Notch Trail is accessible via Badlands Loop Road at the southern end of the lot.
See the Sun Rise at Norbeck Pass
Make your trip to the Badlands National Park more exciting with a stop by Norbeck Pass.
This transitional zone aims to separate the upper and lower prairie sections of the forest.
Its collection of sharp eroded rock cliffs sits at opposite ends of the road, offering unique views from your car.
The jagged landscape to the north also offers the best backdrop for when the sunrises and sets.
Norbeck Pass is near White River Badlands and 6 kilometers north of Interior.
Watch the Paleosols at Conata Basin Overlook
Conata Basin Overlook offers a view that's a bit different from most of the Badlands' overlooks.
This site brings you into a colorful paleosol haven.
Paleosols are ancient soils that appear brighter on the surface than most of their surrounding area because of age and time.
While on the observation deck, you'll be within a bird's eye view of every layer of the Badlands.
The overlook is also a recommended spot for watching the sunrise.
Conata Basin Overlook is right beside Yellow Mounds Overlook.
Badlands National Park has a rugged natural beauty perfect for the outdoor traveler.
There are endless overlooks, trails, buttes, and pinnacle attractions that are all breathtaking.
If you’re in for great outdoor fun, you’ll have plenty of things to do at Badlands.
Ready your backpacks and discover Badlands National Park.