Itineraries,  National Park Travel

How to Make the Most of One Day in Badlands National Park

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It looks like an alien planet: hills striped with bands of red, brown, and yellow all reach precipitous peaks that stretch as far as the eye can see. This is Badlands National Park, located in South Dakota.

It’s a dramatic landscape carved by wind and water over millions of years; like so many national parks, we are lucky to experience it at this point in geologic history. If you’ve ever wanted to visit Badlands National Park, this article is your guide.

One Day in Badlands Hero

I first visited Badlands National Park as a small child with my parents on our cross-country move to Alaska; Mr. V and I returned as part of a national parks road trip for our honeymoon in 2020. We spent part of one day in Badlands National Park, and this article will help you do the same.

As with most national parks, you can easily spend more than a day here – but many of us visit some of the national parks as part of a larger trip (like our road trip); in the case of Badlands, you might also be planning to visit Mount Rushmore since they’re relatively close or South Dakota’s other national park, Wind Cave. Whatever brings you to the Badlands, this post will show you how to make the most of your time there – even if that time is brief.

Tips for Visiting the Badlands

Before jumping into what to do during your visit to Badlands National Park, I want to cover the basics – I do this for all of my national park guides!

  • Badlands National Park is open year-round; summer is the main season to visit, when the weather on the Great Plains is at its most pleasant.
  • Badlands is a fee-collecting park; it’s $30 per vehicle, good for 7 days. The America the Beautiful Pass is still a good investment if you plan to visit other parks this year, too, as it covers admission to Badlands and many other park units too.
  • While there are lots of overlooks and parking areas throughout the park, most are pretty small; you may find limited parking at some areas, especially during summer weekends or fee-free days.
  • Badlands National Park is comprised of three units: the North Unit, the Stronghold Unit, and the Palmer Creek Unit.
  • There are iconic “Badlands National Park” signs at both entrances to the North Unit; one is at the Pinnacles Entrance and one is at the Northeast Entrance.

Have any other questions about the basics of visiting? The Badlands NPS site is the best place for that info – or you can ask in the comments at the end of this post and I’ll do my best to help.

What to Do for One Day in Badlands National Park

Given its remoteness, most visitors find themselves at Badlands National Park as part of a larger trip; this means you – like me – might not have a ton of time to visit the park. I chose to focus on how you can spend one day in Badlands National Park in this guide since it’s a reasonable amount of time to spend – and to feel like you’ve really “seen” the park.

As I’ll explain more later in this post, this guide only covers the North Unit of Badlands, and travels east to west on Badlands Loop Road. (See a handy map of Badlands here to get oriented and follow along with my guide.) Other parts of the park aren’t as accessible, and this is the most effective way to spend your time, short as it may be. Let’s hit the road!

Take in the View at Big Badlands Overlook

As you enter the North Unit of Badlands, you’ll encounter an essential stop before getting to the Visitor Center; it doesn’t make sense to backtrack, so just pull off to enjoy the view at Big Badlands Overlook first!

My favorite part about this overlook is that it’s a great introductory scene to the Badlands: you’ll see the colorful striated hills spread out below you from the viewing platform, surrounded by the sprawling Great Plains. Please just stay on the official trail and viewing platform; as in all national parks, Leave No Trace principles are essential for ensuring future generations can enjoy these wonders too! (We saw several areas and people off-trail taking pictures – it’s so frustrating!)

Stop at the Visitor Center

There are two Visitor Centers in Badlands National Park:

  • Ben Reifel Visitor Center in the north unit, open year-round
  • White River Visitor Center in the south unit, open seasonally

As this one-day guide focuses on the North Unit, you’ll want to make sure you stop at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center next. Since we visited in 2020, the Visitor Center was not open during our trip, but this is the spot to learn about park history, chat with rangers, and browse the gift shop. (Don’t forget your passport stamp or other national park tracking souvenir!)

You can also visit the Fossil Preparation Lab, where park paleontologists work on fossils to identify and preserve them. (Only open from the second week in June through the third week in September.)

Hit the Trail(s) (Optional)

While many parks have miles of hiking trails, hiking is actually not one of the top activities in Badlands National Park – at least not in a formalized sense.

There are three trails of decent length in the North Unit of Badlands National Park:

  • Castle Trail – A 10-mile moderate point-to-point trail that passes through some Badlands formations (great for avid hikers who want to escape the crowds).
  • Medicine Root Loop – A four-mile moderate hike that connects up with the Castle Trail and passes through grasslands with great badlands views.
  • Notch Trail – A short 1.5-mile out-and-back trail that gives an epic view of the White River Valley.

You can also hike to The Door and The Window, both hikes of which are less than a mile and easy out-and-back options.

Lastly, Badlands National Park has an “open hiking policy,” which means you are allowed to hike off-trail. The main thing to keep in mind there is bringing enough supplies for your hike and being prepared for the environment (heat, sun, wind); it’s also a good idea to check in with rangers at the Visitor Center before setting out, just to ensure you’re safe and have a good time.

Go Fossil Hunting

Okay technically you can’t unearth fossils yourself in Badlands, but the Fossil Exhibit Trail is an easy boardwalk trail where you can see fossil replicas (removed to preserve the original fossils) and learn about the unique now-extinct species that once called the badlands home (even before they were badlands). This is a great quick stop plus is very family-friendly if you’re looking to re-engage little ones who aren’t as wowed by the scenery.

Stop at the Overlooks

Speaking of wow-worthy scenery, the other main stops along Badlands Loop Road are a whole lotta scenic pull-outs. Here they are, in order:

  • White River Valley Overlook
  • Bigfoot Pass Overlook
  • Panorama Point
  • Prairie Wind Overlook
  • Burns Basin Overlook
  • Homestead Overlook
  • Conata Basin Overlook
  • Yellow Mounds Overlook
  • Ancient Hunters Overlook
  • Pinnacles Overlook

All of these are located along the 22 mile stretch of Badlands Loop Road between Ben Reifel Visitor Center and the Pinnacles Entrance Station! As you can tell, each one features something a bit different: some overlook the badlands or specific features from different angles, whereas others look northward across the plains and its own kind of beauty.

Explore Along Sage Creek Rim Road (Optional)

One Day in Badlands - Scenery

If you have more time, you can continue onto the unpaved Sage Creek Rim Road to leave behind (some of) the crowds. Much like Badlands Loop Road, Sage Creek Rim Road has several more overlooks, and the main unique sight along the road is Roberts Prairie Dog Town – yep, it’s home to a prairie dog colony!

You can follow Sage Creek Rim Road to turn around at Sage Creek, or follow it all the way to its end toward the town of Scenic then loop back to the town of Interior on SD-44, if that’s where you’re staying (more on that below!)

Enjoy Sunset at Your Favorite Overlook

One Day in Badlands - Sunset

If you turn back and follow Badlands Loop Road back east/to the town of Interior, you can stop to enjoy the sunset at one of the many overlooks I’ve already mentioned – keep in mind which one(s) you like early in the day to make the decision easier. Two of the more popular/photogenic spots are Pinnacles Overlook and Conata Basin Overlook, in case you can’t decide.

Go Stargazing

Your day in Badlands isn’t over just because the sun is down! Due to its remote location – both in the center of the content, far from development, and in relatively rural South Dakota, it’s a fantastic spot to enjoy the wonders of the night sky, including the expanse of the Milky Way during the summer months.

I’ve got a guide to stargazing in Badlands National Park on my astrotourism blog, and it makes my list of the best national parks for stargazing.

Other Things to Do/If You Have More Time

One Day in Badlands - Scenery

As mentioned, this itinerary only focuses on the North Unit of Badlands National Park; there are two other units: Stronghold Unit and Palmer Creek Unit.

Both are located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and are much less developed in terms of park infrastructure. There are no roads through either of these park units; there’s one Visitor Center (White River Visitor Center), one trail (Sheep Mountain Table Road, 14.8mi out-and-back), and one formal overlook (Red Shirt Table Overlook) – all in the Stronghold Unit.

If you have an extra day or even half-day and want to see “all” of Badlands National Park, this is where I’d recommend spending it. (Palmer Creek Unit is inaccessible by road at all, so I don’t know how/recommend visiting.)

Food & Drink Options

If you’ve read this so far, you might be wondering: What about lunch? Where do we eat dinner before/after sunset? Great question, dear reader!

For lunch, you should bring something with you into the park; there are no nearby restaurants that will make sense to visit if you’re short on time. You can enjoy a picnic at one of the parking areas or overlooks mentioned; please observe Leave No Trace principles to minimize your impact on the environment.

If you’re staying in or near Interior for the night after visiting, there are a few options.

  • Katie’s Kantina is a food truck that does Mexican standards like tacos, burritos, etc.
  • Wagon Wheel Bar & Grill has pizza and sandwiches in addition to adult libations.
  • Cowboy Corner is a convenience store and gas station that also offers some dishes like prime rib, ribs, fried chicken, and chicken fried steak.

That’s about it – if you don’t want any of those, you’ll also need to bring food for dinner!

Where to Stay near Badlands NP

If camping is your quintessential way to stay in a national park, you’ve got options in Badlands. There are two formal campgrounds, both located in the north unit of the park:

  • Cedar Pass Campground – A paid campground near Cedar Pass Lodge (more on that below), with 96 spots that can be reserved online.
  • Sage Creek Campground – A free, first-come, first-reserved campground with 22 spots.

Backcountry camping is also allowed in Badlands National Park, as long as you are greater than a half-mile from any road or trail and your campsite is not visible from any roads or trails. The National Park Service has a backcountry camping resource page if this sounds interesting.

I’m not really a big camper, so I’m always on the lookout for more permanent structures to stay in. Within Badlands National Park, there is only one hotel to stay at – and again, it’s within the north unit of the park. Cedar Pass Lodge is open seasonally (usually mid/late April to mid/late October) and has a number of accommodation options including cabins and more camping/RV spots. Just outside the park near Interior, South Dakota, you can also stay at the Badlands Inn or Badlands Motel.

Have any other questions about visiting Badlands National Park or spending a day there? Let me know in the comments below! 

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I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.

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