Best Things to Do in Badlands National Park: 12 Essential Places to Visit

by Jen
Best Things to Do in Badlands National Park
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Are you planning to visit the Badlands National Park soon? Here are some of the most fun and unique things to do in Badlands National Park. These otherworldly sights, activities, and attractions are sure to make for an unforgettable vacation experience.

The vast American Midwest holds many secrets, but none quite as breathtaking as Badlands National Park. This sprawling expanse in South Dakota is a mesmerizing blend of rugged landscapes, dramatic canyons, and layered rock formations that tell tales of ancient seas and epochs gone by. As you drive through the park, every turn reveals a new vista, each more stunning than the last. This makes it a dream destination for photographers and nature enthusiasts alike. As far as things to do in Badlands National Park go, there’s countless activities that can make your vacation truly memorable.

More than Badlands landscapes, it’s a place where history, geology, and the sheer power of nature converge. Imagine walking on grounds where ancient mammals once roamed, or gazing up at the night sky, witnessing the same celestial wonders that have captivated humans for millennia. It’s no wonder that this national park, with its raw beauty and deep-rooted history, has become a bucket-list destination for travelers from around the globe.

Whether you’re an adrenaline junkie looking for your next adventure or a family seeking a memorable vacation, Badlands National Park promises an experience unlike any other. Here’s everything you need to know about these fun things to do in Badlands National Park.

The top places to visit in Badlands National Park right now
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Best Places to Visit in Badlands National Park

Ready to jump into all the coolest things to do in Badlands National Park? As noted above, there’s something for everyone at this epic vacation spot. So keep reading to discover all these unique Badlands National Park places to visit.

Are you looking for a hike among dramatic rock formations and discover fossil-rich terrain? Or would you prefer witnessing breathtaking scenic vistas? Whatever you’re planning, these must-sees in Badlands National Park can accommodate your needs. Here’s all the best attractions in Badlands National Park that you should know about.

1. Door Trail

One of the coolest things to do in Badlands National Park is setting foot on the Door Trail. This isn’t just any trail; it’s a gateway to the park’s mesmerizing landscapes. As you embark on this 0.75-mile round trip journey, a boardwalk beckons, guiding you to a natural “door” in the Badlands Wall.

Pause here, and let your eyes feast on the sprawling vistas of rugged canyons, jagged spires, and vast plateaus. It feels like stepping into a land lost in time, sculpted meticulously by nature’s hand over eons. The trail’s accessibility makes it a favorite among families and individuals alike.

And for those with a penchant for photography? The golden embrace of dawn or the fiery hues of dusk on this trail are nothing short of magical. So, if you’re wondering what to do in Badlands National Park first, let the Door Trail be your introduction. It’s not just a path; it’s an experience, promising a taste of the grandeur that the park holds.

Exploring Door Trail is one of the best things to do in Badlands National Park.
Explore Badlands National Park’s allure on the Door Trail, a 0.75-mile journey to a natural “door.”

2. Notch Trail

If you’re on the hunt for Badlands National Park attractions, the Notch Trail should be high on your list. Starting at the Door and Window parking area, this trail is a moderate 1.5-mile round trip that promises an adventure like no other. As you navigate log ladders and wind through a beautiful canyon, the path eventually leads to a “notch” that offers a breathtaking view of the White River Valley.

Now, imagine standing there, the wind gently tousling your hair, as you gaze upon the vast expanse of the Badlands. It’s moments like these that make you realize why this park is a must-see in Badlands National Park. The dramatic landscapes, the play of shadows on the rugged formations, and the sheer vastness of it all is a sight to behold.

For those with a spirit of adventure and a love for the outdoors, the Notch Trail is a dream come true. And if you’re looking to capture some Instagram-worthy shots, this is the place to be. So, lace up those hiking boots and get ready for an experience that’ll stay with you long after you’ve left the park.

Embrace the adventure and the outdoors on the Notch Trail—an Instagram-worthy dream for hikers.
Embrace the adventure and the outdoors on the Notch Trail—an Instagram-worthy dream for hikers.

3. Window Trail

When considering the best places to go in Badlands National Park, the Window Trail is a gem that often tops the list. This short, quarter-mile trail offers visitors an intimate glimpse into the heart of the Badlands. As you walk, you’ll find yourself surrounded by rugged rock formations, each telling a story of time and erosion.

The trail’s name, “Window,” is derived from the natural window it carves into the Badlands Wall. Standing there, you’re presented with a framed view of an eroded canyon and the vast landscapes beyond. It’s a sight that captures the essence of the things to do in Badlands National Park: immerse yourself in nature’s grandeur.

For those who might not be avid hikers or are traveling with young ones, the Window Trail is perfect. It’s accessible, not too strenuous, and offers a rewarding view in a short span of time. Plus, if you’re an early bird, catching the sunrise through the “window” is a magical experience that shouldn’t be missed.

Discover Window Trail, a short, quarter-mile path offering an intimate glimpse into rugged rock formations and the park's heart.
Discover Window Trail, a short, quarter-mile path offering an intimate glimpse into rugged rock formations and the park’s heart.

4. Panorama Point

Panorama Point is one of those cool destinations in Badlands National Park that you simply can’t miss. As the name suggests, this spot offers a panoramic view of the park’s sprawling landscapes, and it’s a visual treat for anyone who visits. From here, the vast expanse of the Badlands stretches out before you, with its layered rock formations, deep canyons, and striking spires.

It’s a place that truly encapsulates the unique things to do in Badlands National Park. While it’s not a trail or a strenuous activity, the sheer beauty of the view is an adventure in itself. Photographers, in particular, will find this spot a haven, especially during the golden hours of sunrise and sunset.

Visitors often find themselves lost in thought here, reflecting on the sheer magnitude and beauty of nature. It’s a reminder of the wonders our planet holds and the importance of preserving such pristine landscapes. So, if you’re pondering where to visit in Badlands National Park, make sure Panorama Point is high on your list. It’s a serene experience that will stay with you long after your trip ends.

Don't miss Panorama Point, showcasing a panoramic view of layered rock formations, deep canyons, and striking spires.
Don’t miss Panorama Point, showcasing a panoramic view of layered rock formations, deep canyons, and striking spires.

5. Fossil Exhibit Trail

For those intrigued by ancient history and the mysteries of evolution, the Fossil Exhibit Trail is a must-see in Badlands National Park. This easy boardwalk trail, spanning just a quarter of a mile, offers a fascinating glimpse into the park’s rich paleontological past.

As you stroll along, you’ll encounter informative displays showcasing replicas of some of the most iconic fossils unearthed from the Badlands. From ancient horses to creatures that once roamed the seas, the variety is astounding. It’s a vivid reminder of the ever-changing nature of our planet and the species that have called it home.

This trail is perfect for families, especially those with curious kids. It’s not just a walk; it’s an educational journey back in time. And the best part? The views! Even as you delve into the ancient past, the present-day beauty of the Badlands surrounds you, offering a stunning contrast.

So, if you’re wondering about unique things to do in Badlands National Park that combines both learning and breathtaking scenery, the Fossil Exhibit Trail is a top pick. Dive deep into history while soaking in the present – it’s an experience like no other.

Exploring Fossil Exhibit Trail is one of the best things to do in Badlands National Park.
Explore Fossil Exhibit Trail, an easy quarter-mile boardwalk revealing ancient history and evolution mysteries.

6. Cedar Pass Campground

Imagine a night sky so clear and vivid that the Milky Way paints a luminous streak across the heavens. Badlands National Park places to visit aren’t just about the daytime wonders; the nighttime spectacle at Cedar Pass Campground is equally mesmerizing. As one of the designated International Dark Sky Parks, Badlands offers an unparalleled stargazing experience.

Cedar Pass Campground is the perfect base to set up your tent and gaze upwards. As dusk settles, the vast South Dakota skies come alive with a myriad of stars, planets, and meteor showers. For those with a penchant for astronomy, this is a dream come true. And even if you’re a novice, the sheer beauty of the cosmos will leave you in awe.

Join ranger-led night sky programs to enhance your understanding and appreciation of the celestial wonders. Learn about constellations, the stories behind them, and even catch a glimpse of distant galaxies through telescopes. It’s not just about looking up; it’s about connecting with the universe.

So, if you’re pondering over the coolest activities in Badlands National Park, spending a night under its starlit canopy at Cedar Pass Campground should be high on your list.

Discover Cedar Pass Campground, an International Dark Sky Park for unparalleled stargazing.
Discover Cedar Pass Campground, an International Dark Sky Park for unparalleled stargazing.

7. Sage Creek Wilderness Area

In the heart of Badlands National Park, there’s a vast expanse where nature reigns supreme: the Sage Creek Wilderness Area. This untouched landscape is a testament to the raw, wild beauty of South Dakota. If you’re wondering about the coolest things to do in Badlands National Park for an authentic wilderness experience, this is your answer.

The rolling prairies of Sage Creek are dotted with bison, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep, making it a haven for wildlife enthusiasts. As you hike through its trails, every turn offers a new vista, a fresh perspective. The land here tells a story, one of resilience and natural wonder.

Camping in the backcountry of Sage Creek is an experience in itself. Away from the hustle and bustle, it’s just you, the vast open skies, and the gentle hum of nature. As night falls, the sounds of coyotes and owls serenade you, making it a truly immersive wilderness experience.

For those seeking solitude and a deeper connection with nature, Sage Creek Wilderness Area is a must-visit. It’s one of those Badlands National Park attraction that offers a genuine escape and a chance to reconnect with the great outdoors.

Discover raw wilderness at the Sage Creek Wilderness Area, showcasing South Dakota's untamed beauty.
Discover raw wilderness at the Sage Creek Wilderness Area, showcasing South Dakota’s untamed beauty.

8. Big Badlands Overlook

As you enter Badlands National Park, one of the first breathtaking sights that greet you is the Big Badlands Overlook. It’s a testament to the park’s dramatic landscapes, offering panoramic views that stretch as far as the eye can see. If you’re pondering where to visit in Badlands National Park for that iconic shot, this overlook is a top contender.

The layers of rock formations, carved by millions of years of erosion, paint a vivid picture of the Earth’s history. As the sun sets, the sky erupts in a riot of colors, casting a golden hue over the rugged terrain. It’s a sight that photographers and nature lovers dream of, and it’s right here waiting for you.

For those who love to sketch or journal, the Big Badlands Overlook provides ample inspiration. The sheer vastness of the landscape, combined with the play of light and shadow, is a visual treat. It’s one of those cool destinations in Badlands National Park that you’ll find yourself returning to, just to soak in the beauty once more.

In essence, the Big Badlands Overlook is more than just a viewpoint; it’s a place of reflection, wonder, and awe.

The Big Badlands Overlook welcomes you with panoramic vistas, epitomizing the park's dramatic beauty.
The Big Badlands Overlook welcomes you with panoramic vistas, epitomizing the park’s dramatic beauty.

9. Castle Trail

The longest trail in Badlands National Park, Castle Trail, offers an immersive experience that’s hard to match. For those wondering about the coolest things to do in Badlands National Park, this 10-mile round-trip hike is a must. It’s not just about the distance; it’s about the journey and the stories the landscape whispers to those who tread its path.

Starting from the Door and Window parking area, the trail meanders through a mix of prairies and badlands, giving hikers a comprehensive view of the park’s diverse ecosystems. Along the way, you’ll encounter peculiar rock formations, reminiscent of ancient castles standing tall against the test of time. These natural sculptures, shaped by eons of erosion, are a testament to nature’s artistry.

Wildlife enthusiasts will be thrilled with the possibility of spotting bison, bighorn sheep, and even the elusive black-footed ferret. The open grasslands are a playground for these creatures, and if you’re lucky, you might just witness some of nature’s most candid moments.

For those who love to capture the essence of their travels, Castle Trail offers countless photographic opportunities. It’s one of those unique places in Badlands National Park where every turn surprises you, making your hike an adventure of discovery.

Embark on the immersive 10-mile Castle Trail, a must-do for those seeking a captivating journey.
Embark on the immersive 10-mile Castle Trail, a must-do for those seeking a captivating journey.

10. Ben Reifel Visitor Center

When considering where to visit in Badlands National Park, the Ben Reifel Visitor Center is an essential stop. It’s not just a place to grab a map or use the restroom; it’s a hub of knowledge, brimming with fascinating exhibits and interactive displays that delve deep into the park’s geology, paleontology, and cultural history.

As you step inside, you’ll be greeted by friendly park rangers eager to share their expertise. They can provide insights, recommend trails, and even share some lesser-known secrets of the park. The center’s theater showcases a captivating film that offers a sweeping overview of the Badlands, making it a perfect introduction for first-time visitors.

For families with kids, the Junior Ranger program is a hit. Children get the chance to engage in educational activities, and upon completion, they’re sworn in as Junior Rangers, complete with a badge!

Outside, the grounds of the visitor center offer panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. It’s one of those cool destinations in Badlands National Park where you can sit, relax, and soak in the beauty, especially during sunrise or sunset.

Ben Reifel Visitor Center is a knowledge hub with captivating exhibits, offering insights into the park's geology, paleontology, and cultural history.
Ben Reifel Visitor Center is a knowledge hub with captivating exhibits, offering insights into the park’s geology, paleontology, and cultural history.

11. Saddle Pass Trail

For those wondering about the coolest activities in Badlands National Park, the Saddle Pass Trail is a must-try. This short yet steep trail promises an adrenaline-pumping experience for every hiker. Starting at the base of the Badlands Wall, it quickly ascends, offering a challenging climb that’s well worth the effort.

As you make your way up, the panoramic views of the White River Valley will leave you in awe. Among the many things to do in Badlands National Park, the trail might be less than a mile, but the memories you’ll make here will last a lifetime. It’s a testament to the park’s diverse range of experiences, catering to both casual visitors and seasoned adventurers.

Once you reach the top, take a moment to catch your breath and marvel at the vast expanse of the Badlands stretching out before you. It’s one of those unique places in Badlands National Park where the sheer beauty of nature truly comes to the fore.

For those looking to extend their adventure, the Saddle Pass Trail connects to other trails, allowing for longer hikes and even more breathtaking views. Just remember to wear sturdy shoes and bring plenty of water!

Experience an adrenaline-packed hike on the Saddle Pass Trail, offering steep ascents and rewarding vistas.
Experience an adrenaline-packed hike on the Saddle Pass Trail, offering steep ascents and rewarding vistas.

12. Yellow Mounds Overlook

Yellow Mounds Overlook is one of those unique places in Badlands National Park that you simply can’t miss. As you approach, the vibrant hues of yellow, red, and orange paint a mesmerizing picture against the backdrop of the vast South Dakota sky. It’s a testament to the geological wonders and history of the park, showcasing ancient sea beds and sediment layers.

The overlook offers a serene spot to pause, reflect, and soak in the beauty of nature. The mounds’ colors change throughout the day, with the golden hour casting a magical glow that photographers dream of. It’s a must-see in Badlands National Park, especially for those with a penchant for landscapes that tell tales of time gone by.

Beyond its visual appeal, the area provides insights into the park’s rich paleontological past. The layers reveal millions of years of Earth’s history, making it a favorite spot for geology enthusiasts. As you stand there, it’s hard not to feel a deep connection to the world around you, realizing the ever-evolving nature of our planet.

So, if you’re wondering where to go in Badlands National Park next, let the allure of Yellow Mounds Overlook guide your way.

Exploring Yellow Mounds Overlook is one of the best things to do in Badlands National Park.
Don’t miss the vibrant Yellow Mounds Overlook, showcasing colorful history against the expansive South Dakota sky.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about the Best Things to Do in Badlands National Park

Looking for more content on the top things to do in Badlands National Park? Here are some popular questions (and answers) I get that will help you plan your trip to Badlands National Park:

How much time do I need to explore Badlands National Park?

Typically, a day or two is sufficient to see the main attractions. However, if you’re keen on hiking multiple trails and truly immersing yourself in the park’s beauty, consider extending your stay.

Is it safe to hike alone in Badlands National Park?

While many trails are well-marked and frequented by visitors, it’s always a good idea to inform someone of your plans, stay on designated paths, and carry essential supplies, including water and a map.

When is the best time to visit Badlands National Park?

Spring and fall offer milder temperatures, making them ideal for outdoor activities. Summer can be hot, but it’s also the peak season with ranger-led programs and events.

What to do with 1 day at Badlands?

With just one day at Badlands National Park, you’ll want to make the most of your time to experience some of the park’s highlights. Here’s a suggested itinerary for a one-day visit:

  1. Start Early: Arrive early to catch the sunrise, which can be breathtaking over the rugged terrain.
  2. Drive the Badlands Loop Road: This scenic drive offers numerous overlooks and viewpoints where you can stop and take in the stunning landscapes. Key stops might include the Door Trail, Window Trail, and Pinnacles Overlook.
  3. Take a Short Hike: Depending on your interest and fitness level, consider hiking one or two of the shorter trails. The Notch Trail and the Castle Trail are popular options, providing different perspectives of the Badlands’ unique geology.
  4. Visit the Ben Reifel Visitor Center: Stop by the visitor center to learn about the park’s geology, history, and wildlife. Rangers can provide information on current conditions and recommendations for your visit.
  5. Picnic Lunch: Pack a lunch and enjoy a picnic at one of the designated picnic areas, taking in the views.
  6. Wildlife Watching: Keep an eye out for wildlife such as bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and various bird species. The Sage Creek Rim Road is a good area for wildlife spotting.
  7. Photography: The changing light throughout the day offers excellent photography opportunities, especially during the golden hours of sunrise and sunset.
  8. Catch the Sunset: End your day by finding a scenic spot to watch the sunset. The colors reflecting off the Badlands’ formations can be spectacular.

Are there any camping facilities in Badlands National Park?

Yes, the park offers two campgrounds: Cedar Pass Campground and Sage Creek Campground. It’s advisable to book in advance, especially during peak seasons.

Cedar Pass Campground offers diverse camping facilities that blend convenience with natural immersion.
Cedar Pass Campground offers diverse camping facilities that blend convenience with natural immersion.

What is special about Badlands National Park?

Badlands National Park boasts a unique landscape of layered rock formations, deep canyons, and towering spires, making it a geological wonder. Additionally, the park is home to a rich fossil bed, offering a glimpse into the ancient ecosystems and creatures that once roamed the area.

Is it worth visiting Badlands National Park?

Absolutely! Badlands National Park offers visitors a mesmerizing blend of natural beauty, from its striking geological formations to its vast prairies, making it a must-visit for nature enthusiasts and history buffs alike.

How many days do you need at Badlands National Park?

The number of days you’ll need to explore Badlands National Park in South Dakota depends on your interests and the activities you want to pursue. Here’s a general guide:

  • 1 Day: If you’re short on time, a single day allows you to drive the Badlands Loop Road, make several scenic stops, and take a short hike or two. You can see some of the park’s most iconic landscapes and formations.
  • 2-3 Days: A 2-3 day visit provides a more immersive experience. You can explore various hiking trails, ranging from easy to challenging, visit the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, and take part in ranger-led programs. You’ll also have time to enjoy sunrise and sunset views, which can be particularly stunning in the Badlands.
  • 4-5 Days: With a longer stay, you can explore the park more thoroughly, including the less-visited areas of the park. You might also venture into the nearby Black Hills, visit Mount Rushmore, or explore other attractions in the region.
  • Camping: If you’re interested in camping, spending a night or more in the park allows you to experience the Badlands’ unique nighttime environment, including stargazing opportunities.

Your ideal itinerary will depend on your interests in hiking, wildlife watching, photography, and other outdoor activities. The Badlands offer a unique and dramatic landscape that can be explored in various ways, whether you’re looking for a quick overview or a deeper exploration of the park’s geology, ecology, and history.

Closing Thoughts on Exploring Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park is a treasure trove of geological wonders, scenic vistas, and trails that beckon adventurers of all kinds. From the rugged beauty of its landscapes to the rich tapestry of its history, the park offers a unique blend of nature and culture that’s hard to find elsewhere. Whether you’re a seasoned hiker, a photography enthusiast, or someone simply looking to escape the hustle and bustle of daily life, Badlands promises an experience that will linger in your memories long after you’ve left its boundaries. So pack your bags, lace up your hiking boots, and set out on an adventure that promises to be as enriching as it is exhilarating. Badlands National Park awaits!

The top things to do in Badlands National Park for all types of travelers
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