Badlands National Park in South Dakota is vast and varied. Adventurous travelers can explore backcountry hikes and strenuous terrain. Meanwhile, leisurely tourists can enjoy the sunset or look for wildlife among the colorful buttes and spires.
The park has numerous pet-friendly walks and short, family-oriented hikes so it’s easy to go on an adventure even during the heat of summer.
Accessible boardwalks also make Badlands National Park an easy place to visit for all ages and ability levels.
In this article, we’re going to cover the top 10 things to do in Badlands National Park
What To Do In The Badlands Top 10
- Drive Badlands Loop Road
- Hike The Notch Trail
- Backpack The Castle Trail
- Explore The Fossil Exhibit Trail
- Drive Sage Creek Rim Road
- Camp In The The Deer Haven Wilderness Area
- Photograph The Yellow Mounds
- Hike The Window and Door Trails
- Walk Among The Wildlife In Roberts Prairie Dog Town
- Visit The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
Drive Badlands Loop Road
Stretching 30 miles long, the Badlands Loop Road is one of the most popular things to do in the park. The paved road begins in the town of Wall and follows Highway 240 South through the center of the park.
Badlands Loop Road is the perfect place to start your journey because the route will take you right past some of the most stunning overlooks and scenic vistas around.
It’s common to see wildlife as you drive the loop. Bison and bighorn sheep frequent the area and can be spotted straight from the car.
Numerous boardwalks and short hikes are also located along the roadway so pets and children can enjoy the scenery without getting too worn out.
There are 12 overlooks located along Badlands Loop Road, and if you have the full day we recommend stopping by all of them.
- Big Badlands Overlook
- White River Valley Overlook
- Bigfoot Pass Overlook
- Panorama Point
- Prairie Wind Overlook
- Burns Basin Overlook
- Homestead Overlook
- Conata Basin Overlook
- Yellow Mounds Overlook
- Conata Picnic Area
- Ancient Hunters Overlook
- Pinnacles Overlook
For travelers short on time, the Pinnacles Overlook, Panorama Point, and Yellow Mounds Overlook are three that you can’t miss.
Hike The Notch Trail
The Notch Trail is only 1.5 miles round-trip, but it makes for a fantastic short adventure. The path begins off Badlands Loop Road next to the door/window trailhead.
While children can hike it, the sharp drop-offs and occasional absence of railings require parents to be extra vigilant.
This is a memorable trail in its own right. It starts at the bottom of a dramatic canyon before leading to a long, ascending wooden ladder. Once you’ve reached the top, a cliffside walk awaits before the trail opens up to a breathtaking view of the White River Valley.
The Notch Trail is not for the faint at heart. The brief path along the cliffside is only 5-feet wide and towers over the canyon below.
Fortunately, visitors with a fear of heights can forgo the ladder and continue walking through the base of the canyon until it loops upwards to higher ground.
Backpack The Castle Trail
If you’re looking to avoid the tourists, you’ll have to step off the paved paths and boardwalks. Castle Trail is entirely unpaved, and the longest marked hike in Badlands National Park.
This trail is named after the tall pinnacles that resemble sandcastles which spring up along the route. The footpath extends 5 miles in one direction from the window/door parking lot on Highway 240 to the Fossil Exhibit Trail.
Even though the path is long, it’s also relatively flat which makes for the perfect introductory hike. One of the advantages of the Castle trail is that it interconnects with several other established trails. Hikers can choose to do the complete circuit, or just a few shorter segments.
Castle Trail is a popular route for backpackers. Camping along the path is allowed and if timed correctly, rewards visitors with spectacular views of the milky way.
Explore The Fossil Exhibit Trail
75-million years of history are crammed into a short, 0.25 mile-long hike known as the Fossil Exhibit Trail.
An easy, accessible hike, the Fossil Exhibit Trail winds along accessible boardwalks, making it perfect for hikers of all ages and abilities.
Budding scientists will love the fossil replicas that mark the trail, documenting the extinct species that once populated the area.
In fact, the tactile replicas are one of the most engaging aspects of the trail. They encourage visitors to touch and interact with these historical replicas and even include Braille in the exhibits for partially-sighted Badlands visitors.
Visitors interested in the Fossil Exhibition Trail should also drop by the Fossil Preparation Lab. There, you can explore current projects and find out how fossils are replicated, discovered, and preserved.
Drive Sage Creek Rim Road
No visit to Badlands National Park in South Dakota would be complete without driving around Sage Creek Rim Road. This is another scenic drive located on the north end of the park which intersects with the Badlands Loop.
Sage Creek Rim Road is 25 miles long and well maintained with gravel that is gentle on standard vehicles.
It’s known for its impressive abundance of wildlife which can often be seen from the comfort of your vehicle. Be on the lookout for bison, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs.
In addition to an expansive selection of wildlife, this road is also a fantastic spot for bird-watching. Patient visitors can watch for these frequent fliers across a range of overlook and pull-out locations.
Speaking of overlooks, if you happen to drive this loop make sure to stop by these popular locations:
- Hay Butte Overlook
- Badlands Wilderness Overlook
- Roberts Prairie Dog Town
- Sage Creek Basin Overlook
Adventurous visitors who wish to leave the trails behind can also explore the Sage Creek Wilderness area off-path. The Sage Creek Campground is also located along this road, and one of our favorite places to go camping for free.
Camp In The Deer Haven Wilderness Area
One of the great things about Badlands National Park is that it has an open hike policy. That means nearly every section of the park is available for tourists to explore off-trail.
The Deer Haven Wilderness Area and Sage Creek Wilderness Area are two of the most stunning parts of the park to travel off the standard hiking paths.
Deer Haven is a known grazing area for the local deer population who can comfortably feed without climbing over the nearby mud mounds.
It’s also the perfect place to pitch a tent because of the soft, level ground. Buttes to the north, and prairie to the south make for the perfect backdrop against the starry night sky.
Photograph The Yellow Mounds
Right in the middle of the Badlands lies the Yellow Mounds. These mounds are made of colorful rock layers that create the most vibrant area of the park.
Geology over millions of years have created layers of yellow, purple, gray, and reddish rocks which is a favorite stopping point among photographers.
Hikers are free to wander among the colorful hills themselves, but the best view can be seen from the Yellow Mounds Overlook on Badlands Loop Road.
Keep your cameras ready. While driving to the overlook, it’s common to spot bighorn sheep along the roadside.
Hike The Window And Door Trails
Two of the shortest hikes in the Badlands are the Window and Door Trails. These two paths share a parking lot, and can be completed in 30 minutes or less.
The Window Trail is a quarter-mile long, and leads to a picture perfect view of “The Wall” which is a famous viewpoint filled with pinnacles and spires.
The Door Trail is about three times longer and leads visitors across a boardwalk to a field of fossil beds where you can look up at the towering spires above.
Walk Among The Wildlife In Roberts Prairie Dog Town
Roberts Prairie Dog Town is located along Sage Creek Rim Road. This open field is filled with hundreds of prairie dog colonies that visitors can wander around and watch the animals pop in and out of their burrows.
Prairie dog town is the perfect place to take kids for an entertaining afternoon, or capture pictures of the tiny critters. You’re also likely to find bison and antelope roaming the area as well.
Prairie dogs are most active during the day, especially when the sun is out. So mid-afternoon is the best time to pay them a visit.
Visit The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
In addition to fossils, the National Park Service has preserved two missile silos dating back to the Cold War.
Whether you don’t feel up to hiking, are ambushed by inclement weather, or simply enjoy history, this museum is an excellent diversion.
The missile silos are available for visitors to view up close. While a less obvious thing to do near the Badlands, the museum documents the Launch Control Facilities for missiles Delta-01 and -09.
Visitors interested in visiting Minuteman Missile National Historic Site can find it just outside the Badlands’ east entrance.
The center is crammed full of interesting facts about the history of the Cold War and the American and Soviet missile build-up.
It’s also possible to look into a missile silo, but you’ve got to travel 15 miles northwest on Highway 90. There’s no tour necessary for a closer look at the silo, though tourists hoping to explore the Launch Facility will need to arrange a guided tour.
Other Things To Do In Badlands National Park
Survey The Night Sky
Campers who choose to spend the night in the Badlands will be rewarded with some stunning night skies. The park’s remoteness means there is drastically less light pollution than in the city, which results in the perfect opportunity for stargazing.
On cloudless nights, tourists can spot a multitude of skyscapes from constellations and nebulae to the moon. Lucky visitors may even spot the aurora borealis.
If you haven’t learned your star clusters, don’t worry. Special astronomy scouts and park rangers are on hand to help you.
Using powerful laser pointers, they will guide you through spotting planets, constellations, shooting stars, meteors, the Milky Way, and the International Space Station.
Night Viewing sessions are available throughout the spring, summer, and fall and include an opportunity to use the park’s 11-inch Celestron telescopes.
Watch A Sunrise Or Sunset
Catching a sunrise might necessitate an early-morning hike to an overlook spot, but it’s worth the early start. Photographers describe the sunrises in the Badlands as ‘magical’ and you won’t want to miss the opportunity to watch one break over the horizon.
The colors vary depending on location and are heightened after a rainstorm. The resultant pictures often have a three-dimensional aspect because of the long shadows cast by surrounding geological formations.
If you aren’t up to an early start, the sunsets can be equally stunning. If you time it right, you can watch the sun sink into the horizon from some of the park’s favorite overlooks.
For the best sunrises check out the Big Badlands Overlook, Norbeck Pass, Dillon Pass, and Panorama Point.
Visitors hoping to witness a sunset should make their way towards Pinnacles Overlook, Conata Basin Overlook, Bigfoot Pass area, and Norbeck Pass area.
That’s A Wrap!
Whether you’re traveling solo, with pets, or young children, there’s something for everyone out in Badlands National Park in South Dakota.
The list of what you can do in the Badlands is rich and varied, from gentle walks to strenuous cliffside hikes. The indoor visitor centers and museums guarantee there’s even something to keep you occupied in wet weather.
If you need further persuasion to visit, look no further than the sublime scenery and breath-taking sunrises and sunsets.