Badlands National Park in South Dakota: Everything You Need to Know to Plan Your Trip

by Jon D. B.

From must-sees and hidden gems from park ranger Ed Welsh to camping, wildlife, and safety, Outsider has your Badlands National Park excursion covered.

Want to drive out into otherworldly terrain, explore ancient, rich fossil beds, or scramble some of the most rugged lands of any national park? The incredible 244,000 acres of Badlands National Park house all of the above courtesy of South Dakota’s unique topography. And it’s a place worthy of the top of any Outsider’s bucket list.

Each facet of Badlands National Park, however, warrants the utmost caution, safety, and preparation. In kind, Outsider has you covered for the ultimate trip to the “Land of Stone and Light.” In our comprehensive guide you’ll find:

  • Crucial Safety: Clothing, Gear, and heat safety
  • Must-Sees & Hidden Gems: Favorites from Badlands Ranger Ed Welsh & Outsider
  • Wildlife of the Badlands: Iconic species and where to see them
  • Camping & Lodging for Badlands National Park

And as always, it’s safety first.

Crucial Safety: The Right Clothing, Gear, and Heat Knowledge for Badlands National Park

In the Badlands, adventurers scramble some of the most fascinating geological structures on the planet. And according to park officials, there’s one mistake made constantly by visitors that can save you a world of hurt.

Close-Toed Footwear Is Imperative for Badlands National Park Safety

Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park, South Dakota, USA, on June 17, 2020. (Photo by Karla Ann Cote/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
  • Do not wear sandals or open-toed footwear of any kind! THAT is where you’re going (above)
    • The most common park injuries result from falls, mostly due to inappropriate footwear
  • Closed-toed shoes or boots are essential for hiking and exploring the badlands environment
    • “Closed-toed shoes prevent injuries from cactus spines, found throughout the park, or an accidental step on a prairie rattlesnake,” the park cites

Remember: Sharp, rugged, and unstable rocks are a staple of the badlands. Always watch for cracks and crevices, and be aware of your surroundings at all times.

Recreate Responsibly: The Right Gear to Beat the Heat

In the Badlands, summer is not only busy, but exceptionally hot and dry. Temperatures often exceed 100° Fahrenheit, so preparation with the right gear is imperative and can save your life.

Firstly, familiarize yourself with the signs of dehydration, heat exhaustion, and sunstroke here. To help combat this deadly condition, Badlands National Park recommends you bring the following gear:

  • Container(s) capable of providing 1 gallon of water per day for each individual
  • Sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher
  • Long sleeves and pants
  • Wide-brimmed hat

Additionally, always check the weather before your Badlands excursion. For more on this and crucial cellphone tips for the park, see our full Badlands National Park safety guide here.

Wildlife of Badlands National Park: Rattlesnake Safety

Get ready to roam alongside bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs and rattlesnakes, and black-footed ferrets. But as always, wildlife safety and knowledge is imperative to cohabitate in any national park.

Young Prairie Rattlesnake. (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Up first is our friend the prairie rattlesnake. Like all rattlesnakes, the species is venomous, and their bite can result in severe illness, injury, or even death. Prairie rattlers are plentiful in Badlands, so to help minimize your chance of an encounter, park officials offer the following:

  • Prairie rattlesnakes typically hide during the day but seek shade under boardwalks, stairs, and tall grasses
  • Do not place your hands and feet in areas you cannot see, such as crevices and overhangs
  • Listen for their warning rattle and back away from their location slowly
  • At night, rattlesnakes warm themselves on paved roads

If you or a companion is bitten by a rattlesnake, the USDA’s breakdown of what to do and not do lists imperative knowledge. Know before you go!

Iconic Species of the Badlands & Where to See Them

If you’re interested in wildlife specifically, Badlands National Park has a lot to offer. But remember, regardless of species, Badlands NPS safety regulations require visitors to keep a 100-foot distance from park wildlife, especially bison, at all times.

Bighorn sheep and North American bison in Badlands National Park. Photo credit: Getty Images, Outsider

Many other keystone species roam the Badlands, but are less commonplace. These include:

  • Pronghorn, which is not an antelope, but rather the last existing antilocapridae mammal in the world
  • Golden eagles, the largest eagle species found North America
  • Black-footed ferrets, an endangered species the park fights to protect
  • If birding is your fancyover 206 species of birds are among Badlands National Park wildlife

For much more on each species, see our full Badlands National Park Wildlife: Where to See Iconic Animal Species in the Park & Key Wildlife Safety.

Ranger Ed Welsh’s Must-Sees & Hidden Gems of Badlands National Park

For our National Parks Journal, I sat down to chat with Badlands Ranger Ed Welsh from across the continent via a fantastic phone interview, and we’re passing along Ranger Ed’s excellent hidden gems and “can’t miss” sights of the Badlands right here.

  • Badlands National Park’s Must-See: Sheep Mountain Table
    • “Sheep Mountain Table is a known outlook point in our south unit. When people are out there, they get a unique view of where the first European explorers came across the Badlands. When they saw this incredible geographical landscape for the first time, they kind of gave us our name. The Big Badlands, they called it,” Welsh offers of his main “must-see.”
  • Badlands Hidden Gem: Pull-off Viewpoints Between Yellow Mounds and Ancient Hunters Overlooks
    •  “As far as views go, I have a favorite view that’s between Yellow Mounds Overlook and Ancient Hunters Overlook as you’re driving west on the loop road. But if you’re driving from Ancient Hunters going down hill, there’s some big shoulder pull-offs once you get into the northern part of Yellow Mounds,” Ed pinpoints.
    • “What’s neat about this area is that it’s the only place in Badlands National Park where all of the layers are exposed, so you can see everything from the Badlands formations up above to the Yellow Mounds below.”
  • Also Don’t Miss: “Our Fossil Preparation Lab in the visitor’s center”
    • “In the summer, we have fossils that come in from the field. They need work done before we can study them, or before they can go on display,” Welsh explains. “Here, the public is allowed to go into our prep labs and go to every workstation. You can see, personally, every fossil that is being worked on and learn what you can about it right then and there.”

For much more from Ranger Ed on things you can’t miss in the park, see our full Badlands National Park: Hidden Gems & Must-Sees from Park Ranger Ed Welsh.

Badlands National Park Lodging: Campgrounds, Cabins, Securing Reservations & More

The Milky Way is one of the common sights in a Badlands night sky. Badlands, NPS Photo

There’s no bad place to stake your tent within Badlands National Park. Naturally, the landscape has plenty of flat areas and impeccable views of the geological structures. The formations contain a range of sandstones, siltstones, mudstones, claystones, limestones, volcanic ash, and shale. All of these materials have created the incredible structures that over a million visitors come to see every year.

And at night, you might even need a sleeping mask. Once the sun sets, countless stars light up the sky to the point where you may even shut off your headlamps and lanterns. After finishing the day’s hikes, you’ll hurry back to your campsite just so that you don’t miss a second of the nighttime magic. – Amy Myers

Amy does a tremendous job of breaking down the need-to-know details for anyone looking to set up camp or lodge in Badlands National Park. For the full details, head on over to her Badlands National Park Lodging: Campgrounds, Cabins, Securing Reservations in Cedar Pass, Sage Creek and More next.

And for the best views, hikes, and more, be sure to check out Outsider’s Amy’s fantastic Badlands National Park Must-Sees: Hikes, Views, and Landmarks, from Cliff Shelf to Big Badlands Overlook, too.

Happy trails, Outsiders!