Top 10 Things to Do in Badlands National Park

by Jon D. B.
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Badlands National Park. (Photo credit: Getty Images, Outsider)

Badlands National Park (BADL) is far more welcoming than its name, and boasts some of the best off-trail exploration in the country.

To put it plainly, there’s a lot to see in the Badlands. Families love the Fossil Exhibit Trail, while experienced hikers revel in the park‘s social trail and backcountry camp excursions. But the park’s true gems lie in the middle, like seeing the Yellow Mounds for yourself, spotting Bison in Sage Creek, or driving Badlands Loop Road – all of which are featured in our must-dos within “The Land of Stone and Light.”

And keep in mind for this top 10 that Badlands is an open hike park. This means “off-trail hiking is allowed as long as you explore safely,” the park cites. This isn’t a trail-dominated list as a result. Instead, you’re in for one of the most eclectic national park experiences out there. Let’s get to it!

10. Castle Trail: A Badlands National Park Favorite

The Castle rock formation, Badlands National Park, South Dakota. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).
  • Distance: 10 miles (round trip)
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Terrain: Level walking path

We’re kicking things off with the longest trail in the park – and it is an excellent one. This 5-mile journey takes you through the backcountry of Badlands, with the main destination being the incredible Castle Rock formation. Keep in mind this is not a loop, and it’ll be 5-miles back to your original starting point.

Along the way, you’ll hike through fields of prairie grass, marvel at pinnacles of rock and stone, and inhabit the same terrain as bighorn sheep and pronghorn. And as always in the Badlands, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for rattlesnakes.

This relatively level but long hike has two trailheads that connect via the 5 mile trail. You can do the hike either direction, and will find the trailheads at the Fossil Exhibit Area and the Door and Window parking lot.

9. See Bison in Sage Creek Wilderness Area

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American Bison, buffalo, Badlands National park, South Dakota. (Photo by: Prisma by Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Are you as crazy about wildlife as this Outsider? Sage Creek is for you. Here, you’ll drive along Sage Creek Rim Road which provides an excellent overlook of this Badlands Wilderness Area.

Located in Wall, SD, this is one of the largest areas of preserved mixed-grass prairie left in the United States. And it’s one of the best places for indigenous North American bison to roam as a result. Huge herds of these titans regularly meander the road itself, allowing visitors to get an up-and-personal bison experience. But remember to always stay in your vehicle, and never get out to approach a bison. This is not only illegal, but can cost you your life.

It’s tempting to walk the trails you’ll find in Sage Creek, too, so remember that these are game trails made by the bison themselves. The park allows visitors to walk them, just be cautious and always check for bison over the lands you plan to walk first. Then – enjoy!

8. Ascend the Amazing Saddle Pass Trail

Distance: .25 miles
Difficulty: Strenuous
Terrain: Steep rockface

Saddle Pass is a short excursion, but one you wont’ want to miss. One of the most photographed spots in Badlands National Park is also one of the coolest scrambling experiences, hands down.

Here, you’ll climb up the Badlands Wall itself into a view of the White River Valley. The trail gets its name from the saddle-shaped divot you’ll travel, which makes for a wildly unique climb. And it is a climb, too, as you’ll ascend 300 feet in elevation in a quarter of a mile.

You’ll know you’ve reached Saddle Pass’ end when it connects with the Castle and Medicine Root Loop Trails.

7. Experience Badlands Beauty at Pinnacles Overlook

North America, USA, South Dakota, Badlands National Park, Pinnacles Overlook. (Photo by: Bernard Friel/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Looking for prime Badlands sightseeing? Pinnacles Overlook is the highest elevation in the national park’s North Unit, directly accessible from Loop Road, and one hell of a viewpoint.

Here, sweeping views face South, showcasing why the park is known as the “Land of Stone and Light” as the sun changes the color of the rock formations throughout the day. Be sure to stick around for sunset, too, as this southern-facing lookout makes a perfect sunset destination. The colors are unreal both in the sky and on the geology itself.

On clearer days, you can also catch a glimpse of the nearby, famous Black Hills on the horizon. Below, bison go about their lives in the valley. And come in April or May, and you’re likely to see the lambs of bighorn sheep traversing this very lookout with their parents.

6. Squeak Along with Roberts Prairie Dog Town

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Prairie Dog, Badlands National Park, South Dakota, USA. (Photo by: Sharpshooters/VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Didn’t expect prairie dogs to rank among the “must dos” of the Badlands? Honestly, you’ll regret it if you don’t make Roberts Prairie Dog Town part of your excursion.

“The first thing you will likely notice is the high-pitched squeaks and noises coming from the Prairie dogs,” the park cites. And they’re absolutely right. The raucous nature of these adorable, rotund rodents makes them incredibly charismatic to watch. The park’s overlook of the town provides an excellent viewpoint of the largest prairie dog settlement that is accessible to Badlands visitors, too.

The species’ burrowing and town-building provides habitat for around 200 other species, too, so be sure to look for other Badlands wildlife here.

*Pro Tips: Bring bug spray. The mosquitos can be insane here during the summer. And never approach a prairie dog. It’s against park regulations, but these rodents also carry the plague. So definitely enjoy their cuteness from a safe distance.

5. Experience the Wall at Big Badlands Overlook

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Badlands formations erode at a rate of one inch a year, meaning they only have 500,000 years left! (NPS Photo / Serena Rosales)

You will see mention of The Wall all over Badlands National Park. That’s because this incredible geological formation, the result of an ancient river, dominates the landscape here.

The best place to experience its splendor and true size is the Big Badlands Overlook. Here, you can view the eastern portion of the Badlands Wall as it stretches on for miles. And on clearer days, Eagle Nest Butte is visible rising in the southeast horizon, too.

A key and beautiful feature of the wall is the red striping running through. This is the Brule Formation (Scenic Member; Oligocene Epoch, 33.7-32.0 million years ago). Whereas the darker gray layers near the base of the outcrops are the older Chadron Formation (Peanut Peak Member; Eocene Epoch, 35.0-33.7 million years ago). But descriptions and photos don’t do it justice. This is one geological formation you’ve got to see for yourself.

4. Badlands National Park’s Top Hike: Notch Trail

Distance: 1.5 miles/2.4 km (round trip)
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous
Terrain: Mixed canyon

The most popular hike in the Badlands, Notch Trail features a fantastic log ladder climb and absolutely stunning views. Here, you’ll meander through an impressive canyon, then climb said log ladder to follow the canyon ledge to the Notch. The Notch itself offers “a dramatic view of the White River Valley,” as the park cites.

And there are ample drop-offs here, too. This trail is worth the difficulty, but it is not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights, and can be dangerous during or after heavy rains. The most Badlands injuries take place here, so be sure to practice safe Badlands hiking (more on that here).

To access this fantastic trail, head for the south end of the Door and Window parking area. You can’t miss the signs.

3. Drive Badlands National Park’s Loop Road

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Badlands National Park’s Loop Road is a fantastic scenic drive. (Photo credit: NPS photo, BADL)

Duration: 1-2 hours
Drive: Mostly flat with steep passes

If there’s one road that encompasses everything you’ll wish to see of the Badlands, its the park’s Loop Road. A popular drive for many reasons, Loop Road offers ample overlooks for stunning vistas and a full experience from the comfort of your vehicle.

Also called Badlands Loop Road or SD 240, this is a truly spectacular way to see the North Unit of Badlands National Park. “This two-lane paved road is appropriate for all motor vehicles but does include several steep passes and sections with reduced speed limits. Drive carefully, as wildlife is common along the Loop Road. Please use overlooks and pull-outs to stop for photos — this allows traffic to proceed unimpeded along the Badlands Loop Road,” the park explains.

In addition, The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is located on Loop Road. This is a must-stop center that’ll provide you with information, maps, exhibits, and experiences like the park’s official film and gift shop.

To access Loop Road, head south from Interstate 90 via Exit 110 (Wall) or Exit 131. Or, SD 44 provides an alternate, scenic access to the park and intersects SD 377 in the town of Interior. From Interior, follow SD 377 two miles north to the Interior Entrance and another half mile to Badlands Loop Road (240).

2. See Unreal Colors at Yellow Mounds Overlook

North America, USA, South Dakota, Badlands National Park, Yellow Mounds from Overlook. (Photo by: Bernard Friel/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

By far the most underrated views in the Badlands, Yellow Mounds is out of this world. And to see the most colorful portion of Badlands geology, you’ll want to head for the Yellow Mounds Overlook.

Here, the landscape is dominated by wild yellow, natural purple, ancient gray, and red stripes winding through the Yellow Mounds, the Interior Paleosol, Chadron, and Brule formations respectively (from bottom to top).

North America, USA, South Dakota, Badlands National Park, Yellow Mounds from Overlook. (Photo by: Bernard Friel/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Or, as Badlands Park Ranger Ed Welsh told me in our interview: “There’s lots of things not to miss here. But 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,” he 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,” Welsh reveals. “So you can see everything from the Badlands formations up above to the Yellow Mounds below. As long as you drive through the loop, you are going to see these views. And the pull-offs are there for you to use at all times. We want people to use them!”

1. Badlands Ranger Ed Welsh says Sheep Mountain Table is The ‘Must See’

Sheep Mountain Table is named for the park’s bighorn sheep. (Photo credit: NPS Photo / Serena Rosales)

And then there’s the breathtaking Sheep Mountain Table Outlook. Left out of nearly all lists for the national park, this Badlands wonder is in the lesser-traveled South Unit. It’s less crowded as a result, but still holds the most stunning vista of a Badlands canyon you’ll ever see.

“When people are out there, they get a unique view of where the first European explorers came across the Badlands,” Welsh told me. “When they saw this incredible geographical landscape for the first time, they kind of gave us our name. The Big Badlands, they called it.”

Today when visitors look out from Sheep Mountain Table, Welsh says they’re seeing “the first area these explorers really paid attention to. The first sketches made of the Badlands were of this very location. So when they talked about the Badlands, this is the exact area they were referring to.”

For more ahead of your excursion, be sure to see our Top 10 Things to Know About Badlands National Park alongside the rest of our Badlands National Park: Hidden Gems & Must-Sees from Park Ranger Ed Welsh.

Outsider.com