Badlands National Park, located in Interior South Dakota, is the location of the world’s largest fossil beds. The 244,000 acre park is home to sedimentary rock layers deposited over 70 million years ago, as well as mixed grass prairie where bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and ferrets live. There are over 60 species of grass throughout the prairies inside the park. Named by the early French trappers and the Lakota Native American tribe that founded the area, the Badlands are known for extremes: extreme weather, extreme vastness of the plains, and extreme fossil beds. Learn more about the formation of the Badlands Buttes here.
Badlands became a National Monument in 1939 and then a National Park in 1978; the southern half of the park is located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and is co-managed with the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Over one million people visit Badlands National Park each year.
Transportation and Parking Tips: A majority of the park is easily accessible via the Badlands Loop Road and Sage Creek Rim Road- see #1 on the list below. There are over two dozen pull off areas and parking lots near many major trail heads. More information on parking here and here.
Restrooms: Full restrooms are located inside both Visitor Centers. Vault bathrooms (no running water) are located near major trailheads.
The Visitor Center: The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is open 362 days a year and the White River Visitor Center is open only during the summer. Both locations have park rangers on site, indoor restroom facilities and water stations, and small exhibits about the park. Make sure kids grab a Junior Ranger booklet to earn a badge and stamp your National Parks Passport book. The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is located in the North Unit of the park, next to the Cedar Pass Lodge, and features indoor exhibits, a gift shop, and the Fossil Prep Lab. The White River Visitor Center is located in the South Unit of the park and is staffed by rangers during popular summer months.
Dining and Lodging at Badlands: The only option for dining and lodging inside the park is the Cedar Pass Lodge, located 12 miles from the Northeast entrance to the park and open from mid April through November 1st. There are 26 climate controlled cabins include many modern amenities and a porch with deck chairs. The Cedar Pass Restaurant is open seasonally, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The Lodge also includes a large gift shop and convenience store selling gifts made by local artists and camping supplies. The Cedar Pass RV Park and Campground has almost 100 sites available year round with electric hookups and full restrooms. More information on lodging reservations here.
7 Ways to Explore Badlands Besides Hiking:
1. Drive the Badlands Loop Road (HWY 240), a 27 mile paved road through the park. Visitors are likely to spot bison, pronghorns, coyotes, or bighorn sheep, who most likely come out during dawn and dusk. There are a dozen pull off spots with great views- see the full list here. Sage Creek Rim Road is also a popular route to spot wildlife. It does meet up with Badlands Loop Road and has half a dozen pull offs and amazing views. Find more information here. Both roads take between 60 and 90 minutes to complete.
2. Complete the Door and Window Boardwalks. They’re not really hikes, although you can turn them into hikes by going out further into the Badlands. The Door Trail is less than a mile and is on a wooden boardwalk with wonderful views and some signage. There are a couple of benches at one of the viewing points. The Windows Trail is only a quarter of a mile and very flat. You can go past the trail and into the Badlands, which is much more uneven. Look for the yellow markers. Both trails are accessible by a long parking lot and there are vault restrooms (no running water).
3. Explore the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. When we visited in the summer of 2021, the auditorium was under construction, but we were able to explore the indoor exhibits featuring background on prairies (the Badlands are the largest expanse of mixed grass prairies in the National Park system) and prairie dogs. There is also a bookstore, gift shop, Fossil Prep Lab, and restroom facilities.
4. Learn all about fossils at the Fossil Prep Lab inside the Center. Watch a paleontologist up close and on the microscope feed and learn about how fossils are discovered, cleaned, and preserved. Park ranger and paleontologists offer daily programs and lectures. Note: The lab is usually open from mid June through mid September.
5. Attend a ranger program or nighttime star program. Held at the amphitheater at the Cedar Pass Campground each evening in the peak summer season (Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend), guests can borrow a telescope from the park rangers, who will point out various stars, constellations, and planets. The time changes each day so check in at the Visitor Center for up to date information.
6. Look for prairie dog towns, located throughout the park. The most popular spot is Roberts Prairie Dog Town, five miles west of the Pinnacles entrance to the park. Listen carefully for the high pitched squeaks coming from the prairie dogs, but do not get too close- flees that surround the prairie dogs will attack you!
7. Stay at Cedar Pass Lodge, inside the park. Options include modern cabins with many amenities or camp sites with covered picnic tables. The amphitheater and campground are within walking distance to the Lodge. The full service restaurant of the Lodge is adjacent to the Gift Shop, which also sells supplies and snacks.
Bonus: Check out the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, less than 15 minutes from the Northeast Entrance to Badlands. Guided tours of the Delta 01- Launch Control Facility book up quickly, so make a reservation early!
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