Everything You Need to Know About Badlands National Park (Video)
Badlands National Park has diverse wildlife and stunning vistas — here's what you need to know before you visit.
Editor’s Note: Travel might be complicated right now, but use our inspirational trip ideas to plan ahead for your next bucket list adventure.
“I was totally unprepared for that revelation called the Dakota Badlands. What I saw gave me an indescribable sense of mysterious elsewhere.” — Frank Lloyd Wright
Badlands National Park’s striking geologic deposits and mixed-grass prairie lands are spread across 244,000 acres of western South Dakota. The park contains one of the world’s most abundant fossil beds, filled with the remains of ancient mammals — including the famed saber-toothed cat. Today, visitors can find bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and black-footed ferrets amongst the sharply eroded buttes. Even though parts of the park are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, roads, trails, and campgrounds remain open — be sure to check the website if you plan to visit in the coming weeks or months.
The region has long been known for its harsh terrain and weather patterns, which in turn, have created the unearthly beauty that we can marvel at today. The Lakota people called the area “Mako Sica,” and hundreds of years later, French trappers called it “les mauvaises terres pour traverse,” which means "bad lands to travel through." The area has a rich and compelling history, filled with legends, wars, and homesteaders long before 1978, when the land was founded as a national park.
Read on to find everything you need to know about visiting Badlands National Park.
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Planning a Trip to Badlands National Park
The park is open year-round, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The entrance fees are valid for seven days (so you only have to pay once to experience the park for a week), and they range from $15 for an individual to $30 for a private vehicle. 80% of all fees collected at Badlands National Park are put back into the park to improve infrastructure and make the park more accessible to those with disabilities, among other initiatives. There are two visitor centers in the park: the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and White River Visitor Center. The park is located 75 miles east of Rapid City, South Dakota, and you can get there by car via Interstate 90.
The Best Time to Visit Badlands National Park
June is when the park is the greenest, lushest, and most vibrant — plus, there will be new wildlife as most mammals and birds tend to have their young in the spring. If you are keen on avoiding the crowds, September is your month. The area will have mild weather and the vistas will still be beautiful.
Things to Do at Badlands National Park
There is a range of recreational activities available in the park. Hiking, backcountry camping, and cycling are among the most popular activities. Some of the best hikes in Badlands National Park include the 1.5-mile Notch Trail, the 10-mile Castle Trail, or the Fossil Exhibit Trail. The Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway is a nice way for visitors to easily experience all of the park's acreage from their cars. Come July, the park hosts an annual three-day astronomy festival that brings space scientists, amateur astronomers, and youth groups together to learn about the night sky — this year it’s July 10 - July 12, 2020.
Where to Stay at Badlands National Park
Cedar Pass Campground and Sage Creek Campground are the two campgrounds in the park, but visitors can also opt for backcountry camping. Those wishing for something a little more comfortable can stay at the Cedar Pass Lodge — which is right in the middle of the Badlands — or at Frontier Cabins, located just outside of the park grounds.