If you’re visiting Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, you may be wondering whether nearby Badlands National Park is worth visiting.
People rarely travel to South Dakota just for the Badlands, but it’s worth spending a full day exploring the park by doing the scenic drive, a few hikes or short walks, and eating in the visitor center. The unusual rock formations and the potential for solitude make this park unique. It makes for a nice camping spot as well!
With over 244,000 acres of beauty, the Badland’s diverse landscapes and nature highlight some of the most scenic views smack dab in the middle of the prairie. Bison, prairie dogs, mountain goats, and more roam these lands as well as many geologic formations that house one of the world’s richest fossil beds.
Though I’ve visited the Badlands multiple times, I finally had the chance recently to get out and actually explore more of the unique grounds and hike some of the more famous trails. Stick with me and I’ll share my firsthand experience and opinions of this notable park.
- Before planning your trip to Mount Rushmore read When Is The Best Time To Visit Mount Rushmore? and How Much Time Do You Need At Mount Rushmore?
The fee as of 2023 is $30 to enter the park. This pass is good for up to 7 days.
Things to Do in the Badlands
Drive Scenic Drives
The most popular thing to do in the Badlands is follow the scenic road around the park. Don’t forget to stop and get out of your car often.
There is one main road that travels through the park and the nice thing about it is that it connects to I-80 on each side. This means you can easily visit the park as a detour off the freeway and connect back up with the freeway on the other side.
There are more overlooks and areas to stop, park, and observe the diverse views throughout the entire park. Have your camera and some binoculars for this!
You may stumble across many different wildlife species as you drive through the park. Bison, prairie dogs, sheep, goats, ferrets, and birds. Beware of rattlesnakes!
Don’t do what I did and forget to bring your binoculars! If you want to spot some of the more elusive animals or get a close-up view then don’t forget to pack them.
Hiking is a popular activity in the park and there are many designated trails along the scenic drive. You can grab a park map that shows hiking trails at the entrance with your park guide and receipt.
Recently, I did the Notch Trail because it’s one of the most popular hikes. I’ve seen dozens of pictures of the wooden ladder on the trail. It was quite startling to climb this, but also really cool. What an adventure! But I would not recommend taking small children. There are several cliff areas and the ladder itself is quite a feat. This trail ends with a stunning view of the valley before heading back. It is a 1.5-mile round trip and is said to take 1.5-2 hours, but we did it in 30 minutes.
Trails in the badlands can range from .25 miles to the longest, the Castle Trail, being 10 miles round trip. This trail is rated as moderate. Most of the trails are not too strenuous, but with the summer sun and heat, and no shade being a factor, make sure to bring plenty of water on any hike you plan to do, no matter how short it may be.
Horses are allowed in the badlands but must NOT be on designated trails.
There are plenty of places to stop and enjoy a picnic in the Badlands. You can find a cool rock to sit on or even a designated picnic area. If the weather isn’t cooperating you can sit in your car at one of the many scenic overlooks and enjoy your lunch there.
Stargazing or Enjoying a Sunset/Sunrise
The Badlands are far from any city or light pollution which makes it a prime place to view the stars and Milky Way on a clear night. Many photographers camp out and take stunning photos of the sunset or the sunrise. The open skies are perfect for capturing these breathtaking moments.
In the last couple of years, we have had the fortunate luck to view the northern lights in South Dakota and a perfect spot for viewing them is also in the Badlands. These events are rare and unpredictable but if you are fortunate enough to be visiting during one of these events, then this is the place you want to be.
There are two designated campgrounds in the Badlands: Cedar Pass Campground and Sage Creek.
Cedar Pass takes reservations and is open year-round except for some seasonal closures. This is located near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. No campfires are permitted nor is collecting firewood.
Sage Creek is a free campground and is first come first serve. Only 22 sites are available and the size of the trailer is limited to 18 feet. This does not apply to horse trailers and is one of the designated horse camping areas.
There are pit toilets but no water here. For potable water, you must bring your own or get it at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. Campfires are not allowed either, but you can use a charcoal grill.
- Read about campgrounds in other parts of the Black Hills.
Ben Reifel and White River Visitor Center
Ben Reifel is open year-round and has a great souvenir shop, free exhibits, a bookstore, and clean bathrooms. Park staff are available to answer any questions you may have. This is next to the Cedar Pass Lodge which is open spring, summer, and fall. It has a restaurant, an amphitheater, and campgrounds.
The White River Visitor Center is located in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and is open seasonally, spring, summer, and fall. You can find the same amenities at White River as you do at Ben Reifel and talk to rangers for information as well. I haven’t been to this visitor center myself yet.
Horseback riding is allowed anywhere in the Badlands except on marked trails, roads, and developed areas like campgrounds and overlooks. You may park your horse trailer at overlooks for access to day riding though. There are no designated riding trails, but topographic maps are available for purchase in the visitor center.
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How Long Should You Spend in the Park?
This will greatly depend on what you are doing and how much time you have. I usually spend about 4 hours when I visit. I normally drive the scenic route, pull over for wildlife, and any overlook that sparks my interest. A quick stop at the visitor center is a must. If I do a trail or two it could add an extra hour to my day.
Most people will spend roughly that amount of time as well unless you are an extreme adventurer and want to explore all the trails offered and even drive the enormous loop, seeing the entire park.
Where to Eat
Cedar Pass Lodge
The only place to eat in the park is the Cedar Pass Lodge which isn’t open until spring. If you visit in the winter you’ll want to pack your own food. I always bring my own food or drinks so I have something to snack on while driving the loop.
The lodge does have a decent menu for breakfast and lunch, but the lunch menu can be a bit pricey. They do however have Indian tacos and bison burgers which are not hard to find in South Dakota, but something you should definitely try during your visit.
You can always hit up Wall Drug on your way in or out of the park. They have famous and absolutely delicious donuts as well as a cafeteria stocked with good eats. Wall Drug donuts are something I usually pick up on my way into the Badlands and snack on as I drive.
The town of Wall is the closest place to grab a bite after Cedar Pass Lodge. If you aren’t feeling the Wall Drug options there are some restaurants and even a Dairy Queen in town. You can review my Wall Drug article for more information on that!
Places to Stay
I’ve already noted the camping in Badlands National Park, but here I will direct you to some other options within the vicinity as well.
Cedar Pass Lodge
Here you can book a stay at a cabin starting at around $228 per night. Personally, I would either camp at one of the two campgrounds or head into Rapid City for more options.
The town of Wall has many motels available as well as a campground and cabins. They currently have a Days Inn, America’s Best Value Inn, Best Western Plains Motel, and a few others.
Rapid City has many hotels, motels, campgrounds, and Airbnb options. I would recommend the Watiki Indoor Waterpark Resort which is fun for families! If you want to stay in a more upscale hotel that is also rumored to be “haunted” then check out The Alex Johnson Hotel in downtown Rapid City.
Things to Do Nearby
Visit the famously large gift/novelty shop that is loaded with unique treasures and many picture opportunities! Grab a donut (or three) and a 5-cent cup of coffee before heading back on the highway.
Minuteman Missle National Historic Site
If more current history interests you, you might want to check out this place. Playing a huge role in the Cold War and housing thousands of Air Force personnel from 1963 to the early 1990s, the Minute Missile National Historic Site is just a quick 10-minute drive from Wall Drug.
Here you can explore an underground missile control center at the launch control facility. Learn the history and what its role was in the Cold War while touring the many exhibits.
This historic site is open year-round except on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. I have yet to take a tour here, but it is on my agenda.
Just an hour away is Rapid City, South Dakota, and not only are there plenty of places to eat, sleep, and play, but it’s mere minutes from many of the famous attractions that bring millions to the Black Hills every year. Rapid City is a great central place to stay for a vacation in the Black Hills. Make sure you check out our article on all the unforgettable things to do in Rapid City.
About 51 minutes East of Wall Drug is the iconic 1880 town that some say feels like you just stepped back in time. Otherwise known as South Dakota’s Attic, you will find a town that was authentically built to recreate a town between 1880 and 1920. The structures and antiques are all authentic.
This town is a real treat to visit and spend a couple of hours in. It’s open seasonally May through October and the summer has a bustle of guests, employees dressed to represent the times, and old-fashioned treats like sasparilla.
Things to Bring
- Collection of any artifacts, fossils, rocks, plants, etc.
- Off-road driving or biking
- Hunting (federal offense)
- Flying drones
- Approaching animals (stay at least 100 ft away)
Is Visiting the Badlands Worth It?
I enjoy my visits to the Badlands but there are other things in the Black Hills that I much prefer to do. I prefer the mountains, trees, and lakes. I love hiking where there is shade and lush foliage with flowers and butterflies. The Badlands are not this.
My first visit to the Black Hills did not include the Badlands and I made sure to check them out the next time I came through. Though I was impressed I was not sorry I skipped them on my first visit. I do not even take everyone who visits me in South Dakota to the Badlands. I save it for visit number two. If that visit comes.
With all of that said, I know people who prefer the Badlands to other parts of the state and find them fascinating and magnificent. Don’t let me deter you from checking them out, but hopefully, this will help you decide and plan your visit to our beautiful state much easier.
- Don’t miss the Crazy Horse Memorial on your visit to the Black Hills.
- Find out Can You Do Crazy Horse And Mount Rushmore In A Day?
What Else Should I Know?
The Black Hills can be confusing because it is a HUGE area. There is so much to do!
Most travelers want to visit the most popular sites, yet still avoid crowds. We have a detailed itinerary that gives you a step-by-step game plan so you can get to all the best places at the right times!
But that’s not all! Our itinerary includes a free audio guide to listen to while driving, with over 2 hours of stories about the park!
MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO THE BLACK HILLS
BLACK HILLS TRIP PLANNER: To read or watch all of our content about the Grand Canyon, check out our Black Hills Homepage
WATCH: Enjoy videos of the amazing Black Hills while learning our best tips for visiting by watching our Black Hills YouTube Playlist