For the wildlife enthusiast, Badlands National Park, South Dakota, is the ultimate destination. Take some time to explore these stunning grasslands and rock formations with the use of this helpful guide to the best trails, photo-ops, exhibits, and tours located throughout this national park.
Located just east of the Black Hills, Badlands National Park in South Dakota offers a unique experience for adventurous road trippers. The park contains 244,000 acres of grasslands and rock formations, teeming with wildlife like bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets, and rattlesnakes.
Overnight accommodations inside the park include Cedar Pass Lodge, a group of pine cabins open seasonally, and two campgrounds open year-round. Advance reservations are necessary.
Inside the park’s Ben Reifel Visitor Center, visitors can tour the center’s working paleontology lab and learn about fossil discoveries in the park. Outside, trails ranging from flat prairie to steep inclines weave through the formations and provide hours of recreation for hikers.
Hikers are advised to carry 2 quarts of water per person for a two-hour hike and to stay at least 100 yards away from wildlife. It’s a good idea to pack rain gear and wear a hat, sunglasses, and sturdy footwear for comfort and to prevent injuries from cactus spines. Additionally, staying on designated trails where the path is clearly visible helps hikers avoid rattlesnakes.
Astronomy buffs may want to check out the park’s spectacular night sky using a telescope at Cedar Pass Campground Amphitheater, but it’s not necessary. Among the galaxies, satellites, and the 7,500 stars often visible from the darkness of the isolated landscape, the surrounding Milky Way shines clearly without the need for a telescope to enhance viewing.
There’s a good reason for the Badlands’ otherworldly, multicolored landscape of pinnacles, buttes, spires, and rich fossil beds. The park was a sea floor 75 million years ago. The Fossil Exhibit Trailis a quarter mile trek via a boardwalk trail that showcases fossils of marine life, including turtles and fish, and extinct animals, such as saber tooth cats and three-toed horses that once ruled the ancient world. The Eocene and Oligocene mammal fossil deposits in the Badlands are the world’s largest.
Views & Trails
Big Badlands Overlook is one of the park’s 15 overlooks, and it gets high marks from hikers and photographers for its stunning, panoramic views. Pinnacles Overlook features spectacular views of the rock formations and sediment layers of the park’s canyons and pinnacles, especially at sunset.
Door Trail takes hikers to a famous gap in the 60-mile-long, 500,000-year-old Badlands Wall. Known simply as “the Door,” it offers excellent views of the landscape. The Badlands Wall is said to be eroding at the rate of 1 inch per year. To track the changing light on the wall’s north side, travelers should take Castle Trail, the park’s longest trail at 10.8 miles. For stunning views of White River Valley, the challenging Notch Trail takes experienced hikers on a vertiginous path of canyons and ledges.
For travelers who would rather take in park views from the comfort of their cars, Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway (SD 240) comprises 31 miles of colorful, rugged vistas. Sage Creek Rim Road off the Badlands Loop is optimal for viewing wildlife like bighorn sheep, antelope, and buffalo. Granted, the road is a bumpy, curving gravel drive, but most roadtrippers claim it’s well worth it.
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