A Roadtrip Through South Dakota’s Badlands National Park
Several years ago I realized I had done a crappy job of actually exploring my home country, and particularly the amazing national parks throughout the U.S. I made it a goal to change that, but it wasn’t til last year that my parents and I finally visited two of Utah’s beautiful parks. After that, we set our sights on Badlands National Park as our next destination.
Of course, then coronavirus happened, and all our travel plans went sideways. But out of nowhere my dad’s family (who hadn’t gotten together in like, a decade or more) decided to do a family trip to Rapid City, South Dakota.
They all grew up there, so they were excited to re-visit their old stomping grounds, and I was excited to tag along and see them, and also explore the western half of South Dakota—I hadn’t been since I was a kid.
Other South Dakota roadtrip knowledge you’ll need:
Overview of Badlands National Park
The park is 244,000 acres, containing some of the world’s richest fossil beds along with beautiful mixed-grass prairies, wildflowers, buttes, spiky rock formations, and tons of wildlife. As you drive through you might find everything from bison to bighorn sheep to prairie dogs (and yes, also snakes…always be alert).
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Getting to the park
From Rapid City, you simply head east on I-90. There are a couple different exits for the park, but I recommend heading to the official visitors center off Exit 131 and then winding back west.
It costs $30 per car to enter the park, and it’s good for a week. An annual America the Beautiful Pass ($80) also works and gains you entrance into all national parks and some state ones.
Timing is up to you. I wish I could have come for either sunset or sunrise, as they’re supposed to be GORGEOUS here. But since we were visiting mid-summer, sunrise was at like 5:30am and sunset was almost 9pm, and since I was with family that was out of the question. But if you’re able, I highly recommend it.
On the way to or from the park, there are a couple additional places to stop if you’re so inclined
- Wall Drug. If you start in the park at Exit 131, then the end of the scenic highway will take you right into Wall, where you can enjoy the many things Wall Drug has to offer.
- Cold War Legacy Minuteman Missile sites. There are a few different exits for this as well (116, 127, and 131) but Exit 131 is where the official visitors center is and where you can get tickets and tour info.
Here’s a link to the park map as a PDF and a close-up of the main portion below.
This is definitely one of the easier national parks to navigate (similar to Bryce Canyon), since there’s really only one main road that weaves throughout. There are frequent pullouts and parking areas with scenic viewpoints and occasionally paths for short hikes.
Once you enter Badlands National Park from Exit 131 and pay the entry, you simply follow the scenic loop (Highway 240) and enjoy yourself. There’s an optional side road called Sage Creek Rim Road at the end that you can take as well (more on that below). If you’re feeling peckish, I’ve heard that Indian Tacos is great (located at the Cedar Pass Lodge).
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Big Badlands Overlook
As soon as you’ve entered the park from the northeast, the first big overlook you’ll hit is Big Badlands Overlook, and it’s definitely worth a stop. We had fun scrambling over the little paths and getting photos of the vastness.
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The name “Badlands” came from the Oglala Lakota people, who called the rocky, harsh landscape mako sica, or “land bad” (the French concurred when they arrived, calling it les mauvaises terres a traverser, or “bad lands to traverse”). As you can see, it does look a little daunting…can you imagine needing to cross this on horseback or in a wagon??
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Door, Window, Notch, and Castle Trails
After Big Badlands Overlook, the next major thing you’ll come to are the Door, Window, Notch, and Castle Trails (with a large parking lot and restrooms). The Door and Window trails are quite accessible, short, and easy, and they’ll give you a nice view you don’t get from the road.
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White River Valley Overlook
This overlook has similar views as Big Badlands Overlook, with the rock formations spread out over the valley. You absolutely should stop at both, though. There are a few small paths, but just be careful since there are no guardrails.
We made an impromptu stop to gaze at this majestic guy. He gave us quite a little photoshoot!
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Here are some other stops and overlooks to consider as you make your way through this part of the park:
- Panorama Point
- Burns Basin Overlook
- Homestead Overlook (a nice view over the flatter plains area, goes on for miles)
- Conata Basin Overlook
I love these little glimpses of empty prairie. This reminds me an awful lot of where I grew up in Kansas.
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Yellow Mounds Overlook
We finally got some blue skies and sunshine right in time for the yellow mounds portion of the park.
After all of the beige and tan rock, it was really cool to watch how the blue sky made this colorful part of the park come to life!
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This is the last big stop-off before you hit the main highway again. From the parking lot there’s a huge valley spread out below you, and then you can take some paths further down to explore different views.
This would be a good choice for sunset photography, though you’re spoiled for choices throughout the park.
Optional: Sage Creek Rim Road
I had planned to explore this part of the park as well, but at this point it was late in the day and my family wanted to get back to Rapid City. So I can’t speak to it from experience, but wanted to provide some info from the research that I did ahead of time. At this point you can head on the highway out of the park and into Wall, or continue onto Sage Creek Rim Road.
It’s a gravel road in fairly good shape. The landscapes aren’t quite as dramatic, but there are some areas of interest and a lot of wildlife. Here are a few points people recommend:
- Badlands Wilderness Overlook
- Roberts Prairie Dog Town – this part of the park is home to a huge number of prairie dogs
- Sage Creek Basin Overlook
How to even describe Wall Drug…??? It is massive and touristy to the nth degree. Normally those things are anathema to me but I couldn’t resist a stop here for some pie, a donut, and (on a whim) a hot dog. It is a MUST, even for just a few minutes. I’ll let this article give you the rest.
South Dakota has many things to offer, but Badlands National Park is at the very top of the list. I loved the afternoon we spent here, and wish I could have come back and experienced a beautiful sunset or sunrise…or even a thunderstorm over the plains. Hopefully this post will help you plan your own trip as well!
Other U.S. scenic roadtrips you’ll love:
- An Amazing Southern Utah Roadtrip: Zion & Bryce Canyon National Parks
- A Guide to the Oregon Coast
- Hiking Bodega Head on California’s Sonoma Coast
- The North Rim: Grand Canyon Day Trip
- Exploring Nevada’s Valley of Fire State Park
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