Drive east of Rapid City and you’re truly in another world. Badlands National Park is a 244,000-acre experience you won’t find anywhere else with unmatched scenery that just might make you wonder if you’ve stepped onto another planet. Vast and endlessly fascinating, a visit to the dramatically striated rock formations of the Badlands is a must for your Do Big Things vacation and the perfect complement to a visit to Mount Rushmore. Featuring a 60-mile stretch of rugged terrain that is as colorful as it is desolate, as well as mixed grass prairie, geologic formations like the Badlands Wall, fossils and mind-blowing night skies, the experience is a standout among Rapid City parks and monuments, and an ideal place to celebrate the wonders of nature.
Badlands National Park is located less than an hours drive east of Rapid City and there are two routes on the map to take you there.
- Head east on Interstate 90 to Wall, where you’ll take Exit 110 to Highway 240, the Badlands Loop Road. Follow signs directing you to the Pinnacles Entrance.
- Head southeast on Highway 44 to Highway 377 in the town of Interior, then to the Interior Entrance of the park.
When the Lakota first discovered this intimidating landscape, they called the area “mako sica” or “land bad.” Important hunting grounds for 11,000 years, the Badlands continue to be a region of great spiritual significance to American Indians, making a visit an essential addition to your Native American Discovery journey.
It’s tough to determine just how long it took for the soft rock formations of Badlands National Park to become the cones, ridges, buttes and precipices you see today. Whether it took 26 million or 75 million years for time, wind and rain to create this surreal landscape, the South Dakota Badlands are spectacular to behold. As far as the eye can see, layers of delicately colored rock are like pages of time still revealing their secrets. In fact, a single thunderstorm can cause enough erosion to unearth the fossils of a prehistoric mammal – and you might be the first to discover it.
The early Lakota found large fossilized bones, seashells and turtle shells. As westward migration brought settlers, trappers and hunters to the area, paleontological interest grew, making the White River Badlands popular fossil hunting grounds in the mid-1800s. The area contains the richest deposits of Oligocene mammals known, giving us a glimpse of the area’s residents 33 million years ago.
THINGS TO DO IN THE PARK
Start Your Day At The Ben Reifel Visitor Center
You’ll find exhibits and an informational video at the Visitor Center, along with a bookstore offering resources, gifts and educational materials. Located on the Badlands Loop Road (Highway 240) at its southeastern tip, next to Cedar Pass Lodge.
Learn More From Ranger Programs
Seasonal daily ranger-led programs offer walks, talks and presentations about geology, paleontology, fossils, night sky viewing and more. Ask for updated info at the Visitor Center, including the Junior Ranger Program.
Drive the Badlands Loops State Scenic Highway
The grandeur and diverse landscape of the Badlands is ideal for cruising, and Highway 240 gives you the perfect vantage point at every turn of a 30-mile loop. Nearly 30 scenic overlooks provide impressive photo opportunities.
View Wildlife Along The Sage Creek Rim Road
Turn off the western end of the Badlands Loop Road onto the Sage Creek Rim Road, where outdoor photography enthusiasts find diverse wildlife, including buffalo, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, prairie dogs and numerous birds.
Explore Fossil Sites
Badlands National Park is among the area’s most popular archaeology and paleontology attractions. Fossil hunting is allowed in the park, as long as you leave all discoveries right where you find them, along with all rocks and minerals. Visit the Fossil Preparation Lab to watch paleontologists at work. A fully accessible boardwalk trail features fossil replicas and exhibits of extinct creatures.
Enjoy Some Stargazing
See the summer sky as never before, with a ranger-guided Night Sky Program helping you identify what’s out there in the heavens. Telescopes are provided, along with a spectacular viewing experience, thanks to the Badlands’ isolation and absence of artificial lighting.
Visit Roberts Prairie Dog Town
Prairie Dog Town is on the Sage Creek Rim Road, where a homestead has been converted to a massive network of tunnels where you can see black-tailed prairie dogs up close. They join 39 mammal species of the prairie animals that thrive in Badlands National Park, along with various reptiles, amphibians, birds and 69 butterfly species.
Follow The Trails
A variety of designated hiking trails let you explore Badlands National Park at a deeper level. It’s a good idea to check in at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center for recommendations that suit your experience level. Bicycling is also popular in the park, with resources available to help you plan the right course.
THINGS TO DO NEARBY
The town of Wall, South Dakota, was named for the steep rock formations that define the Badlands and is famous for the small town drugstore with a big reputation as a free attraction. Wall Drug offers much more than the basics, from Black Hills souvenirs and jackalopes to Native American artifacts, pottery and a Western Art Gallery Restaurant. Wall Drug is open year-round.
Visit South Dakota’s original 1880 Town for a view of life on the prairie at a frontier homestead. The village of more than 30 buildings is furnished with thousands of relics and features an exhibit of Dances With Wolves movie props. Take a wagon ride and order a sarsaparilla at the Longhorn Saloon, where costume rentals are available to make your visit a real trip to the past. You’ll find dining and entertainment, including Wild Bill’s rope tricks and comedy shows.
Wounded Knee Museum
The late December events of 1890 along Wounded Knee creek, now on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, are the subject of exhibits at the Wounded Knee Museum in the town of Wall. You’ll learn the tragic story of the massacre along with the assassination of Sitting Bull and the Ghost Dance movement, as well as the enduring role of Wounded Knee in American culture. The museum is open seasonally and located near Wall Drug.
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
You’ll learn that South Dakota’s story is not all frontier nostalgia and rugged landscapes at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, where global tensions of the 20th century are revisited. The area’s isolation and geology did play a role in choosing to locate this Cold-War era facility here, where you can tour a formerly operational Minuteman II missile silo, launch control and underground center. Located on Highway 240 in Philip, SD.
Buffalo Gap National Grassland
Explore diverse minerals, plants and animals in Buffalo Gap National Grassland in Wall, SD. Differing from the Badlands National Park’s policy on removing anything from the park (definitely not allowed), this popular rock hounding site does allow rock collecting, with a large area near the campground allocated for the purpose.
South Dakota Air & Space Museum
For a high-tech change of pace, visit the South Dakota Air & Space Museum at Ellsworth Air Force Base. This free attraction showcases more than 30 vintage military aircraft and a variety of missiles. The stories of visionaries, adventurers, heroes and pioneers give the military might a historical context that’s educational and inspiring.
STAY IN THE PARK
Camping is available at Badlands National Park with two park camping facilities joining popular Black Hills campgrounds. Cedar Pass Campground is located near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, providing 96 campsites with electrical hook-ups, cold running water, flush toilets, covered picnic tables, trash containers and scenic views of the Badlands rock formations. Sage Creek Campground offers primitive camping (pit toilets and picnic tables only) that’s accessible by gravel road, near the park’s Badlands Wilderness Area.
Lodging is available in Badlands National Park at Cedar Pass Lodge, a historic lodge offering newly built cabins, a restaurant and gift shop, all in a spectacular setting. Just outside the park, the Badlands Inn is a sister property to the Cedar Pass Lodge, and offers unobstructed views of the Badlands.
HOURS OF OPERATION
Badlands National Park is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Ben Reifel Visitor Center Season Hours:
- 8:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. (Winter Hours)
- 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. (mid-April to mid-May)
- 8:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m. (Summer Hours)
- 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. (early September to late October)
- Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year's Day
THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE VISITING
Park entrance fees are collected year-round.
- 7-day, private vehicle pass $15
- 7-day motorcycle pass $10
- 7-day per person pass $7 (bicycle, non-commercial bus passenger)
- 1 year park pass $30
- Terrain is rough and unstable. Sturdy, closed-toed shoes recommended.
- Rock collecting is not allowed in the park.
For more information, please call 605-718-8484 or visit the Badlands National Park page on the National Park Service website.