This one-day Badlands National Park itinerary will provide you with all the details you need to know for your national park getaway! Located in southwestern South Dakota, Badlands National Park consists of 244,000 acres of pinnacles, spires, and eroded buttes spanning every color of the rainbow. The national park is also home to several different species such as bighorn sheep and bison.
In May 2018 a journey of mine took me 2,300 miles across the United States- in a 12-foot moving truck. If you have driven one before- you know how miserable it is… in the wind… or storms… or through mountains (we had all of these). My friend was moving from Chicago to Seattle- and so our adventure began. We decided to hit some national parks along the way. Badlands National Park was our first stop.
Gas stations were for filling up all the tanks and emptying other kinds of tanks. This was my first trip where nothing was planned- we had a tent and camping gear with us, and that was the plan. We would just drive as far as we could each day and set up camp when it got too dark or we were too tired to go further. We planned our one day in Badlands National Park using the park map.
"Badlands National Park is located 75 miles east of Rapid City, South Dakota. Physical Addresses for GPS* Park Headquarters: 25216 Ben Reifel Road, Interior, SD 57750. Northeast Entrance (I-90, Exit 131): 21020 SD Hwy 240, Interior, SD 57750. Pinnacles Entrance (I-90, Exit 110): 24240 Hwy 240, Wall, SD 57790. Interior Entrance: 20640 SD Hwy 377, Interior, SD 57750." - NPS
Badlands National Park is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So it didn't matter what time we arrived. Entrance fees are collected year-round. In the winter or in extreme weather events, roads going through the Badlands may be closed.
Closest Airport: Rapid City Regional Airport
Transportation: Rental Car
It was a 12-hour drive from Chicago to Badlands National Park. We left Chicago bright and early to avoid traffic (we still hit traffic). The first leg of the trip (850 miles) was just as difficult as we anticipated: the plains states. ZzzZzzZ
You will need a rental car in order to reach Badlands National Park. There are no shuttles in the Badlands. You will have to have your own vehicle (or bike, or walk).
We drove through a lot of nothingness for a very, very, long time. By the time the sun set we were just a couple of hours outside of Badlands. So we decided to push forward and accepted the fact that we would be setting up camp in the dark that night... (again).
The next morning, we woke up and looked outside our tent, seeing Badlands for the first time in daylight. The dried-out plains we had become used to seeing had turned to rock formations bursting with color. Eager to explore more, we had a quick breakfast, packed up our gear, and hit the road again.
There are two established campgrounds in Badlands National Park: Cedar Pass Campground and Sage Creek Campground.
Sage Creek Campground is where we stayed, it is a free, first-come first-serve campground with 22 sites located on Sage Creek Rim Road.
Cedar Pass Campground has 96 campsites and is located near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.
Badlands Frontier Cabins: Located in Wall, these adorable log cabins are in a rural area. The area's natural beauty can be seen at Badlands National Park and Pinnacles Entrance into the Badlands.
Cedar Pass Lodge: These locally made unique cabins have a restaurant on site. Re-purposed resources of naturally fallen beetle kill pine from the Black Hills of South Dakota panel the walls & ceilings of these quaint cabins of the Badlands.
Best Western Plains Motel: Located in Wall SD just north of Badlands, the hotel used to be Wall Drug Store and was founded here. Making it an interesting stop for history buffs or those looking for a touch of culture on their trip.
We drove through the park for a little over an hour and made our way through winding mountain roads as we explored the vastness of the Badlands.
There are 12 stops along the Badlands loop road.
Spring is a great time of year to see wildlife in Badlands National Park. The temperatures are mild, and you'll see buffalo (bison) shed their winter coats for the summer. So you might see them look a bit patchy. Searching for wildlife in the Badlands? Animals in Badlands National Park can be found all throughout the park.
"Four species of wildlife have been reintroduced into the Badlands since its establishment as a National Monument in 1939. The black-footed ferret, bighorn sheep, bison, and swift fox, once exterminated from the area's mixed grass prairie, are again thriving in their native habitat." - NPS
Bison are often seen from Sage Creek Rim Road while Bighorn Sheep are more likely to be spotted on the rocks of Pinnacles Overlook, Castle Trail, and Big Badlands Overlook.
Always remember: If you come across wildlife during your visit, recognize that they are wild animals. Do not approach any wildlife you see, enjoy watching them from a distance to keep both you and the wildlife safe.
Before European expansion into the American West, there were almost 2 million bighorn sheep. By 1940 their numbers plummeted to just 20,000 due to hunting for sport, land use changes, and their susceptibility to disease.
The American Bison were once everywhere within the American landscape. Their natural pastureland extended from Canada to Mexico and from New York to Oregon. Scientists and historians estimate that there were at least 30 million bison roaming the country before the Euro-American settlement of the West.
"Bison are enormous animals – they can get up to 6.5 feet tall and weigh up to 2,000 pounds. Their incredible weight makes them the heaviest land mammal in North America! Despite their weight, bison are remarkably agile. They can run up to 35 mph and have a vertical leap of six feet. Bison are grazers and spend from 9-11 hours every day ingesting up to 1.6% of their body mass in forage." - NPS
Badlands National Park has an Open Hike Policy, which means you can hike off-trail. You're free to explore trails like Deer Haven, the Sage Creek Wilderness Area, or other areas of the park you can visit safely.
*Important* exercise caution while exploring the park in an Open Hike situation. Badlands hills and mountain formations are the opposite of most hiking trails in that it's easier to climb up than climb down. You most likely won't have any cell service in the backcountry. So be careful to not get hurt, or have a bad encounter with wildlife. Always maintain a distance of at least 100 feet.
"This overlook is placed within the most colorful portion of Badlands geology. Yellow, purple, gray, and striped reddish beds display the sequence of Yellow Mounds, the Interior Paleosol, Chadron, and Brule formations respectively, from bottom to top." - NPS
The yellow mounds overlook was my favorite part of the Badlands loop road. The formations were bright yellow, with bright red peaks - unlike anything I'd ever seen before. It is so colorful and beautiful. I'm bummed out that I wasn't able to get some clearer pictures of the area, I was having camera malfunctions. Guess I'll just have to go back. Darn.
Yes, we were able to see a lot of the park in just one day. But I would recommend spending at least two days there so you can take your time along the loop road and get some hiking in.
It would take about one hour to drive the 39-mile loop of South Dakota Highway 240 between the towns of Cactus Flat and Wall without stopping, but not many do that. Badlands Loop Road (SD 240) is a wonderful way to see the North Unit of Badlands National Park so you will want to take your time and stop at the beautiful overlooks.
It takes around 1-2 hours to go through Badlands National Park if you drive without stopping. I recommend making a day out of it and spending your time at the different roadside stops and hikes.
The shoulder seasons of spring and fall are both great times of year to visit Badlands National Park without the crowds. Early fall (September)and late spring (April/May) have temperatures that are cool and mild.
How long is the drive from Badlands National Park to Mount Rushmore? Driving directly, it will take you around 1.5 hours to get from Mount Rushmore to Badlands National Park.
Badlands National Park Hiking Itinerary National Parks South Dakota Things to do United States Accommodation North America Transportation Wildlife
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May 17, 2023 at 12:31
Badlands is so beautiful and very unusual park. It was great fun for us. Actually, we spotted tornado from there, and it was mesmerizing. Thank you for bringing me a good memory!