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NPCA Expert Travel Insights

An Insider's Guide to Badlands & Beyond

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NPCA Expert Travel Insights: An Insider's Guide to Badlands & Beyond

Badlands National Park is a vast wilderness of jagged buttes, spires and pinnacles, mixed-grass prairies, and the world’s richest trove of fossils from the Oligocene epoch, estimated at 23 to 35 million years old.

Around a million visitors a year come to Badlands National Park to view its distinctive rock formations, teeming wildlife and wide-open skies.

Badlands is divided into two main regions, the North Unit, which is just south of Interstate 90 near Rapid City, and the South Unit, which is entirely within the Oglala Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation. Many visitors only experience the park by driving the Badlands Loop Road in the North Unit, which sightseers can complete in an hour. To truly experience this park, however, visitors should plan to stay a minimum of two days and go beyond the main road to enjoy more of what this iconic destination has to offer.

Where to Begin

The closest major airport to Badlands National Park is in Rapid City, South Dakota. From there, visitors can drive for about an hour to the North Unit of the park.

The Ben Reifel Visitor Center on the east side of the park is the main spot for information in the North Unit. The building also has a fossil preparation lab where you can see paleontologists at work and where rangers sometimes offer educational programs about the park’s rich fossil history. It’s an essential stop to get situated, learn about the area and fine-tune a plan for what you most want to explore.

Most people overlook the South Unit of the park. There are far fewer visitors — but also fewer services. The White River Visitor Center is located 20 miles south of the tiny town of Scenic on BIA 27 and is only open seasonally, roughly Memorial Day until mid-October depending on staffing. In the event that it is not open during normal operating hours (9am-6pm), call the park.

Visit the National Park Service website for updates on necessary fees, passes and potential closings.

Highlights in the North Unit of Badlands

NPCA AT WORK: BADLANDS

NPCA has long supported the Department of the Interior and state, tribal and nonprofit partners to restore and support healthy populations of American Bison across the Great Plains. This includes bison at Badlands National Park where the historical range was expanded, allowing for an increase in the herd size. More visitors are now able to see this great and powerful animal while visiting the park. NPCA remains committed to bison conservation in the National Park System in places like Badlands, Wind Cave, Theodore Roosevelt, Great Sand Dunes and Yellowstone National Parks.

  • Badlands Loop Road: Driving this road is the park’s most popular activity for a reason — just be prepared to stop, get out and explore as you go. As you drive the loop road, be on the lookout for the park’s various wildlife, including bison, bighorn sheep, coyotes, prairie dogs, burrowing owls, and pronghorn.
  • Door, Window and Notch Trails: These three short hikes, with trailheads in a pull-off area on the east side of the park, are a great way to stretch your legs and give you a sense of the terrain.
  • Medicine Root Loop: A longer and less crowded hike, this trail winds for 4 miles through beautiful rock formations and grasslands.
  • Pinnacles Overlook: This scenic overlook on the west side of the park offers one of the best views of the area (though, honestly, there is not a bad view anywhere in this park). Sunsets are particularly dramatic here.
  • Conata Basin: Reintroduced to the park in 2007, rare black-footed ferrets roam this area at night, now that a small but stable population has come back from the brink of extinction.

Highlights in the South Unit of Badlands

  • Oglala Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation: All of the land in this unit is part of the Oglala Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Some areas are sacred, and there is very limited infrastructure and interpretation. Orient yourself at the White River Visitor Center (open seasonally) and learn more about the Lakota experience directly from members of the tribe. Be respectful by staying in designated tourist areas.
  • Sheep Mountain Table: This overlook is the definition of off the beaten path — visitors must get to the top via a rugged gravel road. If you are not in a high-clearance vehicle, you can drive part of the way and hike the rest. At the top you’ll find beautiful views of the park and nearby Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.
  • Red Shirt Table Overlook: Offers a scenic drive and spectacular view from the western side of the park. A convenient stop if you are heading west toward Custer.

Tips for Visiting

Plan ahead

From Rapid City, the quickest route is to take Interstate 90 east and head south on Route 240 from Wall, which becomes the Scenic Loop Road once you enter the park. However, the park’s visitor center and a few short hikes that serve as an ideal introduction to the park are located on the east end of the Scenic Loop Road, so some visitors may wish to continue east on Route 90 and take the second exit for route 240 heading west through the park. Minute Man Missile National Historic Site is located just off Route 90 near this east entrance of the North Unit of Badlands, so visitors with well-timed advanced tickets may wish to tour parts of the historic site before beginning the scenic loop.

Cell phones are not always reliable in the park, where service can be spotty. Make sure to pick up a park map from an entry booth, visitor center, or check out online maps before getting to the park.

Exploring during the daytime is only half the fun. Don’t miss joining one of the park’s night-sky programs, which take place on evenings in the spring, summer and fall in the Cedar Pass area near the visitor center. Rangers provide telescopes and information on the many wonders participants can see, including thousands of stars, a particularly clear view of the Milky Way, planets, nebulae, star clusters, satellites and other sights. The park also hosts an annual astronomy festival in the summer (dates vary).

Buy tickets in advance if you plan to tour the nearby Delta-01 or Delta-09 facilities at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, as spaces are extremely limited (more below).

In addition to other staples, such as comfortable hiking shoes, sun block, maps, rain gear and water bottles, be sure to bring binoculars. Some wildlife, such as bighorn sheep, can be difficult to spot without them. Gas up before you enter the park, as there are few options nearby for a fill-up, and none in the park itself.

Travel Planning

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Stay Overnight

Consider reserving a room at the park lodge, the Cedar Pass Lodge, located in the North Unit just down the road from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, or a campsite at one of the two front-country campgrounds (both in the North Unit) or back-country camping (in the North and South Units). You will need a permit for back-country camping. Reserve well in advance to take advantage of the convenience of staying in the park after dark.

Check in advance to see when astronomy programs are offered. Be sure to watch the sunset at the Pinnacles Overlook and sunrise at Big Badlands Overlook or Door Trail.

Weather

Summer is the park’s busiest season, when trails and overlooks tend to be crowded, lodging and campsites within the park are difficult to obtain, and the temperatures can get uncomfortably hot during the peak of the day. Consider traveling during spring or fall, when the weather is cooler and you’ll have more of the park to yourself. Mid-May to mid-June is an ideal time, when grasslands are lush, wildflowers are starting to bloom, and baby animals are beginning to roam.

Travel Responsibly

Be sure not to climb on the buttes or let your children climb on them. This contributes to erosion and harms the distinctive formations that give the park its name. Poaching fossils is one of the biggest threats to the park. If you find something that you think may be of value, leave it where it is and tell a ranger. In 2010, a seven-year-old girl found a saber-toothed tiger fossil buried in a butte. By telling staff at the park, she helped uncover a significant archaeological find that contributes to scientists’ understanding of the area, and her story is now part of the park’s history. Keep a safe distance from all wildlife. The National Park Service recommends a 100-foot distance at all times.

Beyond the Boundary

  • Minuteman Missile National Historic Site: This park is the only site in the National Park System completely devoted to interpreting Cold War history, and its Delta-01 and Delta-09 facilities preserve a command center and nuclear missile silo that once were ready to deploy weapons of mass destruction at a moment’s notice. Tours only allow six people to visit the facilities at once — and it’s worth reserving tickets well ahead of time as they sell out fast. You don’t need a reservation to check out the nearby visitor center that offers a wealth of information on the nuclear age and how this seemingly peaceful area once held the power to destroy the world. Located on Interstate 90, just minutes from the east entrance of the North Unit of Badlands.
  • Wind Cave National Park: Located about an hour and a half west of Badlands, Wind Cave National Park has a greener, lusher landscape, more hiking and wildlife-viewing opportunities, and, of course, the park’s namesake cave. The site is the first cave ever designated as a national park, and one of the best places in the world to see a rare mineral formation known as boxwork. In addition to taking a tour underground, be sure to enjoy the sights aboveground, too. As you drive the scenic roads, be on the lookout for bison and elk and explore the park’s various hiking trails, including the Rankin Ridge Trail, which leads to a lookout tower with views of the area.
  • Custer State Park: A large and diverse natural area with wildlife, hiking, swimming and spectacular landscapes. Drive the park’s Wildlife Loop to see prairie dog towns, a large bison herd, burros that wander along the road, bighorn sheep, elk and other animals. Then drive Needles Highway west to Sylvan Lake. This scenic road takes you up to the Cathedral Spires, beautiful rock formations with rugged hikes to wonderful views of the area. The road then continues to a picturesque lake where you can hike, picnic and swim surrounded by natural beauty. Just be careful, especially in larger vehicles, as the road is narrow with many curves and a small tunnel. The views alone are worth it.

  • Jewel Cave National Monument: While you are in the Custer area, be sure to visit the third-longest known cave in the world. To date, explorers have collectively mapped more than 208 miles of twisting underground passageways in this cave system and continue to find more each year. The prevalence of calcite crystals along the walls give the cave its sparkly name. Standard scenic tours take about 90 minutes and involve climbing more than 700 steps, so be prepared for moderate to strenuous exercise. Other, longer tours are also available, including a historic lantern tour and a multi-hour wild caving tour.

  • Mount Rushmore National Monument: This colossal sculpture showcases the iconic faces of four former U.S. presidents intricately carved into a mountain in South Dakota’s Black Hills. The 60-foot-tall profiles of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln were intended to represent the first 150 years of America’s history and cultural heritage.

  • Wall Drug: This kitschy, Wild West-style set of shops and attractions and long-standing tourist institution is located in the town of Wall, just north of the west entrance to Badlands’ North Unit. Stop in, get your free bumper sticker and 5-cent cup of coffee, take selfies among the park’s curious statues of cowboys and jackalopes, and nod knowingly from now on at the cultural references to this quirky place.

  • Rapid City: The nearest metropolitan area and the most convenient airport to Badlands and the Black Hills has numerous restaurants, breweries and shops and a fun, walkable downtown.

  • Custer: The town has a small, quaint town center featuring several interesting restaurants and shops with friendly staff. It also offers a variety of lodging options in the heart of the Black Hills that can serve as a scenic home base for multi-day explorations.

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