When planning our trip to Mount Rushmore, we knew we also had to set aside time for Badlands National Park. We couldn’t be so close to this mesmerizing landscape without stopping. With so much to experience in South Dakota, though; it meant we had to limit our exploration of Badlands to less than 24 hours. Hopefully this guide will help make the most of even a brief visit at Badlands.
Hiking Trails and Overlooks
One thing we love about Badlands National Park is the opportunity to be up close to the this other worldly landscape. We really enjoyed being able to actively explore the formations, not just walk past or see them from a distance. There are a number of trails encouraging visitors to touch and climb across the rocks. This allows guests a unique way to experience the area. Emilie especially loved being able to scramble among the terrain. There are also plenty of pull-offs and overlooks offering sweeping views of the landscape.
Cliff Shelf Nature Trail
As we approached Badlands from the Interior entrance, our first stop in the park was the Cliff Shelf Overlook. This half a mile loop is a great introduction to the park. From the parking lot, the Badlands vistas stretch out below. The trail itself is a mix of boardwalk and gravel path, but doesn’t require any technical skill. Steps lead along the rock wall past established juniper and pine trees, providing expansive views of the White River Valley below.
To experience three drastically different trails within a short period, head to the pull-off slightly north of the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail. Within this single parking lot are the Door, Window, and Notch trailheads.
Window trail is the shortest and easiest of the three at less than a quarter of a mile round trip. Completely accessible by a boardwalk it’s more of a stroll than a hike. Given the short distance, I didn’t have high expectations. We were all pleasantly surprised when the end of the trail opened up to reveal a sprawling panorama of the canyon below.
Door was surprisingly one of my favorite trails. It’s also not very long, about a mile out and back, but is a great chance to get into the Badlands landscape. Overall the trail is lower risk than the Notch trail. The first 1/8 of a mile starts as boardwalk before stepping out into the Badlands. Post markers guide through the rest of the trail, ending with a postcard view of the Badlands ravines.
Prior to visiting, I did a fair amount of research about Badlands National Park. Repeatedly Notch trail came up as a must do. Because of this I had envisioned Notch as a family friendly routine trail. Once we were out there though, I realized I should have paid more attention to the warning signs in the parking lot. This is a doable trail, but there are also real dangers. In particular there are confining cliff edges that require patience and focus while traversing.
Given Adam and Emilie’s apprehension of heights, they were not thrilled with this surprise. After a few minutes of discussion, we decided to complete the trail anyway. Along the way we did see a number of other hikers on the trail as well. They ranged in age from families with small children, parents carrying an infant in a baby carrier, and senior citizens with hiking sticks, so it’s really up to individual ability. It’s worth mentioning that after completing the hike Adam, Emilie, and I all agreed that despite the fear, this trail was well worth it. It gave the most interactive experience with the park and felt like a real accomplishment.
Side note: I would recommend hiking this trail in the morning, if possible. When we started the trail around 8:00 am there were very few others on the path. We had a minimal wait when reaching the popular ladder portion of the trail. By the time we were returning though, it was much busier. On the narrow overhangs hikers had to take turns to pass safely. Additionally, since the ladders are used for visitors going both up and down the rock wall, there was quite a crowd waiting by the time we were making our descent.
The area I was most excited to see at Badlands are the Yellow Mounds. Most formations seen around the park are towering pink, white, and red rock. They are stunning, but about 4 miles southeast of the Pinnacles entrance is an overlook with striking mustard colored hills. And sprinkled throughout are rust tinted striations. It’s such a dramatic difference from the surrounding landscape (or any landscape I’ve seen) that I would definitely make time to see these. Also, if you can time the visit for dusk, the light gives a warm glow to these formations right before the sun sets below the opposing ridge.
While we experienced fewer animal sightings than other parks in the area, we did spot a pronghorn while passing near the Prairie Wind Overlook. Bison, bighorn sheep, rattlesnakes, and coyotes also live in the park so keep your eyes open for these wildlife. Other exciting parts of the park to visit if time allows are Pinnacles Overlook and Roberts Prairie Dog Town.
Lodging can make a big difference when trying to squeeze extra time into a Badlands visit. If staying overnight, Badlands National Park offers several options on property. Two campgrounds are located on opposite ends of the park. The Sage Creek Campground, near the Pinnacles entrance, is primitive with access to vault toilets. The Cedar Pass campground, near the Interior entrance and Ben Reifel Visitor Center, are electric sites only. A dump station is available for $1 and for an additional fee the campground offers showers and flush toilets.
In addition to campsites, the park also features cabin options. Although the exteriors were constructed to resemble the original cottages on property from 1928, local builders created the new versions in 2013. These comfortable cabins include bath, electric, air conditioning, heat, and kitchen amenities (including a fridge and microwave).
As we needed a full-hookup option for our RV, we instead reserved a spot at Badlands Interior Campground. This private campground is just one mile outside of the Interior entrance to the park. While the campground was not as scenic as being in the national park, it still offered views of the Badlands and allowed us access to water, electric, and sewer hookups for just a few dollars more than the park’s camp sites. Being so close to the Interior entrance we also decided being outside of the park wasn’t affecting our schedule in this instance.
Badlands National Park Location
25216 Ben Reifel Road
Interior, SD 57750